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The Challenge of Pursuing Meaningful Work When You Need to Work | Interview with Lodro Rinzler

The Challenge of Pursuing Meaningful Work When You Need to Work | Interview with Lodro Rinzler

Many of us are driven to have a meaningful career where we can put our skills to use in a way that makes an impact. But sometimes this desire can clash with the realities of the job market. And even if you’ve found a great opportunity, it can be easy to forget what motivated you to work there if your manager turns out to be sort of a jerk or you spend most of your days drowning in paper work. How can we balance wanting to make a difference with the day-to-day tensions we experience in work and life?

Lodro Rinzler is not a shaven-head monk, but he is all about helping people tackle this challenge by bringing mindfulness, compassion, and a sense of humor to their daily lives. His first book, The Buddha Walks into a Bar,aimed to help young people apply Buddhist perspectives to the intricacies of their daily lives, even if they don’t necessarily want to take on a whole new lifestyle. In his newest book, The Buddha Walks Into the Officethe Buddha leaves the bar for the office and brings with him a host of lessons on how to find balance and meaning in your career.

Rinzler has experienced first-hand the ways employment and career expectations are shifting, and how this has affected an entire generation of job seekers. By demystifying Buddhist ideas and making meditation accessible for anyone, regardless of background or tradition, Rinzler seeks to help people confront the uneven terrain ahead. In addition to writing and speaking about these topics, Rinzler founded the Institute of Compassionate Leadership, which trains leaders to confront the world’s challenges with grace and authenticity. I had a chance to talk to Rinzler about what he sees as the challenges and the opportunities available to people seeking meaningful careers.

Can you tell me a little about your background as a Buddhist teacher and what brought you to write this book?

I grew up in the Shambhala Buddhist tradition, and I started meditating at a very young age before running off to the monastery when I was all of 17-years-old. After I got into a top choice school and all of that, I freaked out and decided I wasn’t going to do the traditional career route. Instead, I decided stay at this land center called Karme Choling and just do Buddhist practices. I told that to this wonderful Buddhist teacher Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche, a very old and wise man, and he said “No. Go to college. Go get a degree! Go get a job.” When someone like that tells you to do it you just do it. So I did and I pursued religious studies and led a Buddhist group at school and then ultimately landed as the executive director of the Boston Shambhala Center, a meditation center out in Massachusetts.

I worked for Shambhala International for a number of years before I wrote my first book The Buddha Walks Into a Bar. That lead to many others, and that let me launch into taking what had been sort of a hobby—writing—into a career. Then, I founded the Institute for Compassionate Leadership, where we take young people who want to help the world and aren’t sure what they want to do, put them through a six month curriculum where they get clear on that, through meditation, through compassion training, community organizing training, and training in traditional leadership skills.

Simultaneously, I launched the next book which is The Buddha Walks Into the Office. So these books really came from that point of view of wanting to help other young people navigate that intricate fine line between taking care of themselves, getting clear on what they want to do, and ultimately being of benefit to others.

What does working like a Buddha mean, and is it compatible with other faiths, traditions, or philosophies are person might practice?

We look to the Buddha as an example of a human being who, through the practice of self-awareness, was able to wake up to what was going on in his own mind and heart, and what was going on around him. As a result he was able to create revolutionary change. Working like a Buddha is really just becoming more in tune with who you already are, and what’s going on in your mind.

One of the Tibetan words for meditation that I really like is gom, which can be translated as “to become familiar with.” The idea of meditation in this case is just us becoming familiar with what’s going on. So to work like a Buddha means that we become more familiar with our own layers of suffering, confusion, and sanity. Then we are more able to be present and see that in others, and work from an empathetic point of view where we start to notice that other people suffer in the same ways, and that we can actually be helpful to them.

What do you see as some of the unique challenges faced by people in the job market today?

I think many of us were raised to believe that we could do anything we wanted to do. And then we hit this economic moment where we were told, “You can’t do anything! You can’t even get a job.” I think that sort of weird cognitive dissonance is still reverberating and traumatic for a lot of us. But from a Buddhist point of view, we are inherently capable, wise and kind human beings, we just have to have faith in that and work from that perspective. So one of the things I think is hard for us is that when we are pursuing a job search from a place of fear, that fear of, “Oh my God, I’ve got bills to pay!” you end up pigeon-holing yourself into your most basic skills, as opposed to thinking through what you actually long to do.

