The Art of Happiness at Work
For the first time since their revolutionary book, The Art of Happiness, His Holiness the Dalai Lama and psychiatrist Howard Cutler reunite to explore ways in which work and careers can become a meaningful part of our lives. Using common sense and modern psychiatry, this illuminating book applies 2,500 years of Buddhist tradition to the contemporary struggles faced in finding a calling. The Dalai Lama answers the questions everyone wants answered about the nature of work and finding fulfillment.
Transforming Dissatisfaction At Work
It had been a long day for the Dalai Lama. Even by the time he had eaten his meager breakfast of tsampa and tea at 7:30 a.m., he had already been up for four hours, completing his rigorous daily regimen of prayer, study, and meditation. After breakfast he began his usual workday, and that day there was a full line-up: meeting with one person after another, he saw an Indian government liaison officer, the head lama of one of the ancient lineages of Tibetan Buddhism, the president of a member republic of the Russian Federation, a high official in the Tibetan government-in-exile, and various members of his private office staff. And scheduled among these private meetings, I watched with admiration as he met with a group of newly arrived Tibetan refugees. They had made the arduous journey across the Himalayas by any means of conveyance they could find, lucky if they could afford a ride on an antediluvian bus, but more likely to have caught a lift, riding in the open bed of a shuddering pickup truck. Some had crossed the rugged border on foot, climbing high-altitude passes with grim determination. Here and there one could see a child missing a finger or a toe-casualties of frostbite. Many arrived penniless, destitute, their traditional chubas (native Tibetan costumes) tattered and dusty from the long journey. In some of the older faces, ruddy faces, weathered and creased by winds and harsh climate, one could detect traces of untold suffering, spirits hardened by years of mistreatment at the hands of the Chinese Communists. For many of these people, however, a mere glimpse of the Dalai Lama, the fulfillment of a lifelong dream, was enough to revive their withered spirits and infuse them with renewed hope and joy. He offered them all, young and old, words of hope and encouragement, as well as hardheaded practical advice, ranging from "Education is critical to success" to "Now you men should be careful of going with prostitutes-you could catch a disease."
Finally, it was 2 p.m., his last scheduled appointment for the day. And here was I. I had been allotted several hours each afternoon to collaborate on our book, and I was here to collect. Our meetings were far from chatty tÍte-ý-tÍtes, however. In fact, I often gave him no end of difficulty as we struggled to reconcile East and West, pestering him with endless questions, a fair proportion of which he labeled so silly or impossible to answer that it had become a running joke between us, trying even his legendary patience.
Standing outside on his bougainvillea-draped porch, with the majestic snowcapped Dhauladhar Mountains of northern India as a backdrop, the Dalai Lama greeted me warmly as he led me inside his home. Little had changed in this room since our first meeting twenty years before. The same traditional Tibetan thanka paintings lined the pale yellow walls, the same Buddhist shrine covered with ornate Buddhist icons at one end of the room, and the same floor-to-ceiling relief map of Tibet dominating the opposite wall. Even the modest furniture appeared to be the same, although it's possible the sofa may have been reupholstered.
As I unpacked my notebooks and fumbled with my tape recorder, we spoke casually about some of his activities and meetings earlier that day. The Dalai Lama generally scheduled our meetings for his last appointment of the day, so as I loitered in the attached reception room waiting for our meeting to begin, I often had the opportunity to observe the collection of individuals who came to meet with him. On that day in particular I was struck by the diversity of individuals seeking his time and counsel, people coming to visit him from all corners of the earth.
Thinking about this as I began our session, I said, "You know, I couldn't help but notice how many different kinds of people come to see you, people with various professions, all sorts of jobs. And I was thinking about how you also are involved in so many different kinds of activities. Now, this week I want to focus on the topic of work . . ."
"Yes. Good." The Dalai Lama nodded.
"And since we're going to be talking about work this week, I was just curious, what do you consider to be your primary job?"
