Summary of the book “Work. How to find joy and meaning in each hour of the day”: Using concrete examples and short meditations, Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh offers us a pocket guide to his teachings. Based around breathing and Mindfulness, they can help us to find serenity and thrive in a professional setting.
By Thich Nhat Hanh, Parallax Press, 2012, 116 p.
Full title: Work. How to find joy and meaning in each hour of the day
Chronicle and summary of the book “Work. How to find joy and meaning in each hour of the day.”
Chapter 1: The art of Mindful living and working
We spend a lot of time at work and our work says a lot about who we are. A job can be a source of great joy, peace and personal satisfaction. On the other hand, what we do every day to make a living can also be a source of great suffering.
The way we live and how we work is crucial to happiness.
It doesn’t matter what kind of job you do. We can all change the way we work to create a working environment that is conducive to joy. The goal is to create an environment that can satisfy your need to have a sense of accomplishment and to bring meaning to each and every day.
This is not a promise, nor is it an illusion. Thich Nhat Hanh suggests placing Mindfulness at the heart of your work using techniques he has been teaching for more than 50 years. This is the art of being fully conscious when breathing, sitting, eating, walking, checking your emails, releasing tension and managing strong emotions. These tools can be used in your everyday life, at home and at the office. The benefits are huge, both for you and for your company, and for your family and society in general.
The energy of Mindfulness
Thich Nhat Hanh defines Mindfulness as the act of drawing all your attention to the present moment and concentrating on your breathing. Being aware of your breathing brings the body and the mind together. It stops the runaway train of automatic thoughts, releases tensions and makes you calmer, more grounded. Mindfulness is applicable to any kind of everyday activity: driving, brushing your teeth, walking, writing… You can be even be Mindful while drinking a cup of coffee. Take time to breathe in the aromas, feel the heat of the beverage, the contact of the cup on your lips, and listen to the rattle of the saucer on the table.
Being fully present and therefore fully aware that you are drinking a cup of coffee (at the office) helps you focus on the present moment. No other thoughts will disturb you. Your mind is not held back by the most recent emails you read. Nor is it worrying about the upcoming meeting. The entire teaching of this great Zen master consists of this: When you take care of the present moment, you are doing the best thing possible to ensure a good future. There is just one moment on which you can have an impact and that is the here and now. The past no longer exists; the future has not yet arrived. Therefore, we must focus on the present.
This method is disarmingly simple and obvious:
Simply breathe and focus on what you are doing and stress, fear, tension and worries will recede and finally disappear. Mindfulness can be applied to negative emotions (anger, frustration, sadness, suffering) as well as to positive emotions (joy, love, tenderness, satisfaction, excitement). You can practice it at any age. There are no complicated techniques involved – simply breathe and focus.
When you breathe, the thoughts will calm down and then stop. You halt the breakneck pace of the mind, gaining in clarity. A feeling of understanding and compassion will emerge little by little.
At home or at work: there is no separation
Your work life and your personal life are interconnected, whether you like it or not. Home worries will interfere with work and work files find their way into the living room. Everything you do in one area will have an impact on the other. The way you prepare to go to work, the journey and your behaviour at the office all affect your work and yourself.
When you go home tired and stressed, with your head filled with worries, your family is the first vessel into which you pour your work woes. They will find themselves affected by this. We need to learn how to manage suffering, dissatisfaction and strong emotions. This matters whether they come from home or from the office. We have the ability and the opportunity to change our environment by changing our state of mind. Simply return to the present moment. You can learn how to do this. But not at school…
Who among us knows how to generate a feeling of joy inside? Who knows how to relax and genuinely enjoy their lunch break? And who manages to take a deep breath before answering the telephone? Who takes advantage of meetings to walk in Mindfulness and arrive relaxed?
Chapter 2: Beginning the day
Most of the time, when we wake up, our first thoughts turn to the programme for the day, what appointments to make, what lists to write, or to breakfast and getting the children ready. Thich Nhat Hanh invites us to be Mindful of ourselves and to start the day with a grateful thought. We can offer thanks for being alive, on earth, and for being able to enjoy life. Generate a sense of gratitude for what you already have. Be aware that you already have more than you need to be happy today.
Choose an intention for the day
Once you put your foot on the floor, instead of hurrying off to drink some coffee and jump in the shower, take a few moments to decide how you want to live today. Every morning is an opportunity for renewal, a new start. Being aware of this is a great opportunity. It allows us to keep an open mind.
How do I want to live today? Do I really want to complain about public transport? What do I expect from the life that presents itself to me this morning? Do I want to be filled with anger and frustration or do I want to move towards what fills me with joy? Asking yourself these questions every morning is the chance to clarify your free will. What is your greatest desire?
