A thousand years ago, there was a cobbler who hated his work, but could not escape it. One day, heartsick, he met a monk, who suggested that he practice his craft as a meditation — by reframing the attention, intention, and emotion with which he approached his work. He followed the monk’s advice. Today, he is remembered as the Divine Cobbler, one of India’s 84 mahasiddhas, gurus who reached enlightenment through mindfulness.
Stanford Graduate School of Business lecturer Leah Weiss, principal teacher and trainer in Stanford’s Compassion Cultivation Program, opens her new book, How We Work: Live Your Purpose, Reclaim Your Sanity, and Embrace the Daily Grind, with the cobbler’s story. It still strikes a chord today, she says, because “nothing provides more opportunities than the workplace for us to feel discouraged, disappointed, bored, overwhelmed, envious, embarrassed, anxious, irritated, outraged, and afraid to say what we really feel.”
Of course, most people today are not as trapped in their jobs as the cobbler. But leaving a job we don’t like may not alleviate the suffering. “It’s like breaking up with one person after another and another in romantic relationships. There’s a common denominator in what’s not working,” says Weiss.
Here she discusses why the grind makes us better leaders and how to practice mindfulness to reconnect to your purpose.
Suffering as an Opportunity
In her Stanford GSB course, Leading with Mindfulness and Compassion, Weiss teaches that the suffering we endure at work can be the path to personal transformation. “We are a big, big factor in our experience of work, much bigger than we tend to realize,” she says. “We’re in a much better position to change a bad situation if we’ve looked squarely at questions like, What’s going on with me as I’m going through my work day? What is the root cause of what’s happening to me? How much of this can I influence with my mindset?”
Moreover, the experience of suffering at work can make us better leaders and colleagues. “Our struggle becomes the bridge to compassion for other people who also are working hard and frustrated at times,” explains Weiss. “When we spend so much time with the same people, we sometimes dehumanize them. They become that annoying role or thing that is blocking us. We don’t think of them as we would if we realized that we all bring our whole lives to work, even if we’re not talking about it most of the time.”
In paying attention to our suffering at work, Weiss believes that we can make more informed decisions about how to act and respond. We can become more mindful and, as research shows, mindfulness includes all the aspects of emotional intelligence.
“Paying attention to our emotions at work doesn’t mean work is a therapy confrontation group from the ’70s where everyone is yelling and screaming and freaking out,” says Weiss. “It means we know what we’re feeling. When we have that knowledge, we can decide how we want to process it and if we want to express it. And if we do want to express it, we can do that intentionally.”
Three Kinds of Mindfulness
In her book, Weiss describes three kinds of mindfulness that can help us transform our experience of work: embodiment, metacognition, and focus.
Embodiment is mindfulness of the body. “It is the ability to be aware of your body as you’re moving through the day,” says Weiss. “There’s an epidemic of disembodiment among people. I struggle with it, too. I get so into the world of ideas that I forget I’m in a body.”
When we ignore our bodies, we are cut off from an important source of information. We miss the physical manifestations of our emotions and the first signs of what can become chronic pain if left unaddressed. “We all have these quirky things that we do when we’re stressed — the clenched jaw, the rounded shoulders,” says Weiss. “But we can catch stress upstream, before it makes us sick, by noticing the places of habitual tightening in our bodies.”
Metacognition is the ability to know what we are experiencing as we experience it. “This is really important for work,” says Weiss. “We don’t want to just go through the motions and find ourselves in the position of looking up hours later and thinking, ‘Where did that chunk of time go?’”
Metacognition provides us with the opportunity to observe our own thoughts and actions in the moment. “You see an urge as just an urge, something that will pass if you let it, not something you necessarily have to do,” writes Weiss in How We Work.
The same holds true for the words and actions of other people. “They might not be right about everything. On the other hand, there might be something in the situation that they are right about, something more than you first realized,” Weiss continues. “By separating the data — what is really happening vs. our interpretation of what is happening — we can find places where we are spinning stories that are not helpful to us, others, or our productivity.”
Focus is the ability to direct our attention where we want it. “With all of the technological options we have for engagement, we need to be mindful about disruption,” says Weiss. “Many of us are in the habit of multitasking, but of course that doesn’t exist. There’s only task switching, and that comes with a tremendous cost in terms of our productivity.”
The practice of focus requires retraining ourselves to notice in the moment when we are distracted and to return to the object of our focus. “It helps us to get better at understanding the ways in which our distraction occurs, at predicting it, and at increasing our ability to focus,” says Weiss. One good way to do this is to set a time for 20 minutes of monotasking.
For Weiss, the practices of mindfulness are a means of pursuing our purpose. “For many of us, the problem with purpose is that we get too busy to remember it. Or we know it, but it doesn’t really seem to have any connection with our day-to-day activities,” she concludes. “But if we can recognize when something we’re doing is not connected to our bigger goal and that it isn’t what we really want to do, and we can reconnect to what is meaningful to us, mindfulness can be wildly impactful.”