Looking at our working lives
This is part two of a two-part post. You'll find part one here. Now, on with it we go. As most of us do not work in the aforementioned unethical trades, the question of right livelihood will primarily concern the way we work. It can be useful to start by looking at whether our relationship to our job, workplace and colleagues contributes to the creation or maintenance of forms of gross and subtle suffering for ourselves and for others. This may be as simple as recognising that a poor attitude affects not only the approach we take to the events of a working day, but contributes to the establishment of an unpleasant working environment and perhaps even a culture of bad attitude that permeates the working establishment. An ethical approach to work is to honour our agreements (contractually, verbally and interpersonally) and be as impeccable as possible. We dedicate ourselves to excellence as a commitment to ongoing development and we align our use of energy with practice. We use the working environment as a sphere of activity in which we firstly learn to recognise patterns of reactivity, or aversion, and how our preferences, attraction, play out. We let go of frenetic reactivity to stressful circumstances and seek to align with the movements of our working day in a way that allows us to maintain internal balance and presence. It is an ongoing art to do so. It is likely not possible in all working environments and this is the point when a change of circumstances may become necessary. If our working environment demands too many hours, too much stress inducing work, excessive aggressivity, or the giving away of our autonomy and individuality, we may need to consider a different career path if we are dedicated to long-term meditation practice.
As we are all too aware, work takes up a considerable amount of our waking life. That may be good news for some, but for many it is not. Work is a must for a great number of people: an obligation that would be preferably avoided. Even though this attitude is being tested by the global economic crisis we are currently going through, once you step outside of job anxiety, the same dissatisfaction that so many have in relationship to work remains.
So, what can be done about this? A dichotomy seems to emerge between two basic approaches to an unsatisfactory working life. The first is to accept your lot, view experience as experience and let go of any particular preference. In the light, this is taking a sort of Zen approach of accepting what arises, which is easier said than done, but certainly possible. In the dark it’s resigning yourself to circumstances, because to change would either be impossible, or simply not worth it. These two excuses arise as pretence voices with lots of baggage in tow.
The second approach recognises a genuine necessity for change and engages in the search for more meaningful work, and more rewarding circumstances. Both are important to recognise and develop familiarity with and are certainly not mutually exclusive. The basis for working effectively with either is having a sense of the genuine priority in a given period and a sensitivity to timing.
There have been many books written about finding the job of your dreams. Many of them are very good and have certainly helped many people change their lives and find more rewarding work. For many people this is certainly something to look at, even in challenging economic times like the one we are living in. There is no doubt that when we are enthusiastic about the activity we are investing our energy and time into, we work better and we feel better doing it and it is easier usually to remain present and open to experience. In an ideal world we would all have the job of our dreams and dedicate ourselves to doing the best we can whilst at work.
Reality checks show this to be a difficult reality to realise though. Like everything else that constitutes our sense of self, our employment preferences are often conditioned, partial views and/or uninformed fantasies. Many have no idea what their strengths or particular talents are and many have no idea what they would like to be doing or ought to be doing, and so end up in any old job. The art of finding your way through the maze of career options and choices is one difficult to manage for those who are less cock sure about career choice. It can often constitute the making of a path that for some ends ups nowhere in particular. In great part this issue of job selection and job satisfaction is not a Buddhist one. If we find ourselves stuck here a life coach or similar would probably be best sought out or a decent book on the topic. What colour is your parachute? is probably the best book out there for those interested.
Buddhism reminds us that there is an inherent problem in attempting to modify your life circumstances that needs to be examined, especially if it becomes a sort of eternal search for greener grasses. Dissatisfaction, frustration, lack of fulfilment and boredom are components of suffering and finding your dream job will not remove them from your working life. It may reduce them significantly, but it will not end them. Even in finding fulfilling work we can find that lingering feelings of dissatisfaction remain, or find new ways to manifest. Those invested in the Buddhist path know that there are root causes to suffering that cannot be sent away by making our life circumstances more comfortable or more rewarding.
