The Modern Workplace: A Spiritual SOS

Over two thousand years have passed since Aristotle said “All paid jobs absorb and degrade the mind,” and the modern world’s work continues to stimulate our mental faculties often at the cost of our physical and spiritual ones. The white collar world of the modern office, which at one point had plenty of paperwork, staplers, paper clips, visiting cards, and of course files arranged in whatever order made sense to the person sitting at the desk, have drastically changed into this inescapable culture of plug and play, Zoom meetings, WhatsApp groups, spreadsheets, and AI where we run into machine-assisted thinking, finding very less of anything that resembles the human spirit.

Were our bodies made to sit for 8 to 10 hours looking at a digital screen beeping with notifications? Could we have evolved so much? From virtual assistants to coders, anyone with a human heart could easily feel caged inside their heads in the modern workspace. And most often, we do. Humankind’s mental capabilities were the reason why we decided to put ourselves at the top of sentient intelligence ranking. Even if we look over the fact that we are the referee and the challenger, it calls to reckon that the mind’s superiority is only another stage in human evolution.

However, we decided to revel in this. Why move the body when you could move everything with your mind and a few keypads? A lot of value was added to thinking and work that involved thinking. If it came with a set of western clothes inside a cubicle or on an open floor like nowadays, it was paid more. It was honoured more. This honour needed to be protected. So, physical work was majorly limited to the lower classes, whether it were a vegetable vendor who sold vegetables from lane to lane, or a rickshaw-puller. However, letting go of all physical ventures wouldn’t have been a smart thing – we must have figured this out at some point or perhaps there were things we never truly wanted to let go of no matter how much more mind power we got in return – so we kept dancing, sports, mountain climbing, surfing and similar things as our creative physical ventures.

Perhaps this dichotomy isn’t felt by everyone. Some even love how mentally stimulated they feel at work – the excitement of cracking another deal, feeding the formulae onto a spreadsheet, fixing a bug on an app’s backend, and perhaps even the mind games we play at work. But to those of us for whom the overuse of our mental faculties drains us and distances us from our raw humanness, this creates a feeling of emotional and spiritual emptiness. As we sit around a conference room table talking, presenting, and applauding mind-numbing mind work, we feel our essence locking itself up behind a door. When the human mind is after all human, why does the mind-heavy modern workplace feel so artificial?

Some companies want their employees to be so mentally absorbed in their computer systems that a software tracks and records every move they make on the system taking occasional screenshots (in the name of security measures). This is a spiritual SOS situation. Staring at a screen till our eyes get dry and need external help to form tears again cannot be the best way to use our brains. If our minds were truly tools to be used, then we should have been able to put them down when not in use. Spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle says that it’s not so much that we control our minds, but our minds control use. In the modern office, other people’s minds too control us. Would we even know who we are if not our minds in the modern workplace.

But is it really that bad?

We all know by now that sitting for too long is not good for us. In fact, it’s actually bad. We’ve all heard sitting is the new smoking. We all know about work-induced tension headaches. We all know breakdowns and burn outs are real because if the mind doesn’t give up, the body will. And we are constantly keeping our mind active until we sleep. But is it really that bad? After all, the human mind can achieve so much and can transform the course of life itself. And after all, an Excel sheet does chart out the roadmap for a new brand launch, and a PowerPoint does carry the gist of the numbers from an elaborate study on, say, gender violence in South Asia. The human mind must be congratulated for creating systems to simplify complex subjects, and putting certain people in certain positions whose minds are best in a certain way does keep the human civilization running. But what happens when on our lonely commute on traffic-infested roads and crowded trains, and later in our beds, we hear the further sinking of the spirit within us?

Leaving the office job is not always advisable. So what can we do to make sure that the mind can take a break? In her explanation of her concept the ‘Artist Date’, Julia Cameron says that in the creative work we use up images and words from our inner creative well, and so we must replenish the well. Hence, she recommends an ‘Artist Date’. What is it?

