Living to Work or Loving to Work?
Dr. Stephen Fulder
Christopher Titmuss, a spiritual teacher once asked: - Which of us, on our deathbed, when asked if we had any regrets, would say: "Yes, I regret that I did not spend more time in the office!" Some of us really seem to enjoy our work and find it meaningful and fulfilling. Others find their work draining and meaningless and they only work because they need to survive. How are we to make sense of this primary difficulty that we all face – the fact that our work occupies most of our lives, yet often seems the opposite of a liberating experience.
How can we shift from living for work, to working for life, from living to work, to loving to work?
The teachings of the Dharma offer some illuminating insights into the problem. First, they say, we should do a basic screening of the moral implications of our work. This is a kind of fundamental housekeeping, in that if there are questionable moral issues around our work, it may be hard to find it fulfilling, since the impure karma, or seeds sown every day by our actions and intentions, may bear uncomfortable fruit.
The moral issues, as defined in the traditional teachings, are centred around not harming others. We should not be involved in the making and selling of weapons or intoxicants, the harming or selling of animals or people. We should not be involved in deceit or tricks or violence, or in gaining wealth through untrue promises, including spiritual promises.
All of this seems at first straightforward – your first reaction might be that you don’t do any of these things, but it's important to look closely at the ramifications of what we do, and be brave enough to ask some questions.
What promises am I, or the company for which I work, making? What values are we encouraging? Could the substances or materials or services we are supporting or selling create any harm or addiction?
We may not always be able to change our work situation, but such inquiry is itself a practice, bringing to our work moral energy and sensitivity and making us feel more in touch with values.
Helping others to help ourselves
I know an American meditation teacher who earns his living mending computers. What he really likes about this work is coming into houses, often of lonely, needy people, and bringing friendliness, warmth and light into these homes.
Can we crawl out from under the bottom line mentality, from what is in it for me, what is in my pay packet, to what can I bring, what can I contribute? Helping others can bring meaning and joy to our work. As the Dalai Lama once said, ‘It is so much more joyful to give to others than to give to oneself, because there are more of them.’
When considering what kind of work to choose, many people on the spiritual journey are choosing the caring professions because it brings meaning and arouses compassion. There may be less money in it, but the open heart is a sweetness that is with us night and day, and is worth much more than gold.
Work is crucial because we spend so much time at it. It deeply conditions us. For this reason ‘Right Livelihood’ is one of the basic practices of the Eightfold Path, (the way of life according to the Dharma), and on the same level of importance as meditation.
Instead of asking what work am I doing? Ask what is the work doing for me?
This is not easy. We may find ourselves committed and enthusiastic for our work, but it exhausts and drains us. We may find that we want to work in a certain career, but that the atmosphere in the workplace is full of criticism, cynicism, judgement. Or we may experience disconnection, alienation or an hierarchical structure that generates fear.
In such cases, as time goes by, we will feel contracted or even depressed; work becomes a kind of jail which we suffer for the sake of the money. It will need sensitivity and mindfulness to catch the problems as early as possible. And then what?
Well, we may indeed have to give up or change our work to save our inner life.
This is sometimes inevitable. However there is also another way. To change the atmosphere; to make a difference, to find rewards in bringing something human into a place starved of the heart. Here is where meditative inner work is invaluable.
A commitment to and practice of deep listening can dramatically heal an environment of alienation and distance. Insightful awareness can perhaps show us that if we are exhausting ourselves it may be because of some kind of resistance or friction or restlessness constructed from patterns, wounds and anxieties.
The Buddhist practice of metta, the broadcasting of loving-kindness, can bring warm sun to a frosty climate of criticism. We may be able to initiate a new dialogue which includes an honest sharing of feelings and experiences, or group yoga in the mornings.
Intention to change conditions can integrate outer work and inner work.
For example, one would think that it would be totally unspiritual to be a soldier. This is not so – if to be a soldier meant, for example, to stop other soldiers from harming or abusing people, or to bring more respect, communication and humanness into a soldier's life.
One would think that it would be unbearable to work in the slums of Calcutta. It was not so for Mother Teresa. When things are difficult, we do need to ask ourselves – are we able to make a difference? Do we have the inner strength, steadiness and inner peace to make change?
If we look at things this way, it seems that it doesn't matter what we do, but rather how we work. In the moment by moment experience, with mind and heart engaged, there is no such thing any more as work, only actions. The concept of work dissolves into life. To quote Psalms 90, "Let the grace of God be in our work and let the outcome of our work be right."