I think as a result of this recession and a lot of us encountering difficulty in our job searches, we freak out and think “I can’t actually do anything,” or “I can’t do the work that I long to do.” And within that I think people tend to fall heavily onto their skill set, what skills can I leverage, as opposed to their intention, asking, “What’s my intention in doing the work I actually want to do?” So if your intention is to be a generous person, there’s a million jobs that you could do. There are so many ways to leverage intention for a meaningful job.

What would you say to people who worry that compassion and contemplation are at odds with the so-called competitive edge that’s often believed to be necessary for success?

One of the things that we talk about at the Institute for Compassionate Leadership is the idea that if you are able to slow yourself down enough, you can tune into reality as it is, then you are going to be the most skillful and productive person, because you’re actually acting in line with reality. You’re not so lost in things like “Oh, things should be this way,” or “I want them to be this way,” or even “It used to be this way.” You’re actually looking at what’s going on and then can respond really proactively. So I think there’s something very practical about this meditation and compassion stuff!

What advice do you have for people looking for meaningful work?

The first thing I want to say and this took me some time to figure out myself is that you don’t have to sort out that this is work that is helpful and good and this is work that is going to be good for you financially. Those things can actually be joined in today’s world. And it’s not some one-in-a-billion fluke when this happens; it’s actually a result of getting clear on how you want to make your money.

It takes a real sense of self-examination to not give into the fear of, “Holy moly, I’m out of work, I need a job!” Instead, can you actually take the time to sink into an examination of what you want to do with your time? And then once you actually find out what’s meaningful for you, leveraging that volunteer opportunity, that internship, that friend of a friend who happens to work in that field, so that you actually start to explore what that means. I think if we looked at our job search not as a to-do list but as an open-ended exploration of what is personally meaningful then we’re sort of reversing that tendency to put the cart before the horse. The horse has to be what is personally meaningful to you, and then the cart follows.

How do you feel about the idea of a dream job? Does having a dream job in mind help or hinder in this process?

I think it’s a nice idea to have in mind. But really thinking about the ways you want to be of benefit is more likely to help you get there. If, to you, meaningful work is work that is of benefit to others in society, I think to just hold that little nugget close and not let that go is really important. The dream job that helps you do that could really be anything. There are so many opportunities, and there are so many ways to help others. So knowing what that core nugget is, that thing that personally drives you, knowing what will make it personally meaningful for you, that can get you to the dream job.

So would you stress that flexibility is an important quality?

Yes. That inner flexibility of knowing that doing meaningful work or doing good in the world doesn’t have to mean this single job title at a single company. It could be this type of work that is my dream job. What that looks like could be totally fluid.

Rom-coms and zombies aren’t your average topics in either Buddhist teachings or in giving career advice. Can you talk a little bit about why having a sense of humor is important in approaching the idea of a career?

When we get lost in that fear of “I just need to pay the rent, I need something,” it’s a very real fear. I can’t negate that. But getting that pay-the-rent job doesn’t mean we can’t continue to explore. I think when we are lost in the fear of not being able to pay the rent or lost in that feeling of being so busy because we are paying the rent, that we can’t do the dream job, we lose that sense of levity. It becomes a chore, and we lose that sense of humor. We can really ask ourselves what is so horrible about finding something meaningful for ourselves. If we can just start to poke a little bit at that sense of fear and anxiety, speedy business, whatever it might be, as we start to poke at it it becomes much more ephemeral. That sense of levity, and having a sense of humor about your job search, can be really helpful.

Have you ever caught yourself thinking, “I wish I could write a book about that horrible interview I just went on!” Those sorts of things I think are really actually quite powerful. It lets us loosen up and let the creative energy flow.

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About the Author | Caroline Contillo teaches mindfulness meditation at non-profits and community centers in NYC. Previously, she worked at Businessweek Online and The Interdependence Project, a secular Buddhist meditation center.

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