Why do you get up every day? Your greatest desire is also your greatest source of energy. What you want to do and the way you want to do it generate energy that you can feed off. If your greatest desire is to get revenge, then you will be filled with strong emotions that act like poison on your body and your mind, causing great suffering to those around you. If your greatest desire is to bring joy to the world, then the emotions and energy inside you will be positive and will generate happiness around you.
Remind yourself every morning of your greatest desire. Thich Nhat Hanh advises using a gatha to support your memory.
A gatha is a short poem or phrase that you recite during Mindfulness, such as this one:
Waking up this morning I smile
Twenty-four brand-new hours are before me
I vow to live fully each moment
And to look at all beings with eyes of compassion.
You can memorise gathas for various activities throughout the day. Short poems that you create for yourself are one of the pillars of Zen tradition. They help you to stay centred. Some people print them out and pin them to the mirror of the bathroom, to their bedside table or keep them in their car or wallet, etc.
Getting dressed to go to work offers another opportunity to prepare for a Mindful day and to change your usual frame of mind. Most of us get dressed automatically, without thinking about it. Here again, a short gatha can help you to remain fully focused on your intentions and the present moment.
Here is one that Thich Nhat Hanh proposes:
Putting on these clothes
I am grateful to those who made them
and for the materials from which they were made.
I wish everyone could have enough to wear.
Brushing your teeth
The 2 minutes devoted to brushing your teeth often take place on auto-pilot. As you brush, your mind wanders from concern to concern and to future projects. But these 2 minutes are yet another opportunity to bring your mind back to the present moment.
You can use the help of another gatha:
Brushing my teeth,
I make a vow to speak with sincerity and love.
When my mouth is sweetened with fair words,
A flower blooms in the garden of my heart.
Breakfast does not just provide food for the body. We are not machines. Some people wolf down their breakfast or snack on the go to get to work more quickly. Being Mindful about meals is a chance to enjoy life and to continue to cultivate gratitude and Mindfulness. Preparing breakfast is an action moment: once again the mind wanders to automatic thoughts. Learn to bring your mind back to what you are doing. Eating is another opportunity to practice focus and breathing. Enjoying your breakfast involves focusing on the flavours, the textures, the aromas… While you eat, do not allow yourself to be distracted by worries or thoughts that come from the past or look to the future. The only possible attitude is to enjoy your breakfast without thinking about the coming day.
Let’s listen to how Thich Nhat Hanh enjoys his breakfast:
“When I hold a slice of bread, I like to look at it and smile at it. The slice of bread is an ambassador from the cosmos, offering us nutrients and energy. When I look deep into the slice of bread, I see the sun, the clouds and our mother Earth. Without sun, without water, without earth, the wheat cannot grow. Without the clouds, there would be no rain for the ears of wheat to grow.
So, without Mother Earth, supporting all forms of life, nothing would grow at all. That is why the slice of bread that I hold in my hand is a true miracle of life. And as this bread is here for us, we must be present for it. Eat with gratitude. When you place a slice of bread in your mouth, only chew on your bread and not your projects, your worries, your fears or your anger. That is the practice of Mindfulness.”
In this way, each bite we take of our breakfast becomes magical and releases us a little more from our automatic thoughts.
Going out the door
Leaving your home to go to the office is another opportunity to see the world with a fresh eye, the eye of Mindfulness. Enjoy every step of this little miracle – we are alive! There is no need to go to a meditation room. A few steps along the pavement or in your garden will reconnect you to the world around you. Appreciate the fresh air, the sky and the ground beneath your feet. Isn’t all this magical? Leaving your home is also the opportunity to walk in Mindfulness, focussing on every step you take.
Arriving at work
Once you achieve these peaceful and harmonious moments of Mindfulness at home, how can you keep them up when you reach the office? If you take public transport, you can try to remain seated and take advantage of the journey to concentrate on your breathing. Don’t keep checking your emails or your Twitter feed. In a car, when you start the engine, take a few moments to remember your intention to be calm, relaxed and conscious at the wheel.
Every red light and every stop sign are once again an opportunity to practice Mindfulness. Like the ringing of a bell, they help to draw you back to your breathing. At each stop, take several deep breaths. Red lights are your friend. They help you to take your time, to resist the alarm bells of urgency and return to yourself, to this moment in time. Mindfulness can help you to transform your travel time and arrive at work in a more relaxed state.
Chapter 3: Mindfulness at work
We are in the habit of separating work time and free time. The implicit idea is that the former is a source of suffering and the latter a source of joy. But it is possible to enjoy work and not endure work. Everything comes down to attitude. How do you behave when faced with situations and events that come up in your professional life? We devote so much time to work that it is essential to appreciate this time.
The first step is to become aware of your habits (good or bad). Among the bad habits are a tendency to hurry, to work under pressure or to try to finish whatever task you are doing as quickly as possible. By learning to live in the present moment, you can improve your resistance to stress and this permanent sense of urgency. First, by becoming aware of the habit and then releasing yourself from it through conscious breathing.