The Dalai Lama looked puzzled. "What do you mean?"
I was puzzled why he was puzzled. It seemed to be a simple question.
"Well, in the West," I explained, "when you meet somebody, often the first question you ask a stranger is, 'What do you do?' meaning specifically, 'What kind of work do you do? What's your job?' So, if you met a complete stranger and they didn't know you or had never heard of the Dalai Lama and they didn't even know what your monk's robes signified, they just met you as a human being and they asked you, 'What do you do for a living?' what would you tell them?"
The Dalai Lama reflected in silence for a long while, and finally declared, "Nothing. I do nothing."
Nothing? In response to my blank stare, he repeated himself. "If I was suddenly posed with this question that would probably be my answer. Nothing."
Nothing? I didn't buy it. He clearly worked as hard as anyone I knew, harder even. And as grueling as this day had been, it was light duty compared to his schedule during his frequent trips abroad. In fact, informally attached to his small staff on a speaking tour of the U.S. the year before, I had witnessed a remarkable display of relentless activity, dedication, and hard work: as a statesman, he had met with President George W. Bush, Secretary of State Colin Powell, and a host of high-ranking senators and members of Congress. As a teacher, an ordained Buddhist monk and consummate Buddhist scholar, he gave extensive lectures expounding the most subtle facets of Buddhist philosophy. As a Nobel Peace Prize laureate and tireless advocate for world peace and human rights, he gave public addresses to tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands. As a religious leader striving to promote interfaith dialogue and harmony, he met with religious figures from many faiths: priests, rabbis, ministers, and swamis, even the president of the Mormon Church. He met with scientists, scholars, entertainers, the famous and the obscure. And in each place he visited, he met with local Tibetan refugees struggling to make a life and prosper in their new country. He worked morning till night, traveling from city to city with such speed that one place seemed to merge into the next. And yet not a single meeting or event on this tour was initiated at his own request-all were based on invitations from others. And even more remarkable-no matter how rigorous his schedule became, he seemed to handle his work effortlessly. He was happy doing it.
He did nothing? Not by a long shot.
"No, really," I pressed. "What if someone persisted and asked you again?"
"Well," he laughed, "in that case, I would probably say, 'I just look after myself, just take care of myself.'" Perhaps sensing my frustration with this glib response, he smiled and continued, "I think maybe this answer isn't entirely serious. But actually, if you think about it, that's true. All six billion human beings in the world are just 'taking care of number one.' Isn't it? So whether one is a professional, or whatever line of work one is in, each of us from birth to death is just working to take care of ourselves. That's our main task."
My attempt to pin him down on his job description was getting nowhere fast. And this wasn't the first time I had noticed his natural reluctance to engage in discussion about his role in the world. Perhaps it was due to a certain lack of self-absorption, an absence of self-involvement. I don't know. But I decided to drop the subject of his job for now and turn to the wider issue.
"Well, in working to take care of ourselves most people need some kind of job. Now many times in the past I've heard you say that the purpose of life is happiness."
"That's right," he affirmed.
"So, we need a way to be happy at work as well as at home, but that's not always easy. Let me give you an example of a friend of mine. I gave her a copy of The Art of Happiness shortly after it came out. She told me that she kept it on her bedside table and read from it each night before she went to bed. She was tremendously inspired by your words, and she said that when she read it she felt it was really possible to be happy. But then she told me, 'When I go to bed, I'm thinking that if I make the effort, happiness is within my reach, genuine happiness is out there waiting for me. But then the next morning I have to get up at five o'clock in the morning and face an hour-long commute to work. And the minute I step into the office, everything changes-I have to deal with the pressures, the demands, my boss is a jerk, and I can't stand my co-workers. And suddenly it seems like the idea of happiness slips away. It just evaporates. Things are so hectic that I barely have a chance to catch my breath, let alone think about training my mind or inner development. And of course the company I work for doesn't care a bit about my happiness. But I need to work. I need the money. I can't just quit and expect to get another job. So, how can I find happiness at work?'
