67. Four Ways to Meditate at Work

Young Black man meditating at work while people talk in the background

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I’m Scott Snibbe and this is A Skeptic’s Path to Enlightenment. In this episode, I want to talk about how to meditate… at work. That doesn’t mean you’ll suddenly be chanting and ringing a bell at your desk, freaking out your co-workers… or your cat. But even if you keep it low-key, and even if it’s not on the cushion, there are ways to benefit from meditation during the workday.

There are already a lot of meditation recordings out there on ways to de-stress at work. These mostly fall into the calming, stabilizing form of meditation that’s often called mindfulness. Those kinds of calming meditations can definitely be beneficial, but today, I want to offer some lesser-known meditations that have helped me with problems I’ve encountered at work. These meditations are in the tradition of analytical meditation, where we deliberately cultivate thoughts and emotions that produce a mind-shifting story in our brains. These meditation stories counteract specific mental challenges, or build up aspects of our best qualities.

The four topics we’re going to take up, in four short meditations are: work-life balance, how we can turn every moment of work into a meditation, how to deal with ethical challenges at work, and what to do when we’re faced with an angry boss or colleague.

Work-life balance

First, work-life balance. Meditation is becoming popular in the workplace and there are even famous CEOs and executives who meditate and talk about the benefits of meditation. Some of us have even found ourselves sitting beside one at a meditation retreat.

For most of my work career I’ve had a daily meditation practice, and I went on a couple weeks of meditation retreat every year. I want to talk about some of the pitfalls of using meditation to de-stress, because I think there have been times that I’ve used meditation just as a way to make myself ready to take on more at work, and not as a way to open up my mind and expand my capacity for good.

Spiritual bypass is a term I’m hearing more and more lately. The idea is that, when we face an emotional or psychological wound, or some necessary phase of personal development, it’s possible for us to sidestep that needed growth by busying ourselves with spiritual practice. I now take a cautious pause before I try to use meditation to “deal with” a problem, because I understand that spiritual practice can be a form of distraction—or even a for of entertainment—to escape, instead of confront, challenges we need to face in our life. To put it plainly, I’ve found that meditation can sometimes be a form of denial.

When I was using meditation as a way to simply de-stress and then take on more and more tasks and responsibilities at work, I think that was a form of spiritual bypass for me.

So we’ll  start off with a meditation that gives us that meaningful time on the cushion we need to settle, calm, and relax ourselves; but, at the same time, allows us to remain and be aware of any ongoing pain or stress to stay present, and admits that we may need to do less and not more.

Meditation on Work Life Balance

Begin by getting into meditation posture, cross-legged on the floor or seated in a chair. Straighten your spine, half-close your eyes, relax your body, and set a positive motivation to meditate in order to bring out your best qualities and be of greatest benefit to the world.

Put all your attention to your breath just for three breaths, at the nostrils or with the rise and fall of the abdomen.

Now think about how precious your life is. How fortunate it is that you woke up today. You are alive. You have this body that’s beautiful and useful. And you’re lucky enough to have found the interest each day to probe the deeper questions of the mind and of existence itself. What can I accomplish today? At work, at home? How can I make my own life meaningful and happy, and best serve the people around me and the project of humanity? How does this simple reminder that I can’t take another day on earth for granted change what I’m planning to do today, or change my motivation, my attitude toward my work today?

Remember also that everything is impermanent. Many of us have walked in to work expecting just another day of business and found out that our company was just shut down. That could happen today. This also helps put work in perspective. Work is impermanent, it’s subject to change. How much will what I work on today matter in a year or a decade? Can I even remember the urgent deadlines that may have caused me to skip out on friends or family a few years ago?

These thoughts don’t need to make you feel that work is meaningless, but are meant simply to put work into perspective. A rabbi once said, “I never met anyone who on their deathbed said, ‘I wish I’d spent more time at work.’”

Maybe though, for me, after reflecting on the preciousness of life and impermanence, I find work that is the central axis of my life, where I can do the most good and find the most meaning in life through serving others in some way that creates value and good and joy and connection in the world.

