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In her 30s, my neighbor Gretchen staked her life on the mantra, “Do what you love and the money will follow.” She left a corporate job to try making her living as a writer, something that felt more in line with her creative aspirations.
Then the downturn hit, and the assignments dried up. After nearly a year of searching for work, she got a job running a social welfare agency in a nearby city. The agency has almost no money, which means that there are many people it can’t help. That means that she is barraged all day by the suffering of the clients and the frustration of the staff. She often feels powerless and overwhelmed. She’s gained 20 pounds, and her garden is dying. But she needs the job, and she believes in the cause.
Like a lot of people, Gretchen is struggling to find meaning in an increasingly difficult work situation. She knows that she needs some kind of attitude makeover—but what?
Work is where the rubber of yoga meets the road of life. Most of us need to work in order to earn a living. As adults, we’ll spend a big part of our lives working to support ourselves and our families. Work pressure isn’t just economic: Society largely defines us by the work we do.
Moreover, you may have been brought up to believe that you can achieve anything and that finding work you love is the path to a satisfying life. Yet the state of the economy means that you might be lucky to have a job at all. The result can be a state of restless dissatisfaction with your working life. How do you deal with the gap that often exists between what you love and how you make a living? What do you do when your work is frustrating, overwhelming, uninspiring, underpaid? Or when you work for a corporation that focuses on the bottom line at the expense of its workers’ creativity and their feeling of making a difference?
The yoga tradition offers a great deal of wisdom on this subject. From a yogic perspective, what matters most is not what work you do, but how you do it. The yogic teachings on livelihood and vocation offer a blueprint for making your daily work a practice—for getting clear on your values and then bringing an attitude to your work that allows all your actions to reflect and serve those values.
These are practices that give meaning even to frustrating tasks. More than that, they open a path to freedom that you can follow right down the middle of your daily life. There are five guiding principles for lining up your actions at work with your yoga practice. They are taken from the Bhagavad Gita, the great yogic text in which Krishna teaches Prince Arjuna how to live a life of yoga as he fulfills his duty as a warrior. They define what is often called karma yoga, the yoga of action. Putting these principles into practice at work might not make you rich. But it will definitely help you line up your on-the-job life with your on-the-mat one.
See also Yoga for the Office
Do Work That Suits Your Nature
Better your natural duty, though devoid of merit, than the duty of another well discharged. —Bhagavad Gita 3-35
His key teaching from the Bhagavad Gita is the bottom line for making work into yoga. If your job seems like a constant struggle, one question to ask yourself is whether you are suited for it. Work that fits your nature (in Sanskrit, your swadharma) is, ideally, work that you are good at, but it is also work that feels right, natural, and aligned with your higher values.
I discovered this in my 30s when I spent a period being press secretary and publicist for my teacher. I have a natural gift for persuasive communication, so in some ways it was a good fit. But publicists have to be sociable, outgoing, and “on.” As an introvert, I found it exhausting to be with people for extended periods of time.
So, though I was a good communicator and fairly “good” with people, the work forced me to push beyond my limits in a way that created constant low-level stress. I finally realized I was a square peg trying to shave off my corners to fit into a round hole, and I let go of the job.
Sometimes, the work you feel most drawn to won’t support you financially. Many artists, yogis, writers, and social activists find themselves in this situation. Then you have to figure out a way to make a living that aligns with both your skills and your core values—and also pays the rent.
When Gretchen could no longer make a living as a writer, she was able to figure out how to use her other natural skills to get a job that contributes something to society. She’s good at managing people; she’s always been the person who jumps in to organize volunteers to clean up her local yoga studio, or to organize the food for a party. In other words, she is actually well-suited to the work she does—if she can re-frame her attitude about it. The next four principles are the key to achieving this.
Practice Skill in Action
Yoga is skill in action. —Bhagavad Gita 2-50
Krishna tells his disciple Arjuna that the yoga of action—essentially, the yoga of work—is the best path to liberation. He even describes yoga as “skill in action.” The skill Krishna refers to is not just doing your tasks well. He’s talking about something deeper: the yogic ability to throw yourself completely into a task.
To exercise the yoga of action is to do whatever you do impeccably, with full attention, and for its own sake. Chances are, you’re accustomed to bringing your best self to the mat. But in your daily life, whether you’re working at the office or making dinner, you may give yourself permission to be scattered, distracted, or influenced by negative talk.