"And of course my friend isn't an isolated case," I continued. "In many countries throughout the world, there seems to be a kind of widespread dissatisfaction at work. In fact, I recently read a survey that reported that nearly half of American workers are dissatisfied at work, unhappy with their jobs. I've talked to some experts who say that the number may even be higher than that. And things seem to be getting worse. According to the Conference Board, the nonprofit organization that conducted the survey, that same survey showed that over the past five or six years the percentage of people who are satisfied with their job has dropped by around eight percent."
The Dalai Lama appeared surprised. "Why is that?" he asked.
"Well, according to the studies I've read, there may be a variety of reasons, ranging from inadequate compensation, or simple boredom, to more complex factors related to the specific nature of the work or the workplace conditions. There are all sorts of things that can make a person miserable at work: poor social atmosphere, lack of recognition, not enough variety, and other things. In fact, I'd be interested in hearing your opinion on each one of these factors. But let me give you an example. A few days before leaving for Dharamsala, I had dinner with some friends who were both in the software industry and worked for large corporations. They spent most of the dinner sitting around complaining about their jobs. Even though they worked for different companies, one thing they both mentioned was that they felt they had no control over what they did every day. They had no sense of autonomy, no freedom to do their work in their own way. They both complained that they didn't get enough information and direction from their bosses, but once they were finally given a clear-cut task or assignment, they wanted to carry out the assignment in their own way. Instead, the supervisor seemed to be standing over them breathing down their necks, giving them no room for creativity or personal initiative. They resented the fact that not only didn't they have any control over the kind of work they are required to do, they couldn't even choose how to go about doing it.
"So, do you have any thoughts about how a person could go about increasing their feeling of autonomy or freedom at work?"
"I don't know," the Dalai Lama responded. "Of course it will completely depend on the person's individual circumstances, what position they are in."
"Any general suggestions?"
He reflected for a moment. "Let's take the example of a prisoner. Now of course it is best not to be in prison, but even in that situation, where a person may be deprived of freedom, he or she may discover small choices that they are able to make. And even if somebody is in prison, with very rigid rules, they can undertake some spiritual practices to try to lessen their mental frustrations, try to get some peace of mind. So they can work on internal development. In fact, I've heard that there is a program here in India where prisoners are being taught meditation.
"So, I'm thinking that if people can do this under the extreme conditions of prison, in the workplace people may try to discover small things, small choices that they can make in how to go about their work. And of course, somebody may work on an assembly line with little variation in how to do their tasks, but they still have other kinds of choices in terms of their attitudes, how they interact with their co-workers, whether they utilize certain inner qualities or spiritual strengths to change their attitude at work even though the nature of the work may be difficult. Isn't it? So, perhaps that would help.
"Of course, when you are talking about rigid rules and lack of freedom, that doesn't mean that you are required to blindly follow and accept everything others tell you. In instances where the worker might be exploited, where the employer thinks of nothing but profit and pays a small salary and demands a lot of overtime, or where one may be asked to do things that are not appropriate or are unethical, one should not simply think, Well, this is my karma, and take no action. Here it is not enough to think, I should just be content.
"If there is injustice, then I think inaction is the wrong response. The Buddhist texts mention what is called 'misplaced tolerance,' or 'misplaced forbearance.' So, for example, in the case of Tibetans, in the face of Chinese injustice generally, misplaced patience or forbearance refers to the sense of endurance that some individuals have when they are subject to a very destructive, negative activity. That is a misplaced forbearance and endurance. Similarly, in the work environment, if there is a lot of injustice and exploitation, then to passively tolerate it is the wrong response. The appropriate response really is to actively resist it, to try to change this environment rather than accept it. One should take some action."
"What kind of action?" I asked.