Or maybe I find that I’m spending too much time on work and that putting more time into my family, loved-ones, personal passions, or spiritual pursuits would make a more balanced, meaningful life.

Maybe I find that I just keep myself busy with work, possibly to avoid what comes up when I’m still. If I’m always doing something, perhaps it would be good for me to set aside a little time each day to do nothing: Don’t just do something, sit there, as a famous meditation saying goes.

There’s no right answer to this question, but contemplate for yourself, just for a little while, on why you work, how work balances with the other activities in your life, and if any change is needed to how you spend your time, or just how you think about your time.

[meditation bell]

Turning work into meditation

There is an alchemical way of thinking about work from the Buddhist perspective that’s used to transform every moment of work, and whatever work it is that you do, into a meditation. This comes from the mind training teachings of Tibetan Buddhism focused on expanding our love and compassion.

There are Buddhist stories of people that are supposed to have even attained enlightenment from the skillful practices of transforming work into meditation, whether they’re a powerful king or someone with a simple task like sweeping the floor. Because the Buddhist view is that our motivation is the primary factor in determining whether any action develops our mind in a positive direction, toward its greatest good and its best qualities. So how do we cultivate such a mind at work?

One of my teachers suggested to start out our workday, as we commute to the office or when we sit down to work at home, with the thought that whatever my work is, may it be a cause for benefitting others. We each must use our own creativity in figuring out how we benefit others, but that’s the start: with the motivation that our work can be of benefit.

A simple way to do this, no matter what your work, is to realize that your company is made up of individual people interacting with one another. And each one of these interpersonal moments is a chance to make the world slightly better or slightly worse. So, with a motivation of genuine care and concern for whoever you are interacting with—co-workers, customers, or strangers—remember that they are a human being with their life’s own hero’s journey: they were born to a mother that loves them more than anyone else; they are embedded in a complex web of relationships, loves, losses, conflicts; and there is a final moment of their life on the horizon when, like everyone else, they will die.

As you engage with people, sharing a smile can be one of the simplest and most powerful acts of kindness. Asking how someone is doing, and how their family is, too. These are so simple, but sometimes when I do this in a store or on the phone or in a meeting, it seems like it may have been the first time a customer or a colleague treated them like a full human being today.

So, if nothing else, picture now going through your day at work and seeing through to the fundamental humanity, complexity, and need for affection and connection that everyone you interact with has, and how you can be a small part of satisfying that connection. Often it’s through asking and talking about things other than work. Some of the best managers, when they have their one-on-ones with team members, do nothing but ask after their lives and cares and concerns. And, interestingly, those managers and teams that talk less about work often end up performing the best and having the highest rates of satisfaction.

Our work can be solitary too or move into phases of pure action. When those moments happen, as you can imagine right now, picture yourself beginning with the motivation that your work will do good in the world. Whether you’re buying, selling, cooking, caring, writing, building, or anything else, see how your small actions contribute to the well-being and happiness of others.

The Dalai Lama once said, “Kindness is civilization.” I think he was pointing to this everyday goodness. That each of us, through our everyday action, provides for each other just a little bit. So think for a moment about what contribution your work makes to providing comfort and satisfaction and joy to others.

Hopefully, by imagining this, we later become able to bring these thoughts to mind in our real interactions at work. From this point of view, there’s no need to change anything about your job to make it meaningful, but simply to focus your motivation at work on benefiting others, through how you communicate with people at work, to keeping in mind the small or the big good your work accomplishes in the world.

Ethical and meaningful work (right livelihood)

The next meditation is on the ethics of work, meaningful work, work that helps and doesn’t harm. In Buddhism this topic is called right livelihood. There’s a formal, moral definition of right livelihood in Buddhism. To live an ethical life, the Buddhist view says that we should refrain from taking on work that causes suffering to other beings or cheats them or harms them. Typically it’s said that we should avoid work like making poisons or weapons or addictive substances; or work that takes the life of others, say as part of an army or in a slaughterhouse or as a fisherman.

