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Attorney Carol Urzi had an enviable but stressful job at a large law firm in San Francisco. “I was working 24/7, managing 50 cases on the trial calendar, getting photographed for the cover of the Daily Journal legal newspaper, heading a high-profile committee for the San Francisco Bar Association—I was definitely headed down that path,” she says of the high-powered professional track. But while the job was gratifying in many respects, on some level it failed to satisfy her completely.

“I enjoyed the intensity, the feeling of triumph over difficulties, and the recognition from others for being the highest biller. But I dreamed of a rest from all the demands, stresses, and ego highs.” When she was suddenly laid off, she says, she was shocked and angry, but a part of her felt as though she’d been given a chance to escape.

Soon after, Urzi began a yoga practice and, inspired by a particularly centered law clerk at the firm who practiced meditation at the San Francisco Zen Center, she began studying Zen Buddhism. “This paralegal exuded peacefulness in an atmosphere of chaos and crisis, in a work environment that was filled with ego-driven demands, including my own,” Urzi says. “I sensed in him a quiet power, whereas despite my own position, I felt powerless, out of control. I wanted to find a way to integrate that calm and self-control in my own life.”

Urzi’s study of yoga and Buddhism gave her a philosophical framework for what she had intuitively realized when she was laid off from the firm: that her true identity was not dependent on her occupation or accomplishments. “In Mark Epstein’s book Thoughts Without a Thinker, there’s a great line: that the ego naturally comes to confuse being fulfilled with being something,” Urzi says. “It’s very hard for striving, ambitious people to understand, but we don’t have to be anything. Just being oneself is enough.”

You are what you do—or are you?

If you grew up in the United States, it’s likely that even before you learned to read, people were asking you, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” And so, from your earliest days, you’ve been building an identity around an occupation: “I’m an architect.” “I’m a woodworker.” “I’m a nurse.” Even though it’s obvious that you consist of something more than the hours you spend at the office, it’s still easy to succumb to the culturally accepted notion that at some level you are your résumé, your accomplishments, and, yes, your job failures.

This sense of identification with work seems to have some benefits. It helps people organize their energy and resources constructively, building a satisfying career through a commitment to this identity, for example, rather than moving aimlessly from job to job. And many people experience a sense of well-being from understanding who they are at work, from knowing what is expected of them and therefore seeing a clear path to success.

But this identification with work can be an overwhelming source of fear, anger, frustration, and pain. While work, like everything else in life, is always changing, it may never have been as clear as it is right now—when the economy has been badly bruised, and hundreds of thousands of people have lost their jobs—that you have little real control over your work life. You may have been laid off, or assigned new responsibilities, or asked to do more work with fewer resources.

Forces far more powerful than your abilities or your company’s strategies are shifting the economic landscape and with it, perhaps, whatever certainty you might have about where you go each morning or who you are in the world. So, if there was ever a time to rethink your answer to the question “What do you want to be when you grow up?” this could be it. In fact, it might be a good time to rethink the question entirely and look a little deeper into who you really are.

Identity Crisis

“In our culture, we tend to identify people with their work,” says psychotherapist Stephen Cope, a senior teacher at the Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, and the author of Yoga and the Quest for the True Self. “We organize around achievement, and that leads to dysphoria when the job ends.” But, he adds, “in the yoga view, we’re not our jobs. People do better moving in and out of different jobs—and with the disorganization that comes from losing their job—if they have a connection to a tradition that allows them to know who they are beyond their job. The identity that you create around a job is risky. But you can plug yourself into a bigger sense of identity.”

This is what Marybeth Walsh of Fort Myers, Florida, is learning. Walsh spent nearly 20 years as a retail buyer. “I was successful, well respected, and made a good living,” she recalls. “And I truly felt passionate about what I did.” Most recently that meant developing “boutique” stores within stores for a chain of high-end furniture retailers. “It was absolutely my dream job,” says Walsh. “I loved finding beautiful things and negotiating. I always thought of myself as a finder of treasures for my customers.”

But while on medical leave recuperating from a serious illness, she learned her position was being eliminated. Apart from the distress over her financial security, she says, her identity as a valued businesswoman felt threatened. Someone with no particular expertise in her area was assigned Walsh’s responsibilities, and Walsh says it not only upset her ego but also undermined her self-confidence and her very understanding of who she was in the business world. “How could I be replaced so easily by someone who had no experience?” She adds, “It’s humbling.”

Walsh proceeded to work hard—not for a store, but for herself. Though she had practiced yoga sporadically over the previous 10 years, during her illness she rediscovered yoga and meditation. Walsh also discovered the power of breathwork to keep her centered. Her practice of asana, Pranayama, and meditation is helping her develop a new, deeper sense of self that is independent of her job, and she feels she has evolved to the point that, although she gets regular referrals to headhunters for buying positions, she is feeling comfortable being in transition with her career. “I feel empowered with the knowledge that I am continuing to move toward a bigger purpose, much greater than buying pretty things.”

Seeing and Being Seen

Patanjali says that the root of all ignorance [a primary source of suffering] is confusing the seer with the seen,” says psychotherapist Bo Forbes, a clinical-psychologist, yoga therapist, and founder of Boston’s Elemental Yoga and the Center for Integrative Yoga Therapeutics. The “seer” is that in you which is changeless: the soul or pure consciousness. The “seen” is that which is always changing: your thoughts and moods, the natural world, and your roles in life and work.

What the ancient sage Patanjali, the author of the Yoga Sutra, was saying is that when you mistake who you truly are with something as ephemeral as being a successful sales person or a popular teacher, you are bound to feel pain. Attaching yourself strongly to any work identity—even something as noble as an aid worker saving lives in a war-torn country—will eventually cause you to suffer, because no job, no situation, can last forever.