"Of course it again depends on the situation," the Dalai Lama said reasonably. "But perhaps one could speak with the boss, with the management, and try to change these things."
"And if that doesn't work?"
"Then, revolt! Rebel!" He laughed. "This is what I generally say. One needs to actively resist exploitation. And in some cases, one may simply need to quit and to look for other work."
"Well, in today's world, exploitation certainly goes on," I agreed. "But in a lot of cases it isn't a matter of gross exploitation. It may just be that the nature of the job is very demanding. For example, when the economy is slow, companies are forced to cut back and lay off employees. Then the employees who are left have to take on more and more responsibility. Work becomes more stressful for those who remain. Any suggestions on how to cope more effectively with that type of situation, that sort of pressure or stress?"
"Of course it will vary from individual to individual how one emotionally and psychologically responds, and it also depends upon the nature of work and the nature of the company," he reminded me. "So there are many factors to take into account. For example, if you view your work as something that is really worthwhile-if, for instance, there is a higher purpose to your work-then of course, even if the work is very hard there may be a greater willingness to undergo that hardship. Under such circumstances you might think, Oh, here's an opportunity to do something good for society. So, it depends."
"But that kind of situation or attitude may not apply to everybody," I pointed out. "So, what I'm wondering about is a general approach to work overload, which is actually one of the other common sources of work dissatisfaction."
"What is this 'work overload,' what do you mean?" asked the Dalai Lama. The genuine curiosity in his voice suggested that he had never heard of the concept.
"Well, you know," I said, struggling for words, "where you are overloaded with work, and it becomes a source of stress."
"I still don't know what you mean by this term 'overload.' For example, your boss could give you some work which you could probably finish within a certain amount of time, but that's not overload because it is something you can accomplish, even if it is difficult. Or he could give you an amount of work that is impossible to finish in a certain amount of time, in which case you simply have to say 'I can't do this.' So, what do you mean?"
He wasn't getting it. But I failed to understand why he didn't get it. The concept of work overload isn't some obscure American custom, or even something unique to Western culture. After all, the Japanese have even coined the word karoshi-death by work overload. I decided to frame it in his terms. "Well, let's say you're a young monk and you're studying and practicing Buddhism. So your teacher would be the equivalent of your boss."
"O.K., right." He nodded. "I understand."
"And your job is to learn and memorize certain texts, so let's say your boss gives you a text that you need to memorize by next week. It's a very challenging text. Now, if you work hard, maybe you can memorize it by next week, but it's going to be very difficult. Then he comes back a few hours later and says, 'Well, now you have to memorize an additional text along with this text in the same amount of time.' And he's your boss-you can't just say, 'I'm going to quit, I'm not going to be a monk anymore.' So, work overload in this context means that you are given more and more to do but not enough time to do it."
"Oh, now I think I understand. For example, when I was around twenty, in Tibet, I had to give an important teaching, and for preparation I had homework early morning and late evening. Then I had to get up very early before my attendants arrived and even when my attendants had left, late into the evening I had to read and memorize. So I woke up a few hours earlier and went to bed a few hours later-that is the kind of overload?"
"But then this is something that with extra attention and energy, it's something I could achieve. And that was O.K. for the short term. But if I were to continue with this having less sleep for a long time, having that kind of overload for a whole year, then it would be impossible."
"But that's the kind of thing many people are faced with these days," I informed him.
"So why can't these people say 'I can't do this' right from the beginning?" he asked. "Do they get fired?"
"In many cases, yes."
"In that case I think it goes back to knowing one's limitations. And if a boss gives more work to do and it is beyond their capacity, then I think they have to say something. They have to say 'This is too much work for me' and talk to the boss and try to reduce it. If that doesn't work, then they may need to look for new work.
"However, at that point let's say that the boss agrees to extra pay, and the employee agrees, then that is a person's decision and there's no cause to complain about overload. But if the boss gives too much work without increase of salary, then this 'overload' is just exploitation, the kind that we just spoke about.