When you work Mindfully, you no longer create a hierarchy of tasks. Everything is important and requires your equal attention. So, stop rushing to finish one thing so that you can move onto another. Your relationship with time will change.
By becoming aware of breathing in and breathing out, you will bring calm and relaxation to your body and your mind. This breathing is the key to Mindfulness. The technique is both very simple and very difficult to put into genuine practice. Have you ever tried to sit down and enjoy the present moment WITHOUT DOING ANYTHING? We have integrated the habit of always being busy. We have forgotten how to simply breathe without doing anything else. And, we are incapable of remaining peaceful and serene. We constantly seek out activity and occupations. So, we are afraid to be alone in our own company. It scares us so much that we always have to be doing something.
Thich Nhat Hanh encourages us to return to ourselves and look at what is happening inside. This starts by observing your breathing. This is something simple that you can do at any time during the day. You can be in line at the post office, in your car, in a lift… Breathing is your anchor. When you become aware of your breathing, you become your breathing. You become fully present in the here and now.
Here is another gatha to guide your Mindful breathing:
When I breathe in, I am conscious of breathing in.
When I breathe out, I am conscious of breathing out.
And, when I breathe in, I am conscious of my entire body.
When I breathe out, I release all the tension.
There is no need to change your breathing. It doesn’t matter whether your breathing is shallow or deep, regular or irregular. That is not what matters. What matters is concentrating on your breathing (your nose, your throat, your lungs as they fill and empty). By becoming aware of your breathing, the flow of thoughts will stop naturally. The goal of the exercise is to stop automatic thoughts. Genuine solutions do not emerge through thoughts, but through deep intuition. Thinking about your problems is of no use. It will not resolve them. However, the connection with your breathing will allow your intuition to more easily allow itself to be felt.
Space to breathe
At the office, it can be beneficial to have a special place to return to your breathing. Once again, the size of the room or the space is of little importance. Simply set up a small space and place a photograph, an object or a fresh flower there. This visual support helps you to practice Mindful breathing. Other colleagues may be interested in trying this with you and you can move to a larger space.
A bell of Mindfulness
The Japanese bell plays an important role in reminding monks about their breathing. It is an audible support to Mindfulness. You can buy this kind of bell or install software to your computer. That is what the monks and the nuns of Plum Village where Thich Nhat Hanh teaches did. Every 15 minutes, the computer sounds a bell, reminding the monks to return to themselves and to take 3 breaths. During these moments, the body becomes the sole object of the mind’s attention. All other thoughts stop and they become more free.
All bells are the bells of Mindfulness: the telephone, an alarm, a fax machine or the sound of a lift! They are all opportunities to stop thinking.
Some people work sitting down most of the time. Think about the quality of your posture? Are you conscious of how you sit? Seated meditation is also part of Mindfulness. Once again, there is a way of sitting that changes everything. Sitting while conscious that you are sitting is the only goal in sitting! Anybody can perform this discreetly at the office There is no need to adopt the lotus position. Simply place your feet flat on the floor. Your back is straight but not leaning on the back rest. The natural curvature of the spine allows the whole body to be supported without any excess tension.
Sitting for the sake of sitting
The next time you sit at your desk, try to be aware of this simple gesture and imagine a seated Buddha. Enjoy the pleasure of sitting and breathing. This is another teaching of Mindfulness at work. When sitting, seek nothing more than the pleasure of being seated. No more, no less.
There are many opportunities throughout the day to practice Mindful walking. Mindful walking means being conscious of all the movements of the body with each step. The leg muscles, the different parts of the feet touching the ground, the weight of your body and of course, your breathing that accompanies you. When you walk to catch the bus, take out a folder or serve a dish, each step can be taken Mindfully. And each step can bring you joy. You need that joy to carry on working. Quite often, we don’t walk. We hurry. Becoming aware that we are in the habit of running everywhere is a first step. Mindful walking does not mean walking slowly. You can move quickly; what counts is being aware of what you are doing (and to enjoy walking fast!). Between two flights, two trains or two meetings, enjoy walking Mindfully.
Practice walking meditation
When you walk Mindfully, you are practising walking meditation. Your attention is drawn to your steps and your thoughts stop. There are two forms of walking meditation – one is slow and one is fast. Walking slowly is suitable for beginners in order to understand how it works. The method is simple: take a step when breathing in and take a step when breathing out (go on, try it!). Each step is taken while focussing on all the movements and the contact of your feet on the ground. You can physically feel the present moment. Each step is the only moment that exists – no past or future. This practice allows you to stop running, because you understand that only the present exists. It is a question of will, focus and attitude. You don’t need to be a Buddhist to do this. Walking is something that anyone can do.
The second method of walking is faster. It follows a natural walking pace and each breath you take in and out corresponds to two or three steps. Once again, the goal is to be fully aware and present within your body. This is a discreet practice that anyone can perform incognito at the office or on the way to the train station.
