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“You’re pretty good at doing things,” I typically remark to the executive. “You wouldn’t be where you are in your career if you weren’t good at getting stuff done. So, we are not as concerned about what you do for a living. Rather, we are interested in what you see for a living.”

It is from that perspective that we refine leadership abilities. “What are the top three central challenges your employees face?” “What unspoken messages are you receiving from your team members, colleagues, or vendors?” “What are people afraid of in your organization? What inspires them?” These and dozens of other vital questions are not about doing anything at all. What’s required is to discern, recognize, and understand.

For mindfulness practitioners, cultivating this ability to see clearly is at the very heart of the practice. The discipline trains us to step out from behind the curtain of our restless minds and touch reality directly—getting a full, authentic measure of our experience beyond self-deception and impulsiveness. And on the job, such a commitment to first seeing clearly becomes central in inspiring the very best from an organization.

By appreciating our circumstances in such a way, we can more skillfully contribute to our world

Typically, at work we want to do what is correct. We want to make the right decisions, we want to be accurate in our assessments, and we always want the facts on our side. Obviously, such an approach makes a lot of sense since trying to be inaccurate, incorrect, and fictional at work would be disastrous (unless of course you’re running a political campaign).

But, in a sense, being correct at work is the easy part. Indeed, many of us know how to do this quite well. The hard part is being skillful.

For mindfulness practitioners, meditation is not about living our lives more correctly. Nor are we interested in becoming meditation experts, entitling us to inflict our spiritual viewpoints on our friends and neighbors. We practice meditation so we can learn about our mind—and not surprisingly the more we learn about our own mind, the more we learn about the minds of others. Appreciating others’ minds can be quite profound and poignant. We can come to know directly the motivations, aspirations, foibles, hopes, and fears of others. Such insight into other people can be a sobering responsibility, and it naturally makes us more skillful and lively in how we accommodate others. By knowing ourselves, we learn to know others as well.

In “Finding and Grooming Breakthrough Innovators,” by Jeffrey Cohn, Jon Katzenbach, and Gus Vlak (Harvard Business Review, December 2008), the authors point out that the defining skill of great organizational innovators is appreciating the hearts and minds of others:

…innovators must be able to walk into a conference room full of diverse constituents, including colleagues, customers, subordinates, bosses, vendors, and partners, and quickly discern the underlying motivation of each one. They leverage that information to craft and communicate a message that resonates with every constituent. This is the art of bringing a diverse group onto the same page—and it is absolutely essential to transforming an interesting idea into a companywide innovation….

Like successful innovators, mindfulness practitioners are highly attuned to what “resonates” with others. We know that being right or an expert at work is at best half the journey—a journey that cannot be traveled alone. And because we explore our minds on the cushion, we are naturally curious about others and quietly passionate in perfecting “the art of bringing a diverse group onto the same page.”

And in the end, live a decent, confident life at work

In my role as a business consultant, I regularly ask my clients to complete the following sentence with the first word that comes to mind:

At work, I want to be…

While my survey is not scientifically reliable, I can report that there are some patterns to the responses. Here are the four most frequent answers:


Such responses come as no surprise. Given the demands, risks, and relentless pace of our modern-day workplace, it is little wonder that most of us would like a little stress-free happiness on occasion. Rewards and success—isn’t that what we are all looking for at work?

After forty-four years of work and thirty-four years of mindfulness meditation, I’m not so sure. My survey indicates that most of us think we want to be happy, successful, and stress-free at work, but we also know that such aspirations are wishful thinking. We all know that work offers both success and failure; happiness and angst. We know that work, indeed all of life, unavoidably presents both rewards and penalties; joys and disappointments. So, while most may wish to be happy and successful at work, what we really want, from my vantage point, is to be confident: confident that no matter what work offers up, we will remain self-assured and at our ease.

For meditators, coming to this conclusion viscerally and completely is one of the great accomplishments of the practice. Sitting still hour after hour, day after day, year in and year out, we slowly and gently exhaust our futile struggle to secure our lives with paychecks and toys, emotional security pacts and addictions. We awaken to a simple yet powerful fact of life: when we stop struggling, we are naturally confident and at our ease.

Ironically, such confidence is not a personal experience, so to speak, but something larger and more fundamental. Just as a sparrow flies with ease or a tiger walks with confidence, so too we discover the ease and confidence of our humanness. A sparrow never second guesses its wings; a tiger never arrogantly proclaims its stripes. And as humans, we relax back into our unshakeable confidence that we, too, are perfectly equipped to be on this planet under all circumstances.

Bringing such natural poise to the job is how mindfulness practitioners clean up the toxic emotions and insipid materialism that plagues our workplaces today. Being confident at work is, in the end, the height of decency because…well…that’s what we humans do.

Michael Carroll is a business coach and author of Awake at Work and The Mindful Leader.

Browse the March 2010 "Mindful Living" issue

Featuring Thich Nhat Hanh, Jon Kabat-Zinn, Judith Simmer-Brown, Karen Maezen Miller, Daniel Goleman, and many more — all addressing how to bring mindfulness into all the major aspects of your life.

The Mindful Society

Here you'll find some of the finest articles on mindfulness, from our extensive archives, plus Shambhala SunSpace exclusives, and more.

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