"But I think in these kinds of situations, the employer has a responsibility to judge how much a person can reasonably be expected to do. Too much overload is simply a lack of concern, lack of respect. Even overloading an animal is disrespectful to that life-so, that's exploitation, it's unfair," he said with a resolute tone.
"I'm glad that you mentioned the issue of unfairness," I replied, "because that is another of the sources of workplace dissatisfaction. In fact, I think we're touching upon some of the most common sources of dissatisfaction at the workplace.
"In today's workplace environment, there's often a focus solely on production, productivity-produce, produce, produce. Now, this may be changing slowly, with more companies paying attention to creating a more humane environment, but in many cases the organization doesn't care about the personal welfare of the employees, or the inner state or satisfaction of the workers-all it cares about is the bottom line, making a bigger profit, keeping the share prices high. And this type of environment creates the conditions for all kinds of inequities, unfairness, stress for the employees, and so on. In view of that, how can we maintain a feeling of calmness and inner satisfaction in an environment that is focused only on production and profit?"
The Dalai Lama laughed. "Howard, some of your questions are so impossible! It is almost as if you are asking, 'How can beings in the hell realm learn to practice patience, tolerance, and tranquility?'
"There are not always easy answers. In modern society, you find many examples of unfairness-for example, corrupt leaders giving jobs or promotions to relatives instead of based on merit. These things are plenty. Now here, it's difficult to get satisfaction. How to deal with these things? That's a problem. Like in the Tibetan case, we're honest, we're not anti-Chinese, but the Chinese falsely accuse us of things and engage in bullying tactics in Tibet. Under those circumstances, legally they are wrong, we are right, but still we suffer. We're defeated. Under those circumstances, trying to get some satisfaction or some kind of peace of mind, now that's hard work.
"Millions of people are subjected to various forms of unfairness, isn't it? We need to fight against injustice outwardly, but at the same time we have to find ways to cope inwardly, ways to train our minds to remain calm and not develop frustration, hatred, or despair. That's the only solution. We may find help from our belief systems, whether we believe in karma or in God, but we can also use our human intelligence to analyze the situation and to see it from a different perspective. That will help," he said with conviction.
Referring to our many conversations over the years, I continued, "In the past, we've often spoken of training the mind as the key to happiness, and that one way to train our minds is to use our human intelligence, to use human reason and analysis to reshape our attitudes and outlook. In fact, this is a process which you've called 'analytic meditation.'"
"That's right," said the Dalai Lama.
"So, I'm wondering if you can take me through a specific example of this process. Let's say that we're going for a promotion at work, and we didn't get it. We're feeling really upset, we're feeling that it's unfair or we're jealous of the person who got the promotion. How do we deal with that?"
He replied thoughtfully, "It begins by deliberately analyzing whether responding with anger or jealousy, for instance, will benefit us or harm us in the long run. We have to deeply reflect on whether responding in this way brings a happier and more peaceful state of mind, or if those emotions serve to make us more unhappy. And we need to relate it to our own past experiences, thinking about the effect that these emotions have on our physical health, as well as our mental state. Think about times when you felt strong jealousy or hatred in the past and find out whether it made your life more satisfying or helped you achieve your goals. Think about how others responded to you when you were showing strong anger or jealousy, and analyze whether that helped you to have better relationships. So, think about these things until you are fully convinced of how damaging it is to ourselves to constantly respond to situations with hostility or jealousy, and how beneficial are the positive emotions like tolerance or contentment."
"O.K. Let's say that I'm convinced that it's destructive. Then what?"
"So, you are going for a new job or promotion, and you have the right qualifications, and you are worthy, but you didn't get the job. First you think, Yes, I deserved that job, but if you didn't get it you have a choice of how you will respond. You can be resentful and angry, but then you can think about how destructive that kind of mental state can be. That conviction alone will serve to make you more cautious of these emotions, and may reduce them a bit. So, don't keep thinking about the work you don't have. There will always be better jobs that you don't have. Don't continue to feel competitive or jealous. That only brings more worry, more dissatisfaction.