Eating at work
We often eat for reasons other than hunger. We eat because we are bored, or because we are happy or because we are tired. Also, we eat because we feel sad and under-motivated. In these moments, we are not eating food. We are eating our worries or our projects. Before eating, ask yourself why you feel this need. Are you really hungry or is it boredom or stress? Becoming aware of your emotions is a huge step.
When you eat at work, it is yet another opportunity to practice Mindfulness. Choose food that is good for you and for the planet, contemplate your food, eat it with care and appreciate what you have been given. Above all, do not eat in front of your computer!
Whatever our job, we all go to the bathroom several times a day. Thich Nhat Hanh enjoys reminding the reader of some of the names given to this location, notably restroom in US English. It is a place where you can take a break, relax, rest. It is yet again a place where you act on autopilot. And, it is yet another daily habit that can easily be transformed into a moment of Mindfulness!
Answering the phone
The ringing of the telephone is a kind of bell that can draw you back to your breathing and to the present moment. But before you answer, there is no need to hurry. Simply place your hand on the receiver and then take a breath to return completely to the present and to yourself.
Thich Nhat Hanh even suggests a gatha to recite before you make a phone call:
Words can travel over miles.
May my words create mutual understanding and love.
May they be as handsome as jewels,
As friendly as flowers.
Stress and tension build up in the body. Practising Mindfulness can help release this tension, starting with awareness of its existence! Monks and nuns learn total relaxation with Thich Nhat Hanh. Some people already practice this as part of Yoga classes or sophrology. Relaxation helps to dissipate tension and restore a sense of freshness. You can practice it at the office or when you get home from work.
For those unfamiliar with total relaxation, it is the practice of letting go. Lie on the floor, let your breathing settle, close your eyes and take a tour of your body. Be aware of each part one after another (from your toes to the top of your head). You must be present for the slightest sensation both inside and outside your body. Feel the contact with the mat, your clothing, sense tension in your muscles, etc.
Thich Nhat Hanh encourages his readers to practice total relaxation in the workplace, without waiting to go home. If you cannot lie down, you can remain seated. Close your eyes and repeat this gatha:
I breathe in and release all the tension in my body.
I breathe out and I smile at my body.
And, I breathe in and I am aware of my eyes.
I breathe out and I smile at my eyes.
(Continue in the same way with the different parts of the body)
Awareness of your body is a source of joy. It creates the right condition for happiness. Being alive and in good health is good luck and great happiness. Some people practice letting go as they walk, others do it on the bus.
Finding a home at work
As a general rule, we work with other people and we have to share a space with them. Each one of us arrives at the office with our own problems, joys and pain. Each of us must take responsibility for managing our emotions and our mental health. The quality of your work often depends on your inner state. It is reflected on the outside. If you are happy to be somewhere, it is more obvious than if you feel stressed or under an obligation. Bringing the energy of Mindfulness to the workplace creates a more harmonious working environment for ourselves and for others. Simply taking care of our inner state can be felt in our work and our working relationships.
Thich Nhat Hanh notes that often people are not really themselves in the workplace. They are scared, they fear rejection, they are afraid of not fitting in, so they pretend. This is a tragedy – it takes them away from themselves. A flower does not know this kind of fear. No other animal knows it, except Humans. We must learn to accept ourselves for who we are. We will never be more beautiful that when we are being ourselves.
The island of a self
This practice comes from Buddha himself. When he reached the age of 80, Buddha explained to his disciples that an inner island existed in each of them. This island remains stable and firm in the deepest part of ourselves. We can go to it whenever necessary. We reach the island by concentrating on our breathing. And we find a safe space there. It feeds us and strengthens us. Entering into yourself, taking care of your strong emotions, breathing and welcoming whatever emerges: anger, sadness, despair, joy or excitement. You must recognise the emotions that appear. Welcome them and cradle them tenderly.
Mindfulness is an energy that you can generate whenever you feel the need. It will help you to take care of your emotions and your body. It is not about fighting emotions. They are a part of you. Welcoming them means becoming aware of them, naming them, feeling them for what they are and for however long they exist inside you. An emotion does not last forever. It will go away sooner or later.
Handling strong emotions at work
It is very important to learn how to manage your own emotions in order to maintain a pleasant working environment for yourself and for others. There are different ways to learn how to manage your emotions. The best is to start outside the workplace. You can then use what you have learned whenever emotions bubble up.
The first practice that Thich Nhat Hanh recommends is to recognise and name the emotions whenever they appear. Emotions are inconstant. You need to handle them when they appear. When you become aware of them, focus is placed on breathing. Perhaps your mind will take you to the external factor that caused the emotion to arise. Your intention, however, is to stay focussed on yourself. Breathing calms you down. Simply observe it.
