Karma Yoga: Zen for the Discontented Worker
by Ming Zhen Shakya, OHY
"Work," said C. Northcote Parkinson - that Newton of white-collar dynamics - "expands so as to fill the time available for its completion." This is The Law of Office Droning. Being a law, it admits to no exceptions.
For people who are unhappy in their jobs, Parkinson's famous law has a few corollaries, one of which is, "Time increases in inverse proportion to the worker's interest in the work." We can obey this law with our eyes closed and one hand tied behind us. And often do.
Ah, yes. The old 'dilation and contraction of time' problem. The more interesting our work, the faster does the clock tick. The more boring the task, the slower do the hands move. How does the clock know what we're experiencing; and, knowing, why does it behave so perversely towards us? A Nobel Prize awaits the person who can explain the spiteful actions of chronometers.
But we obfuscate or at least digress. This isn't really the problem we want to address. That problem is simply, "How do we find serenity in the workplace?"
A spiritual solution to any problem is always akin to committing a crime: there must be Motive, Means, and Opportunity. We have to want to prevail. Without desire's determination, we'd have a supine reliance upon miracles, events which do not occur with sufficient regularity to warrant their consideration. But the motive must be a vectored one. Without direction, desire becomes a vagrant and chaotic craving; just as without force, desire atrophies to flabby whim, as anyone who has ever joined a health club can readily attest. Desire often proves to be apparitional, dissipating quickly until only its ghost appears with depressing regularity on a credit card statement. If our intention is not born of the union of resolution and plan, we wind up in worse shape than when we started.
We have also to possess the means, those weapons or tools necessary to accomplish the task. We can be obsessed with the need to bake a cake and can commit to memory a grand recipe, but without the ingredients, not to mention the pans and oven, we will produce no cake.
And we must have the occasion in which in which we can use the information and the tools - the necessary kitchen-time to effect the transformation of raw to cooked. We can bake nothing if we're otherwise occupied.
In the problem of work's criminal intent, the desire to be happy at the job motivates us, just as the mere fact of having a job gives us a surfeit of opportunities. This leaves Means, the "how" of success, in this case, Karma Yoga.
Karma Yoga is the discipline that will deliver the Discontented Worker (DW). But let's be clear about this at the outset: of all the Yogas, Karma Yoga is the most difficult to attain. To some of us, it comes as talent comes... we acquire the ability without any effort at all and without being sure of exactly how we came to do what we do. We are Zen's "idiot savants." (I happily include myself in this group). When people ask us how many hours a day we spend practicing Zen, we get a glazed look in our eyes and stand there wondering what the correct answer is. As we stare into dusky space waiting for a lightbulb to go on, the question may be clarified: "How many hours a day do you put on your cushion meditating?" Then we are relieved and joyfully answer, "None!" Who has time to sit on a cushion? And where did anybody get the idea that sitting on a cushion was a Zen prerequisite? Zen means meditation and meditation does not require a cushion. But let's leave this subject for another essay.
While it is obviously true that the meditative state can be attained while following certain sedentary methods, using these methods will likely cause a pink-slip to arrive with the Discontented Worker's final paycheck. Not even the most accomplished drone would attempt to sit at his desk like a stone, entranced with counting something as financially inconsequential as his breaths. Blanking his mind may clean out the dust in his cranium, but chances are he is not being paid to be mentally vacuumed. He has to engage his mind kinetically. Karma comes from the root "kri" which means to act. The word Creation is a cognate.
The Orient has given us eleven unique methods for apprehending the divine. These eleven yogas may be divided into two groups: those which emphasize using the mind and those which emphasize using the body. Naturally, there is always a degree of technique-blending and so the operative word here is emphasis.
With dangerous brevity, I'll get ready to duck and list these eleven schools: The six "body" schools are: The Islamic Persian Sufi (dance); The Hatha Yoga (asanas); The Bhakti School of Devotional Practice (ritualized worship); The Laya School of Kundalini Yoga (chakra control); The Mantra School (chanting); The Mahayana Daoist/Buddhist Northern Zen School (rigid posture zazen). The five "mind" schools are Raja Yoga (ethics/meditation); Jnana Yoga (scripture study); Karma Yoga (non-attachment); the Theravadin Buddhist School (renunciation); and the Mahayana Daoist/Buddhist Southern School Zen (engaged meditation).
