This article was inspired by the work of Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hahn’s book, Work: How to Find Joy and Meaning Each Hour of the Day. For those of you unfamiliar with the work of Thich Nhat Hanh (affectionately known as Thay) the Zen master, poet, peace and human rights activist was exiled from his homeland of Vietnam in 1966. In the early 60’s in Saigon, His work, based on the principles of nonviolence, led him to international recognition.
Thich Nhat Hahn’s teachings were instrumental in influencing Martin Luther King to oppose the Vietnam War publicly, helping to galvanize the burgeoning peace movement. The following year, Dr. King nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize. Since that time, Thay has become a renowned teacher combining threads from several Buddhists traditions to reach an international audience and thousands of retreatants at Plum Village in France and throughout the world. He’s authored dozens of books which have sold over two million copies in the U.S. alone including the classic, Peace is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life.
I’ve been attracted to the simplicity, practicality and sweetness of Thich Nhat Hanh’s work for many years. That’s why it’s a special pleasure to explore his wise principles as they apply to the topic of work. There’s little I can say to add-on to this beloved teacher’s work – so I will let his words do most of the talking. This simple monk’s wisdom shows us a way to think, act and be in our work through the power of the present moment. Grounded in the real world, Thay teaches that no moment is ever lost – even if we “fail” to act mindfully. The next moment is another opportunity to compassionately start again.
Our great gift, the power of choice, is always available so that we can begin anew. I like to think about these wonderful teachings as a North Star to help guide my work day.
Here’s a taste of this little gem of a book ~
Thay reminds us that almost half of our lives are spent at work. Therefore the quality of what we bring to our work – despite what we do – has deep resonance in the rest of our lives. According to Thay, our work can be a great nourishment and the cause of a lot of our suffering.
What we do is important not solely for the income we make, but for the joy and happiness work can bring. It’s also important that our work is of benefit to others and at least, do no harm to other humans, animals, plants or the Earth. This is known as Right Livelihood. To work mindfully, we need to learn the art of stopping, releasing tension, of using more loving speech, deep listening and sharing this practice with others. The best way to share these practices is by modeling them in the way we act.
Home and Work are Connected
According to Thich Nhat Hahn. “ The manner in which you get ready for work, go to work and the way you are while you are there affects not only those you work with, but also the quality of your work.” The book reminds us that our personal lives are not separate from our working lives. This principle is in direct contradiction to one of the most enduring beliefs of the business mindset. Our inability to be mindful, has both personal and professional costs. There is no distinction.
Beginning the Day
The mindful work day begins as soon as we wake. Thay reminds us that we have a gift of twenty fours hours – and gratitude sets the tone. Work suggests that instead of rushing out of bed we take a few moments to set our intentions for the day. Here’s the moment to reaffirm our desire to spend this day – mindfully – giving our fullest attention to this moment. Mindful breathing helps us to center our intentions. Every step in the preparation for work is an opportunity to practice mindfulness. Getting dressed, brushing our teeth and eating breakfast all present moments to remind ourselves of our aliveness as we set out for the day.
One thing I have learned from the work of Thich Nhat Hahn has been to eat more mindfully. I’m not always successful at it but the awareness of what is before me when I sit to have a meal, however small, has enhanced my sense of connection to the world. What am I eating? Where did this food come from? Who planted and harvested it? How many hands touched it before it arrived at my table? I thank these strangers for their hard labor, often done without sufficient pay or rest. They have made a contribution to this meal. Thay says “Eat with gratitude. When you put a piece of bread into your mouth, chew only your bread and not your projects, worries, fears or anger.”
Going Out the Door
“When you go to work in the morning, you have a wonderful opportunity to become aware of the whole world around you.” Depending on how you feel, emerging from your home cocoon may be the last thing you feel like doing. Hopefully, we’ve been energized by our morning mindfulness reminders that prepare us to go out into the world – conscious, curious and compassionate. If we take the time ~ and remember to breathe, walking out into the day we get to notice “the great Earth is all around us, nourishing and sustaining us.”