Walking meditation and strong emotions
Walking to manage your emotions is also a good solution. When frustration, anger or resentment appear, get up and go for a short walk. You have the ability to transform your negative mental perception and all that energy. Thich Nhat Hanh advises remaining silent when anger surges. Say nothing and immediately go for a walk. People often speak when in the grip of emotions and this can lead to saying something you later regret. Mindfulness opens a door to manage outbursts. It is not about blocking anger, but allowing it to pass through you and trying to cause as little damage as possible while it lasts.
Dealing with anger
In difficult relationships, the blame is never all on one side. Two people are always both responsible for tensions. There is a way to act on your anger. That is also your responsibility! When anger surges, here is a gatha that you can recite while focussing on your breathing:
I breathe in and I know that anger is inside me.
I breathe out and I am going to care for my anger.
Only once you have looked at your anger can you see more deeply into the reasons behind the feeling of anger.
Restoring good communication at work
Thich Nhat Hanh encourages each of us to avoid reacting and to never speak when in the grip of anger. This does not mean that you are condemned to feel powerless. Within 24 hours, it is important to talk about the situation with the people involved in order to express your own needs. Keeping anger bottled up inside serves no purpose. It can even be damaging. It is important to inform other people about your anger and your suffering. You can then ask for explanations or for a discussion in order to smooth things over.
Practising the peace treaty
The Peace Treaty is a concept that Thich Nhat Hanh is very attached to. This is a genuine short agreement to sign up to with yourself or with your family or professional entourage. The text of the peace treaty is in Thich Nhat Hanh’s book. The text is a good basis on which to recommit to not reacting or speaking when you are feeling angry. This text can defuse many kinds of tense situations.
Riding the storm
Recognising emotions also allows you to release them and you can regain control of the situation. You will no longer feel that automatic thoughts govern you and cause you suffering. Mindful breathing frees you from the vicious circle that your mind leads you into. When you are overwhelmed by strong emotions, stop thinking and focus on your breathing.
The more you think about the situation that is the source of the emotion, the stronger the emotion becomes. So stop thinking. You need to concentrate fully on your breathing. The stronger the emotion, the more your mind will take you away from yourself. We are like trees. During a storm, the branches of the trees shake violently, but the trunk remains steadfast and stable. Our thoughts are like branches that are thrown around by the wind. Our breathing is the trunk. Of course, the more you practice Mindful breathing, the easier it is to use it during the storm.
Your thoughts, words and actions bear your signature
Mindfulness takes a cue from the popular adage: Think before you act. Think twice before you speak. What do you want to be remembered about you? Are those words deserving of your signature? Like an artist recognising a work of art and signing their name to it, we all need to take responsibility for our thoughts that lead to our words and deeds. Negative thoughts lead to negative words and deeds that make us suffer and make those around us suffer. Mindfulness helps you to transform negative mental processes to produce positive ones.
The way we behave will have an echo on others. A person with a negative attitude will send out negative messages to the people around them. A positive person will give other people a positive image of themselves. Words are particularly important. Always ask yourself what effect your words may have. Do they offer a message of peace?
This practice designates words expressed Mindfully. They have an intention of love, compassion and mutual understanding. The general idea is to choose words and ideas that avoid criticising, blaming, accusing, judging, etc. The goal of loving speech is to inspire confidence, joy, love and understanding between people. To do this, you have to be prepared to listen. Communication is central. It helps the people involved to change their incorrect perceptions and have a clearer view of the situation.
Not everyone is ready to hear loving speech (or use it). These are often people who have suffered a lot and no longer believe in genuine compassion. They are wounded and mistrustful. But with patience, little by little, confidence can return and with it, communication.
We don’t really listen to other people. We often look for solutions to their problems, or the right answer or piece of advice. As we are afraid that other people expect something from us and we want to get out in front of their demands. In fact, most of the time, a person who is suffering does not expect advice. They just want someone to be there for them, to simply listen to what they have to say.
Therefore, the only intention you should have is to give that person a space in which to express themselves! It is very rare for us to keep that space and that kind of listening available without interruption. As you listen, Thich Nhat Hanh advises remaining connected to your breathing and not to make any efforts. The quality of listening is essential in order for the communication to be best and to avoid hurting the other person.
Meetings can be a source of tension, stress and conflict. Even for the monks at Plum Village! Thich Nhat Hanh tells us about the practices that the monks have put in place to maintain a harmonious environment during meetings:
- Before a meeting begins, everyone calmly takes a seat and turns to themselves through breathing. The monks listen to a bell ring, then a text is read out that reminds of the importance of deep listening and loving speech in order to remain open and respect other people’s points of view and to remain detached from our own opinions. Our attachment to our opinions can be a cause of great suffering and it can impede how the group functions. Most of the time, the monks seek consensus.
