Originally published in Tricycle.
No matter how hard we try to keep our jobs and careers on track, they just don’t seem to cooperate—they constantly misbehave. One minute we are on our way to a promotion, and the next we are being transferred to Antarctica. Or maybe our boss has closed the largest sale in the history of the company and, as she basks in the glory, asks us to manage the account. We’re enthused and ready for the challenge, but we find that she failed to bid it properly, and now we’re accountable for a project that will be lucky to break even. Such mishaps occur frequently, and we all know the score. And with today’s job losses and business failures, the list of unruly possibilities seems endless.
Typically, and understandably, we work really hard to avoid such difficulties at work. None of us wants to get promoted to a job that’s going to be eliminated; no one wants to be shipped off to a desk in a snowy corner of Siberia. Yet facing workplace difficulties confidently and skillfully when they do eventually arise is vital, and this confidence demands openness.
In my role as a human resources executive, I have had to eliminate many jobs, displace many employees, and advise others that they must seek employment elsewhere. While it is the least pleasant part of my job, it nonetheless requires much care and skill. I recall once eliminating the job of a warehouse manager. The woman, Rose, was a longtime employee, had an excellent track record, and was 100 percent reliable. Unfortunately, the warehouse she managed was being consolidated with four other companies, and her services were no longer needed. When I met with Rose to review her separation benefits and severance package, she was clearly distracted and impatient. “Just read me the letter, please, and let me be on my way,” I recall her saying to me.
On the one hand, Rose was making my job easier. I, for one, do not enjoy firing anyone, and the shorter such an experience, the better. Just like so many other unpleasant circumstances at work, keeping Rose and her dilemma at a distance appeared to be the preferred way to go. Yet I could tell that Rose wanted to move on from the conversation for a reason that was not clear to me. My gut was telling me that something was missing, but I did not know for sure what it was. I abandoned my desire to rush through the conversation and instead gently asked, “Rose, I know you want to get out of here, and I appreciate that—but I can’t help but feel that I’m missing something. Can you help me here? What am I missing?” I knew that by being open to Rose in such a way, I could be inviting any number of responses—anger, tears, accusations— but I was truly touched and a bit overwhelmed by what she had to say.
Extending the confidence we cultivate in meditation into the workplace is about being open to whatever presents itself.
“You’re not missing anything,” she quickly responded. “For me, it’s all very simple. For the past seventeen years, I have been getting up every morning at 5:00 a.m., getting my paraplegic son out of bed, dressing him, feeding him, and driving him to the day care facility, then arriving here at 6:30 sharp. As you know, I run a tight ship until 5:30 every day. When I leave here, I pick my son up, bring him home, bathe and feed him, and read him a story before he goes to bed at 9:30. I have been doing this now for seventeen years, and nothing in this little letter is going to get in my way. So don’t worry—you’re not missing a thing.”
I’m not sure what Rose saw that morning as she stood there, but what I saw was a tremendously brave and dignified woman. I felt fortunate that I had taken the time to open up mindfully and be available to whatever might be happening rather than rush past the discomfort. She had taught me a profoundly valuable lesson and inspired me to reexamine a critical but often overlooked aspect of employee layoffs—families at risk.
In formulating policy for this layoff, which included 250 other employees, I had forgotten to consider extending health benefits for employee families managing medical crises. Immediately after my meeting with Rose, I called headquarters and requested a quick confidential analysis on employees about to be laid off whose families were struggling with medical crises such as cancer or major surgery. And sure enough, we found a dozen others in circumstances similar to Rose’s, and we extended to them an additional six months of health coverage to support their families during their job searches.
My meeting with Rose is a simple story, but it is these moments in our work life—simple moments where we confidently open to difficult circumstances rather than feel rushed, inconvenienced, or anxious— that can make all the difference in the world.
When we practice meditation, we express this very same confidence in the simple yet powerful gesture of opening to whatever arises during our meditation session. We may come to our meditation with the hope of reducing our stress or perfecting our technique or maybe even attaining enlightenment. But we very soon discover that the practice requires that we drop such ambition and sit still on the cushion, letting go of our internal dialogue, opening to our world—very simply, very directly.
When we examine this experience of opening, we find that we are expressing a part of ourselves that we may tend to overlook: we are expressing our ability to trust ourselves completely. In order to open—in meditation and in life in general—we must let go of our familiar thoughts and emotions, we must step out from behind the safe curtain of our inner rehearsals and onto the stage of reality, even if it’s for just a brief moment. When we open on the cushion, we renounce our attachment to our emotional security blanket, over and over again. We drop our pretense and our story lines and stand naked in the midst of uncertainty—the very essence of confidence itself. Maybe we would like to protect ourselves, but instead we have the courage to let go, and such courage naturally blossoms into the confidence to be fully open.
Of course, we may retreat back into the inner sanctum of our discursive minds to rehearse our lives one more time. But in that case, we once again acknowledge our emotions, let go, open, and we find ourselves right here—simply and uneventfully here. Such a gesture of being here on the cushion without picking and choosing, without entertainment, without any support whatsoever reveals that we trust ourselves without any conditions at all—that we are intelligently confident in being who we are right now, on the spot, without any need for security pacts with our world. Bringing such confidence to the workplace exposes our anxiety about work’s difficulties as pointless, and this inspires a sense of ease and reassurance for both ourselves and our colleagues.
Extending the confidence we cultivate in meditation into the workplace is about being open to whatever presents itself. Normally, we resist difficulties and welcome successes. Wall Street was great when bonuses flowed, but now when we have to clean up after the party, it’s a different story indeed. We enjoy the business dinners and “atta boys,” but we don’t want to be in the room when Rose gets fired. We are willing to open to pleasures and achievements of all kinds, but we want to ward off the inevitable unruliness of our lives. The confidence we develop on the cushion, however, reveals that such picking and choosing is not only unnecessary but also painful and cowardly. Trying to make our lives secure by amassing all the goodies and avoiding all the difficulties turns out to be an aggressive game devoid of courage. The openness and confidence we cultivate in meditation overcomes this aggressive mindset, permitting us to be unconditionally available to our work—whether pleasant or distasteful; cheerful or disappointing; disastrous or triumphant. We don’t rush through firing someone because we are uncomfortable; we don’t throw a tantrum because our BlackBerry is on the fritz and won’t display our favorite icons. We don’t ignore inconvenient business facts so that we can recklessly present an upbeat public relations picture. The confidence of mindful leaders introduces the possibility that we can be thoroughly realistic about our lives— receptive to anything and everything that occurs.
Of course, there are many distasteful experiences that we tend to resist at work—indeed, in our lives in general. But the art of sitting still teaches us that when we resist—when we hold on and tense up and hold in—we only make matters worse, and that we do have a choice because we know how to let go and open. Letting go and opening to our workplace, with all its rewards, difficulties, and challenges, is the sane and confident thing to do: it puts us in contact with reality, and such contact is genuine, fresh, and raw. By opening to our experience—without any conditions, hopes or fears—we cultivate the talent of confidence, and expressing such confidence is the key to inspiring a fearless, dignified, and joyful workplace.