Spirituality and Who We Are at Work

Most people would like to work in a setting without the “we-they” mentality,
in which people are treated like adults, and with open sharing of
information throughout the business.
Mikhail Gorbachev
I personally believe we are entering an era of reintegration of
what we do in the marketplace with who we are
as spiritually developing human beings.
– Rinaldo S. Brutoco

Something needs to change about the way we humans view our daily work, and our relationships in the workplace. Too many of us are killing our spirits, and literally ourselves, dragging ourselves to work day after day to places and tasks that drain the very life out of us.

My own exploration into new understandings of spirituality has its roots in a sense of frustration with my own work environment, and even the environment within some volunteer groups with whom I hoped to do work that would make the world a better place. I found that even in these volunteer groups, themselves geared toward creating less violence and more peace and justice in the world, there was a lot of violence in the way people were treated at our meetings, there was very little peace, and frankly a good deal of injustice.

I finally reached the point where I said to myself, “I am not going to do this any more. It is not healthy.” Instead of just walking away, though, I decided to explore the problem. I felt that if we wanted to create peace and social justice in the world, we needed first to figure out how to create it in our own meetings. I became determined to help others to develop an attitude toward the collective workplace that is healthy and reflects the peace and justice we claim to want to bring to the world.

Eventually, I found that there are two parts to this important issue. A major part is the reality that who comes to the workplace or to the volunteer planning meeting and how in touch they are with who they are and what their own personal agenda and story is, has enormous impact on the ability of the company, the school, or the nonprofit agency to be effective in achieving its agenda and mission, not only for its neighborhood or the world, but for its own employees and volunteers. I began to realize that self awareness, and the skills required to manage one’s own inner dynamics are essential components of bringing peace and effectiveness to the workplace.

As I continued to study this issue, I discovered a second part to healing the current crisis at work. I discovered the growing recognition among some business leaders that whatever “spirit” and “spirituality” is with regard to the human experience, it is somehow related to employees being more creative, self-motivated and productive – and I would add – happier at work. That is now my dream: to help everyone who gets out of bed in the morning faced with a day’s labor to be happy about engaging in it.

It was back then in the early 1990’s, that I discovered people like Rinaldo S. Brutoco, founder of the World Business Academy, whom I quoted above. I also discovered Stephen R. Covey, who observes, “We see that people are not just resources or assets, not just economic, social and psychological beings. They are also spiritual beings; they want meaning, a sense of doing something that matters.”

These authors’ renewal of thought about spirituality in the workplace reflects, I think, the major paradigm shift occurring in our world since the last century. A paradigm is a model or pattern of shared assumptions, beliefs, meanings, and rules of behavior. When a paradigm shifts, the whole established pattern breaks down, and fundamental assumptions undergo dramatic change. A new way of seeing, interpreting and making sense of reality emerges.

Included in the global shift now taking place, is the apparent return in our Western culture to a more unified sense of reality. This unified vision was lost when the 17th century scientific and industrial revolutions led to a more “mechanistic” worldview. Driven by the scientific method and the image of the industrial complex, we began seeing our Universe as a great “machine,” composed of elementary building blocks. We came to view our Earth as nothing more than an inert pile of resources for our consumption. We came eventually to view people as machines, valued only for what they could produce; and, like parts in a machine, easily replaced as they began to show wear or to be unproductive. In this mechanistic culture, people’s feelings and inner emotional and spiritual life also were ignored; viewed as too messy and complicated, detracting from the performance of an efficient and “well-oiled” machine.

This old paradigm shaped Western society, and through colonialism now impacts much of the rest of the globe. Many today blame it for the development of industrial and technological advances which are leading to the destruction of our planet. Ironically, it is also some of these same scientific and technological advances which are helping to confirm the ancient sense of the unified nature of reality. The most accepted story today of how our Universe emerged indicates that all of it originated in a single event, perhaps some 13 or 14 billion years ago. Fundamentally, at the ground of our being, we are all connected.

This story of our Universe includes a change in our understanding of what it means to be human. The old paradigm that saw humans as “machines,” also saw us as existing outside of nature. The primary purpose of humans was to produce, to continually create new products out of the raw materials of Earth, creating unlimited economic and technological growth. This perception also was marked by a dualistic split between “spirit” and “matter.” Science studied matter, and left all things related to spirit to the theologians and philosophers, whom many scientists dismissed as irrelevant.

