Buddha’s Office is the latest book by my friend, Dan Zigmond, who is a buddhist monk with a day job. I’ve worked with him at two companies (a rare pleasure): he’s a computer scientist turned data scientist turned leader. I have always admired his calm demeanor, his gentle but insightful arguments, and wondered how he manages to stay calm through intense situations. In this book, he gives a lot of practical advice on applying Buddhist principles toward that essential part of life: work.

Buddha's Office cover

Awakening

Buddhist philosophy centers around the concept of leading an Awakened life - one where we are fully in the moment, accepting and appreciating life in all it’s aspects, without allowing ourselves to get sucked in by pain and unpleasantness.

Life is dukkha, which is often translated as “pain” but could be better interpreted as “struggle.”

We can run away from pain and suffering by avoiding it and chasing fun instead. It never lasts. And as soon as we know it’s not going to last, it stops being as much fun.

We can go the other extreme, and surround ourselves with suffering, inflicting it to the maximum possible extent. This doesn’t work either - all it accomplishes is making ourselves more miserable.

There is a middle path, built around acceptance.

Instead of running away from or toward pain, you accept it. By accepting that life involves pain, but pain doesn’t fully define life, you rob it of its power.

In other words, it is all about balance.

In the workplace, we all run into obstacles and setbacks. We don’t seek them out, but we can’t avoid them. Perhaps we didn’t get that job we really wanted, or the promotion we thought we deserved, or someone else got selected to work on the project we were really excited about, or our boss or colleague or customer treated us poorly, or we’re up against an impossible deadline, or just had a shitty day. These things happen.

The key to awakening is not to avoid problems or to ignore them. It is to accept that they happen and move on.

Practices

The rest of the book is about practical advice to apply the above theory to work.

1. Mindfulness

Buddha preached the Eightfold Path to Awakening:

  1. Right views
  2. Right intention
  3. Right speech
  4. Right action
  5. Right livelihood
  6. Right effort
  7. Right mindfulness
  8. Right concentration.

Mindfulness is the one that underpins the entire Eightfold Path.

Mindfulness is the state of being attentive to and aware of what is taking place in the present.

Meditation is the way we practice mindfulness.

2. Beginner’s Mind

A beginner’s mind is an empty and ready mind: it is open to everything and full of possibilities.

Becoming an expert is appealing, especially at work. We like to feel competent and capable, we don’t like making mistakes. However, an expert mind can be narrow, less open to other ideas and possibilities, leading to carelessness and inattention.

We have all experienced a Beginner’s Mind at some point: starting a new job, embarking on a new project. That feeling of incompetence, the certainty of making mistakes. We can use this energy, this acceptance of not knowing, toward becoming great.

Tricks to cultivate a Beginner’s Mind at work:

  1. Take a break. Perhaps the most effective way to snap out of monotony.
  2. Change the task. We all have a number of things to do. Rotate between tasks to keep things fresh.
  3. Change the setting. Desk work getting hard? Move to the library. Need to do some thinking? Go on a walk.
  4. Work with new people. Are you an expert? Team up with someone that is just starting out. Are you the novice? Work with a master.
  5. Get a hobby. Learning something new outside the workplace will give you a fresh perspective and self-awareness that you can bring to your day job.

Finally, resting and taking a break is really important: both during the day, but more importantly after work.

3. Exercise

Do regular exercise. Physical activity improves literally everything.

4. Sleep

Buddha worried a lot more about his disciples sleeping too much. In today’s world, the problem is too little sleep. Tips to improve your sleep:

  1. Meditation. This helps everything.
  2. No phones or electronic devices at night. This includes e-readers, such as the kindle.
  3. Darkness. Use a mask if your surroundings don’t allow complete darkness.
  4. Naps. If you can’t get enough sleep at night, take short naps during the day.

5. Diet

  1. Eat mindfully. Don’t eat at your desk.
  2. Avoid alcohol. Alcohol and work absolutely do not mix.

6. Speech

Right Speech is an integral part of the Eightfold Path. Buddha suggested asking the following questions before speaking:

  1. Is it true?
  2. Is it helpful?
  3. Is now the right time?
  4. Is it kind?

“One should speak confident, measured words, clear in meaning, delighting the mind, pleasing to the ear, soft and slow, and stemming from compassion.”

— Kate Crosby and Andrew Skilton, The Bodhicaryavatra

This is a good test for any speech. When delivering or receiving criticism, Dan suggests a few more things to keep in mind.

  1. Timeliness is key, whether we’re sharing praise or dispraise.
  2. Show care for the person, save criticism for the work.
  3. Build trust by caring about your colleagues every day.
  4. Accept criticism as a reflection of your work, not your self, even if the criticizing coworker is not skilled at making that distinction.

7. Discussions, Decisions, and Meetings

Rules of argumentation and disagreement:

  1. Don’t be a bully. If someone is questioning you about something, it is never the right response to “crush him, ridicule him, and seize upon a slight error.”
  2. Focus on ideas, not people. It doesn’t matter who’s right — it matters what’s right. There is no value in scoring rhetorical points, or exploiting some unintended misstatement.
  3. Summarize the opposing point of view. This is a good exercise to make sure you understand your opponent’s perspective and argument. Sometimes it even results in one changing their mind!