"But you still need a way to bring some kind of peace of mind. Here's where we need to use our capacity for critical thinking, for analysis. You begin by realizing that no situation is one hundred percent good or one hundred percent bad. Sometimes, particularly in the West, I've noticed a tendency to think in black-or-white terms. But in reality everything in life is relative. So, based on this reality, you can cultivate a wider perspective of the situation and try to see different angles. You can further analyze, realizing that with the better work and more money, that doesn't mean that you would have no problems. Some other jobs may have higher pay, but they come at a price, maybe longer hours or more responsibility and maybe risk of injury or other kinds of problems. In fact, if you really look at others in the higher positions, you may discover that there may be more demands, there may be more competition or jealousy from others. You might discover, for instance, that while your current work pays less, it may be easier in some ways, or even less dangerous in some instances.
"So, you continue to think about the reality, thinking, Oh, yes that's my bad luck, I deserve that better job, but since that didn't happen, instead of looking only at the lack of the better job, you could cultivate a wider perspective and see it from the other direction where you can think, Well, yes, this may pay less and is not the best work, but since with this work I earn enough, a sufficient amount for my family and for my survival, I'm happy. It's O.K. So, thinking along these lines, we can build contentment with our job even when things don't go our way."
The Dalai Lama paused and sipped some tea. "So," he continued, "I think through our own efforts, through cultivating a wider perspective, I think it is possible to become more content with our work."
"Of course, there's still so much widespread dissatisfaction with one's work," I mused. "I'm wondering if you have anything else to add here, any other ways we can look at things to . . ."
"Oh, definitely," he quickly replied. "Another way to build contentment, for example, is simply to reflect on how fortunate one is to have the work, how there are many people unable to get any kind of work. You can think, There are other good things in my life, and I still have it better compared to many. This is always the reality.
"Sometimes we forget that. We get spoiled. So, for example, in America there are many opportunities for employment. And there is also a large degree of freedom, and one's personal initiative can make a difference. With personal initiative one can advance. But at the same time there is still a lot of discontent and dissatisfaction with one's job. In other parts of the world, for example in countries like India and China, there are fewer opportunities open for employment. So, under such circumstances many individuals can't get jobs. But I've noticed that there the sense of satisfaction they derive from their job is much stronger and also they are more committed. In the same way, one can reflect on how much more difficult previous generations had it, going through world wars and so on. Sometimes we tend to forget these things, but if we think about it, this can increase our feeling of gratitude and contentment."
"Of course, you're right," I agreed. "I've also been to many countries, and I've seen coolies or baggage handlers here in India, or migrant farm workers, poor people working in rice paddies throughout Asia, or remote nomads in your own country, and many of these people seem genuinely happy and content. Of that there's no doubt. And I have to admit that we can become spoiled. But my country, America, was built on personal initiative. Shouldn't we want to advance, rather than just be content with the way things are?"
"Yes, Howard, but you shouldn't confuse contentment with complacency. You shouldn't mistake being content with one's job with just sort of not caring, not wanting to grow, not wanting to learn, just staying where one is even if one's situation is bad and not even making the effort to advance and to learn and to achieve something better. If we have a poor job, perhaps some unskilled labor, but we have the skills and qualifications for better work, by all means we should exert our best effort for the better work, make a good attempt. But if that fails, then instead of frustration, or becoming angry focusing only on the thought, I tried but I wasn't able to make it-then think, O.K., I'll carry on with this work. Be content with the work you have. So if you fail, that is where one's attitude and the practice of contentment can make the difference between anger, resentment, and frustration, and a calmer and happier attitude. That's where training of the mind comes in. These kinds of things, lines of reasoning, can diffuse your frustration and disturbance of mind. So contentment, I think, contentment-that's the key thing."