- During the meeting, the monks practice loving speech and deep listening. Each person speaks in turn and is not interrupted. The others listen and try to understand what he or she is saying and what is left in silence. Questions are put to the whole group and discussed.
Chapter 4: Coming home
I have arrived, I am home
When we get home, our heads are often filled with the worries and annoyances of the day. We can feel tired and cross. Our body has suffered during the day because we have not taken care of its tension, uncomfortable postures or the toxins that we have consumed (food, violent images, etc.). Once again, it all comes down to attitude. When you get home, you can take the time to arrive, to be fully present for yourself and for those around you.
Coming home to ourselves
If you feel a lot of stress and you work a lot, there is probably a breakdown in communication between your body and your mind. Your body is your primary dwelling place. It is important to take care of it and to listen to it. To feel at home also means being available to yourself. Nobody wants to live in an untidy and dirty house. In the same way, nobody wants to contemplate a mind that is overloaded and filled with suffering. And yet, it is your only true home.
There is no other. Feelings that are difficult to manage, annoyances, projects or worries keep us distant from ourselves. Your suffering alienates you from yourself. You need to come home to yourself. Mindfulness can help you. Even if you only change 1 or 2% of your negative habits, the start will give you confidence and fill you with joy. By taking care of ourselves, we also take care of our family. Our inner joy will resonate outside.
Wherever you are, whatever you do, you must be present 100% Thich Nhat Hanh compares this to the role of a king governing his country. A king cannot allow himself to be absent when it comes to running his country. He cannot be there 50%. Our kingdom is our mind. Even if it seems difficult and tiring to be the “king”, it is the only solution. We often turn away. We refuse to take responsibility for caring for ourselves. The first thing to do to come home to yourself is to recognise your own limits. You cannot do everything. Your body and your energy have limits. You need to learn to take care of yourself to continue to live and work in a healthy way.
A breathing room
A room where you can breathe and take some time to be present for yourself is just as important at the office as it is in the home. It can be a real room or just a corner of an office that is set up so that you can remind yourself of Thich Nhat Hanh’s advice: sit and breathe. This is something that people can do together, as a family with your children for example. Enjoy simply spending time sitting together.
Most of the time, when we get home from work, all we want to do is rest. Unfortunately the time slot between 6 and 9pm is often the busiest one of all. You have to do the shopping, prepare the evening meal, put on washing, bathe the children, etc. You can view these household activities as an additional burden, or you can see them as a new opportunity to practice Mindfulness. First, take time to sit down and refocus before getting into the household tasks and performing them Mindfully. If you are in a hurry to wash, peel and cook, then you will not be present in your gestures and you will suffer for this. Mindfulness helps us to appreciate the evening activities. Set up small rituals too. This can help you to find enjoyment and relaxation as you carry out the tasks.
Many people confuse joy and happiness with excitement. They are not the same thing! Joy and happiness bring satisfaction. They can be found in any daily task. They are emotions that you can generate whenever you need them. Simply look around you. Everything you need to be happy is already there.
Chapter 5: A new way of working
In western countries, success can never be achieved without competition. We feel that we have succeeded when we get the best score, the highest grade, a bigger sales figure. We are in competition with our peers. This way of seeing things is at odds with a principle dear to Buddhism that Thich Nhat Hanh describes as: non-discrimination. According to this principle, no difference exists between me and others. If one suffers, all suffer.
As the right hand is inseparable from the left hand, all people are joined together. From this point of view, in a competitive system, there can be no winner. The suffering required to get to the top is too great to allow people to appreciate their situation with joy and serenity. This does not mean that we are all equal and interchangeable. Each individual is different, has different skills and talents, a particular way of doing things. Thich Nhat Hanh encourages us to work together rather than against one another.
The three powers
We tend to think that authority, strength, arms, money or celebrity are forms of power. There is no handbook on how to use that power correctly and it often makes people unhappy. In the Buddhist tradition, there are three powers that have nothing to do with the ones above.
- Power number 1: Understanding Understanding your own suffering and that of others is a first step towards making that suffering go away. By breathing and using the energy of Mindfulness, you can face up to your suffering and trace its origin. This will allay the anger, sadness and fear inside.
- Power number 2: Love (or compassion). The energy of love has no limit and it can help you to overcome many obstacles. When somebody hurts you, you can react in one of two ways. You may want to punish them or you may want to offer them your love and understanding. In other words, you can recognise that this person acted in this way because they are in great suffering. Once you perceive suffering in others, there is no more room for anger or vengeance.
- Power number 3: Letting go. The final power is very powerful because it involves detaching yourself from your concerns, your fears and your anger. Letting go can free you. You can understand that it is possible to be happy here and now and that your desire to fix certain problems is only pushing back that moment.
