Mindful Labor Day
By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.
“Sometimes it’s important to work for that pot of gold. But other times it’s essential to take time off and to make sure that your most important decision in the day simply consists of choosing which color to slide down on the rainbow.” ~ Douglas Pagels
Labor Day is a National Holiday in the United States. It was designed to celebrate the accomplishments of the American worker, particularly organized labor. It is important to celebrate this holiday mindfully. Work is a major component of our lives, it dictates our income, contributes to our social lives, and for many people is an essential part of their self-concept and their self-worth. But rather than using the holiday to reflect on this important part of their lives, most people treat Labor Day mindlessly, as a time to vacation and party. Perhaps, though, it’s important to take at least a little time on this holiday to mindfully reflect on work.
To understand the importance of work we need only look at the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path. Two of the eight components are Right Actions and Right Livelihood. But, Right Livelihood is itself an action and it would seem that Right Livelihood should be contained in Right Actions and not a separate component. But, the Buddha included Right Livelihood as a separate component to underscore its importance for spiritual development. It’s his way of emphasizing that what one does for a living is an extremely important action. The Buddha taught that it was essential for spiritual development to only engage in work that produces greater happiness, wisdom, and well-being, and relieves suffering in ourselves and others and avoid jobs that produce harm.
We should take a mindful look at our occupations on Labor Day and ask whether they promote greater happiness, wisdom, and well-being, and relieves suffering or produces harm. In some case, the fact that it is Right Livelihood is obvious as with professions such as physician, social worker, peace negotiator, relief worker, therapist, etc. On the other hand, professions such as drug dealer, arms merchant, professional criminal, etc. are clearly not. But for most occupations it is much more difficult to discern whether or not they constitute Right Livelihood. This is a point for deep, mindful, exploration for Labor Day.
Working on an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico produces a product, energy, that is needed for the well-being of virtually everyone. Without affordable energy, every aspect of the economy would collapse. So, working on the oil rig could be seen as promoting well-being and relieving suffering. On the other hand, there is potential for great environmental harm, including oil spills that directly pollute sensitive environments, or contributing to carbon dioxide emissions that can indirectly create great harm by contributing to global warming. So should someone on the eightfold path accept or reject a job working on an oil rig? The answer cannot be given by anyone other than the individual themselves. It is imperative that this be looked at deeply and objectively to determine for themselves if they are doing more harm than good. The primary spiritual impact of Right Livelihood is on the individual engaging in the occupation. So, the decision has to be theirs. That is not to say that experts or friends can’t or shouldn’t be consulted, but that ultimately the individual must decide for themselves and be willing to accept the potential consequences. Needless to say, this should be a focus for deep mindful reflection on Labor Day.
The labor movement itself has important consequences for ourselves and others and should also be explored mindfully on Labor Day. It grew out of great labor abuses that existed where unscrupulous employers took advantage of workers, demanding much and paying little. This is an example how great harm can be produced when the wealthy and powerful, as a result of greed, do not practice Right Livelihood. The Buddha taught that there was nothing wrong with being successful and accumulating wealth provided that this was done ethically and honestly, and it promoted the overall well-being of the community. But, for a time, this was not the case. This underscores how the notion of Right Livelihood doesn’t only apply to workers, but also to employers, financiers, Wall Street executives, politicians, etc.
The labor movement arose to counteract the rampant abuses of workers. By organizing the workers obtained strength in numbers. This allowed them to stand up to employers and demand better pay and working conditions. It truly exemplifies our interdependence. We are not alone, but rather, are intricately connected to everyone else. This is true for work in general. It is a productive point for mindful contemplation of how our work and in fact, our entire lives are connected to the work of others. If we’re a truck driver we’re totally dependent upon the people who make the trucks, produce the fuel, build the roads, insures, maintains, and repairs the vehicles, makes and enforces the laws governing the roadways, etc. But, we are also dependent upon the work or those who produce our food, make our clothes, build our houses, educate our children, defend and protect us, etc. Our work is interdependent with the work of everyone else. This is an important point for reflection on Labor Day.
I recently received an award for my work career. It was a wonderful boost for my ego and made me feel very good about myself. But, with a little mindful reflection, I realized that this was not my award solely. It could never have been achieved without the involvement of a vast array of people, colleagues, students, friends, family superiors, workers, direct reports, police, government, etc. and all of the people who they are dependent upon, and so forth. It couldn’t have been achieved without virtually everyone. It was really an award for a cooperative effort. This kind of thinking made me humble. It made me know that it was not about “I.” Rather, it’s about “we.” Mindful reflection about our work can help us to see the interconnectedness we have with every other living thing.
A major issue for Labor Day reflection is what happens in the course of our daily work. We can learn much about ourselves by mindfully examining what transpires at work. What happens can bring us great joy or great suffering, but most of the time, it just provides momentary satisfaction or dissatisfaction. It is the smaller moments that compose the majority of our work lives but they are crucial to our happiness or unhappiness at work. Applying mindfulness and reflection to how we react and our thoughts regarding the events at work, we can gain great insight into the workings of our minds and how they can produce unsatisfactoriness and unhappiness.
The fact that your boss failed to mention that your performance was very good that day may make you feel unappreciated at work. But, it is likely that your boss was preoccupied with her own problems. But, looking carefully at your thought process you can begin to see how your response was based on the needs of your own ego. Many people’s feelings of self-worth, or self-hatred for that matter, are built around their work. Not being recognized by a superior may threaten a fragile self-image and produce discomfort and resentment. Work is actually a wonderful opportunity to learn about yourself.
You may observe a coworker engaged in petty theft and not report it. Looking deeply at this event you may be able to see that you have a strong need to be liked and you feel that reporting the unethical behavior may cause others to dislike you or see you as a threat. In this case your need for social acceptance causes you to compromise your integrity. The fact that social approval was more important to you than ethics can be a revelation regarding your inner psychological landscape. Once again, work can teach you a lot.
There are actually many many events that happen at work every day, small and large, that reveal the workings of your mind and emotions. Applying mindfulness, noticing and being aware of your reactions and actions at work can change your ideas about yourself and change your actions at work and these can lead to greater understanding and acceptance. This, in turn, can lead to greater satisfaction and happiness. Mindfulness is a key. If you are not in the present moment, if you are not paying attention but rather reacting without thinking or noticing, if your mind is wandering and off task, then this splendid opportunity will be lost. So, vow to be mindful at work and become better and happier with the way you make your living.
So, on this Labor Day, vow to be mindful and take advantage of the opportunities provided at work to learn about yourself. Grow as a person and grow spiritually by making every work day a mindful work day.
“When people say, “This is the way to do it,” that’s not true. There are always many ways, and the way you choose should depend on the current context. You can’t solve today’s problems with yesterday’s solutions. So when someone says, “Learn this so it’s second nature,” let a bell go off in your head, because that means mindlessness. The rules you were given were the rules that worked for the person who created them, and the more different you are from that person, the worse they’re going to work for you. When you’re mindful, rules, routines, and goals guide you; they don’t govern you.” – Ellen Langer
CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies
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