Arriving at Work
Commutes can easily unravel all of our intentions. Some of my best opportunities for mindfulness practice came when I lived and worked in New York City. often a challenge at rush hour.
How can I stay mindful at this pace? How do I stay present when there is so much stimulus around me that all I want to do is turn it off? Do I put my headphones on and turn off the world – or do I remember to do mindful breathing to slow my pace down and take in the people around me in a different way?
Maybe today, I can see them more clearly, even for a few seconds. Maybe today I will remember to ask the person serving my coffee how they are feeling? Maybe today I will even venture a smile in the subway to the person sitting across from me? Thay reminds us, “The next time you are caught in traffic, whether on the highway or in the middle of the city, don’t fight it. Just accept it. Know that you’re alive and that the present moment is the only moment of life available to you. Don’t waste it. “
“Many of us spend a lot of our workday sitting. But what is the quality of our sitting? We could stop working every hour or so for a few minutes and instead of sitting to do our work, we could sit just for the sake of sitting. ‘Peace is not normally associated with most types of work. In fact, it seems counter-intuitive. Because peace doesn’t come easily when we are working, we have to seek it out – create a space, so to speak – for peace to find us. Sitting quietly, without purpose, can be an opportunity to invite peace in. Anywhere, anytime
Answering the Phone
Many people today dislike talking on the phone – in fact, many people avoid it. Emails (another work irritant) and texts have overtaken the “personal” contact of communicating by phone. Whatever the means of communication, each contact can present another opportunity for a mindfulness practice. Every ring and ting can act as another reminder to stop what you are doing and bring yourself back to the present moment. That’s what you are doing in the essential act of mindfulness – calling yourself back to this moment.
OK, I concede – this is a really challenging workplace practice. But WORK reminds us of the ways we can try. “We become aware of parts of the body, our head, limbs, organs or individual muscle groups, and consciously relax them.”
Even if you have only a few minutes, you can recite or read these verses:
Breathing in, I release the tension in my body.
Breathing out, I smile.
Breathing in, I am aware of my heart.
Breathing out, I smile to my heart.
Dealing with the many challenges of work – managing our energies, handling strong emotions, managing our differences with others and communicating respectfully with colleagues, is not easy. Then there are the actual tasks of work, where we’re often overburdened with more than any person can handle in one “normal” work day.
The Three Powers
In the Buddhist tradition, Thich Nhat Hahn describes the three powers that will contribute to our true success and happiness at work – and in every part of our lives.
Thay explains, “These three powers are quite different than the power of fame, wealth and competition. The first power is understanding. Understanding means understanding the roots of suffering in yourself, in others and in the world.”
“Understanding, says Thay, is a great power. It gives rise to compassion.”
The second power is love. Love, another feeling not typically associated with the workplace, explains Thay, “will free you and also help you to respond to difficulties you have with others.” In this teaching, we recognize that rather than acting on a sense of our victimhood with others who we feel have wronged us, we turn instead towards love. While love is often an unrealistic leap for many people to make, especially at work, we acknowledge that our innate kindness, empathy, compassion and respect towards others all reflect the loving heart within us. As described in Work, “When you look deeply, you realize that the person who has made you suffer also suffers very deeply.”
The third power is letting go. How do you stay “engaged” at work and still let go? The Buddhists use the term attachment to describe the opposite of letting go. I think of it as holding on to what we cannot control as if we can control it. It takes artful practice to stay present, committed and engaged without expecting that we can control the outcome. The ability to let go, once realized, can ultimately bring a great sense of relief and a deep knowing of our place in relation to our external world.
Working mindfully means to live more mindfully. The challenge of learning to balance our energies between home and work isn’t easy. For many, who work long hours or multiple jobs while juggling family responsibilities, it often seems impossible.
Work compassionately shows a path to ease the difficulties, often made harder by the way we think and carry our emotions. Work reminds us that every ordinary act of daily life can be transformed into an act of mindfulness.