E S S A Y S ,    A R T I C L E S    A N D    R E V I E W S

Spirit At Work Equals Spirit For Life
By Pat McHenry Sullivan

EarthLight #41 --  Spring 2001

When I entered the business world in the late 1970s, open discussions on spirituality at work were taboo. Yet, while searching through a desk drawer for correction fluid during one temporary assignment, I found a Bible. Other desks held hidden books on Buddhism and poetry, plus numerous inspirational quotes. At a conservative commercial real estate firm, almost all staff and executives got me either behind closed doors or off-site to speak about spirituality. After remarking that they had noticed me reading Fritjof Capra's Tao of Physics during breaks, then swearing me to secrecy ("No one else here would understand," everyone insisted), they told their stories. 

During those secret conversations I learned that one executive meditated regularly and another dreamed of doing creative service. The receptionist was a devout Christian; the researcher had spent a summer in the Findhorn eco-spiritual community in Scotland. The mailroom clerk's spiritual journey was initiated by a poem that helped her heal from a near-suicidal depression. 

Today, stories like these are more openly shared with colleagues. Trade journals and magazines such as Business Week and Training Magazine regularly discuss spirituality and work. Judi Neal's www.spiritatwork.com site lists dozens of conferences and graduate level classes where participants ponder the application of such ideas as chaos theory or ancient Buddhist teachings to business management. 

Hundreds of books offer practical insights and inspiration on how to work with increased meaning and joy. Since July of 1999, I have written about spirituality and work for the San Francisco Chronicle's "Career Search" section. Interviewees demonstrate that meaningful work has little to do with job description and everything to do with attitude, especially a willingness to see the world of work with fresh consciousness. 

"Becoming a dad and businessman forced me to discover that people I used to think of as adversaries are really people like me who made different decisions because they had different information," says cultural anthropologist and mountaineer Jeff Salz, Ph.D.,"I got my information from the Andes, the Tibetan mountains, the sunrise over the Grand Canyon; they may have learned from the Wharton School of Business or Tom Clancey. We have much to teach each other." 

Salz, author of The Way of Adventure: Transforming Your Life and Work with Spirit and Vision, uses stories from his adventurous life to help corporate executives redesign their attitudes and work environments as a precious opportunity to make a difference in the lives of those around them. "Successful people already understand the importance of living in the moment, for they delight in both the process and the result. If we're too focused on the summit, we lose our footing and the joy of the process. In sustaining a career or spiritual path, there also has to be a constant focus on the moment, informed by a general direction, undertaken with the faith that the outcome will be positive. 

"Surprisingly, successful people's insistence on savoring the intrinsic pleasures of each moment is the most effective method for dealing with long-term change." When Salz asked people throughout South America about the meaning of life, the most common answer was, "trabajo," or work. 

This resonated with what he learned in Asia. "The Buddha said we don't work just to meet the needs of ourselves and others. We also work to move out of our preconceptions or isolation and into the world." 

An accomplished mountaineer, Salz has mapped the Himalayas and scaled some of the world's most dangerous peaks. "Whenever we leave behind our particular milieu and try something new," he says, "we rekindle our love affair with life. Adventure sharpens intuition, which is particularly useful in a world that's changing faster than we can plan and prepare for." But adventure doesn't require physical danger or exotic locales. 

"The key to adventure is to live vigorously and authentically," says Salz. "Our growing edge calls us always to evolve new skills and take on new challenges. For many of us, learning how to relax, find worklife balance, and enjoy ourselves is our edge." 

That edge has become more stressful because of the very PC revolution that once promised machines would guarantee increased leisure by freeing us from mundane tasks. Instead, it's harder now to enjoy a spiritual or emotional release from the workday. Perpetually connected to work via cell phone and e-mail, workers often feel disconnected from their hearts and souls. In such a state, it's easy to drown in information while thirsting for wisdom. We often forget how different people and computers are. Computers act out a quick rhythm of "enter, send, receive, respond. People need time to reflect, to sort, judge, and evaluate,"notes one senior vice president. 

One executive who has found time to do just that is August Turak, CEO of the rapidly growing Raleigh Group International software company. When he works, he works hard and enjoys it, but most of the time he refuses to carry a cellphone after hours. His home telephone answering machine died three years ago, and he doesn't work on a laptop during plane trips. 

Turak regularly retreats to a Trappist monastery. He learned from his mentor, Lou Mobley, founder and recently retired director of the IBM Executive School that "the higher up in the organization you go, the more important people issues become. A really good executive spends enormous time on people issues, the rest on vision, to decide the things that are worth doing. These are values decisions, not efficiency issues." 

When workers instinctively act from their values at work, the work can become more efficient and profound. During a hard time, legal secretary Brenda Fuller placed a prayer she loved by her telephone. Later she added a photo that makes her laugh and a quote by Goethe to go boldly toward her dreams. Tiny frames filled with prayers graced her computer monitor stand. 

Stories like Brenda's inspired me to collect stories of other "workplace altars." Like altars everywhere, workplace altars are a natural response to the need for respectful reflection wherever we are. "Stop here long enough to consider what matters," altars invite. "Reconnect here to the wonder of life. Gain strength and guidance." 

Because of business practice and labor laws, workplace altars need to be discreet. The underground workplace of Patsy Attwood, a station agent for the San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit System, is an example. You could walk by and never notice how subtly she has altered her space to integrate faith and work. 

Attwood's glass-walled booth is enlivened by plants and flowers. Whenever she enters or leaves her space, she blesses it. On her phone console, a prayer she wrote helps her live her values moment to moment. One way she does this is to bless the journeys of all who pass by. Attwood's inner work helps her deal better with job stress, like an angry customer whose ticket wouldn't work.

"When he approached me with an eat-you-up attitude, my stomach instantly jumped," she said, "like it does in an earthquake." As the man stepped closer, Attwood prayed, "Lord, help me." Inner turmoil turned to peace. She then dared to ask the customer, "Why are you talking to me this way? I want to help you." Surprised, he relaxed, and she fixed his problem. Later, he sought her out. "I don't know what you did, but after I talked with you," he said, "my day was great." 

People on the go also have altars. Inside his locker, a firefighter posts meaningful words and pictures. A meter maid keeps devotional materials in her truck. So does a carpenter, who also blesses his tools and each task. Most employees agree that their right to practice spirituality at work is balanced by other employees' rights to practice different values. 

If you'd like to create more meaning and joy in your work, then go home with more energy and insights for the rest of your life, it's easy to create your own workplace altar. 

How could you, like Patsy Attwood, treat your work like a sacred calling? What blessing could you give yourself and others as you begin and end your workday? Take a cue from the PBS documentary Jane Goodall: Reason for Hope. This shows ecologist Goodall carrying four symbols of hope wherever she goes. A leaf from a tree that survived the atomic bomb in Nagasaki speaks to the restorative power of nature. Chunks from the Berlin wall and the South African prison where Nelson Mandela and his comrades were incarcerated call forth the power of the human spirit to overthrow injustice. A stuffed toy chimpanzee touched by attendees at Goodall's workshops spreads laughter and hope among people throughout the world. 

The documentary didn't use the words "altar," or "spirit at work," let alone "workplace altar." As Goodall spoke about each symbol, however, faces in her audiences glowed with hope and inspiration. There was reverence not for the items themselves, but for the spirit they evoked. May your spirited response to your work be this simple and this profound.

Pat McHenry Sullivan is president of Visionary Resources and "Vision and Values" columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle. You can reach her at 510-530-0284 or visionpat@aol.com. Her website is www.visionary-resources.com.

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