A Zoom Call With a Buddhist Monk
Last week I had a Zoom call with a Buddhist monk in Thailand. It was offered as part of a 3-day virtual meditation retreat I participated in. Before the call, I spent an hour organizing and prioritizing my questions (I had quite a few). After all, how often does one get a 1:1 consultation with a monk? On Zoom? As I sat with these questions, the main theme that kept bubbling up to the top was this: how can we integrate ancient teachings on mindfulness into the modern fast-paced world that we live in? And how does this also apply to the modern workplace?
While I am not Buddhist, I appreciate their ancient teachings on mindfulness and their practices like meditation. I first discovered Buddhist teachings and meditation when I lived in San Francisco, around 2011, after I took a class called “Search Inside Yourself” offered at Google. I loved how the teacher, who also wrote the book, led with the science and the evidence of the benefits of meditation. Over the years, I have tried many different ways of practicing mindfulness in the workplace with varying degrees of success. In the fast-paced world we live in, it feels nearly impossible to stay mindful all the time.
I’ve consumed a huge amount of books, courses, and podcasts on mindfulness, non-attachment, and meditation. I practice meditating daily. What I find is that meditation helps, but it is often not enough to help me be more mindful at work (especially when there are fires that need to be put out). On a good day, I’m able to create more space between stimulus and reaction and be more mindful about how I respond to things. On a bad day, I power through work and navigate bullets like Neo from the Matrix.
So the conversation I really wanted to have with the monk was this: How do you really practice mindfulness realistically in the modern world? Could he give me some tactical things to practice? What transpired from that 30-minute call is outlined below. Enjoy and leave me a comment if you have any follow-up questions or thoughts.
#1 – A Daily Practice To Start Your Day
One of the first things the monk started with was this: We are not guaranteed another night to go to sleep or another day to live. It’s easy to forget that death is all our destination and we never know when we will get there. We spend so much time worrying about the future and over-thinking everything. Instead, if we really treated each day as a gift and as our last possible day, we start to make very different choices about how we spend the day. More likely than not, getting through your entire work to-do list doesn’t mean as much.
The daily practice that he suggested was the following: reflect on your values and what you are most proud of about yourself. You can take that anywhere with you, and it doesn’t matter what job title you have. As you enter your workday, practice coming from your values and things you’re most proud of that you can contribute in your job. Smile to strangers. Be kind to your teammates. Don’t take things too seriously. Help others. Be kind to yourself. Keep it joyful.
A nuance to the exercise above is this: once you start focusing on your values and how you can contribute to others, you might not be optimizing for the same things in your day-to-day. You might not be pushing to get a deadline met or signing up for an impossible amount of work for your teams. You might start to choose to slow down, say no to more things, and focus on doing a few things very well. As you start doing this, in my experience, you will notice your relationships with colleagues change to be much more human and positive. You realize it’s not worth it to stress the 25 things on your list versus the 3 that matter the most for the business. Prioritization will become your friend to create space in your work conversations and pace.
This sounds really basic, but it’s actually something very few of us do. Life, especially now, can feel like a rollercoaster. If we started each day like this, could it feel a little less chaotic and a little more peaceful? If it could make it just 10% more tolerable, would you give it a try with me?
#2 – Time Allocation and Discipline
The monk talked about the 4 pillars for a happy life:
While those pillars of life have always been important throughout our history, modern technology has altered the way in which we prioritize these things. To take back control over our lives, he said it ultimately comes down to time management and routines. As a monk, he lives on a fixed schedule: regular bed time, regular wake-up time, regular routines. He then did some quick math on a 24 hour-day for most people: a third goes towards sleep (8), a third goes towards work (8), a third goes towards everything else (8). If you’re working longer than 8 hours a day then you’re eating into that other bucket, which means you’re sacrificing something: health, relationships, spirituality. More often than not, health is the first one to go. If there is anything the pandemic has taught us, it’s that health and self-care are critical for everyone’s well-being and for healthy workplaces.
“The Dalai Lama, when asked what surprised him most about humanity, answered “Man! Because he sacrifices his health in order to make money. Then he sacrifices money to recuperate his health. And then he is so anxious about the future that he does not enjoy the present; the result being that he does not live in the present or the future; he lives as if he is never going to die, and then dies having never really lived.”
So really look at how you are spending your time versus how you plan to spend your time. Where are there opportunities to re-allocate time? How are you doing against the 4 pillars and are you treating them with equal respect?
#3 – On The Environments We Choose
The monk’s personal background was that he was a law school student, then a hotel manager, then a flight attendant, then became a monk. Due to his experience working in corporate environments, I asked him: “Would you be able to practice your current way of being if you hadn’t become a monk?” The answer was honest: “Probably not. It’s possible to practice mindfulness in workplaces where there is a culture of clear roles, little politics, and a manageable pace. If not, it becomes very hard to practice mindfulness in the workplace. Which is why I ultimately left.”
I appreciated his honesty. It’s the continued struggle that many of us have in the corporate world: it’s easier to think like a monk when we are in a slow period or on vacation. In hyper-competitive environments with business pressure, it’s less likely to happen. In some cultures, you’ll get left behind for being different.
The silver lining in this is this: the culture and the system that you are in makes a big difference. Think about your company: Is there a culture of trust or fear? Is there a culture of honesty or ambiguity? Is there a culture of genuine collaboration of diverse people or of competition and moats?
As a mindful leader, you have a few options. Either use your influence to improve the environment for your teams… or you find an environment that allows you to lead the way you want to. The monk made it clear that each day is a gift and each day is a series of choices we make. He said one of the choices is what kind of work you choose to participate in.
Both options are fine, as long as you know what you’re signing up for. It all comes down to choice.