Every year I travel to the North Indian Himalayas to see my Tibetan friends and Buddhist teachers. In that time I have learned a lot of life lessons and a lot of lessons about how to make my work more meaningful. In this post I want to look at a few things my Tibetan friends taught me about work.
Tibet, Buddhism and a happy workplace
Before I get into the lessons I thought I would explain why I feel the Tibetan people have a lot to offer us westerners in terms of work lessons.
Tibet was a Buddhist country where the peaceful religion permeated every single household, shop, farm, school, etc. It has been there for hundreds of years.
Tibet was invaded by the Chinese in 1959 and many took refuge in India. Here they continue to live as practicing Buddhists – their culture still alive and well. And one of the first things you see when you go into a Tibetan owned business is Buddhist imagery. They base their work around their spiritual life and because of this steadfast trust in their spirituality they learn to deal with stress, anger and work pressures in a very different way. These methods are what we are going to look at today.
Lessons I learned about work from my Tibetan friends
With all that in mind here are a few things I learned from my Tibetan friends about making my work a happier and more spiritual place.
1. Compassion for all beings
“If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.” – HH the Dalai Lama
The very core and basis of Buddhism is that all beings are suffering and wish to be happy. With this in mind Buddhists take a vow where they promise to serve and protect all sentient beings for as long as they live. This compassion is not biased or choosy – all sentient beings deserve this compassion – even people we meet in the workplace!
This is a very important lesson because the next time we get pissed off with someone at work we learn to react with a compassionate motivation instead of a selfish one. This makes work a much more meaningful experience. It allows us to develop wholesome relationships where we normally wouldn’t be bothered. Most importantly, however, compassion helps us to shift our focus away from ourselves and to the needs of others.
2. Patience in everything you do
If you work in a fast-paced office with deadlines and demanding clients you will know how hard it can be to be patient. You have people yelling at you about one thing while you are on the phone with someone complaining about something else. It is easy to lose your cool.
Patience is the armor that protects us from destructive emotions. It is patience that stops us from becoming angry when something annoying happens. It is patience that stops us from becoming upset when we don’t get the reward or reaction that we’d hoped for.
My Tibetan friends seem to go about their work with mountain-like patience. They don’t allow any event, large or small, to deter them from their practice of patience. And that is the key: patience is a practice. It is something that needs to be worked on actively just like any quality that we want to develop. Patience is a choice.
3. Honesty in all situations
“No legacy is so rich as honesty.” – William Shakespeare
I have a friend in North India who I have dubbed my “Tibetan mother”. Her name is Tsummo and she owns a beautiful little shop where she knits socks and clothes to support her rather large family. Whenever I go to her town she takes me in and feeds me and helps me practice my Tibetan. While we are practicing Tibetan we sit in her shop and drink a lot of tea. It is during these times that I noticed her impeccable honesty.
India is a land of cheats and con artists. Anyone who has traveled to India will vouch for this. In Tsummo’s industry people will tell you that cotton is silk, nylon is cotton and so on. They will charge a higher price for everyone that looks wealthy and rip people off without a second thought. Not Tsummo. This woman is honest in all situations even if it means losing business. She often says that she would rather lose business than lose her dignity.
It is important to be honest in all situations at work. We cannot control our outer circumstances but we can control how we react. Honesty is a seed that you sow that brings immense benefit in the future.
“The most precious gift we can offer others is our presence. When mindfulness embraces those we love, they will bloom like flowers.” – Thich Nhat Hanh
Another basic Buddhist principle that my Tibetan friends apply to their work is that of mindfulness. Mindfulness is basically shifting your attention to the task you are performing. Think about it; when we are typing away on the computer our minds are usually floating away thinking about the past or the future. The same goes for when we are talking, walking, photocopying, etc.
Mindfulness brings our attention back to what we are doing. If you are photocopying some papers just photocopy – don’t let your mind wander to thoughts of tomorrow or yesterday. One of the main benefits of mindfulness is that with a bit of training you start to see your thoughts much more clearly. The next time you get angry at someone you will see the anger coming a mile off and you will be able to manage it before it gets out of control. Mindfulness also makes your work more peaceful and happy because you are focussed on your work and not on going home.
To start your mindfulness training you should repeat what you are doing occasionally. If you are walking to the storeroom repeat to yourself in your head gently: “Walking… walking… walking”. As you repeat this you should shift your attention to that action and gently try to hold it there. Do not try too hard – if you force it you will miss the sweet spot. The mind needs to be like a guitar; not too loose and not too tight.
As you are doing this other thoughts will arise. Don’t try to shut them down or judge them as “good” or “bad”. Just become aware of them and bring your mind back to the task at hand.
Something I noticed right away when I saw my Tibetan friends working is that they always seem to be cheerful. Even if they are laboring away in horrible conditions they are still singing and laughing.
This wonderful ability to turn a negative situation into a positive one comes from the Buddhist notion that all happiness comes from the mind, not the external world. If we train our mind to be happy it will remain happy even in bad times.
This is not some lofty, idealistic and unachievable fantasy that none of us will ever realize. It is, again, a practice that we can all engage in. It starts off with what the Buddhists call “recognizing this precious human rebirth”. Buddhists believe that a human birth is a valuable opportunity to work with our mind and develop lasting happiness. If we recognize that going to work is an opportunity instead of a chore we will become much more cheerful and easy going.
These are the main lessons I learned from my Tibetan friends in India. I wonder – have you ever been affected by some culture’s practices or beliefs? Has this affected how you go about your work?