The three powers in business
These three powers, in contrast to the other ones we mentioned, will never make anyone suffer. Whatever your profession, every day that goes by offers the opportunity to cultivate the power of understanding, compassion and forgiveness. We all have the power inside us to transform our negative emotions and everything that afflicts us into something positive. Places of business are often places of tension and strong emotions, such as anger, the spirit of revenge, scorn and worry. If you apply the three powers to yourself and to those around you, you can contribute to changing the overall atmosphere. Employees and employers have everything to gain by this.
Balancing happiness and profit: 4 business models
Thich Nhat Hanh is convinced that it is possible for businesses to focus on happiness and well-being instead of limiting themselves to simply making a profit. The monk takes the example of his own organisation: the Plum Village monastery in the South of France. This community works like a business. It welcomes visitors, it organises retreats, and it has a shop. It generates income that it redistributes to a number of charitable works and it functions with a variety of stakeholders, etc. Despite all these outside activities, the monastery remains focussed on happiness. That is the mission of the monks and their primary business model. Happiness is what this community exists for. They would never sacrifice it in exchange for material success.
A second business model could offer as much importance to happiness as to profit. The third model only takes profit into consideration. It leads to a lot of suffering. Finally, in the fourth model, there is no profit and no happiness!
A new work ethic
In order for a workplace to function well, there has to be a code of conduct that everyone accepts. Most of the time it is tacit and it does not target the well-being of the teams. Thich Nhat Hanh encourages us to reconsider this code of conduct. What do we expect from our working relations? What do we expect from our employees? Can we imagine a workplace that is based on an ethic of mutual understanding, compassion and letting go? Mindfulness offers us the opportunity to reflect on our behaviour at work along with what we might call our professional culture.
Practising the 5 Mindfulness Trainings
At Plum Village, the 5 Trainings of Mindfulness represent the overall ethical vision of the community. This is neither a religion nor an obligation. The Trainings form an ethic for the modern world with a view to preserving life and happiness on earth.
Here is the list:
1° Respect for life: do not kill, do not let humans or animals be killed
2° True happiness: differentiate between internal causes of happiness and external causes
3° Genuine love: or compassion
4° Loving speech and deep listening: know how to listen and understand. First with yourself, and then with those around you.
5° Food and Health: awareness of the consumerism around you and the suffering it causes can make you decide to pay attention to your own consumption, food or other (films, clothes, TV shows, etc.).
The 5 Trainings can serve as the basis on which to build a work ethic. You can also apply them inside your family. These 5 principles are all based on a concept of interdependence. We are all joined together and suffering or happiness in one person will spread to those around. Happiness is not an individual question. Happiness depends on what is around us: friends, family, our neighbourhood, our professional environment.
Perhaps other people in your company are asking themselves similar questions. Thich Nhat Hanh encourages readers to reach out to their colleagues to establish a work ethic together. Your happiness affects your work and those around you.
We have enough
Whatever your professional situation, you can decide to be happy at work right now. There is no point in waiting for the future. Mindful breathing, being present for your body and what it is feeling will allow you to be fully present. We are always looking to the future to find the right conditions for happiness. We do not take the time to open our eyes and see that the conditions are already right, here and now. So, we must become aware that the favourable conditions are already in place. This is the first step towards happiness.
Three methods for nourishing happiness
- The first method is to become aware of the conditions for happiness that are already in place around you. Thich Nhat Hanh invites readers to make a list. Being aware of them is a start to enjoying them.
- The second method involves comparing the current situation with a genuinely painful situation in the past (grief, illness, accident, etc.). All of a sudden, our complaints disappear and the present moment appears so much sweeter. Everything is relative.
- The third method teaches us to remain focused on the present moment and to live with happiness and suffering, because you cannot have one without the other. As the lotus grows in the mud, the seed of happiness is already sprouting in suffering. There is no point in fighting against suffering or trying to resist it. It only asks to be heard and cradled, like a crying baby. It is only by becoming aware of your suffering that you open the path to joy and happiness.
Searching for the right means to make a living means working in a way that maintains your ideal of compassion and understanding. That way, you will be satisfied and completed by your profession. Choose the way you want to exist, in relation to yourself and to others. It is important to know yourself and to know what makes you happy in life. That way, you can choose a profession that helps you contribute to the overall happiness of the planet. Your choices are what make the universe.
The spiritual dimension of work
Thich Nhat Hanh tells the story of a discussion that he once had with an engineer who worked on the development of nuclear weapons. The engineer was profoundly conscious that his work could have destructive consequences. He was conscious of what he was doing and tried to do his job in the most ethical way possible. He confessed to Thich Nhat Hanh that he hoped to change jobs soon, because the one he had did not correspond to his profound hope for peace. In the meantime, he did his job. And Thich Nhat Hanh encouraged him to continue. It is better to be a man who is conscious of his job that a man who is unconscious of the scope of his actions, whatever the profession, whatever the place. We are the work we do.