All of these schools have common elements, such as breath control and certain control exercizes for mind and body. All of these schools require knowledge of at least a few scriptures and commentaries. None of these yogas is superior to any other, and each has its own perils.
Considering how much time we spend working, it becomes proportionately valuable to possess the great contentment that Karma Yoga provides; but we must be careful not to make a less than comprehensive attempt. Not only is Karma Yoga the most difficult to attain, but the penalty for back-sliding is, of all the yogas, the most painful to bear.
If we back-slide in our Sufi practice, we risk getting dizzy when we resume whirling. If we neglect our Hatha Yoga routine, we may be a little stiff when we start stretching again. But if we interrupt our Karma Yoga practice, we may find that even in a brief space of neglect, we can create conflicts that will follow us into the Bardo. Resuming a Karma Yoga practice after a single day's interruption is usually not so easy as resuming a chanting practice after years of silence.
Karma yoga is, in fact, so difficult that it is necessary for the Discontented Worker first to submit his situation to some ruthless analysis. He needs to ask himself to what extent his problems are caused by superficial or stylistic problems which can be eliminated or corrected. (The most trivial breach of decorum can serve as an unbridgeable gap in terms of mass contempt.) It is difficult for anyone to be happy working in a place where some or all of his co-workers despise him (unless he be a sadist and enjoy inflicting himself upon the innocent). It is also virtually impossible for anyone to be happy doing a job if he is psychologically unsuited to it or, for that matter, if he has organic or physical difficulties that contribute to his distress. He needs to examine his relation to the work and to the work environment.
Therefore, he should first ask himself "Am I, by character and personality, suited for this kind of work?" A person who is shy ought not to be a salesman. A person who is gregarious ought not to be stuck in a cubicle crunching numbers. Especially to a young person who has recently entered the workplace, unsuitability to the nature of the work can prove fatal to his career choice. Too late he will come to appreciate the happy balance between social and academic activity that life on campus afforded. There, he spent time alone in study, in the mental isolation of books and computers; and he spent time with others in the classroom or lab or in any of the watering-holes on or near the campus. With relief always in sight, he never had to notice any lop-sided stress. But given the commercial world's task-specialization, he will likely find himself either completely isolated from or completely involved with people; and it is then, with the force of revelation, that his dominant personality disposition will reveal itself.
Premedical students, for example, often suppose that the practice of medicine will bear some resemblance to the study of it. It doesn't. Medical School Deans of Admission often marvel at the ease with which an applicant who seems to desire to become a physician will confide that if he fails to gain admittance to medical school he'll pursue a doctorate in chemistry. Two completely different personality types are involved here. It isn't a simple matter of "theory" versus "application". A physician puts his hands on people and involves himself in their problems. He's empathetic and sympathetic. But these qualities are not desirable in a research scientist who must maintain an attitude of dispassionate observation and may not become emotionally involved with the objects of his study. The same man is not likely to be suitable for both professions - and one should not even consider being the other.
Likewise, when a gregarious person who has an aptitude for mathematics and science finds himself in a claustrophobic work environment, he gets cubicle fever. He's drawn to the water cooler, thirsting for human contact, or he becomes an interrupter, a visitor of other cubicles, a gossiper or asker of unnecessary questions, or he frequently makes personal phone calls or email messages .. anything to get the fix of human interaction.
The French used to have an expression for "going to work". They'd say they were going 'a la boite" (to the box.) In today's scientific work environments, the box may be a laboratory bench or a computer niche. Only the person who enjoys isolation and problems posed by inanimate objects can thrive in such an environment. To a person who is "people-oriented" this box is hell.
When work becomes painful drudgery either because the worker cannot tolerate the presence of people or because he cannot tolerate being isolated from them, a career guidance professional needs to be consulted.
Sometimes the Discontented Worker's own behavioral quirks or work habits will be so resented by co-workers that, to whatever extent their dissatisfaction manifests itself in hostility, he will have created much of his own misery.
