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  • Writer's pictureThane Lawrie

A Buddhist approach to help relieve stress in the modern world

In this post I will put forward some ideas about dealing with stress in the workplace from the perspective of a Buddhist leader.

Since publishing my novel The Buddhist CEO in December 2022, many people have reached out to me and asked how can they cope with the stress they experience in the workplace. Balancing the tensions between wanting to do what is right as a Buddhist or spiritual person with the demands of the modern workplace is very difficult. This is a central theme of my book. Here are a few suggestions.

If you are struggling with the stress of your role and confused about how to deal with it. I can assure you that you are not alone. These feelings are commonplace. Chapter 8 of my novel is called The Fellowship of the CEOs. In this chapter the main character reaches out to fellow CEOs and they form a fellowship. In this fellowship they seek support and solutions from each other. My main character, Hamish, realises when he gets to know the other CEO's personally, that despite them all being brilliant in their own way, they all struggle with the stress of their job. How can we create a lifestyle and minsdet that helps us cope with the modern workplace?

Front cover with the Buddhist CEO in his suit looking onto the mountains as he searches for peace

Feeling confused and stressed by modern life is very common. There seems to be an almost universal feeling, especially in the modern workplace, that at some point in life we feel dissatisfied. We can't quite put our finger on this feeling. We ask ourselves why do I feel this way? I have a good job, a nice house, a partner I love, friends and hobbies. But despite this there is a nagging doubt that something doesn't feel right.

Essentially this is what the Buddha found when he realised life is characterised by suffering. By suffering he meant many forms of suffering. Unfortuantely some people experience great suffering, possibly caused by health conditions or criminal acts of harm against them. But the Buddha was also talking about lower levels of suffering. That subtle feeling that things are not quite right. Thankfully the Buddha gave us some ideas on to deal with our suffering.

In Buddhism we often talk about our Buddhist practice. What exactly is practice? This is something that has to be nourished, encouraged and cherished. In order to develop a practice we need to have a level of commitment that will allow us to develop positive routines in our daily life. Having some form of daily practice I think is key to being able to positively engage with the modern workplace.

I would recommend that you begin each day by getting up early in the morning. Once you are out of bed, go to a space in your house that is quiet. Light a candle or put on a soft light and then sit and meditate. Your meditation could be anything from 10 to 30 minutes. It is better to focus on meditating daily, or at least as much as you can, rather than sitting for a long peiord of time but only doing so sporadically. I try to meditate for 30 minutes in the morning but if you are new to meditation 10 or 15 minutes might feel like enough.

A couple meditiating together

Why meditate? In the Zen Buddhist tradition we believe that meditation has a transformative effect. By meditating regularly we are able to slowly transform the tension, the anger, the disappointment that we all begin to hold in our bodies over time. Slowly we become lighter in spirit, more content with our lives and even peaceful. So give it a try.

Here is a 40 minute video from what I regard to be one fo the greatest living Buddhist teachers, Reverend Daishin Morgan former Abbot of Throssel Hole Buddhist Abbey, in the world about how to start a meditation practice. If you have the time it is worth a watch. In the Soto Zen Buddhist tradition we practice a certain type of meditation, often called zazen or just sitting. I have found this technique to be extremely helpful. In its simplest form we have no focus other than just being present. We are aware that we are meditating but when our mind starts thinking and we become aware of it, we just gently bring ourselves back to meditation. Minds think, it's what they do, so we don't try and clear our minds. That just leads to frustration. We instead interact differently with our minds. For me this technique seems to spill into everyday life. If something annoys me, I become aware of the stories my mind creates about what has annoyed me, but I choose to bring my mind back to what I am doing. Helping me to find more balance in my life. The more you practice the easier it becomes.

Huangshan Mountain (China)

Practice trying to live in the moment as much as you can. What is living in the moment? Well just like in formal meditation periods our mind wonders all over the place throughout our daily lives.