So, does this mean that we should stick to what we know, stay where we are and not attempt to bring about positive change? Of course not. It is rather an issue of clarifying what the real issue is when strong feeling of dissatisfaction and boredom arise. These two enemies of presence constantly seduce us, distracting us from is taking place in the immediate environment. They encourage us to inhabit very limited spaces and disengage from subjectively unpleasant moments. As far as practice goes, this will not do. It is useful to remember that your life is always right now.
Asking concrete questions of ourselves prior to making rash decisions can help us gain insight into the underlying issues that drive a desire to move away or towards:
Do we need to change our job because it no longer works for us?
Do we need to approach our work differently?
Are we running away from something by seeking yet another job change?
Are we avoiding change when change is clearly needed due to a desire for security?
These are important questions to ask of ourselves when situations become intolerable. If we recognise a pattern of running away from specific experiences, from a practice perspective it may be time to stop running, and explore deeply the nature and cause of our impulsive reactivity.
Let’s all develop now
I want to say a little more about changing our circumstances and the illusions of the self-development gurus. Personalities like Anthony Robins have earned millions of dollars claiming that you can manifest the life, relationship and work of your dreams by reading their books and paying a few thousand dollars for their weekend seminars. For sure Robins will have helped many people change their lives and it's great that he has done so. I'm happy if he has been able to create such a successful and fulfilling job for himself. It’s likely though that the majority of people who read his books and attend his seminars will not have obtained the advertised promises.
The world is a limited sphere, our bodies are limited, our dreams cannot instantly manifest as reality in spite of our fantasies and daydreams. What often emerges out of positivistic, goal orientated, enthusiasm driven hopefulness, is disillusionment. The belief that anything is possible, we are worth it, we have a right to happiness, if we believe that it will happen, it will happen; these are falsepromises and naïve beliefs. To adopt one of these beliefs at the right moment can be extremely empowering and helpful, providing you with the energy necessary to break through resistance, apathy and lack of confidence, but to cling to them, like anything else, results in a distorted perception of reality. To believe they are universal truths is fictitious at best and if they are held onto they give us the illusion that we can be in total control of our lives and our destiny.
One of the issues that arises out of the self help/self development movement is in fact the issue of control. The movement feeds the notion that we are really in control: we can control our lives, and we are the absolute creators of our circumstances. In a way, this implies that we are at the centre of the universe. What follows logically from this is that we must all be gods pretending to be limited individuals and have a sort of unspoken agreement that my reality wielding powers will not encroach on yours. In this way we can manifest our worlds independently. This notion of control is a self-absorbed, solipsist fantasy land full of impending disappointment.
Since there are billions of people on this planet with conflicting needs, desires and agendas, what makes you think you are somehow special? Further to this, your life is a coming together of an enormous range of factors and influences both seen and unseen, so no you are not the unique creator of your life. We are part of a time, society, and multiple systems of interacting social, economic and political forces that determine in great part what opportunities are available to us and how we have taken the shape that we have. Finally, the range of unpredictable occurrences that can emerge at any moment are immense and your beliefs have no real bearing on them. They affect the subjective experience you have, but they do not instantly manifest the world around you.
There is a need to ground some of the fantastical imaginings of the self development gurus, who are shrewd businessman that recognise that promising easy solutions is a sure earner. It is possible to radically change your life circumstances, it is possible to change your employment situation and find more rewarding and fulfilling work, it is possible to end a relationship, gain confidence and find a partner with whom you can share a better quality of life. These things are absolutely possible, but they are no way guaranteed and have to always be viewed within the context, the time and reality we are living through. Dreamers are often suckers for the wishful thinking that accompanies idealised views of the human condition.
In truth our ability to affect change is always dependent on our relationship to immediate experience and the components that make up the reality we are engaged with. The quality of the engagement that we have will determine our ability to affect change, which is to influence movement that occurs within a given life circle of experience. Therefore negotiation and agreements lie at the heart of our ability to make things happen. In the shamanic context, this is a given with establishing right relationship involving coming into alignment with the basic elements of a given space, harnessing the energy present, seeing the direction change can take and working consciously in choosing a potential direction.