It may happen that a DW incurs the Wrath of the Punctual by being constantly late. In his mind he will more than compensate the company for the morning time lost by staying late or by working at home. But this arrangement is not designed to endear him to co-workers who resent his getting away with breaking a rule they discomfit themselves to keep, or who need him physically present so that they can obtain information from him that is vital to their own jobs. Absenteeism always wrecks the smooth progression of a project and destroys team-spirit; and the people who are harmed resent the person who inflicts the damage. He is in their debt and when he least expects it they will call in the markers.
Also, a Discontented Worker may resort to purposeful procrastination. In such a case he will need to inject an element of danger into what he regards as a deadly boring task in order to vivify it. He administers "deadline" therapy by allowing an assignment to succumb to neglect, starved for attention from him but not, of course, from others whose work depends upon the results of his.
Then, when his co-workers fear that the project is moribund and quite beyond triage considerations, he switches on the tesla coils of emergency action. Zzzzz! Zzzzz! He is driven like an obsessed B-movie scientist. The excitement of fear energizes him and gives him childish satisfaction.
Co-workers or team members are uncomfortable with someone who doesn't keep the work's cadence. To them a project is rather like a marathon, a long distance covered in the kind of steady pace that enables them to detect and correct errors in timely fashion. A sprinter or a stroller, regardless of the quality of his work, disturbs the project's flow.
"Age and experience" is often presented in opposition to "youth and ambition". A successful business needs both - to conserve and to innovate. But most power positions in an organization have accrued to older workers and a young worker has got to appreciate that he unnecessarily prejudices opinion against himself and his own innovative ideas by presenting them in what, to more conservative administrators, is an offensive package, say, in the form of an extreme haircut, a pierced nose, a bold tattoo, or attire so casual as to seem derelict. An older worker is more comfortable when, by sartorial differences, he can distinguish between a youth who says, "Got any spare change?" from one who says, "Got an update on the Balance Sheet?"
The DW may be disliked for a variety of reasons and may find himself a pariah in his office. Groups have an immune-system response; and when someone is regarded as a kind of germ, the group will seek to eliminate him. This problem is not so rare as we would all like it to be. I'll take a minute to relate a sad little instance of intolerance and a worker's failure to see himself objectively.
I recently sat in a waiting area while tires were being put on my car. I was talking to another customer, a lady, when a stock boy began to walk back and forth nearby, moving boxes of merchandise. He had on tennis shoes that squeaked annoyingly on the vinyl floor. The sound was like Velcro being separated with the accompaniment of a whistle. "God," I said, "that's irritating!" The woman agreed, explaining, "Those sneakers have little suction cups on the soles." Then she told me that she worked in an office in which a liberal dress code had been instituted, which meant, she said, that everyone was free to come to work as a slob and nobody could complain about it. A nice and efficient college boy who had a part time job distributing documents to various clerks in the office bought a pair of these unmercifully noisy shoes.
She said that at first it was a novelty and the co-workers joked about the squeaking; but once the novelty wore off (evidently in a matter of minutes) the squeaks were torturous. The clerks would stop what they were doing and grit their teeth until he passed beyond earshot. "We complained to him, but he liked his shoes and didn't take us seriously," she said, "and then we complained to management, but we were told that we weren't allowed to complain about attire. We got the message." She laughed confidentially. "We were allowed to complain about his job performance, so we'd switch files and complain about the mistakes he was making and got him fired."
Ordinarily, I'd have judged this as a lousy thing to do. On one side there was a young man, working his way through college, doing a good job, then being sabotaged and getting fired with an unjust "termination for incompetence" on his employment record. But on the other side was that awful squeaking. "Well," I said gently, "I'm sure he got another job."
Obviously, if a worker enters the workplace smelly, sloppy, dirty or glaze-eyed from alcohol or marijuana or motor-mouthed from mood elevating substances he is not likely to win the support of fragrant, neat, clean, sober, alert, and quietly serious people. The DW shouldn't delude himself into thinking that his brain or his contribution to the commonweal is of such quality as will offset the assault upon his colleagues' senses. They all think they're smarter and more valuable than he is, anyway.
There are, however, a few more insidious causes for workplace misery.
