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Rabbi Alan Lurie Headshot

Work as a Spiritual Gymnasium

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Much has been written and said about the Occupy movement. Whatever your perspective, though, we can all agree that greed and corruption in the financial system need to be identified and fixed. I trust in the natural balance of our great country and the power of human goodness to enact the required changes, but as much as we can attempt to legislate good behavior in business and enforce consequences, lasting and meaningful change can only come from within the individual. And we will see greed and corruption finally disappear only when those involved begin to see their work in a radically different way.

Instead of viewing work as only a means to gain wealth, prestige and power, we all need to see that work is something much more profound than this. Work, in fact, presents the most powerful environment for spiritual development and contribution. This is why, as one who works in the business world, I call work a "spiritual gymnasium."

Thinking of work in spiritual terms often creates negative or suspicious responses. When the Center for Faith and Spirituality in the Workplace at the Walton School of Business at the University of Arkansas recently held its annual meeting, it discovered that many businesses were wary of attending or receiving deserved awards out of concern that "faith" and "spirituality" might label them as religious organizations, resulting in misunderstanding among their employees and customers.

These concerns are reasonable. Few want Bible-thumping or proselytizing in their office, and many may worry that a focus on spirituality means pressure to attend meditation sessions, prayer groups or yoga classes. Clearly, religion and spiritual practices, whether traditional or New Age, can be incompatible with an open, diverse workplace, and can cause discomfort for many.

But at its core spirituality is not about religion or any overt practice. And it can never be coerced. Spirituality is the awareness that we are more than our momentary desires and our unconscious response to fear, and that all life is part of an interlinked system for which we are responsible. This is the awareness of Spirit. With this awareness we begin to become happier, more effective, more loving and more fully realized human beings. We grow spiritually by choosing this awareness in the face of internal, egoic pressure not to, and by doing so change for the better how we behave in all aspects of our lives.

We see greed and corruption at work because work is the place that most appeals to our ego's need for security, stemming from its fear of pain and death. Because work provides our livelihood, it arouses the fear of loss, poverty and obsolescence. This leads to competition for recognition, control, money, titles and respect, so that we can feel secure and safe. Work, then, is the place that presents us with the greatest egoic pressures, and therefore the greatest opportunity for growth. Like a gym, in which you grow physically by consciously pushing your body beyond that which it could do the day before, work is a spiritual gymnasium because it presents challenging situations in which you can consciously choose to loosen the pull of ego by pushing your commitment to spirit beyond its previous boundaries.

There is an illuminating argument written in the Talmud -- the Jewish record of ethical and legal discussions -- that emphasizes this point. In this debate, the rabbis wonder, "What is the first question that one is asked when standing in front of the heavenly court?" In other words, what's the most important question that determines how well you lived your life? Behind the scenes, the rabbis argue: One says that the first question must be, "Did you pray every day?" Another asserts that it is, "Did you study?" And another, "Did you give money to charity?" Finally, one suggests, "Did you conduct your business affairs honestly?" Immediately all agree that this is the correct first question.

The rabbis recognize that, although the other activities are important, business success is such a powerful goal that one can be easily tempted to do "whatever it takes" to succeed. The person who can resist these temptations and conduct business in an honest fashion, though, has truly lived according to the highest standard. This person will naturally, and effectively, study, pray and give money and time to charity. Conversely, if one is dishonest in business, then prayer is insincere, study is ineffective and charity is tainted.

The recognition that work is a spiritual practice is taking hold, and there are many excellent books from many different sources that discuss this topic. Like the University of Arkansas, this idea is also incubating in business schools, where aspiring young people can begin to see business from a higher perspective. One of the founders and deepest voices in this movement is my dear friend and mentor Martin Rutte, co-author of the New York Times Business bestseller "Chicken Soup for the Soul at Work," and who is the Chair of the Board of The Centre for Spirituality and theWorkplace, Sobey School of Business, Saint Mary's University, in Halifax, Canada.

The Center is sponsoring a video contest titled "Spirit at Work," which it describes as "A
creative viral video project to positively and strategically influence the conversation and
accomplishments about spirituality and the workplace globally." Participants are asked to
create a video that answers one of the following questions "What does spirituality and
the workplace mean to you?" or "How would (or do) you bring spirituality to your
workplace?" There is no cost to enter and the The Centre is offering significant prizes, from $2,000 to $7,500.

I encourage anyone who is so moved to create a video and submit an entry. More
information can be found at spiritatworkcreativevideo.com/. Submissions are
due by April 2, 2012.

Wishing you and your families a happy, healthy and abundant New Year.