Buddhism at Work is a guest-post that Caroline Brazier kindly agreed to share with us. Caroline Brazier is course leader of the Amida Psychotherapy Training Programme run by Tariki Trust. Author of six books on Buddhism and psychotherapy, she divides her time between the Tariki centres in Leciester and France. Her work can be found on www.tarkitrust.org and www.buddhistpsychology.info
How can Buddhism offer a support to our working lives? Indeed, does it have a place at work? It is common for Western Buddhists, perhaps influenced by their protestant Christian roots, to try to bring their practice out of the temples into their everyday lives. Though not all Eastern Buddhists would agree that their religion should influence their work life, for Westerners the choice of career or other financial and practical activities is often related to their Buddhist beliefs. They might, for example, take the Buddhist principle of right livelihood, an element derived from the teaching of the Noble Eight Fold Path, as an injunction to work ethically and productively, choosing a wholesome occupation which generates good karma for themselves and others and becomes the route to purity and enlightenment. Or they might be inspired by the bodhisattva vow to save all sentient beings to adopt a more self-less, altruistic livelihood.
Other Buddhist teachings find their way into the work place in the form of practices. Mindfulness techniques are employed not only in the psychological professions, but in processes of decision making, mediation and other human relations activity. Even at the computer a mindfulness bell can remind the Buddhist employee to pause and breathe for a few moments before resuming work with a calmer mind and hopefully pleasanter manner.
Even when a practitioner does not particularly intend to bring their methods into the workplace, the influence of a regular practice may be apparent in the person’s way of being, and lifestyle choices such as following precepts: not drinking or eating meat may lead to a person exuding a sober temperament, which work colleagues notice.
These practices influence the individual in his or her behaviour in the workplace, but Buddhism can also give us tools for understanding what might be going on in the work situation as a whole. As a system which offers insight into human process, it offers both diagnostic frameworks and remedies. Buddhist psychology has obvious applications in the world of therapy and counselling, but these models can also be applied to social groups.
Other-Centred Approach, the methodology taught at Amida Trust which derives from Buddhist psychological theory, offers a way to approach situations in the work place and beyond. Buddhist psychology suggests that humans are driven by the anxiety and fear which arises from the precariousness of human life. Affliction and impermanence are omni-present. As a result humans tend to seek control and reliability through attachment and the creation of identity, which is based of greed, hate and delusion. We identify with and desire some things whilst rejecting and denying others. We create allies who support our sense of self and we make enemies of those who do not.
The relevance of this to the work setting is that these processes of identity building operate in corporations just as they do in individual psychology. Indeed corporate identity and image is deliberately cultivated and is seen as important to many situations, even in surprising areas (Do we really need our hospitals to present a uniform ‘NHS’ image?). The idea that consistency of presentation, from mission statement to letterhead, inspires confidence in the users of a service goes without question. Public statements are pared down to simplistic bullet points so that a message is conveyed in easily digested sound bites which conform to the image. Such clarity and consistency is regarded as good, if not essential, and is widely advocated as in training programmes and popular TV make-over shows, even if it glosses the real complexity of situations.
From the perspective of Buddhist psychology, identity building is a response to fear. It happens through greed and hate and an attempt to control the uncontrollable. Modern society is caught in a vicious cycle. We have been sold a message based on the values of progress and competency, yet behind these lies fear. We live in a world where much is precarious on all levels; political, social, financial and environmental. We strive for permanence, but face impermanence, not only as individuals but as a species. These factors lie behind much of the consumerist culture with which we live.
Understanding that such culture is based on fear and its companion, guilt, we can appreciate that those work-place cultures which seem most assertive and even aggressive are actually defensive. This appreciation invites the adoption of a softer style and a more understanding approach to others that shows willingness to compromise and allows others to be weak and mistaken. Appreciation of the other’s perspective, and empathic engagement with them, characterises the other-centred model. It allows the certainty of the individualist position to bend to the complexity of multiple other perspectives. Through a more other-centred approach we become more open and understanding of confusion.
All well and good.
The theory which Buddhism provides offers both methodology and wisdom to understand and maybe ameliorate the manifestations of human nature in the work place. People really can become calmer and less reactive. We can see through our attachments to being right and promoting our own interests and identities, corporate or individual, over others. But as ordinary human beings, we do not inhabit the world of theory, but rather the reality of human nature in all its messiness. Personally, in daily life, I find myself constantly disappointed in my own behaviour and that of others around me. We are far from enlightened in our work, leisure or the in-between spaces we inhabit. It is easy to identify with the struggles our Pureland masters, Honen and Shinran, who both, in their own ways, reached their spiritual breakthrough through despairing of their human nature.
For example, despite an awareness of the difficulties of self-preoccupation, it is difficult in many fields of work in this modern world not promote oneself. In Buddhism no less, and perhaps particularly, the cult of the celebrity is rife. Personally I am all too well aware that the fact that I have written books draws people to events which I run and that my picture appears on advertising for events. This is, it seems, standard practice, but it feels no more comfortable for that fact. I am also aware that I often look at such materials and see a persona being presented with which I can come to feel little identification. It is as if I, whoever that is, could slip out sideways and go my own way while the person on the web page or AI sheet carries on giving out her message. The relationship between the deliberately fostered persona and reality is slippery. Even when one strives for authenticity, the act of sharing and repeating personal details itself concretises and reifies the fluid. The delusional self par excellence is manufactured. One creates a story and then one inhabits it, and finally one starts to believe it.
I have had many times when I have faced teaching in the midst of personal change and sometimes turmoil. At such times, the professional who works from the heart is faced with dilemmas. Whether one is working as a Buddhist teacher or as a therapist, one feels a responsibility to be authentic and at the same time to offer stability and hope to others; this at a time when one does not necessarily feel at peace in oneself. Here I draw deeply on my Pureland faith. Over the past two years, which have been a time of difficult transitions for me, I have come to realise that the only way I can teach with integrity was to teach out of my dark places rather than simply a public persona. If I try to present a facade of peaceful holiness, I cut off the source of my capacity to help others. I am not present for them. Of course this does not mean that I should stand before groups of practitioners weeping about my personal troubles, but it does mean not avoiding the pain or confusion. It means finding within difficult emotions the solidity and faith which lie beneath them. Amida’s grace is to be found in the midst of blind passions if we look deeply enough. As Pureland Buddhists it is the only place from which we can really teach.
Weakness is not a quality that is generally valued in the modern works place. It can lead to our being discredited and misunderstood, yet to go into our weakness and distress may be the only route to authentic engagement and real freedom. When we hit bottom we discover that there is bottom. When we give up the struggle to maintain appearances, we discover that what is really true has a beauty of its own. When we incorporate the dark side with the light we find true power.
So in the work place the challenge is to transcend the candyfloss culture of image and mission statement; to go deeply into the complexities of human deviousness, and yet within it to find the clarity which Amida’s light offers. The Buddha’s light is always with us. It illuminates the right and the wholesome and throws compassionate wraps around our mistaken-ness and that of others. Beauty is truth and truth beauty, but in our modern world the two are all too easily replaced by spin. So above all, let’s cut the spin and get back to authenticity. Let’s get beyond the persona and make real contact with one another and with our world. Only thus will we really bring Buddha into the workplace