Right Livelihood is the fifth practice on the noble eightfold path. But the reality is that the Buddha never held down a nine-to-five job, having traded a sumptuous lifestyle for one of even-handed asceticism. Perhaps that’s why even the most avid Buddhists often find it difficult to fully relate their practice to the world of watercoolers, pitch decks, and team meetings. Dan Zigmond, a dharma teacher, author, and seasoned expert in the tech world, hopes to bridge that gap.

“Part of my obligation as a Zen priest and as a Buddhist in general is to relieve suffering––and a lot of people are suffering in the workplace,” Zigmond said of his latest book, Buddha’s Office: The Ancient Art of Waking Up While Working Well (Running Press, December 3, 2019), which considers how the dharma fits into the white-collar world, parsing out skillful ways to take breaks and manage stress. Zigmond is no stranger to demanding workplaces: He has held positions at Instagram, Google, and Facebook and is currently the director of data science at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, established by Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan. He’s also a Tricycle contributing editor and co-author of Buddha’s Diet, a book that explores the health benefits of a monastic eating schedule. 

Tricycle spoke with Zigmond about the ideas behind the book, finding a middle way between work and life, and how to know whether or not we’re on the path to right livelihood. 

Why did you write this book?

I’ve been a practicing Buddhist since college, and I was ordained as a Zen priest in 1998 by Kobun Chino Otogawa Roshi. For almost that long, I’ve also worked in the tech industry. For many years I kept these worlds fairly separate, but more recently I’ve looked for ways to bring these parts of my life closer together and take seriously this notion of bringing your whole self to work. This book is my attempt to put to paper some of what I learned in treating work not as a distraction from my practice but as part of my practice. It’s also about exploring healthier ways to be at work. 

Many people find work really difficult, and sometimes unpleasant, and certainly stressful. Even people who love their jobs often feel like there’s too much of it, and issues around work-life balance seem to have only gotten worse in recent years. When I started my career, there was a separation between work and non-work life by necessity––you couldn’t check your email at home. Now, we’ve reached the point where you can read your emails practically anywhere. It seems like everyone is checking their email 24/7, whether they are a doctor or a lawyer or a barista. 

Nowadays, many jobs come with the unspoken expectation that you need to be on call at all times. What advice do you have for someone whose boss is regularly contacting them after work hours?

Being constantly on call isn’t good for you, and it’s not good for your boss either. You’re not working as well when you’re working nonstop. One way to tackle this issue is to start managing your supervisor’s expectations. It’s possible to carve out healthy breaks from work without necessarily making a big deal about it. Making time for yourself, whether it be taking five minutes every hour to sit and breathe, or taking a longer break in the evening, will actually make you more productive when you do work. Hopefully, your boss will see that you’re finding a way to work that makes sense both for you and for the job in the long run. 

Do you think that having more and more people make the effort to claim these kinds of breaks for themselves is one way to make a dent in the workaholism that has become the new normal?

I mean, I hope so. Certainly I would like us to change those norms. If you’re someone in a position of authority, you have the opportunity to set an example and model better behavior. Jack Dorsey, the CEO of Twitter, attends ten-day vipassana retreats, and I think it’s great for his employees to see that he is completely disconnected during those times. When you’re not in a position of authority, changing things is much more difficult, but I still think it’s possible for each of us to develop healthier relationships to our work, even if everyone around us seems to be obsessed with busyness. Although the Buddha never held an office job, he spent a lot of time thinking about mindfulness and balance. He felt that right livelihood was essential to practicing his way, which sometimes means detaching from work in order to restore ourselves.

How do we avoid workplace distractions and the temptation to multitask?

Distraction is a big issue, but it’s not a new issue. The Buddha worried about distraction 2500 years ago, which is sort of amazing, since almost everything we consider distracting didn’t exist back then. And yet he still felt like there were too many distractions in the world and it was too hard to stay focused. Of course, it’s only gotten worse since then. We often convince ourselves that we can do several things at once––for example, I can have this conversation with you while also checking my phone. The truth is we’re not really multitasking; we’re just focusing on one thing for a very brief time, and then focusing on the next thing, intentionally shifting our focus over and over again. 

