GRADUATION GURU

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Although I try to live my life without regrets, I often wish I had discovered yoga at a much earlier age. And not just the physical practice (although I am always happy to sing praise about the benefits of that.) Knowing and practicing yogic wisdom early in my life would have influenced it for the better — I am certain of that.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this because it’s graduation season. So many young people, degrees in hand, are eager to explore their potential and unleash their powerful energy on the world. They get inundated with advice about how to find or keep a job, how to be successful, how to maximize their earning potential. However, it seems to me that except for those (hopefully) inspirational ceremonial speeches, they get less guidance on how to be at work.

Truly, I wouldn’t swap the life I have today for another,  and yet still I would love to go back and advise that oh-so-young me at college graduation, that 21-year-old aspiring journalist and soon-to-be mother.

No one has ever invited me to deliver a commencement address, but then again, why wait for an invitation? Seize the day, as they say! In two parts, I’m going to share some of the yogic wisdom I wish the young me knew about as she began her first professional newspaper job, four months after graduation and three months after having a baby. I am certain that if young me had created practices based on this advice back then, she would have been a more productive worker, a more skillful supervisor, a more effective leader. Throughout her career, she would have been more satisfied (and sane) in life and in work.

The five precepts contained in the First Limb of Yoga (the Yamas), often referred to as universal morality, provide a brilliant career road map. The Indian sage Patanjali, often called the father of yoga because he wrote down the ancient precepts that had been shared orally for generations, saw them as a necessity for “the broad training of humanity.” Each precept stands alone like fingers on a hand. And each depends on the other, just as the hand is made stronger and better with all five fingers.

Here is my retroactive graduation advice to young Maren:

Non-violence (ahmisa): Be compassionate to yourself. Learn to silence the voice of that harsh inner critic who whispers (or shouts) that you are not good enough, that you don’t belong, that what others think of you is what really matters. Treat yourself with the same unbounded love and care you instantly felt when your newborn daughter was placed in your arms, and extend that to everyone. Remember that violent acts don’t have to be physical. Cutting words, vicious gossip, blaming others instead of owning your own contribution to a problem — these things and more constitute violence.

Non-lying (satya): Understand that speaking your truth, no matter how difficult, is an essential gift, even if it makes you or others uncomfortable.  Temper your truth by acknowledging that others have their own truths, and be willing to listen with an open heart. Finally, know that many things can be true at the same time. Before you speak, always ask yourself these four guiding questions: 1) Is it true? 2) Is it necessary? 3) Is it kind? 4) Does it improve upon the silence?

Non-stealing (asteya): So many things of value get stolen every day out of selfishness and lack of mindfulness. Open your eyes to the value of people’s time and energy, and ask for it judiciously. When you are being paid for your work, be sure that you are giving full value — to do less makes you a thief. Remember that stealing credit for others work or ideas is an egregious and unnecessary form of robbery, and that denigrating others behind their backs is a form of denying humanity and stealing reputations.

Non-squandering of vital energies (brahmacharya): Be wary of using your precious energy and resources on things that don’t serve you or others well — drama, unhealthy habits, worrying about the things over which you lack control. Refuse to become a slave to your cravings — whether it be for foods, consumer goods or attention. Honor and respect your relationships and those of others.

Non-greed (aparigraha): Remember that initial wonder at being paid for doing something you loved? Try to retain that joy, even in the face of discouragement and certain disappointment. Avoid being caught in the trap of thinking what you earn is what you are worth. That old adage “Whoever dies with the most toys wins”? It is a horrible, soul-sapping lie — don’t fall for it! As long as you can meet your needs, remember that work is about meaning, not about how many numbers are printed on your paycheck. Live simply, and be generous.

Finally, never, never, never stop learning and always, always, always be grateful for what you have.


NEXT WEEK: Advice from the Niyamas, often called yoga’s personal code of conduct.

WHY BEING PRESENT WORKS BETTER

We’ve been working with a client for several weeks now, using an appreciative inquiry, strengths-based approach to organizational change. As we were going over a feedback report with a group of managers recently, I asked them if it reflected the organization. At first, silence. Then some quiet buzzing among the group.

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Finally someone spoke up: “This report reflects the questions you asked during our last meetings. You asked for stories about when things were going well and people felt connected to their work. This report captures that, but it doesn’t accurately reflect the organization. We don’t always have a “we’re-in-this-together” feeling, especially across the organization as a whole.”

Without hesitating, I asked them to break up into small groups and talk about what was missing from the report — what needed to be added to create a more accurate picture?  As they began conversing, Maren pulled me aside and asked, “Where are we going with this? I thought we were doing appreciative inquiry, and you are asking them to identify problems.” My answer of "I don't know" didn’t satisfy her. Panic began to set in. Why had I asked them to do that? Had I derailed things? And how would we get back on track? Maren pressed the issue, saying, “I don’t know how to participate if I don’t know what the plan is.” I got edgy in my responses, and she felt attacked.

The incident was a good reminder of the benefits of staying present, and how "off-the-mat" yoga practices can help. Often I feel trapped by what has already happened (the past) and what might happen (the future). If I had managed to stay fully present, I would have been open to Maren's questions instead of becoming defensive and edgy.

For example, a few slow, conscious breaths (pranayama) creates space to slow down the runaway voices in my head. Breathing helps me get in touch with my source and ask the most important question: "Who do I want to be in this moment? And what actions can I take to help me be that person?"

Another useful practice is surrender (ishvara-pranidhana). The panic I felt in the face of Maren's questions was related to vulnerability — I wanted to be right, and I did not want to look stupid.  Surrendering my ego makes it easier to engage in curiousity, humility, humor, and creativity, which would have been far more useful in that moment. Surrendering also means letting go of my emotional attachment to the outcome, which is acknowledging what is true — I am not in charge of how things turn out. Doing my best to serve clients is always my intention. Even so, I recognized that how things unfold is out of my control.

Finally, I could have been kinder in my response to Maren, employing the practice of ahimsa (do no harm) so that she did not feel attacked.

In the end, the questions I asked the client group to talk about sparked a rich, useful discussion that did not derail the meeting at all. Everything turned out the way it was supposed to — it was fine. And the reflections prompted by the incident with Maren reminds us both that yoga is a practice. As our work together continues, we will have many more opportunities for that.