While he spoke, I thought about how difficult it might be for many people to adopt these lines of reasoning to diffuse their anger, hatred, and jealousy. I realized that is why he has so often stressed the fact that it isn't easy to train one's mind and reshape one's attitudes, that it takes repeated effort. And it takes time. For this kind of "analytical meditation" to work, one needs deep and sustained reflection on these alternative ways of viewing one's situation. One needs to be fully convinced of the absolute truth of this new perspective. Otherwise there is a danger of using these lines of reasoning merely as insincere rationalizations. A matter of "sour grapes." Oh yeah? Well, I didn't want that job anyway!. So, we're going for that promotion and we lose out. And we really wanted that promotion-every fiber of our being tells us that, even aside from the higher pay, the more important our job is, the happier we'll be.
So how do we convince ourselves beyond a reasonable doubt that the more important job may not necessarily make us happier? By looking at the evidence. By examining whether we're permanently happier from the last promotion we received or looking at people we know to see if those in a higher position are genuinely happier than those in a lower position. Or, we can look at the scientific evidence. In this case, for instance, while at SUNY Buffalo, Robert Rice, PhD, a prolific scholar in the field of job satisfaction, led a group that conducted a surprising study. Contrary to what one might expect, they found that those with more important jobs are no happier in life than those with less important jobs. This finding has been replicated in a number of similar wide-scale studies showing that while job satisfaction is linked with life satisfaction, the specific type of work one does, one's occupational prestige, or whether a person is blue collar or white collar, has little impact on one's overall life satisfaction.
There's an additional reason why it is sometimes a long and difficult process to reshape our attitudes and outlook, to change the habitual ways that we perceive the world, modify our customary interpretation and response to any given situation or event. What's the reason? When it comes down to it, many of us resist giving up our misery-a vexing and baffling feature of human behavior I often observed in the past when treating psychotherapy patients. As miserable as some people might be, for many there is a kind of perverse pleasure in the self-righteous indignation one feels when one is treated unfairly. We hold on to our pain, wear it like a badge, it becomes part of us and we are reluctant to give it up. After all, at least our characteristic ways of looking at the world are familiar. Letting go of our customary responses, as destructive as they may be, may seem frightening, and often that fear abides on a deeply ingrained subconscious level. And added to this, of course, are the secondary gains to holding on to our grudges, jealousy, and dissatisfaction, as our constant complaints serve to elicit sympathy and understanding from others. Or at least we think so, at least we hope so. Sometimes it works-our friends or co-workers join in with a catalogue of their own grievances, and a bonding takes place as we indulge in our own little festival celebrating life's inequities and the sins of our employers. Quite often, however, while our complaints may be received with outward expressions of sympathy, they may more likely be met with inward annoyance by those who have problems of their own to deal with.
Thinking about the difficulty of genuinely transforming our outlook and responding to these challenging situations in new ways, I remarked, "I think these are all good practical suggestions, although of course, even if these things are true, these lines of reasoning may not act as a consolation to everybody."
"That's true," the Dalai Lama admitted, "but my main point is that if there is a possibility to change your work environment, then of course you have the right to make that attempt. But you also need to understand the fundamental cause of various problems.
"So, once again, this brings us to the reality that everything is interconnected. If there are certain problems in the workplace, or layoffs and one is having difficulty finding a job, there are always many factors at play. So, you experience dissatisfaction. You suffer. Maybe some worldwide economic conditions or even some environmental problems may be at the root of the problem. In those cases, it does no good to take things so personally and complain to the company, or perhaps direct your anger toward one individual boss. And your anger could even turn into hatred, but even if your hatred escalates uncontrolled, and even if eventually you killed that person, it would have no effect on the situation, it would do nothing to change the wider problems.