A big part of Buddhist practice is introspection: studying yourself and learning about how you react to the world. Understanding your own limitations and your own patterns of distraction is important. For example, if you’re someone who cannot help but look at your phone at work, put it in a drawer for an hour, or turn it off. I personally don’t use anti-distraction apps, but I do make pretty heavy use of Do Not Disturb. 

How do we know the job we’re working at represents right livelihood? 

We have to acknowledge that we’re all tied up in this cycle of suffering, and it’s almost unavoidable—both to suffer and to cause suffering. The Buddha listed a few things that he felt were just plain wrong, like dealing in weapons. But even these prohibitions are probably less cut and dry than they appear. You have to ask yourself, what is a weapon? For some people, something that seems relatively innocuous, like working at a coffee shop or an ice cream shop, is no good because they view caffeine and sugar as intoxicants. I worked at Instagram and Facebook for a while, and there are certainly lots of people who would say that those companies are not part of right livelihood, and that they are intoxicants or even weapons. I didn’t feel that way at the time; I felt that there was lots of positive work to be done there to help people feel more connected to each other. But I can understand why other people see it differently. 

We have to ask ourselves the hard questions and try to be honest about the answers. We’re predisposed to think that whatever we’re doing is probably OK, and there are many people who have less or no choice about the kind of work they do. We can be honest about the choices we do have, and the choices we don’t. 

You write that self-imposed limitations on your professional life cost you certain successes. Can you say more about that? 

While I don’t think it’s healthy or productive to work 100-hour weeks, I do think it’s important to acknowledge that it’s not like working more is never productive. Although there are diminishing returns, often we can get more done by spending more time working. When my daughters were little, I chose to spend a bunch of time with them, which meant I was spending less time at work than some of my colleagues. Some of those people got promoted faster, and are now in higher positions than I am. Although I’m somewhat less successful in the material sense, I think I made the right decision.

It’s a bit of a cliché, but we want everything. We want to be able to take time to be with family or friends and pursue other interests. But we also want to be just as successful in our career as the people who aren’t doing those things. That’s not entirely realistic. There will always be people who are, for whatever reason, so talented that they can be extremely successful despite putting in less time, but those cases are rare. For many of us, these are real choices. Others don’t have this privilege of choice; they have to work as much as they possibly can to get by. But if you do have that luxury of being able to make that choice, it can be a difficult one.

Many office jobs are extremely sedentary, but you stress that there are many ways to incorporate physical activity into the workday. 

For one-on-one discussions and small meetings, I like having the meeting while going for a walk. I find in some odd way that it’s less distracting to talk with somebody when you’re walking around than when you’re sitting face to face––there’s something about having to manage the task of not bumping into things and talking to another person that keeps you a little more focused. I had jobs where I exclusively did walking meetings and would sometimes walk as much as ten miles in a day, just doing loops around the building. My current job is on the sixth floor and I try to make a point of walking up and down the stairs. I even schedule meetings far apart in the building so that I’m forced to get up and move around a bit more. 

Do you think that, as a culture, we’re moving toward a healthier, more accommodating workplace, or does it seem like we’re still set on prizing constant busyness as a sign of success? 

I think you see both tendencies, and it’s not totally clear what’s going to win out. It’s even hard to know what the outcome of some of the efforts to be more helpful or accommodating will be. When I first worked at Google many years ago, they had free laundry machines. Does that promote a balanced lifestyle by eliminating some of the chores that you would otherwise have to do when you are home, or is it encouraging people to work even longer hours? Similarly, free meals, and even free childcare, can keep us tied to the workplace when they may seem like good things. It’s hard for me to see which way we’re going, but I hope that we can move in a positive direction, because the amount people are working now is unhealthy.  

Read an excerpt from Buddha’s Office here

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