Working with Others

4 of 6

Buddhism at work

Insight first, action later;
Action first, insight later.
Insight and action together,
Insight and action apart.

Zen saying

Right livelihood is not just about what one does for a living, but also about how one does it. The foundation of practice on this path is to become one with your work, giving it your full energy and attention, the way a Zen monk is supposed to rake pebbles in a rock garden.

One maxim simply states, "Do what needs to be done." Another goes further: "Zen isn't doing what you like to do, but liking what you have to do." At the beginning of an intensive meditation retreat, the master sometimes reminds the participants: "One person making a wholehearted effort will benefit the entire group, and one person who gives way to negative thoughts will pull the whole group down." In Japanese monasteries the constant give-and-take between monks is seen as an opportunity to build character and refine insight, the way stones grinding against one another at the foot of a waterfall are eventually polished smooth. Work, solitary or social, thus becomes a potential vehicle for spiritual self-cultivation. These teachings are equally valid in modern secular settings.

Many principles germane to the path of working with others are not, of course, distinctively Buddhist: be true to yourself, be thoughtful of others, keep your word, and so on. The Wheel's image of a handshake expresses several of these familiar tenets. We can also enlist the idea of a firm handshake to represent Zen's emphasis on becoming one with your work. Just as two hands become one handshake, self and task join to become just the doing.


Pace is an important aspect of work, as any good cook will attest. In the kitchen or out, some tasks must be done briskly, while others must not be rushed. An architect whose designs are socially and environmentally responsible may nonetheless fail to practice right livelihood if she takes on more work than she can handle. Chronically busy writer Sam Keen was once asked by his wife, "Would you be willing to be less efficient?"

New techniques are being devised as conditions change. An account of a harried physician offers an example. The doctor was suffering from various symptoms of stress, and had become a compulsive clock-watcher, when he had an idea:

He walked over to his secretary's supply cabinet and pulled out a package of the little green dots used for color-coding the files. He placed one on his watch and decided that, since he couldn't stop watching the clock, he'd use the dot as a visual cue, a reminder to center himself by taking one conscious breath and dropping his shoulders. The next day he placed a dot on the wall clock . . . and by the end of the week had placed a green dot on each exam room door. A few weeks after initiating this workday practice, he said that, much to his own surprise, he had stopped, breathed, and relaxed one hundred times in a single day.

The green dots worked because the doctor found a method suited to his circumstances, and followed through sincerely.

With our cell phones and wireless palm devices, we are now able to be so connected that we can be in touch with anyone and everyone at any time, do business anywhere. But have you noticed that, in the process, we run the risk of never being in touch with ourselves?... For that, we need moments that are not filled with anything, in which we do not jump to get in one more phone call or send one more e-mail, or plan one more event, or add to our to-do list, even if we can.   

Jon Kabat-Zinn

Experiment with the concept of a “technology fast.”  Pick a technology, old or new, that you have come to rely on. Limit its use, or do without it, for a specified period of time. What happens?