Today, a different view is emerging through behavioral and other sciences which sees each human being as a body/mind/spirit whole, existing as part of the interdependent web of life present on our Earth. We have our existence not on the planet, but of the planet. In addition, we are learning to view humans embedded within the story of the evolution of life on Earth. We are coming to understand that who we are results from an entire life of interaction with others.

This changing view of our world and ourselves, is leading to a shift in values and a reclaiming of principles that were suppressed in recent centuries by a mindset driven by scientific analysis and industrialization. This shift affects our choices in every arena of our lives.

For example, according to Michael Ray and his associates at the World Business Academy, the guiding values and principles of the new paradigm emerging in business include wholeness and inner wisdom and authority. There is a recognition in this insight that these principles lead to new ways of doing business that nurture society and, ultimately, all parts of our planet.  To me, these principles identified by Ray and his associates reflect the wisdom found at the heart of all the world’s spiritual traditions.

Reflections on the new paradigm have inspired much new writing in relation to spirituality and work, and especially on new approaches to leadership and management, a particular interest of mine. The attempt to bring spirituality into the workplace is hampered by the question of just what is meant by “spirituality,” and how it differs from “religion.” Tom Peters, a well know consultant on management and organizational issues, has said, “When you cross the line between the secular and the spiritual you’re edging up on something that bugs me.”

Interestingly, many of the new insights into spirituality shared by contemporary scholars stem from the same shift from a mechanistic worldview to a more ecological and organic one of which I spoke earlier. The split between the realms of spirit and matter, or the “secular and the spiritual” as Peters names it, resulted in the west from a mechanized view of our Universe. In the dominant culture and in most people’s minds, everything having to do with “spirit” and with “spirituality” was separate from the approach to daily life, and isolated from public life. Its study was relegated to the churches, while science focused on the “real” world. It became associated with monasteries, and the cloistered lifestyle, and with the practices of prayer and devotions. It emphasized seeking “perfection” in one’s “interior life,” and often had more to do with one’s attitude of prayer than one’s attitude toward one’s neighbor.

In contrast to this earlier notion which developed during the age of science, there is a growing sense today that the term “spirituality” applies to an aspect of the human condition that is intrinsic to our be-ingness. As Ernest Kurz and Katherine Ketcham write in The Spirituality of Imperfection, spirituality appears to be something that, like love, evil, and beauty, is a very important, though intangible and somewhat indefinable, reality of human existence.

How might this changed understanding of spirituality as something inherent to what it means to be human alter our view of how it impacts us, especially in our work life? If the emerging story of the evolution of our Universe becomes the context out of which we take up this question, how might that be of help to us?

To begin to explore the idea of spirituality and work in the context of today’s new science; that is, the story of our evolving Universe, helps me to look at Michael Ray’s call for a focus on the principles of wholeness and inner wisdom and authority in a more complete way.

For one thing, many psychologists and scholars are now coming to understand that spirituality involves the whole person, that is, both the “inner life” and “outer life” of the person. As Michael Downey puts it, all human experience is “the very stuff” of spirituality. Downey also suggests that “In the vocabulary of spirituality today, it is important to note that relationality and relationship are key.”

Downey’s comment about the importance of relationality and relationship put into the context of the New Cosmology makes me realize that the “spiritual” dimension of what it means to be human is somehow tied to our experience of the very “oneness” of our Universe.

These are the first two things, then, that we want to remember about emerging views of spirituality in the context of Ray’s principle of wholeness. One is that it is something inherent to human experience, by virtue of our own emergence from and within and evolving Universe. The second is that in its essence it involves relationship, not only to ourselves and to the presence of the Divine (however we wish to understand that presence) in our Universe, but also to others in the community of life on Earth, and to our Universe itself. To me, this means that when we are learning how to be better at being in relationship, through self awareness and the skills required to be effective in relationships, we are in fact doing “spiritual” work, whether that is at home or at the office.

Gorbachev, M. Quoted in Ray, M. and Rinzler, A. (1993). The New Paradigm in Business: Emerging Strategies for Leadership and Organizational Change. New York, NY: G.P. Putnam’s Sons. p. 124.

Brutoco,R.S. Quoted in Ray and Rinzler. p. xiii.

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