“We can work in such a way that we realize we have a lot of choices in what we do and how we do it. We can work in such a way that we find opportunities for joy, and we don’t get stuck in the habit of suffering from pressure or stress.” – Thich Nhat Hanh, Work: How to Find Joy and Meaning in Each Hour of the Day
It’s been a challenging time for me at work, yet I’ve managed to keep my head above water. In fact, more than above water—I’m floating on the surface, navigating through it with ease and equanimity that I’ve never had. Change is swirling about: colleagues have been dismissed, clients are perpetually unhappy, staff are overworked and dissatisfied, bosses are overwhelmed and befuddled. The beloved founder of my business passed away a few years ago. Now, the business that I helped build is in the hands of new management—it’s changing direction and the original vision for the business is gone. It’s not a vision I either agree with or really fit into, and more importantly, it doesn’t align with my values.
A few years ago, all of this would have been enough to put me into an emotional tailspin with a gut filled with dread, stress and fear. Handling my own unhappiness and dissatisfaction is one thing; handling unhappiness and dissatisfaction for a long line of other people is another matter entirely. And yet, here I am doing exactly that. Everything’s changing, people are unhappy, my future in my company is not certain, but it’s fine. I’m fine. There’s no problem here. I’m handling each situation as it comes up in the most skillful way I can. I’m even grateful that all this is occurring, truly, because there are some things that I need to see.
Mindfulness is helping me to navigate these choppy waters. It’s helped me to see how attached I was to the business and my role in it. In fact, I was more than attached—I defined myself through the business and my work and I had been doing that for a long time. For years I’ve been hanging on to the vision for the business, thinking I was being part of a great thing (as if it would be the only thing I would ever contribute to the world). I felt like without it I would disappear like a vapour, and now I realize that’s not true.
I was fearful of change and what that would mean, and overly concerned with what other people thought. For a while I ran around trying to make everyone happy, racing around like a hero putting out this fire and that fire. But more fires came and no one ever seemed to be happy, least of all myself. I needed to make some changes, starting with letting go of the grasping and clinging to the way I think things ought to be. That has taken some deep looking, and it’s an ongoing and imperfect process.
Part of it is recognizing my resistance to change, understanding what’s going on and then just dropping it. Part of it is accepting how things are. Situations are unfolding. Life is unfolding. When I say that things aren’t how they should be, I’m arguing with reality—I’m arguing with how life is unfolding. If reality were supposed to be my way, that’s how it would unfold. But most of the time it isn’t. That’s been a tough one to start to get!
Another part of it has been to develop a life beyond work with friends, family, other interests and creative endeavours, exercise, and most important to me, being on a spiritual path. And in my work situation with unhappiness and uncertainty abounding, I ask myself two questions: Have I been caring in this situation? Have I been responsible? If the answers to those questions are yes, then I let it go with the peace that I have done my best. If not, then I look at next steps and whether there’s something else I need to do. And in general, I try and access happiness every day. That might include making a connection with a colleague or staff member, or enjoying working on a project. Maybe I need to take a break and just walk outside, express gratitude for the sun, the sky, the trees, or even that I’m gainfully employed (for now) when so many others are not.
Despite everything happening around me, I realize I can create my own conditions for happiness, and access that happiness now, regardless of what’s going on in the outside. The outside can be swirling around like a storm, but on the inside I can be calm and stable like a gentle breeze on the ocean.
“If we bring our awareness to every moment, if we practice mindfulness in everything we do, our work can help us realize our ideal of living in harmony with others and of cultivating understanding and compassion.” – Thich Nhat Hanh