How to Turn Work Into a Spiritual Practice

– 7 Tenets of Conscious Business

The notion of using work, especially business, as a spiritual practice may seem ridiculous, however I believe it is not only possible but necessary in the modern world. I’ve been employing employment as personal spiritual discipline for the last three years and I’d like to share some aspects of this. In this article I’ll suggest some tenets for turning a job into a spiritual practice if it is not one already, or if you already regard it as such, some further pointers that may be of use. It is aimed primarily at people who are self-employed or work in the business sector, though much of it will also apply to people who work in the public and third sector.

Let’s start by looking at a couple of assumptions embedded in culture. The first is that work and play are different – that’s why we have two different words right? WORK which isn’t fun, and play which you don’t get paid for! This is problematic if like me you prefer not to be miserable for half of your waking life.

The next is that we come from a culture which separates out making money as profane, and sees the sacred as poverty stricken (E.g. “It is easier for  a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” – Jesus). A secular version of this is the message about money I got from my Guardian-reading parents (insert working or upper- class narratives to suite) – that anyone who makes money is bad and good people are poor. I led some sessions at Buddhafield – an “alternative” festival – this year exploring these themes as I’m tired of seeing the brightest hearts and most talented hands of my generation suffer in poverty and powerlessness.

Perhaps before going further I might define spirituality as it can be a wooly area. I define spiritual practice as that which encourages development through increasing perspective and care. The growth from me to mine to us to all of us would be on example of this in the field of ethics for example. See Wilber for more on this and the distinction between lines, states and stages.

So with all this in mind, what then are seven ways to turn work into a spiritual practice?

The Work is Chosen with Care

First point – perhaps a common-sense one – choose your job carefully – certain profession are harder to make into spiritual practices than others.

Buddhism traditionally advises against some professions. Most of these are as you might expect and involve avoiding killing (e.g. working in an abattoir) and manufacturing and selling things which do harm (e.g. weapons, poisons, drugs and alcohol). Lying and creating illusions (Politics? Advertising? Some kinds of acting?) are also discouraged. Interestingly two of the Buddha’s closes disciples were at we would now call merchant bankers.

All this being said I believe it is in my opinion possible to turn any profession into a spiritual practice. An important factor is a sense of service – the military can be a transcendent in this regard for example even though working in the forces may involve violence.

It’s Plork

If it ain’t play at least on some level (and this doesn’t mean it’s always fun) it ain’t spiritual. This may be heresy to those who see work as a dreary affair you “have to do” and those from more austere spiritual traditions but I’m going to stand by this one and I think anyone’s whose worked with a successful entrepreneur or seen the Dali Lama smile might agree.  See this article on human business/ plorking.

There Are Multiple Bottom Lines (I, We and It)

What is the aim and intention of the work? For the sake of what is it being done? Making money is how the game is played not why.  There must be a bigger why for it to become a spiritual practice.  One simple model of this is I, We and It, again from Wilber.  This may mean taking personal wellbeing and aesthetics, relationships and financial profit into account for example when making any decision in the business. See this article on what is conscious business.

Attention is Given

Paying attention to the here and now is critical. Mindfulness is a prerequisite for care and directed change so this underpins many of the others tenets. How much awareness do you give to your work-day? Did you set your intention before sending your last e-mail? “Consciousness” sometimes has some esoteric connotations but I prefer the down to earth meaning -being awake.

Ritual is Used

An element of ritual can help turn a mundane activity into a transcendent one. This can be tied to an everyday activity such as making a small gesture or remembrance before answering the phone for example, or tied to major transitions, celebrations and mournings.  We have a 10min initiation ritual for new associates…which involves a blindfold…but it’s not as kinky as it sounds 🙂

Ethics are Vital

Running an ethical business is a spiritual practice.  While ethics may vary the core of having a code of real lived behaviour that is a direct translation of internal values must be central for work to be a spiritual practice.  Nice thoughts are not enough and happily external action is also internally transformative.

Body, Relationships and Emotions are Considered

Engaging with ones embodied leadership, emotional intelligence and valuing interpersonal relationships supports working as a spiritual practice. Spirituality is not just a “heady” affair but involves all aspects of ourselves and how we interact with others.

So there you have it. Why not give these tenets a try and see what shifts? Not only do they not cost anything but they make business sense too (e.g. a mindful emotionally intelligent manager is a more effective one).


    • Mark Walsh