Approaching your work with your full presence and with your highest quality of attention helps you overcome your resistance and manage distraction. It lets you do the best job you’re capable of. When you’re paying complete attention, you’re less likely to make careless mistakes. You’re also less likely to get lost in unconscious behaviors like complaining or partaking in office gossip. My favorite shortcut to this level of presence is to ask myself a simple question. When I feel bored, distracted, or resistant to a task, I say to myself, “Suppose this were the last act of my life. Suppose I dropped dead 10 minutes from now. How would I have wanted to perform this task?” It always centers me.
Carlos Castaneda’s Don Juan used to say that a warrior keeps the thought of death at his left shoulder. While it might seem extreme, the thought of death can instantly kindle the desire to act impeccably and to bring your full presence to the job at hand.
See also Six Stretches to Do at Work
Surrender the Outcome
You have a right to the work alone, not to its fruits. —Bhagavad Gita 2-47
This is perhaps the most radical, mysterious, and ultimately liberating teaching about the yoga of work. It also happens to be the essence of Krishna’s wisdom on the subject of action.
“You have a right to the work alone, not to its fruits,” Krishna says. “Therefore, do not set your heart on the results of your actions.” When I first read this teaching, it stopped me cold. How is it possible, I wondered, to do something you care about without feeling attached to the results?
Having spent many years trying to apply these two sentences to my life, I can give you two reasons why they amount to the most powerful teaching on the yoga of work. First, you never know how things will turn out. You simply can’t know if anyone will buy your screenplay or whether you’ll have any students at your five o’clock yoga class. Your startup, where everyone is so collegial and creative, could be bought by a venture capital company, leaving you jobless or facing the need to make the company’s bottom line your priority.
But when you’re doing the work for the sake of the work itself, rather than for a desired result, you’re much less likely to suffer from anxiety about outcomes. You’re also less likely to feel crippling disappointment if things don’t go the way you hoped or planned.
Second, when you’re too concerned about success or failure, you trigger all the negative aspects of the ego. You run scared, which can lead you to make bad decisions or even to feel paralyzed about what to do. Or, you become so goal-oriented that you forget to maintain integrity in the task itself. To consciously surrender your attachment to the fruits of your work is to detach yourself from the ego’s need to claim success or the negative ego’s fear of failure.
Of course, practicing this teaching is a lot easier said than done. It’s not something you do just once. You do it day by day, sometimes hour by hour, over a lifetime.
Begin by trying to deeply understand this teaching. Ask yourself what it would really mean in your life if you believed it and applied it. Consider, for instance, what it would look like to act for the sake of the work alone.
Figure out the difference between giving up the fruits of your actions and being careless or lackadaisical in what you do. Discover how you can, moment by moment, release your attachment to outcomes without turning into a fatalist or a pessimist.
Consider how you can live your passion and yet detach yourself from how things turn out. T.S. Eliot described this balance in a wonderful line from his Four Quartets: “Teach us to care and not to care.”
As you internalize this piece of wisdom, you’ll see that it doesn’t necessarily mean you don’t get bummed when things go wrong on the job. Of course you get bummed; you’re not a robot. But when you remember that your contract with life doesn’t specify that you’ll always get what you want, you’ll find that even in the midst of mourning a loss or trying to repair the damage from a mistake, you won’t feel like a victim.
Do Your Work as Service
Consider yourself a servant, think of all others as being…the one to be served. —Commentary on Bhagavad Gita, verses 18-65, by Jnaneshwar
For a person living in a consumer society, learning how to do your work as service can be life changing. Service is not so much about the type of work you do but the attitude you bring to it.
To serve means that you do something not just for your own profit or self-esteem but for the sake of being helpful. The sense of service can be applied anywhere, and it makes even unpleasant tasks meaningful. Some of us need our service to be personal. Our heart opens when we serve one-on-one—a client, a friend, a family member. Others need to feel that they are serving something larger—the community, the planet, God. Service—learning to see yourself as a servant—has one enormous payoff: It’s a fast track to spiritual growth. When you feel underappreciated, discontented, or bored at work, that inner attitude shift from “What am I not getting?” to “What can I give?” can instantly elevate your mood. So can shifting from “Something’s wrong with this situation” to “How can I help make it better?”