Not Blown Away

This, of course, is the great yogic principle of impermanence: Jobs change; relationships change; in this life, everything changes except the Self, your pure consciousness. Cope points out that the seer stands at the center of life’s storms, perceiving how things are without being blown away by what is seen. “The seer is capable of standing in the center of impermanence without wavering,” he says.

Cope notes that the yogic practices of meditation, mantra, and pranayama are designed to help you create a more stable, powerful way of being that can withstand job-related change or turmoil. “One way yogis achieve equanimity is through the development of pointed awareness and meditative absorption,” Cope says. By meditating on impermanence, we can gradually lessen our aversion to it and develop a healthier way of apprehending it. “You learn to acknowledge experience,” Cope says, “and bear how it is: ‘Oh, the job market is like this now—it’s highly labile, jobs come and go.’ The yoga tradition helps us learn to see how it is, and not how we think it should be.”

Of course, it’s not unreasonable to worry about the future, particularly in difficult economic times. However, part of accepting the idea of impermanence relative to your work life, suggests Forbes, is learning to stay present in all stages of your career, including time spent between jobs, instead of looking ahead to where you’re going or back at where you’ve been.

The Space Between

To help her students learn to enjoy, even appreciate, the time spent in transition, Forbes teaches a very slow vinyasa, encouraging her students to move consciously and see each transitional movement as a “pose” in itself.

In this practice, the process of going from Downward Dog to a lunge can take a minute or more. It requires moving slowly and with awareness, acknowledging that every stage of the transition from one pose to the next has its own value.

“Not only are we honoring and embodying that transitional space, but we’re also cultivating pratyahara, which is the withdrawal of the senses, a deep inward gaze. I call it a really compassionate self-observation,” says Forbes.

Often, we move through life in a relatively unconscious way until some big event happens: a high (like landing a new job) or a low (like being laid off). Slowing down your practice—and your consciousness—to be especially attentive to those “transitional spaces” leads you to inhabit yourself more fully, to become more aware of your experience in the in-between moments rather than in just those moments when a milestone grabs your attention.

Cultivating a compassionate inner observer can be a powerful action to take as you realize that your work life is inherently full of change, and that you have less control over your job-related identity than you thought. “It allows you to observe without judgment, without saying, ‘I’m so afraid of my job changing,’ or ‘I just lost my job, so I am an awful person,'” says Forbes. “Times are changing and the world is becoming less grounded, so the more you are able to be present in every aspect, the better off you are.”

Walsh, juggling the dual crises of health and career, has gained from her practice the recognition that changing circumstances need not sway her from her center. “Yoga was a big part of finding balance in all the chaos,” she says. “I was feeling bounced around by external things that were out of my control. Now I can say, ‘That is an outside thing; this is my perception of that outside thing.’ I’m feeling rooted, grounded now.”

Living Authentically

These lessons—realizing that your identity is rooted in something much deeper than work and learning to stay present through the inevitable job and career changes that affect almost everyone’s life—can help you weather almost any shifting work dynamic. Miami resident Fred Tan is a great example: A strategic planner and business developer, Tan held a succession of increasingly substantive positions in the financial industry for more than 15 years, which culminated in the presidency of an international financial conglomerate.

“From the perspective of the goals that I had set for myself in business school,” he says, “I had ‘arrived.’ And yet, I had never felt more miserable in my personal and professional life. It was all very exciting and titillating intellectually, but there was something missing—a relationship with myself.”

In 2006 Tan took a two-year sabbatical that included intensive study with his yoga teacher, ParaYoga founder Rod Stryker, and a pilgrimage to India. The extended period of study led Tan to see himself in a different light and realize that he had been seeking happiness and fulfillment through his job. “I guided my life according to expectations set by others instead of setting my own goals,” he says. “The few goals I did set for myself were material in nature and not soul-centric. With these epiphanies, I was able to start establishing an authentic relationship with myself, which led to changing those aspects of my life that no longer served me.”

It’s been a year since Tan returned to work, and he says, “I’m happier than I’ve ever been. My current job has responsibilities, but now it’s more about mastering the process rather than the goal, enjoying the human experience, dealing with the fluctuations between the known and the unknown. It’s very much like practice of vinyasa, surrendering to the flow. I allow the journey to be much more fluid.”

Steps on the Path

Seen in a yogic context, every obstacle or problem in life, including your work life, can be viewed as just another step along your spiritual path. In that context, the most prudent response to any thorny situation that may arise is to embrace it as a spiritual exercise. That’s usually easier said than done, but even in the most challenging situations, it’s good to remember that the trick in this life may not be to avoid problems so much as to have a skillful way of dealing with them when they inevitably manifest. This holds for difficult passages in your relationships, with your health, and, certainly, in your career.

In the 10 years since she left her law-firm job, Urzi has had what she describes as a “nontraditional” approach to work, which has allowed her the flexibility to pursue her studies and interests, do pro bono legal work, be active in local politics, and travel. For Urzi, her work life now mirrors the truths she has learned through yoga and meditation.

“I see myself as a microcosm of life changing. I am not attached to any of the passing moments—the ups and downs, the fears and insecurities of job and income ebbs and flows. I simply observe them. I understand that our most important job as human beings is to express our own true nature in the simplest, most adequate way,” she says.

This doesn’t mean giving up on ambition or goals. But the process of working toward a goal, whether or not we ever reach it, Urzi says, teaches us to stay focused and to face difficulties with patience and acceptance of our present limitations, to stay where we encounter the difficulty and allow the body and mind to adjust and open. “The real goal,” she says, is achieving strength, patience, and compassion for others through this process of accepting life’s uncertainties.”

Phil Catalfo is a former senior editor at Yoga Journal and the former editor of Acoustic Guitar. He writes the SF Parenting Examiner column at