A solo, festive expedition to do something fun, something that enchants or interests you.

Julia Cameron, “Write For Life”

Julia recommends Artist Dates once a week. We, undoubtedly, need a similar practice to experience ourselves beyond our office persona. Something that could bring us back into our bodies. We really need to get into our bodies and live through them. From gardening, playing the guitar, and taking workshops on pottery to dancing, practising yoga, or surfing if we live by the beach, life offers a lot of opportunities to experience what it means to feel alive in our bodies. It’s important that we engage our bodies because not only will it be the perfect break from the mind-obsessed work that we do, it’ll also unblock the body and release it from the adverse effects of too much mind-time.

It may seem that workplace challenges, pride, anger, worries and fears are handled by our minds, but they’re also all backed up in our bodies. Most spiritual practices focus on the body in order to control the mind. According to Patanjajli’s 8 limbs of Yoga, asana practice precedes the practice of dharna or concentration, and dhyana or meditation. Several Zen practices especially those promoted by Thich Nhat Hahn concentrate upon the flow of breath in and out of the body. Eckhart Tolle talks about feeling the inner body or inner energy field as a practice in order to feel the present moment. One can do this by shifting their concentration to one part of their body like the palm of the right hand, or the entire left foot. Could weekly ‘Body Dates’ be enough to wash off the 40+ hours of mental tiredness? It’s only a start.

In his book “Work – How To Find Joy And Meaning In Each Hour Of The Day”, Thich Nhat Hanh neatly lays out a full modern work day and the different scenarios we may find ourselves in. In one particular section about “Restroom Meditation”, he writes:

In the United States, it is called the restroom, but do you feel restful in your restroom? Know that your time spent there is no less important than anything else you have to do. The restroom can become your meditation hall. If you have had the experience of having a urinary tract infection, you know that urinating can be painful. But now you don’t have an infection, therefore urinating is very pleasant, restful.

Thich Nhat Hanh, “Work”

There are small steps one can take while they are in office every day to turn off their minds every now and then and be present in their bodies. Leaving the mobile phone on the desk when we go for a bathroom break, for instance, could be one such practice. In the modern-day office since we’re always looking at a screen, a little break after every 25 minutes can be truly restful for our eyes. True to its meaning, our occupation occupies us for the majority part of the day, and dulls us with time and age. Our attempts of breaking free from the mind and being aware of what our bodies do at work could help us find our way out of an occupation-induced loneliness or illness. What do our bodies really do at work? How does our neck feel? Our elbows? What’s happening with our knees? We could practice bringing conscious attention to when our forehead feels heavy because our eyebrows are squeezing themselves. Learning some chair yoga could help. Or walking. We could walk to move our body, to clear our head.

In the section on “Mindful Walking”, Thich Nhat Hanh further writes in his book:

Although your job may require you to spend most of your day sitting, there are always opportunities to walk, even if it’s just from the parking lot to your office, from one office to another, or to the restroom. Every one of us has the tendency to run instead of walk. We have been running all our lives, and we even continue to run into the future, where we think we will find happiness. When we walk with mindfulness, connecting your walking and your breathing, and focusing your awareness on the soles of your feet, every step becomes nourishing and healing. Every step can bring you joy. You need this joy in order to continue to do your work well.

Thich Nhat Hanh, “Work”

“Work” is an extraordinary book by one of the most loved Zen Buddhist teachers, and it offers us ways to bring mindfulness into the often labelled as selfish, cold and erratic modern office. Some of the nuggets he offers in the book are too simple to dismiss. We could surely try –

Don’t eat lunch at your desk.

Practice not working or talking and eating at the same time.

Resist the urge to make calls on your cell phone while on your way to and from work.

If you’re on the journey of trying to stop resenting the office work environment or how your work, get a copy of “Work – How To Find Joy And Meaning In Each Hour Of The Day” by Thich Nhat Hanh.

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