your work is not who you are

a deeper look at our relationship with work

The Sunday evening yoga class at a chic health club in a bustling, steel-towered metropolis is filled with earnest faces and lithe bodies. The group files into the classroom with the hopes of prolonging the weekend’s restful euphoria as the inevitable stress of Monday morning looms heavy. Considering the $160 monthly membership fee, it’s apparent these yogis are willing to spend what they earn from working hard on playing just as hard. As class kicks off at 6pm, one woman pipes up, “I wish I could live in my yoga class and forget about work!” Everyone laughs. After all, isn’t work a four-letter word?


Regardless of the city or the yoga studio, neither the situation nor the sentiment is unique. The Gallup Organization announced recently that less than 27% of employees consider themselves to be “truly engaged” in their work. While the actual number may be a bit of a shock, for many of us it simply expresses, statistically speaking, what we already observe in daily life. If you take into consideration the latest figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, we now work 9.1 hours per day. Do the math: We as a culture spend more than one-third of our lives in a disengaged state.

What Is Work?

But exactly what is it we are disengaged with? Although most of us do work, talk about work, think about work, complain about work and hang out with people we know through our work, very few of us can explain just exactly what work is. Try a little collective inquiry practice by asking the question: “What is work?” Ask everyone you encounter through the course of your day. Yes, even the barista or guy at the dry cleaners. Watch what happens.

Typically a silence will occur. Sometimes the person being asked will laughingly try to clarify or find an angle. Stick with the question. Most responses will have something to do with “what I do to get paid,” “anything I have to do” or, in the sulking words of a taxi-driver, “I do not ask myself this question.” Exactly.

The above statistics tell us it’s time to ask this question. A stroll through the management and self-help titles of your favorite bookseller affirms the same, with titles such as Love It, Don’t Leave It, The Greatness Guide and The Truth About Managing Your Career. These are only a few examples of the bevy of how-to-love-what-you-do-and-succeed-at-it advice, and they make it clear: the day of acknowledging the importance of our relationship with work has arrived.

Yoga and Work

Many yogis counteract the physical and mental stress of work with our practice. After 90 blissful minutes on our mats, most of us feel much more able to take on both the anticipated demands and unexpected curveballs of our day. However, yoga has another angle on our relationship with work that isn’t just about checking the box of self-care when looking at the internal, minute-by-minute, work/life balance pie chart we carry internally. It’s an angle that has nothing to do with your alignment in trikonasana (Triangle Pose).

Much like the folks in the yoga class and many of us, in The Bhagavad-Gita, the hero Arjuna laments the greed and power-fueled struggles of his kinsmen, yearning instead for a life of contemplation. Lord Krishna counsels him otherwise. Indeed, it is his work to see the many paths of yoga as his opportunity to live fully in this world. Mohandas K. Gandhi counseled the same, “I do not believe spiritual law works on a field of its own. On the contrary, it expresses itself only through the ordinary activities of life.” If you need any more convincing to begin to look at your work with spiritual eyes, just ask Rumi. He’ll tell you, “There are a million ways to kneel and kiss the ground.”

Begin Where You Are

To get beyond the work-sucks-so-then-I-go-to-yoga mentality, begin by getting beyond the trap of thinking of work as a four-letter word. How we think adds to our frazzled state by week’s end and causes sleepless Sunday nights, which give way to sluggish Monday mornings. For the next four weeks, try this exercise in self-inquiry to uncover just what work is to you, how it functions positively in your life and how by focusing upon its role you might even appreciate it as a life-affirming form of self-expression.

Week 1 – Work As Identity

Go to any gathering of adults, and chances are the first question exchanged might be, “What do you do for a living?” Rather than feeling guilty that this is the easiest way for you to connect to strangers, give yourself a break and take a new look to see just why that question yields so many pieces of information that allow us to learn about each other. Beyond attachment to our job title, in answering the question we are able to communicate aspects of ourselves that provide a sense of identity. In these answers, we convey something about our education, our interests, our skills and our social networks. Although the old joke holds that Americans live to work and Europeans work to live, by understanding that work has always been a source of social identification, embrace that as being important to your sense of self.