Daily life cannot be easily divided into segments. In a perfect world, we would be able to compartmentalize our lives. We would have x hours of sleep, x hours of food consumption, x hours of recreation, x hours of travel, and x hours of work which, presumably, would be sufficiently remunerative to pay for all those other x's.
Employers, however, will often exploit a worker's pride or desire for advancement in order to lure him into greater, uncompensated productivity by providing him with cheap perquisites. The time he had allocated for his family is now compromised by his having accepted various gadgets... a company car, a computer, a cell-phone, a beeper, whatever it takes. Now, the tentacles of work slide into his sleep time, his travel time, his breakfast, lunch and supper. If he lives alone he may welcome the interruptions; but if he has a family, he has just facilitated the destruction of his domestic life. In his prideful delusion he will suppose that he tolerates these intrusions for the benefit his family; but in fact his vanity has caused him to be manipulated into slavery and he cannot reasonably expect his wife or children to admire him for the debasement.
A further complication occurs when, to compensate themselves for this abuse, the worker and his family feel justified in using the equipment for their personal needs. An upright man who is trying to set an example of honesty for his family finds himself acquiescing in "stolen" cell-phone calls... or trips in the company car... or personal use of company supplies and equipment. Now he will pay twice, in time and in integrity, for allowing himself to be so subtly enslaved. The divorce lawyer will submit another bill later.
The concept and the symbol of a spiral needs always to be kept in mind.
There is an old adage: Success has many fathers but failure is an orphan. This means more than simply having to share the credit for one's accomplishments with one's co-workers while having to stand alone and accept all of the blame when the result is less than successful. There is an additional and unwarranted sense of terminal isolation suggested by the adage, as if failure has died fruitless, the end of a line. But failure, in its lack of familial constraint, becomes a rogue and randy creature that is far from sterile. The orphan of failure begets many offspring - progeny the failed parent doesn't even know he's begotten until the woeful day he recognizes the unmistakable genetic resemblance.
How does the worker go from straightforward inertia into the plunge of a destructive spiral? Let's take freeway stress as a paternal accelerant.
First, we need to remind ourselves of why we slowly extend our hand to a strange dog that enters our environment. We want the dog to smell our hand and allow him tosense that we are not giving off the pheromones of fear and aggression, that is to say, that we mean him no harm. The dog relies upon his sense of smell.
The dog is a mammal, as are we; and we, too, have the ability to smell fear and aggression. We, however, receive these olfactory data subliminally (unconsciously) because in accordance with our evolutionary dictates, we place greater emphasis upon verbal assurances or facial expressions. Nevertheless, we still process the data.
Road-rage will cause the worker to secrete the pheromones of aggression and these chemicals cling to him as he enters his office. The atmosphere tenses immediately and people unwittingly respond. They are suddenly edgy, defensive, irritated. Nobody knows why the change has occurred, but everyone will invent a reason. (The human mind likes to fill in blanks and will regard as probable any reason that seems plausible. The office was pleasant before the DW arrived; therefore, the DW is a disruptive, alienating force.) In the reactions of his co-workers, the orphan of road rage gives rise to many offspring. The work place will not likely conduce to placid, constructive problem-solving.
As lingering road-rage creates dissension in the workplace; on the drive home, lingering road-rage will create identical problems at home. The worker will enter his house loaded for bear. There will be fights. Perhaps he will drink to calm himself. Conflict. Oblivion. Soporifics. New Day. Hangover. Estrangement. Stimulants. Road rage, and so on and on. He cultivates the charm of barbed wire, the poise of an Uzi. The downward spiral continues, one problem creating many others.
Finally, there is the consideration of health. An unhappy worker ought to see a physician to determine whether his problems owe their origins to hypertension, hypoglycemia, anemia, sick-building-syndrome, insomnia or any one of a thousand maladies that can impact his attitude towards his work and affect his performance.
Even after making all necessary corrections to his own life, the Discontented Worker may still be miserable because he is forced to endure the presence of other discontented workers. In either case or in both, he may want or need to institute a Karma Yoga regimen. And we are now back to the "how" of it all. The motive and the opportunity are not enough. He needs the means.
Last modified: July 11, 2004
©2004 Zen and The Martial Arts