But I think there’s a moralistic and class bias in this idea of right livelihood that even in that short list makes me feel uncomfortable. Only some of us have the privilege and the wealth to avoid such jobs, while others don’t.

So instead of taking a moralistic view, I want to take a developmental view on this topic of right livelihood. How can we develop our own personal morality—our capacity to do good and to be good—through our work? And what do we do when our work crosses a moral line? I think this question is complex, and there are times that we may purposefully stay with, engage, and grapple with unethical work or an unethical workplace in the service of spiritual development, instead of abandoning it.

Settle yourself again into meditation posture and become of your breath for a few seconds.

What we’re going to do in this meditation is bring to mind an ethical conflict you may be facing at your work. Try and come up with it now. If nothing comes to mind, you can think of people facing ethical dilemmas in workplaces you know about, and use this meditation to generate a sense of compassion for them instead.

Jason, our marketing director on the podcast, used to work on market strategy for Burger King, even though he was a vegetarian who believed it was wrong to kill animals. He grappled with that work, but ultimately decided to remain because he felt he could help steer Burger King toward releasing a vegetarian burger and further the cause of vegetarianism.

So Jason did this, for years, making persuasive presentations and arguments for a veggie burger, not based wholly on moral grounds but on practical market data and brand reputation. He argued that there was a growing demand for vegetarian products and that Burger King could increase its profits and also strengthen its reputation for good and even its cool factor by embracing them.

Ultimately, after years of effort, Burger King had the largest plant-based burger rollout ever. Like any big corporation, a lot of people were involved in this decision, but Jason felt that it was the right choice for him to remain and to help steer this huge organization even slightly toward better good than to abandon it for other work.

I wanted to bring up this example, because it’s not necessarily obvious what to do in a workplace whose morals you disagree with. How much more good did Jason do in the world by staying with that job than by quitting when he found out Burger King would be his next assignment? By staying with the work, could he have made a huger impact on animal welfare, climate change, and human health than you and I will in our lifetime?

So bring to mind your ethical conflict, with a relaxed mind, and think open-mindedly about it.

What harm is being done through this work?

What’s my role in it?

Is there a way I could stop, change, or improve conditions? As an employee of this company I may have more power and influence for change than someone opposing it from outside. So is it my responsibility to stay and work at change from within, rather than quit and have one less voice for my values?

On the other hand, how important is this work to me? How well-suited am I to it? What else could I be doing with my life? Contemplate for a minute, if you suddenly became wealthy and didn’t need to work, what would you do with the rest of your life?

Sometimes that thought can be overwhelming, and if it is, instead ask yourself, if I were given six months off right now, what would I do with that time?

For some of us, the satisfying answer is that I wouldn’t change a thing.

But for others, if the work you fantasize about isn’t the job you currently have, could you plan a path to doing that more meaningful thing with your life, however gradually? A five or ten or fifteen-year plan? One that doesn’t disrupt relationships and responsibilities, but that also allows a path to the growth and experiences you want to have in your life?

Let your mind be open-minded, flexible.

Realize that things are impermanent, that there is a genuine chance for your company’s activity to change for the better, or for you to move on to other things in life, or for you to accept your situation and find peace in the inevitable imperfection of any situation, realizing that happiness comes more from our mental attitude than anything else.

The technique of universalizing can also be very powerful when reflecting on work, or in the midst of work problems. You can think to yourself, As I am facing this moral challenge, many others too, and may we all be successful in grappling with them. May everyone have meaningful, ethical work, and find space to understand whether it’s best to accept a situation, to work to change it, or to leave it.

What to do with an angry boss

This last meditation is one you can do when faced with anger and conflict at work: an angry boss or an angry colleague. In these instances, the techniques of mindfulness, impermanence, cause and effect, compassion, and understanding the interdependent nature of reality can all be helpful.

Mindfulness is the approach taught most frequently today. And it’s a good beginning for any of these other techniques, as well as an end in itself. With mindfulness, as you are faced with the angry boss or colleague, the method is not to flee the painful mental feelings, but instead become completely present for them.

