I have been thinking about the way people live nowadays and I have realized that a huge part of what is missing in people’s lives is real engagement with life. The lack of engagement is especially pronounced for many people at work, specifically people in the knowledge/information economy and I am convinced that this is a major reason why many people find themselves depressed, unhappy and unable to adapt to change.
Picture this scene:
It is decades ago from today. You run a business in rural Italy. You have a little store-front on top of a hill looking over a sun-drenched valley. In this valley is a vineyard that begins just a few feet away from your store and runs all the way down to the valley. Luscious, luminescent bunches of grapes hang from every vine and everywhere you look your eye catches a glistening here, a sparkle there, as the gorgeous sunshine bounces off each grape that is delicately stirred by a gentle breeze.
You watch as little dots move about these vines. Your workers, dressed in attire appropriate for the task are picking grapes. As you look, suddenly there is a flash of light and you know it is Adelina, one of your most cheerful grape-pickers. You know this because you recognize the flash of light – a reflection of sunlight off the gold bracelet on her left hand that her husband gave her when they were married.
Your workers collect the grapes and bring it behind your store, where it is processed. Everyone that is anyone comes along to crush the grapes with their bare feet, especially the children. The screams of delight and laughter are a constant presence in and around your store.
People come from miles away to buy your wine. The wine isn’t the best in the land but it’s good. The customer does not know how the wine will taste this time, but he knows every bottle is probably different. The store isn’t necessarily easy to get to, but the journey is a big part of the reason people come here. A chance to look at the beautiful valley and mingle with others who have undertaken the same journey, is as much a part of the reward as is the wine itself. In fact, the wine is secondary and serves only as a reminder, a memento, an echo that people can listen to when they are in their home, at their dinner table. The experience itself is in the here and the now and is as real as it gets.
Compare that to your work environment, what you give your customers, your clients, your users.
Perhaps the saddest and most common response I have encountered repeatedly when people are asked to compare the scene in Italy against their work environment is that people are convinced they can never have the former. They believe that work, especially knowledge work, does not have to have a relationship with reality, that it exists entirely in a bubble as a self-sustaining system of concepts. They believe that it is okay for work to be performed away from where it has an impact to the point that many people now struggle to make a connection between what they do and what happens in the real world.
I am often told that the scene in Italy is what you do when you go on vacation and then you are supposed to come back to the dull, drab, uninspiring, disconnected world of work. This is a comparison also made in the movie Office Space.
Silicon Valley claims to have solved this problem. They create open-concept spaces, bright, colorful environments, larger-than-life inspirational sayings or art that covers entire walls. They provide amazing food cooked by amazing chefs and take care of your every need, free!
And in this space sit human-beings, surrounded by beauty and life and still completely disconnected, disengaged from it all, quietly typing away on their keyboards. When interaction does happen, it is using whiteboards or stickies or legos or some other abstract representation. They consume symbols, they think in terms of symbols, they communicate with symbols, they produce symbols. Even when they get outside, they share not their experience, but an extremely-limited, linear, low-resolution abstraction of their experience via a photograph or a tweet or a post.
There is an entire field dedicated to “Information Science”. Unlike “Physics” or “Chemistry”, the field needs the word “science” to be tacked on at the end, because without that cognitive assist, people would not recognize it as a science. And if you ask people in Information Science what Facebook or Twitter is, they might tell you it’s a complex system with emergent behavior, which is just another way of saying “we have created a system that is complex enough that we can’t understand what’s going on”. The simulation is the new reality.
These are human-beings living a totally symbolic, imaginary life, entirely in their minds.
When people are cut off from life, they feel dead inside. Is it any surprise that depression is on the rise?
Thing is, none of this is necessary. You don’t have to be trapped inside a cocoon of concepts. And even the problem of being trapped inside a cocoon of concepts isn’t new. It’s been around for a very long time. The foundation of Hinduism (or Buddhism or Christianity for that matter), actually, is an exploration of this system of concepts and an attempt to answer the question “from where do these concepts arise?”. They have all solved the problem (yes, that is as much The Good News as anything else). Unfortunately, science has not caught up with it because today’s scientific thought refuses to use an instrument other than the linear, limited mind, stubbornly insists on accepting only what can be measured and demands proof in a manner that excludes the majority of human experience and expression (hint: things like love and art).