This is not an esoteric or abstract approach to working with spaces of experience, but simply a recognition that we co-dependently arise and exist in relationship to the world. As a basic equation for understanding movement, this approach offers us a deeper understanding of how to work with experience, including our working environment. Whether we stay in a given job, or decide to leave, acting in relationship to experience and the environment will produce far more rewarding results and allow you to shift out of a reactive relationship to a more aligned one.
No-self, develop self…?
There have been different reactions to the place of self development guru’s books and practices in the world of Buddhism. These have ranged from admiration, adoption, neutrality, negative reaction and condemnation. Some have embraced a more conventional form of self development such as psychology and positive thinking as of central importance to evolving in practice. Others have stuck to tradition, affirming that their way does not need additional elements (usually defined as damaging to the purity of the tradition). Others have discounted the importance of self development considering it to be part of the problem: there is no self so why pay it any attention? Other more rational voices have stated simply that Dharma practice, primarily meditation, and psychological and personal development, are two different spheres of activity and should be treated as such. This is a reflection on the Two Truths, of the ultimate and the conventional realities that are interdependently present. Ultimately the self does not exist separately from the world. Conventionally though we have an identity which consists of many different roles and modalities that makes up the basic elements of our being. This conventional self is a construct of many parts that can coexist harmoniously, or not. For those of us living regular lives with jobs, relationships and active participation in society, there is a need to develop and refine our ability to interact with daily experience and this requires learning skills that are separate from Buddhist thinking and practice.
I struggled for many years to understand the relationship between dissolving our sense of self and building up a solid sense of self that would allow me to exist in the world. There really is no conflict in engaging in both. It is a matter of refining your understanding of the conventional (self) and unconventional (not self) aspects of being alive. A balanced individual is aware of and willing to honour both experiences as ground for awakening.
I would say that addressing our psychological wounds, parent and family issues, developing greater confidence and self acceptance, developing the ability to have healthy relationships, taking care of our bodies, and mastering the more earthly realities, are essential elements for living a balanced life. The intent, the practice and the result of working with these elements of our human existence can certainly converge with meditation and Dharma practice further down the path. It is very useful though to affirm that the goal of Buddhist meditation practice is in no way the same as the goals found in the self-development fields.
In self development we are often building up our sense of self, strengthening our ability to assert ourselves and to act in our own self interests. Working with meditation in Buddhism ultimately means deconstructing our sense of self and dissolving the patterns that separate us from experience and from life as it is. Since the world is one of duality, embracing the two is the healthy middle way. Recognising that each has a specific set of priorities will make it much easier to navigate the seemingly conflicting needs of the two.
Perhaps the simplest way to finish this off is to say that there is a time for working on our self and there is a time for breaking through our self. It is useful to recognise which one is needed and to be explicit in how you go about doing it so that there is no confusion.
Last bits and bobs
Life involves unpleasantness. It involves old age and death: do you remember those old friends? It also involves moments where we have little or no choice. How we live with those moments is profoundly important. Meditation is all well and good for many as long as it’s at home, or in a temple, or practiced among unaggressive individuals with no conflict in sight. The reality is though that we are called to bring practice down to earth and its results off of the cushion and into our daily lives. This is what defines the difference between casual meditators, or holiday meditators, and those invested in the long haul.
We always have choice about how we approach experience and sometimes we need to force this fact. At other times, we need to simply open to it. On the meditation cushion we are primarily opening to experience, but when facing resistance, apathy and habitual reaction, we need to be willing to act decisively in order to break monotony and uninspired habits. We need to choose actively to engage differently when circumstances demand we do so.
Insight on the Buddhist path is in great part the development of the capacity to be receptive to our own answers and to the truth of circumstances. There is a saying that ‘life demands’ that is to say circumstances are usually shouting what is required at us. It is up to us to get our self-interests out of the way so we can actually catch the message and respond to it accurately.
At work we need to be able to step out of the limited confines our self-obsession and see the bigger picture. As a closer I offer the following questions that can help us to reflect on where we are with our work.
What roles have we established for ourselves in our professional lives?
Are the roles workable, or have they ceased to be so?
Does my work support my practice? Does our job support suffering in the world?
How can I relate more effectively to my working environment in a way which honours my practice aspirations?
How could my work contribute to ending suffering in this world?
Do I desire to be part of such a type of work?