In the previous post in this series we explored community practices and the nature of service to others – something that’s being tested to the limit in the ‘corona crisis’. Our relationship to work is also being transformed so in this post we’ll look at how a spiritual practice can help.
Most of us spend a lot of time working, whether it’s enjoyable or not, so it makes sense to include it in your spiritual practice. Depending on how you earn a living, you may spend more time with your colleagues than with your family – and that could be both good and bad. Work relationships can become like family, with all the usual problems that come up, and can be fertile ground for shadow projections and negative emotions – plenty of scope for practice.
- Productivity systems – time and money management, etc.
- Professional development – skills and training, etc.
- Communication skills and listening
- Right Livelihood
- Karma Yoga – see Community
For many of us, work is something you have to do in order to survive, to get money and pay the bills. This kind of work is exploitation, a kind of wage slavery where you work to create profit for somebody else. But without work, you slip through the cracks of society and disappear – you become an unperson, unemployed.
For this reason, work becomes essential for self-respect because it’s essential for survival. This sorry situation is revealed in the question: How do you make a living? – as if you live in order to work.
Unfortunately many of us end up thinking like this because we’re in an economic situation that forces us to sell ourselves and our time. We feel undervalued at work and go through the motions to get the pay cheque. Stress and ill-health increase and productivity goes down. We can’t live with work and we can’t live without it.
But not all work is created equal. There’s a big difference between a job you do for the money and a career that provides meaning and self-esteem.
However, society doesn’t appear to value the kind of work many find meaningful and fulfilling. Some jobs, as we’ve just discovered, are considered essential, but that doesn’t mean they’re well-paid or valued. This isn’t the place to get into it, but the current crisis will force us to overhaul work and the economy so now would be a good time to think about what kind of work you believe is worth doing and why.
This is illustrated by the challenge of Right Livelihood, one of the steps on the Eightfold Path in Buddhism. Right Livelihood asks you to put how you earn a living into the context of your spiritual practice and align it with the principles of love and compassion. That means avoiding work that directly or indirectly harms you or others, and being ethical in your approach to everything you do.
This isn’t always easy or even possible in the current system, which is why it needs to change. But the ideal to strive for is to work for the benefit of others, including animals and the earth. At the very least you can do your best to find work that’s meaningful and life enhancing, and avoid anything that’s outright destructive to life.
You’ll probably have to compromise along the way because reality is complicated and messy. Sometimes you have to make the best of a bad situation, and in that case you can bring your spiritual practice into your work as a way to cope with the stress, for example. You can still practice Right Livelihood by treating everybody with respect and approaching your work in the spirit of service (see Community).
More here: The Eightfold Path: Right Livelihood
Being stuck in a situation that’s less than ideal gives you the perfect opportunity to find out what you really do want – the kind of work that gives you a sense of purpose or meaning. Rather than just doing a job, you can build a career based on a sense of vocation.
The word vocation comes from the Latin vocare, meaning ‘to call.’ In The Development of Personality, Jung links vocation to the process of individuation – the drive for wholeness within a person, a pattern that pushes you to become more fully yourself. He defines vocation as:
“an irrational factor that destines a man to emancipate himself from the herd and from its well-worn paths. True personality is always a vocation and puts its trust in God … But vocation acts like a law of God from which there is no escape … He must obey his own law, as if it were a daemon whispering to him of new and wonderful paths. Anyone with a vocation hears the voice of the inner man: he is called.”
So a vocation is a calling or passion, something you feel driven to do, regardless of the results. Whether you succeed or fail, it’s inherently meaningful and worth doing. When you love what you do, it doesn’t feel like work – work becomes more like play, even when it’s difficult or challenging.
We see this in the phrase: Follow Your Bliss – although this isn’t necessarily good advice. Writing is a vocation but it rarely makes me feel blissful! It’s mostly hard work – work that I enjoy because it’s satisfying even when I don’t know what I’m doing (which is most of the time 😉). If I followed my bliss, I’d never write a word.
Perhaps Follow Your Soul would be a better way of putting it, or Follow your Heart, if you prefer. What does your soul want you do to? How does your soul want to spend its time in this world? You may find, if your soul is anything like mine, that it couldn’t care less about earning a living!