Meaning we are seldom present to the wonder of life in the moment. Whatever we are doing, whether it be cleaning the house, having a bath, helping our kids do their homework, doing a task at work, we are seldom fully present to it. Our minds are often somewhere else thinking about what happened earlier or what will happen in the future. But if we can be fully present to what we are doing, or at least practice this as often as we can, these tasks feel very different.

Drinking a cup of tea when we are fully in the now can suddenly feel magical. The great Buddhist masters of the past knew that to experience an enlightened life we don't need much stuff, simple aspects of life that we often overlook can become great joys when approached this way. We can take this into the workplace and life. Be present to the tasks you are doing. Slowly the more you practice this way of being the more moments of peace you will experince.

Zen monk in meditation

Be enlightened by myriad things. The great Zen Master Dogen, in a famous passage encouraged us to be enlightened by myriad things. To me this is a radical statement that helped me transform how I look at the world.

At times in my life, especially when I worked as a CEO, I felt stressed and out of balance with life. In those moments life feels tough. During such times I often felt like life had lost its shine and I could dread the next meeting I had to go to, or the next interaction with a colleague.

However, when I felt this way I often thought about Dogen's encouragement to be enlightened by myriad things. What did he mean? The myriad things are just what we encoutner in life. But he points to being open to each new experience and seeing it as an opportunity to learn. Even the difficult colleague can be a teacher when we approach our interactions with them from the point of view, how can we learn from them. The more I practice this the more life takes on a lighter quality. Even the most difficult people or situation can result in teaching us something. Even if that lesson might be how not to behave.

Gratitude for the beauty all around us

Cultivate gratitude for the little things in life. There is so much negativity in the news and social media. Making it easy to forget that there is a lot of kindness in the world and beauty all around us.

Simple kindness can be a colleague opening a door for us. Someone letting us out at a junction when we are driving. A friend, partner or family member that gives us some encouragement when we need it.

Beauty is never far away from us. Look up at the stars at night or at a beautiful blue sky in the day. Even in big cities birds are all around us. Birds are my favourite and I watch them regularly. Spend time in your garden or if you don't have a garden visit a public one near you. Spend time in nature and allow yourself to enjoy it. Be fully present there, letting thoughts come and go but always retruning to where you are. Focus on the sounds of nature, the quiet and the smell of the outdoors. Reconnect with the world.

A Hoopoe, illustrating the beauty of the natural world

Another concept is to consider the idea of acceptance. Too often in life we think if only I was younger I'd be happier, if only I had more money, if only my kids were older, if only I could have the same car as my friend, if only I had more money, if only I looked different. if only... if only...

We could all make a long list similar to the one above. Does this create peace in our life? For me the answer is certianly no. Can we work to accept where we are in life. It might not be perfect but there are likely to be many good aspects about your life. If we can accept that we are tired, perhaps we take a rest rather than push on. If we need to clean up the house or do a task that is not the most enjoyable, we can start to find peace by being present to all aspects of our life and engage with them by being present to them.

My final tip in this post is try and find balance in your life. What do I mean by balance? Many Buddhist scriptures advise not to drink or eat too much. Over time I have come to see the value in this. I am not advocating not drinking or eating nice food. Just try and find a nice balance for yourself. Drink and eat moderately, don't watch too much TV and limit the use of your phone. Don't deny yourself these things but find your own balance with them. Thanks for reading and I hope some of these tips can help you find a more peaceful balance in your working life.

In June l I am launching a service for people to have a conversation with me or receive mentorship from me. More information is coming soon to the website. The idea behind such a service is that people, especialy leaders don't always have somewhere to turn. They feel they can't tell their team, colleagues or board that they are sturggling. When I worked as a CEO I always wished there was someone I could speak to in confidence or get a second opinion on somethig, or just hear myself talk my ideas out loud. But most leadership support services that I found wanted lots of money and for me to sign up to multiple sessions. I am offering the chance to just have one conversation with no strings attached or contract for further work. Keep an eye out for this latest offering over the next month or two.

Find the right balance in life

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