Having service as a core value can help you discern not only what work you should be doing but also whether you are doing the right thing in any given moment. Before taking action at work, ask yourself, “Who or what does this serve?” To be in alignment with the values of yoga, the answer needs to be that it serves something larger than your own or others’ egotistical needs—including, paradoxically, the egotistical need to be of service! True service includes a sense that you serve the evolution of consciousness—that your work is at least incrementally helping to create a better world.
Perhaps you are serving the values of kindness, compassion, and human dignity. Perhaps you are serving the preservation of the Earth. Perhaps your service is in being willing to listen to your co-workers. If you’re a manager, guiding those who work for you is your service. The true karma yogi learns to look at how she can serve, even in unlikely circumstances.
Lori, an accountant who works for a large financial company in Zurich, sits in a cubicle and adds figures all day. She serves by doing the work with as much presence and integrity as possible. Because of this, she’s sought after as a cubicle mate, which last year meant that she was assigned to sit at a desk next to the most disliked man in the company. He was so unpleasant to people that no one wanted to be near him. Lori didn’t want to sit by him either. But she made a decision to approach the situation with an attitude of service. She bought a flower for his desk, greeted him kindly every morning, and offered him the seat by the window. She says that the challenge turned out to be fun. And after a month of sharing her cubicle, she reports, her co-worker has become a much more pleasant presence around the office.
Being of service is not the same thing as martyring yourself for a cause or letting yourself be exploited. When you’re working in a situation where the problems are big and your efforts are needed, it’s not hard to get sucked into believing that you should give until you drop.
This was part of Gretchen’s problem when she began working for the social service agency. She threw away any semblance of a personal life in order to satisfy the demands of her job—and felt both angry and guilt-stricken if she didn’t serve 150 percent. The best answer to this dilemma is to consider yourself in the equation. You can’t do sustainable service when you aren’t taking care of your own needs.
So, think about what you need in order to serve at your best. This could be anything from more time off to asking for help, and it usually requires that you closely examine your own attitudes. One student of mine discovered that she was enacting her ideal of service by working for a demanding boss who took her efforts as his due and never gave her credit for her contributions. She had to ask herself not only whom she was really serving in her apparent selflessness but also what it was in her that confused serving with not standing up for herself!
Make Your Work an Offering
He who does actions, offering them to the Absolute and abandoning attachment, is free from error. —Bhagavad Gita 5-11
The final teaching that Krishna gives to Arjuna in his great discourse on the yoga of action takes the practice of service a step further.
Whatever you do, Krishna tells Arjuna, make it an offering, and then the work itself will be a path to liberation.
Making your work an offering essentially means bringing an attitude of devotion to your actions. Your devotion doesn’t have to be directed to a particular deity. It might be a wish for the well-being of the planet or a commitment to truth or to the evolution of consciousness. The important thing is that you are bringing a prayerful feeling to your actions and imbuing them with a significance that goes far beyond your small self. It can make even the simplest task seem worth doing for its own sake.
You might do this by making a formal prayer: “I offer this day asking that my actions be beneficial for all beings,” or “I offer this task to God,” or “I offer this day for the evolution of consciousness,” or “I offer this task for the health of my sick friend.” At the end of a task, you can formally dedicate what you’ve done. Even if you begin this as a purely formal practice, you’ll find that it subtly influences your experience. It’s the key to surrendering the fruits of your actions because it can take you past the egotistical need to claim a reward for what you do.
On a more mysterious level, offering your work creates within you a feeling of connection with something larger; this can make everything you do feel intrinsically more meaningful. The practice of offering can even unleash your natural capacity for love and devotion.
For Gretchen, this practice turned out to be key. When she feels the frustration of not being able to meet the needs of everyone who comes to her office or when she feels sad that she’s not writing, she reminds herself to take a moment to ask that the work she does be of benefit to all beings.
She tells me that when she remembers to do that, she stops worrying about whether she did the right thing. She knows she did her best, and, having offered the action, she can recognize that the outcome is beyond her control.
Like all the very greatest teachings, it sounds simple, and it is. When you do your work as an offering, it can take you beyond worrying about success or failure. Whatever you are doing, whether it is “important” or “unimportant,” you can offer it. And by offering your work, your practice, and even your small everyday actions like making the bed or washing the dishes, you align yourself with the universe, and your work becomes yoga—the natural path to union with the whole.
Sally Kempton is an internationally recognized teacher of meditation and yoga philosophy and the author of Meditation for the Love of It.