What was your intention in writing this book?
To give people confidence that the workplace can be a place of serious spiritual practice. I was trained in the Zen tradition to understand that dharma study happens all day long, not just during mediation retreat. And where do people spend the most time? The workplace! If awakening is to be something more than the exclusive preserve of hermits and monastics, it has to be expressed in the work that we do. The modern workplace is hardly designed with spiritual goals in mind, but I think that could change.
Today Americans are working more hours per year than ever before. Does this require new modes of practice?
In the workplace, we have to be willing to practice in short spurts, a minute here, a minute there. Practice isn’t continuous as in a mediation retreat. Instead, the intention or vow to do it provides the continuity. People express a lot of frustration about their job as the enemy of their spiritual life. When I left the monastery and entered corporate America, I saw it that way, too, until I realized I had to rethink what constituted dharma practice. I think we can be surrounded by pettiness, selfishness, stress, chaos, and confusion, yet still practice effectively. There is a lot of energy in the workplace, both positive and negative. That energy can be put to use, in a spiritual sense, and can be helpful, even transformative.
What has been the response to your techniques?
Very positive. My approach is partly Zen, partly vipassana, with some Vajrayana as well. I’m interested in whatever works. We do a visualization of our workplace as sacred space which people find very effective in dealing with their anger and greed. Virtually everyone experiences these emotions in the workplace, partly because it’s one of the few areas in our democratic society where someone can have real power over another person. That can be scary.
How do you reconcile the notion of non-attachment with earning a living?
If we can’t wholeheartedly take responsibility for caring for and supporting ourselves and our families, how can we expand that care to include all beings, which is our fundamental vow? The classic Buddhist text on non-attachment is the Vimalakirti Sutra. Its main character is a wealthy merchant with riches, palaces, and concubines. He lives thoroughly engaged in the world, but he isn’t hooked on any of it. From Vimalakirti’s point of view, non-attachment means to throw ourselves totally into the situation and not be caught by desire.
You say that “the marketplace begins in the mind. ” Can you explain this?
The marketplace expresses all our wants and needs, whether for a loaf of bread or a Rolex watch, spiritual knowledge or a car. It is the place where Buddhism and capitalism intersect, since both are focused on the mechanisms of human desire. The Four Noble Truths teach that desire is mind-created, and when we see clearly how this functions, we can be liberated from desire. The Buddha, as a contemplative, was not interested in large-scale social or economic organization. But historically, the contemplative and the socioeconomic are at the collision point. We are on the edge, I think, of a great transformation in which the spiritual and the material, the personal and the economic, are all converging.
What do you hope people will gain from reading your book?
The Buddha said, “Be a lamp unto yourselves.” Or as I put it in the book, “You are the chief executive of your inner life.” I wrote the book to empower people. I hope people will come away from it with a greater confidence in their own potential as spiritual beings and with a respect for their workplace as a place where that potential can be realized.
From Lewis Richmond’s Work as a Spiritual Practice: A Practical Buddhist Approach to Inner Growth and Satisfaction on the Job
Success is the conventional goal of work life—to complete the project, to secure the promotion, to make the big sale, to improve profits. Conventional wisdom holds that success is what we all desire, and that when we are successful, we will be contented, relaxed, and calm. Of course, success is cause for celebration. And it often leads to feelings of contentment and ease. However, in the work world, as well as in life, success can be fleeting. This year’s profit is next year’s loss. The promotion brings with it a host of new problems. The sought-after new client changes his mind. From a spiritual standpoint, there is a different kind of success, one that does not come and go with the changing winds of the marketplace but stays with you, because it is within you. This is accomplishment.
Accomplishment is a matter of spirit, character, and even physiology. Scientists who have studied serotonin, a substance found in the brain, have discovered two complementary facts: Successful people have higher levels of serotonin, and high levels of serotonin help foster success. Even chimpanzees exhibit this chemical phenomenon; the dominant chimp has a serotonin-rich brain. A practical outcome of this research is the new generation of antidepressant drugs, which work partly by boosting serotonin levels. It seems that deep within our body there are processes at work that both support and reflect accomplishment.
True accomplishment is not about winning, acquiring, or being on top. It is about sharing, giving, and including. Is there room for that in our work? In today’s workplace, the drive for ordinary success can sometimes actually get in the way of accomplishment. The competitive nature of modern work ensures that where there are winners, there will be losers, and that success will often be measured in ways that hinder, even prevent, real accomplishment from flourishing. Two familiar examples are sacrificing product quality for more profits, and promoting a manager not because she manages well, but because she keeps costs down. Profit and lowered costs produce success. Product quality and good management are examples of accomplishment. Even when accomplishment comes, it is often unacknowledged by a workplace that doesn’t recognize its value. The standard measures of workplace success—revenue growth, profit, market share, name brand recognition—miss more subtle accomplishments such as employee satisfaction, community involvement, minimizing pollution, and honesty.
Knowing how to manage your own success gracefully—with dignity, humility, good humor, and generosity—is a sign of wisdom. Even though outward success—a fancy job title, a fat paycheck—is fleeting and ephemeral, accomplishment is not. Accomplishment is one of the few things in our unpredictable life that lasts, even after our death. Accomplishment allows us to look back on our life and say, “I did that. I am happy for it. It made a difference.” It is the grace of such reflections, in the end, that allows us to grow old and die with dignity.
Adapted from Work as a Spiritual Practice: A Practical Buddhist Approach to Inner Growth and Satisfaction on the Job, by Lewis Richmond. Copyright © 1999 Lewis Richmond. With permission from Broadway Books.