For Thich Nhat Hanh, the job you do does not really matter. We all share co-responsibility for this job and what it brings to the world. Many professions are essential to all of society, even if they lead to suffering. By taking responsibility for these jobs together, things can change. Thich Nhat Hanh takes the example of the butcher (bearing in mind that Buddhists are vegetarian in accordance with the First Training which is not to kill). The butcher is not the only one responsible for killing animals.
He shares it with the rest of the community when he provides them with a means of subsistence. What counts is to not become a machine or an automaton. What counts is maintaining your compassion intact. Perhaps it is easier to develop your compassion in a profession that appears better suited to it (being a doctor, for example). But whatever your situation, you can find a way to create more well-being at work, starting now.
A collective awakening
Each of us can contribute to the world and to happiness in the world starting with your daily work. The capacity for compassion and understanding can be found in every one of us. If we start to change the way we work and how we behave at work today, we are contributing to a collective change to bring more well-being to Earth.
Creating community at work
After implementing some Mindful practices at work, perhaps some of your colleagues will show an interest or be curious to try for themselves. The energy generated by Mindfulness in a group is very powerful. It can transform your work environment. But the first step, the one you must never miss, is Mindfulness applied to yourself at every moment of your life.
A community is important. It helps us in times of doubt, when life throws accidents and crises your way. The community (or Sangha) offers a place where you can rest and restore yourself. The energy of Mindfulness is stronger when it is part of a group.
Chapter 6: 30 ways to reduce stress at work
- Start the day with 10 minutes of seated meditation
- Rejoice that you are alive and have 24 new hours to discover
- Take the time to eat your breakfast at home
- Keep a Gratitude Book in which you write down the good things that happened during the day
- Take stairs and walk up steps in a Mindful way
- Use time spent on the bus and in public transport to practice Mindfulness and letting go
- Switch off your telephone during car rides, at break-time or when you travel
- Use your travel time to rejoice in your own existence, nature and the world around you (and don’t be glued to your phone and miss everything happening around you)
- Use traffic lights as bells of Mindfulness that call you to relax and refocus on your breathing
- Set up a small corner of your office to be a place to breathe. Take Mindful breaks there regularly.
Download the sound of a bell to give you breaks and help you return to your body Relax your shoulders!
- Take three breaths before you answer the telephone. It is not an emergency!
- Do total relaxation at work for 5 or 10 minutes to restore your energy levels
- Eat in a Mindful way at lunchtime
- Wash your dishes or your coffee cup in silence and remain focused!
- Make your tea or coffee break a ritual and appreciate every sip
- Leave your car in the garage once a week and use a bicycle or public transport to get your body moving
- Try not to create opposition between free time and time spent at work. They are both valuable and pleasant moments
- Change your work environment to make it more agreeable
- Before you go into a meeting, visualise a calm and serene person — Take refuge inside that person to remain calm and serene during the meeting
- If a strong emotion wells up inside you during the meeting, take a break. Leave the meeting and walk to the restroom in a Mindful way.
- If anger or irritation bubble up, do not speak. Return to your breathing, then go for a walk to take care of your emotions
- Look upon every colleague, co-worker, supervisor or employee as an ally and not as an enemy Working together offers more satisfaction than working alone.
- Relax before you enter your home. That way, you will not bring any negative energy accumulated during the day into your house
- Engage in mono-tasking. Recognise that multi-tasking means that you are not genuinely present. Do just one thing at a time
- Do not eat at your desk. Get a change of scenery. Go for a walk.
- Recognise positive things and express your gratitude
- Start a meditation group at work
Conclusions about “Work. How to find joy and meaning in each hour of the day.”
I really enjoyed reading this book. It gave me lots of little ideas that I can put into practice throughout the day. I love the really simple ideas like taking advantage of a red light to relax your shoulders, or being fully present when eating a snack. We often eat in a hurry as we prepare for a meeting, or hunched over our smartphones. The short paragraphs used in the book are all reminders to return to the present. Life is a marvellous thing, wherever you may be.
I am in two minds, however. I wonder whether the book is not a little too short or even simplistic in certain places. Also, I find it hard to picture myself lying on the floor in the workplace, even for just 5 or 10 minutes. There simply isn’t room! Sometimes the ideas could do with being expanded, and some more concrete examples would be welcome. The book gives an impression of speed, skirting over a way of thinking that is essentially very deep and very rich. Perhaps readers who are not familiar with Thich Nhat Hanh’s thinking will feel a little lost. It is true that the principles are not fully developed. I think it is worth reading other books by this great Zen master to complement this little breviary.
- Practical ideas that can be used every day
- A short, sharp message
- Soothing reading
- Not dogmatic
- Very open-minded and tolerant towards every situation and every profession
- The major principles of Thich Nhat Hanh’s thinking are not explained
- A feeling that it is simply touching on questions, repetitive
- Some ideas are difficult to put into practice in the workplace
My rating :
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