The trick is to realize that your thoughts and emotions are not you. You can observe the sounds and images you’re hearing and perceiving without overly identifying with them. You can become aware of your own emotions, your anger or fear welling up, without letting them take control of your speech and actions. The practice is to stay with whatever comes into your perceptual field and your mind, yet not let these thoughts and perceptions carry you away.

You realize that the mind can watch even itself.

So with part of your mind, watch these experiences arising. We’re not bypassing experiences here by seeing that we are not our inner thoughts and outer experiences. But we’re trying to be present and accepting and patient with ourselves and the situation. So let’s start with that meditation and then move on to some of the other techniques in turn.

Mindfulness meditation with the angry boss

Bring to mind a recent conflict you had at your workplace. Or, if none comes to mind, you can imagine one, or think of a conflict that a friend had, which has the added benefit of increasing our compassion.

With the peace of being in meditation right now, try and stay connected with that experience, that memory. We’re not denying or bypassing it, we’re accepting it. This is what’s happening right now. But still, try and keep some distance. Watch from a little distance what’s happening outside and inside you. Notice the sights and sounds of the angry person before you; notice your own feelings of fear or anger or whatever else you find arising in your mind.

One thing you might notice in your mind is some objection to this technique of mindfulness in such a serious moment of conflict. Trying to be mindful might even seem a little silly or frivolous or naive. It’s unpleasant being yelled at. And feeling scared or angry are legitimate responses. But this first step has a purpose in preventing us from reflexively reacting, getting angry ourselves, lashing out, and making the problem far worse.

So mindfulness is a good place to start before any other practice. Taking some deep breaths here also helps to stabilize before anything else.

Impermanence and the angry boss

Now it can be useful to reflect on impermanence. One thing we can be sure of about any situation is that it inevitably will change. Remembering the impermanence of everything around us: our bodies, our possessions, our life, our civilization; and the subtle impermanence of constantly changing molecules, particles, thoughts, and feelings.

We can recall past conflicts from our life that are now distant memories. Many of them are forgotten, resolved, forgiven, or accepted. And this one likely will be too. When things are at their worst, the direction of change is often for the better. So reflecting on impermanence widens our horizon of time and makes us realize that this situation is temporary. The angry person in front of us may even, soon enough, feel like a trusted friend.

Cause and effect and the angry boss

It can also be helpful to reflect on cause and effect in this moment of conflict. It’s likely that your boss’s anger has little to do with you, and more to do with their life history, their work situation, stress, pressure, education, and even genetics. In fact, it’s likely you have little or nothing to do with your boss’s anger at all. That isn’t always comforting, but it can be useful to realize that it’s likely a mistake to take this situation personally. Even when the person is yelling our name and blaming us, it’s likely that this anger comes almost entirely from their unique psychology and history and has little to do with ourselves.

Not taking it personally is also practical, since it can then give us perspective and we can keep our cool so that we have a better chance of resolving the conflict sooner.

Compassion and the angry boss

This cause and effect understanding of the behavior of the person before us can lead to a sense of compassion. You can think to yourself, I’m so lucky that I have these meditative tools for dealing with difficult emotions, and that I have the interest and make the effort to study and practice them. The person in front of me may not have such tools. They may have been raised in a rough or abusive environment. Imagine what might be the deeper causes of this person’s anger. Think about stories and movies and books where we find out about the deep causes of someone’s anger like a difficult childhood or a loved-one who died. And suddenly we have compassion for them. Also imagine how awful it feels for this person to be angry right now, maybe even worse than it feels for you to be the object of their anger.

Think, too, how nice it would be if this person weren’t angry, from their perspective. You can think almost as if you were talking to them: It would be so nice if you weren’t angry, if our work were going the way you wanted it to. Just for the other person’s sake, take yourself out of the picture for a minute, you want them to be happy!