Meetings are how a lot of modern work gets done. Meetings are one of two types:

  1. Decision making meetings. Clear goal (make a decision), small audience, required participation, active and lively meeting.
  2. Information sharing meetings. Wider audience, more passive meeting. These meetings are still necessary, in the age of email and Slack, because reading fails to convey emotion and nuance.

Tips for effective meetings:

  1. No interruptions. Interruptions are contagious, but waiting your turn to speak, and indicating that you’d like to - is contagious as well!
  2. Everyone gets to speak (in decision making meetings). No one monopolizes the conversation. If the meeting was correctly constructed, everyone was invited for a reason. There should be no pure spectators.
  3. Follow the rules of disagreement 👆🏽
  4. Make a decision. Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good enough.

8. Burnout

Do. Or do not. There is no try. — Master Yoda, Definitely Not a Buddhist.

Unlike Yoda, Buddhists believe in trying. Buddha worried about laziness, and knew that anything worth doing takes effort, and that includes everything from career advancement to spiritual awakening.

A constant striving can lead to burnout. Techniques to avoid burnout:

  1. Spend at least twenty percent of your time on the aspect of your work you love.
  2. Morning ritual: make a list of things you are going to accomplish that day. Writing it down helps stay motivated and remember everything you set out to do.
  3. Evening ritual: reflect back on your day. How did you spend your time? What did you accomplish? Did you get to the parts of your job you love?

Other techniques mentioned above — eating well, sleeping, meditation, exercise — all contribute to reducing the chances of burnout.

9. Breathe

Everyone has bad days.

Everyone has days when all the real problems feel like more than you can handle. Things to do when work gets overwhelming:

  1. Trust your colleagues. You don’t have to do everything. Imagine that you got sick or had an accident. Is the company going to grind to a halt? Unlikely.
  2. Don’t fight for work. If someone wants to do a particular task, let them. Don’t get territorial. Accept help when it’s offered. There are very few tasks that you must do yourself.
  3. Admit your limitations. Don’t exude confidence all the way to the deadline and then fail. Let people know and be vulnerable. Tell your boss, let them help you.
  4. Breathe. Breathing isn’t limited to mindfulness meditation. You can use breathing throughout the day as a means of overcoming stress and despair.

10. Work-Life Balance

Buddha avoided the question of “work-life balance” by entirely renouncing both work and home life.

Work is a part of life. Life has many parts that need to be balanced. In addition to our careers and personal lives, there’s sleep, wakefulness, activity and rest, friends and family, social connection and solitude. Balancing the time we spend in and out of work is only one of many tradeoffs and not necessarily the hardest or the most important. Make conscious choices in seeking out this balance. The likelihood of finding the perfect balance is low, but the chances of stumbling upon it by pure chance are zero.

Keep in mind that asking this very question is a privilege. For much of human history, and for a large part of the world, working is a matter of subsistence and survival. If you’re able to exercise control over when and how much you’re working, you’re already one of the lucky ones.

11. You Are Not Your Job

This chapter made the whole book worthwhile for me. It spoke to me in a way that nothing else on this subject has before.

You don’t exist.

Imagine your car. It exists. It’s got wheels and an engine and seats and a steering wheel and everything. It is your Car.

Now let’s say we replace a wheel. Is it still your Car? Yes.

What if we replace all 4 wheels and the seats? Maybe.

What if we slowly replaced every single part in the car? Is it still your Car? Or just some other car that happens to occupy the same physical space? Maybe not.

If it’s not your car anymore, when did it stop being your car? If you can’t point to a specific moment when it stopped being your car, then it could not have been your car to begin with! The concept of “your car” is just that - a concept, an idea.

We have the same dilemma with people as we did with the car. You are constantly changing. And if so much about you has changed, in what sense are you the same you? And if you’re not the same you anymore, maybe you were never quite you to begin with.

If there is no unchanging thing that defines our true self, maybe there is no self at all.

Perhaps you don’t accept the above. Maybe there is some essential constant that defines you. However, this essential constant cannot have anything to do with your job: you could lose your job, you could quit, your boss could go crazy, your company could implode. Stuff happens.

If whatever constitutes you can survive years and years of physical and mental change, it cannot possibly depend on who issues your paycheck.

You are not your job. Whatever you are — you’re definitely not that.

When we define ourselves by our jobs, we invite all manner of suffering. We set ourselves up for countless disappointments when things go wrong at work. We start holding on too tightly to our jobs, living in fear of ever letting them go.

This delusion that we are what we do is an especially dangerous one.

You are not your job. Your colleagues are not their jobs either.

12. Flow

Buddha placed great value on concentration, and much of his teaching on meditation describes how to get into the deeper and deeper states of concentration that he called “absorptions.” In popular psychology, this total absorption is usually called “flow”. It is exhilarating and productive, but very fragile.

Flow is that “subjective state that people report when they are completely involved in something to the point of forgetting time, fatigue, and everything else but the activity itself.”

Distraction is the enemy of flow. How do we reduce distractions? Meditation and quieting electronics help. If working from home, have a specific work place, and some rituals to prevent slippage into other life distractions.

13. Buddhism

Buddhism is not a faith that asks you to be exclusive or to give up any other beliefs. Buddhism doesn’t really ask you to believe anything.

Buddhism is more about doing things, practicing things, having experiences rather than beliefs, and then paying attention to those experiences and results.