"This kind of thing occurs, for example, in the Tibetan community here in India. There may be some people who are upset with the Tibetan government in exile, always complaining. So, focusing on some day-to-day activities of the government, they are dissatisfied, but they tend to forget that the government in exile is exactly that-an exiled government. And from that angle, the fundamental cause of the problem is the Chinese invasion and occupation of Tibet, which forced us into exile. That is the source of the problem. Once they focus on the real issue, it creates a sense of unity among us, which creates a sense of greater satisfaction instead of the divisions and conflicts caused when we lose sight of the wider issues and start bickering among ourselves.
"So, instead of just complaining and complaining, or directing your anger to a particular boss, in that type of situation, with your realization of the wider, more fundamental causes of the problem, it would be better if you redirected your thoughts. Think about the world, the global economy. Think about the environment. Look at the various forms of social injustice. Perhaps you could even make a small contribution to improve things in some way."
"Of course," I interjected, "there's often very little we can do to change these wider problems."
"That's true," the Dalai Lama conceded. "Your efforts may have little or no results, things may not change much. But at least instead of misplaced anger and frustration, you are transforming your mental energy, turning it in a more constructive direction. Your underlying motivation can change based on this wider perspective and it will build your enthusiasm to work, to make changes that will benefit society. Of course that takes time, but meantime if you can't change the work environment or the wider forces that contribute to the work environment, then you may need to change or adjust your outlook. Otherwise, you will remain unhappy at work and in your life."
Our meeting for the day was coming to a close, and thinking that he had finished, I began gathering up my notes, when he suddenly added a final comment about the harsh reality of life. Yet despite his unsentimental acknowledgment of life's difficulties, there was a certain fearlessness mingled with a gentle undertone of compassion in his voice.
"Now look. There will always be problems in life. It is just not possible to go through life without encountering problems. There is no event from which you get one hundred percent satisfaction, right? Some dissatisfaction will always remain. The better we are able to accept that fact, the better we will be able to cope with life's disappointments.
"So, take the example of a person who likes to eat sweet things, but doesn't like sour things. Then there is a certain kind of fruit that this person enjoys. That fruit may be mostly sweet, but it may also have a little bit of sourness in it. That person continues to enjoy the fruit, they don't stop eating it because it has a little sour taste. If they want to continue to enjoy eating that fruit, they have to accept the little bit of sourness in it. You can't separate the sweet from the sour in that piece of fruit; it is always going to be mixed. Life is just like that. As long as you are living, life will have good things but also some problems that you don't like. That's life."
So, life is tough. It seemed a grim truth upon which to be ending our meeting. And as if perfectly staged to underscore that dark note, at that moment there was a sudden crash of thunder and a deafening torrential downpour outside that muffled our words as we said goodbye. An instant later the electricity went off, an almost daily occurrence during this season in Dharamsala. The Dalai Lama was completely unruffled. In fact, his warm smile and cheerful manner were set off in bold relief against the darkened room and the ice storm raging outside. Clearly here was a happy man. Everything about him bespoke the possibility of leading a happy life despite life's inevitable troubles. He himself had weathered his fair share of problems, the loss of an entire nation as he was forced into exile as a result of the Communist Chinese invasion and occupation of Tibet. And he continued to tackle difficult problems on a daily basis-struggling to preserve his cultural heritage, fighting for the freedom of his people, for the human rights of all people. And often without success. Yet since the age of six, he had been engaged in the training of his mind, learning how to remain happy despite life's unavoidable adversities. It seems to have paid off.
So, he reminds us that if we can change some of the external conditions at the workplace that contribute to our dissatisfaction, we certainly should. If not, although it is always easy or quick, it is still possible to be happy at work through reshaping our attitudes and outlook, through inner training.
--from The Art of Happiness At Work by the Dalai Lama & Howard C. Cutler, M.D., copyright © 2003 the Dalai Lama & Howard C. Cutler, published by Riverhead Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., all rights reserved, reprinted with permission from the publisher.
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