This is an important aspect of befriending work as part of your life, rather than counter to it. Wherever you go this week, notice how you express aspects of yourself by talking about work. Notice it with strangers, and with those who are dear to you. Rather than castigating yourself for talking about work, simply allow your work to say something inherently powerful or meaningful about you. In embracing work as a form of self-expression in your life, you practice an aspect of dharma.

Week 2 – Work As Contribution

If you’ve ever been unemployed for any amount of time, you know how it feels to not have a role to play or way to contribute. Graduating seniors, retirees and empty nesters often express not knowing what to do with themselves. Paid or not, work is the do. Work is the contribution. Sure, you might argue that you are ultimately replaceable, that your work could be done by any number of people, but any number of people aren’t you. By contributing your energy, intelligence and self to your work, you have an outlet for self-expression that is inextricably linked to feeling a sense of purpose, event if you’ve never thought of it that way. Just as karma is the law of action, work is another field of your action.

Moving through week two, notice when your action is required at any given moment. Notice when your work calls upon you to create a solution. Notice that no matter your role, the challenges of your day invite your imagination of other possibilities. This focus is not unlike the mantra-based meditation practice of so hum, or “I am that.” It acknowledges that by nature of your existence as a form of energy you require action and doing, and to lie dormant would lead to your actual decay.

The presence of consciousness and cognitive powers means that no matter where you are or what your role, you cannot help but be stimulated with new ideas and possibilities. Like the dance between Shiva and Shakti, work is a powerful venue for your expression of this through action and contribution.

Week 3 – Work As Ritual

What are the sacred moments in your day? What are the small pleasures that you experience because of your routine? The sacred doesn’t have to involve chanting, incense or some other esoteric ritual, although it might. It does require you look at your day as a series of patterned actions that create ritual, no matter how mundane they might seem. Many of us have endless small pleasures we experience but barely notice amid the constant chatter of the brain.

Take an inventory of your work-associated pleasures this week. From the moment you awaken, how does your work create opportunity for beauty, for connection with others, for resolution, for rest? Is it the first whiff of coffee when you get out of bed? Is it saying hello to a neighbor as you collect the paper from outside? Might the shared pre-meeting personal anecdote actually be a moment of connection? Is welcoming a new team member actually a moment of compassion and kindness?

Perhaps even just preparing for a new project or organizing the things on your desk is your way of creating order and ritual. By recognizing these moments of connection and sacred beauty in the midst of the mundane, we elevate our work experience from being what I do to get paid, to being another experience of the divine.

Week 4 – Work As Community

Whether we chose our family is arguable. Equally, often our co-workers, clients and superiors do not exactly meet our design specifications. Our practice teaches us that everyone is our teacher and that sacred contracts govern even the most transactional relationship. How is your work community rife with teachings? How do the people around you challenge you to the core?

Wherever you find the rub, therein lies the growth. Without the obligation of working through personal and professional conflicts together, our spiritual evolution gets demoted to arrested development and we might as well consider our aspirations for transformation through our practice on the mat to be little more informative than a stiff martini to wash away the stresses of our day. Step into the challenges of your work community with the teachings of your practice in mind.

Work of Art

By experiencing work through a practice of active observation, we become the creators of our daily existence. Applying this discipline, we step outside of how we have been taught to think about work and allow ourselves to experience ourselves at work as the moments unfold. We allow work itself to exist beyond any stereotypes. We shift ourselves from victims of work to participants in our work.

Free of preconception or judgment, it becomes another aspect of how we bring ourselves into the world. Remember this example: When asked what his greatest work was, notorious workaholic Leonardo DaVinci gave it a moment’s thought and responded, “Leonardo DaVinci.”

What’s yours?

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