And then, putting yourself back in the picture, remember how the Dalai Lama says the wisest form of selfishness is to be, “intelligently selfish.” That a source of genuine happiness comes from compassionately wishing that this angry boss before me be happy and content. Embracing this thought would make me happy by opening my heart. But also, I might be made practically happier too, because by making this angry person become happy, they’d chill out and stop bothering me and everyone else. So see if you can wish that now.

Emptiness and the angry boss

And then there is an ultimate, almost nuclear antidote to this situation of the angry boss, which is to contemplate the interdependent nature of reality, the Buddhist notion of emptiness, as it manifests in this situation with your angry boss, realizing how constructed and provisional all of reality is.

We can think to ourselves, Where are those angry words that seem to hurt so much? Are they in my boss’s moving lips? Are they in the vibrating air pushed out of their lungs that moves toward me at the speed of sound? Are they in the vibrating hairs in my ear? The nerve cells that translate those to sonic frequencies? The mysterious place in our brain where the vibration turns into meaning? Or are they in the other places in our primitive brain that interpret those words as a threat to our safety?

It’s kind of an amazing science documentary meditation you can do as you imagine your boss yelling at you, or, if you’re able to, bring it to mind when someone is actually yelling at you. It feels almost like that shock of forgetting how to drive, if that’s ever happened to you. Trying to see the interdependence of the situation, trying to search for the specific sounds or words capable of angering me, the specific person that was angry, the specific me that could get angry.

When you do, you may find that this experience, for a moment, turns into non-judgmental awareness: the mind projecting onto sound and moving shapes, reflected sunlight, caused by thousands of prior events and propensities, labeled by my mind as angry words, the angry boss, or me. You might see all of these reflected in the openness of your own awareness.

You can’t stay there for long, of course. We all get pulled back into relative reality. But this is another way to gain perspective, to even get a little bit of a sense of humor about the situation, realizing how constructed all experience is. We aren’t denying that there’s an experience occurring that we label as an angry boss in front of us. This experience and the me experiencing it does exist. But when we probe how these exist, we find that they are interdependent, interconnected, provisional. And there is flexibility in how we choose to interpret our situation.

Emptiness meditation gives you more freedom in how to respond. You realize that your interpretation of a situation is relative, conditional, fluid. There are many other ways to look at a situation, from ridiculous, to heart-warming. And with this flexibility of seeing reality closer to how it truly is, I can let my mind, now more relaxed and open, compassionate, and interconnected, come up with a gentler, more skillful solution to this challenge before me than the destructive reaction I might have had before.

Taking meditation into real life

If any of these techniques feel useful, you might consider practicing them again on the cushion, during your commute or a walk, or sometime when you have quiet, open time; imagining these different analytical meditation antidotes to conflict and anger at work.

None of these tools are meant to make you a doormat, or to accept abusive, illegal, amoral or immoral actions. There are times to take strong action, even legal action, and to get out of harm’s way. But there are other times where conflicts can become a source for personal development, the ordinary types of discomfort and conflict we have in daily life at work.

Meditating like this—“practicing” as they call meditation, for good reason—can make these self-soothing tools more readily at hand when you experience real conflict. I can say from the occasional times I’ve been able to remember them, that it’s possible to recall these techniques in the moment and to gently, skillfully defuse a situation, or at least not make it worse.

You can even, possibly, get to a point where you are a tiny bit excited for problems occur, because they’re a chance to practice these alchemical processes of mind training, that transform a difficult conflict into an opportunity for personal growth and mental development; helping us gradually become kinder, more patient, gentle, and effective in our life.

It seems crazy, but there are highly realized beings that I know who welcome and even mentally bow down to the people that annoy them most, because these people offer them the chance to practice unbiased patience and kindness; that show us that we each still have work to do to become the kind, honorable, compassion person we each want to be.

Thank you

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Thanks to Tara Anderson for producing this episode, Jason Waterman for marketing, and Christian Parry for audio mastering.

We wish you a wonderful day.

Credits

Hosted by Scott Snibbe
Theme music by Bradley Parsons of Train Sound Studio
Mastered by Christian Parry and Chris Boulton

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