It is no surprise that the outcome of scientific research into problems like depression are solutions like pills that suppress the symptom instead of curing the disease. After all, the disease cannot be seen – only the symptom can.
So with that context, let’s come back to the office. Look around you right now. Do you see what’s missing?
I am going to apply this to the way I used to work. Even though my title has been software this, or lead technical that or architect something else (which make most people think I work with computers, unfortunately), most of my time has been spent interacting with people and helping them figure out their ideas, helping them refine and articulate it and attempting to translate as much as possible of that into another abstract representation, sometimes using a programming language. In other words, most of my work involves taking something imaginary filtered through the real and turning it into something else that’s imaginary.
Creative work? Expression of love? Pursuit of the Truth? Yes, but not on the surface. Far from it!
Consider the tree. By any standard of performance, a tree would be considered quite a useless organism. It’s lazy – it doesn’t move. It never looks busy. It never seems to be doing anything. You can’t track how long it has worked or what it has produced in a given amount of time. All you can do is witness the tree, trust that it is doing what it is supposed to. And if the conditions are right, a great product is the result. The real work happens inside the tree where you cannot see it.
For some reason, some of us think that people should not be viewed this way, but rather as machines. And people have decided to simply accept it and by doing so, to paraphrase Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj, “created a prison around themselves by inadvertence”. The real reason you will lose your job at some point and your work will be automated, is not because technology is taking over and business people are evil. No, it’s because you have decided to believe that you are a commodity and forgotten what your real work is.
The real work whether human or not, always happens inside and it happens non-stop. At a superficial level, on the outside, this is not apparent, for all that is perceivable is a small fraction of the work, i.e. the expression. Most people are engaged in work that is completely in disharmony with how they feel inside. And all of spirituality is about finding that harmony between what’s inside and what’s outside. Once the harmony is found, one discovers that there is in fact no such thing as ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ and that it is all one.
What happens then when you reach that point? You realize that what you did was exactly what you wanted all along. You realize that the life you lived and the life you are living now is exactly the life you want. You realize that you do what you do because the universe does what it does, and vice-versa. And then, what you do makes no difference to you because by now you understand that everything just happens.
This brings me to a fad I see a lot on LinkedIn nowadays – this idea that you should ‘find your passion’. Like everything else, it is coming from a place of love, and it will help a lot of people find their way, and regardless of it’s utility or correctness, there is nothing wrong with it. However, there are people who think that when they ‘find their passion’, they will live happily ever after. The very act of setting up such a false expectation in an unknown future is a guarantee that it will fail, for there is nothing more guaranteed than change itself!
The real reason you should ‘find your passion’ is not because the thing you are passionate about will make you happy (it won’t) but because the process of finding is what will help you understand life.
Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you..
– Matthew 7:7
I tell you the truth when I say that whoever seeks will find, and the finding will cause him to seek, but in the seeking is hidden the meaning of Life.
– Gospel of Thomas (Gnostic Scripture)
So whatever your life looks like, whatever it is you do at ‘work’, what matters most is whether you have the time to understand what you are, whether you can give yourself the space to discover and engage with the life within. Don’t confuse this to mean that you should take time out to sit alone in a quiet room and meditate. This is yet another destructive and pointless ceremony I see many organizations encouraging their employees to participate in – you may have heard these called ‘mindfulness sessions’.
The engagement with life can happen in an infinite number of ways and must be in harmony with your nature (and by extension, in harmony with the whole universe). Some find it meditative to perform paperwork, others find that it is driving, still others find it in painting or sweeping the deck or even in processing meat. It does not matter what the outer expression looks like, so long as – and this is key – it is effortless (not to be confused with easy) for you to perform. For when your outer expression is effortless, you can use all your energies for the real work happening within.
I will end with a Q&A snippet from Sri Ramana Maharshi.
Devotee: Is it possible to enjoy samadhi while busy with worldly work?
Bhagavan: It is the feeling ‘I work’ that is the hindrance. Ask yourself: ‘Who works?’ Remember who you are. Then the work will not bind you. It will go on automatically. Make no effort either to work or to renounce; your effort is the bondage. What is destined to happen will happen. If you are destined to work, you will not be able to avoid it; you will be forced to engage in it. So leave it to the Higher Power. It is not really your choice whether you renounce or retain.
When women carrying jars of water on their heads stop to talk, they are very careful, keeping their mind on the water jars. Similarly, when a sage engages in activity, his mind remains fixed in the Self and his activity does not distract him.