Ideally, money should never be your first consideration when choosing a job or career, and this is especially true for vocations. In a post On Amateurs, Joanne Harris explores the positive benefits of being an amateur writer. The word comes from French and means ‘a lover of’, so:
“Basically, amateurs work for love; professionals work for money. And yes, some professionals love their job. But amateurs are willing to give up their time and to devote their energies freely to doing the thing they love the most. Amateurs work on passion alone, without having to make any concessions to the needs of bosses or the market.”
And the truth is: most professional writers don’t earn much either, so love for the work always comes first. She goes on:
“don’t let anyone tell you that just because you’re not getting paid, the job isn’t paying you rewards. It is. So do it for love, first and foremost. And if one day you end up also doing it for money, then fine. But never, never stop working for love.”
To find the right work, aim for something that aligns with your values and is a natural expression of who you are. The job to aim for might not be obvious and you might need to think laterally and imaginatively. Use your spiritual practice to connect with your deepest motivations and passions, and then find a way to incorporate those into your work.
The right work won’t necessarily fall into your lap – you might have to work towards it, learn the right skills, undertake training, and so on. Sometimes you need to do lots of different jobs to figure out what’s right for you, and it’s only later that you realise the pattern and where it was taking you.
If you’re struggling to find your calling then you might be blocking or resisting it. Those qualities and possibilities then fall into the shadow, forming part of your Golden Shadow. Resisting your calling is also known as a Jonah Complex, named after the Old Testament prophet and notorious scaredy-cat.
Jonah was called to preach in Nineveh but didn’t feel up to the job, so he ran away to sea. When a storm threatened to destroy the fishing boat he was on, he realised the game was up and threw himself into the sea. Luckily (or by divine intervention), a whale (or big fish) happened to be passing and swallowed Jonah, finally delivering him to the shores of Nineveh.
A Jonah Complex can be driven by various fears, such as fear of the unknown, fear of greatness, of feeling set apart or isolated from others, of triggering envy or jealousy in others, and of the responsibility involved in developing your talents. You might sabotage yourself at the point of success, or only go for jobs that are beneath your capabilities.
None of this is done deliberately – most of the time, you have no idea what the problem is. You might consciously believe you want to succeed, but somehow, it never quite works. Of course, there can be lots of reasons for failure and it’s not necessarily a sign of self-sabotage. The only way to be sure, is to get busy with some shadow work to find out what’s going on.
Having said all that, there’s nothing wrong with being ordinary. Greatness doesn’t have to mean doing big obvious things that win prizes and rewards and accolades and applause. As James Hillman says in The Soul’s Code, calling has more to do with character and how you live your life, rather than how you earn money.
“Character forms a life regardless of how obscurely that life is lived and how little light falls on it from the stars. Calling becomes a calling to life, rather than imagined in conflict with life. Calling to honesty rather than to success, to caring and mating, to service and struggle for the sake of living.”
He goes on to ask whether there’s a calling to be mediocre or average, and then trashes the idea:
“As long as we regard people in terms of earning power or specific expertise, we do not see their character. Our lens has been ground to one average prescription that is best suited for spotting freaks.”
Society doesn’t value people who don’t stand out, but every soul is great:
“There is no mediocrity of soul. The two terms do not converge. They come from different territories: ‘Soul’ is singular and specific; ‘mediocrity’ sizes you up according to social statistics – norms, curves, data, comparisons. You may be found mediocre in every sociological category, even in your personal aspirations and achievements, but the manner in which this social mediocrity appears will throw a unique spike into any bell curve. No size fits all.”
You’re here to be you (an obvious statement!) so to find the right work, you need to understand what success means to you – not to others or society, not in terms of how much money you make or how much stuff you have – but to your own soul.
No matter what kind of work you do, you can use your spiritual practice to enhance your working practices. Many companies now encourage their workers to meditate because it helps you to focus. They don’t necessarily care about your spiritual well-being, it’s just good business because mindfulness makes you more productive. Just make sure it doesn’t also make you docile and obedient to a system that’s exploiting you for profit.
It’s called mind-FULL-ness not mind-LESS-ness!
In the end, the point of spiritual practice is to make you more open and compassionate. You don’t withdraw from the world and float off in a bliss bubble. You return to the marketplace – the final picture in the Zen Ox Herding series – to share your gifts with others.
Spiritual practice is supposed to make you stronger and more resilient and better able to cope with the world and its problems. Once you’ve found some inner peace, no matter how precarious, you can go out into the world and work more effectively on behalf of those who need it.
Next we finish this series by exploring practices for Creativity…