This week we observed Labor Day, a holiday that began in the late 1880’s as a way to honor the Labor Force in the industrially burgeoning United States. Its original intention was quite simple: to recognize the efforts and esprit de corps of those whose blood, sweat and toil were literally building the life we now know with their bare hands.
In today’s difficult economic times, gainful employment is not a given. “I don’t have a job”, How can I get a job”, “There are no jobs in my field”….this is the reality for many. There is high unemployment and underemployment. So before we attempt to turn our attention to more esoteric thought in an attempt to raise the level of rhetoric around the subject of work, we must first acknowledge the obvious: if we are gainfully employed and financially compensated for that work, we might begin by finding gratitude for whatever job that may be, even if we don’t like it, or it is not the perfect fit, or we don’t like our boss. More easily said than done, I know. Life, like Yoga, is not always rainbows and butterflies.
As B.K.S. Iyengar said in Light on Life, “the life of a householder is difficult and always has been”. Even for those of us that are employed, not all of us are lucky enough to have a job we love, that is satisfying to us, pays generously, or is populated by supervisors or management teams that appreciate or recognize our efforts. In these circumstances we might feel we are justified to complain, quit (if we are able) or put forth less than our best effort in a feeble attempt at retaliation. This is where practices such as meditation and yoga can help assuage the discontent. Meditation, we know, relieves stress. Yoga creates both strength and flexibility in mind and body. It also builds mental stamina and resilience. We become more easily able to transcend the circular, limited nature of negative thought due to the larger point of view we have cultivated. We realize over time that water cooler gossip is toxic and decide in our own best interest to opt out.
The Bhagavad Gita, the ancient Yoga scripture, uses a conversation between a young warrior and God to illustrate how each of us has a role to play in this birth we have chosen, explains that we all have a purpose to fulfill and it is our duty to do so. Arjuna, the hero, doesn’t want to fight in the battle that sets the tableau for the story, but fight he must, and for two reasons: first, given his warrior caste, it was literally what he was born to do; and second, by fighting he was in acting in service of the greater good, which should always prevail and guide our actions instead of succumbing to the desires of the ego. A calling this clear and deep, where one’s occupation is essentially a reflection of the essence of who one is, is what we refer to in Yoga as “dharma” (More on that in the next installment of this blog).
But what if, as mentioned in the opening paragraphs, our employment isn’t our dharma? What if we aren’t a warrior prince? What if we are a just regular person, trying to make a living, create a life or a family or both, maybe even just trying to get through the day? How do we keep ourselves motivated to stay in a job that might not be our ideal?
I believe the answer to this lies in two places, both of which are completely within our control: our intention and our attitude. Ghandi said, “The end is inherent in the means.” This might be interpreted as negative intention cannot produce a positive result. Alternatively, we might see it like this: bringing a higher intention to an element that is low elevates its result through the power of evolved thought. For example, perhaps you have a job that supports your family, the jewels in the lotus of your heart. Your job then serves an honorable and elevated purpose; it keeps those that you treasure above all else secure, safe and nourished. Like Arjuna, your selfless actions are for the greater good. And so by remaining in that employ, you are a living instrument of devotion and service. Embodied bhakti. Using this as the paradigm makes it easier to do your best, to remain unattached to the results of your work, pleasant or not. Here is another example, not uncommon in the Yoga community: a woman I know has a successful career in the publishing business and began practicing Yoga years ago to relieve stress and stay healthy and fit. As time went on, her love of the practice grew, and she became certified to teach, which she now does part time. She would love to teach full time, but her “day job” pays for the home that she loves, sends her traveling all over the world ( where she experiences different styles of Yoga that in turn expands her depth and breadth as a teacher); even the many trips she has taken to New York actually provided the opportunity for to pursue her certification. So in this case, what she thought was an impediment to her calling is actually supporting it! One more thing: in her secular career role, she now has more patience, compassion and creativity, and her adherence to the Yamas and Niyamas in her work make her a beautiful moral model for the other employees of the company. A win-win, when approached from the right perspective.
In the end, no matter what our job, it can become our service. An opportunity for us to learn life lessons and practice our beliefs. No effort is ever wasted. Knowing this can help us create peace around whatever it is that we do, whatever service we perform, whatever occupational role we play. And if we forget, we can always turn to our spiritual practices to shepherd us through those challenging times and remind us of this once again.