It is common to imagine that there is a conflict between spirituality and running a financially successful enterprise, but this is not so. It is possible to do business and at the same time work within our values. Doing so expands our life, making everything we do a part of our spiritual practice, our sadhana. The practitioner of yoga uses all circumstances in this way, as grist for the spiritual mill, to grow spiritually.
So rather than focusing on only business, or only spirituality, we can integrate the two.
Doing so requires thoughtfulness about the nature of the work we do, and how we go about our work.
Many years ago, I served as a business coach for a small group starting a new business. It quickly became apparent that although these gentlemen were very much on a spiritual path, they were throwing their values overboard in the hope of achieving success in their business. I mentioned this to them, yet they chose to ignore the advice. About a year later, a lawsuit broke out between them and the business went downhill, never to recover.
The pressures of business and life are intense. Making a financial success of our business to support ourselves, our families and our community is a great achievement, even more so when we do so in a way consistent with our essential values.
Here are seven principles, extracted from yoga and the writings of Swami Veda Bharati, that can be implemented in our work to enhance our business, and our lives:
1. Enjoy this Universe Together with Renunciation.
The Isha Upanishad, part of the great Indian Vedic text, the Yajur Veda, says “This entire universe is suffused by the fragrance of divinity, all that moves in all the universes." (Translation by Swami Veda Bharati) This means that everything here is filled with Divinity, and we don’t have to go hide in a cave or climb to the top of a mountain to seek the Infinite. Rather, it’s right here, now, and we can practice getting in touch with that Divinity in every moment of our life.
The Isha Upanishad goes on to say ”Enjoy this universe together with renunciation.” In other words, this scripture advises us to both enjoy this world and practice renunciation. What is renunciation? It is non-attachment, which means not clinging, not having an emotional attachment to things.
These two ideas, that the Divine is in everything, and that we can enjoy the world with renunciation, is a good place to start integrating our spiritual and worldly life.
How to do this?
The answer was given by Krishna to Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita 3:19: “Always perform your duty efficiently and without attachment to the results.” In other words, you do your best as service to Providence and to the world, without clinging to the outcome. Whatever happens is really not in your hands anyway. Providence always has a say. So be unattached to the result. Leave the result in the hands of the Highest.
This is a subtle form of surrender, and a powerful spiritual practice. It enables you to enjoy and be engaged in the world, yet to be unattached.
Work is joy when we do it as service and for the sheer joy of working. The problem comes when we cling to the “fruits”.
The essence of spiritual practice is to let go of attachment to the material, and this is one way to do this.
Although doing without attachment may sound difficult, it’s actually not. One way to begin is to enjoy with a certain amount of restraint. Take an example of a buffet lunch: One way of eating at a buffet is to really pile the food onto the plate, taking an immense amount of food and eating until you can barely walk out of the restaurant. I used to to this until I realized how uncomfortable it made me feel to eat so much! That’s when I realized that there is another way: Just taking enough to have a satisfying meal, within the comfortable capacity of the digestive system. This second method allows a good meal, and comfort afterward. The same method can be used with the buffet of life. The idea is to not grab beyond your share.
I know a wonderful woman who is a master at teaching Effective Communication, and many people, including psychotherapists, come to her to be trained in this skill. Although she has always had many students and clients, she has always kept her hourly fee at a moderate level. She avoids the temptation to charge a high fee, doesn’t try to take beyond her share, and her business has always thrived. This too is an example of enjoying with renunciation.
Now onto the second principle.
2. Ask yourself the right question.
Whenever we make decisions in life, we can ask ourselves a question: Does this take me toward or away from my spiritual goals, essential values, and Self-realization? The same questions can be asked with regard to business decisions too: Whatever choices confirm my values and bring me closer to my spiritual core are right for me. Whatever takes me away from that is wrong.
Applying this method takes some contemplation. We can see where our actions will take us, and make our choice.
3. Non-harming (The first Yama).
One of the essentials of spiritual growth is to calm the noise and agitation of our mind, so that we can be in touch with our subtle spiritual essence. The mind is like shade over the lamp of the light of soul. If the shade is opaque, which happens when the mind is agitated and filled with darkness, we can’t experience something deeper. The most basic practices of yoga, called the yamas and niyamas, are meant to calm and purify the mind, that is, the“shade”, so that the inner light can shine out. The first and most basic of these practices is non-violence, ahimsa. Put positively, ahimsa means amity toward all beings. So when you do your business, practice ahimsa. This fits with the Buddhist idea of Right Livelihood. Do work that helps the world rather than does harm.
4. Bakers' dozen -- give a little extra. The next principle is based on the Law of Karma. For those of you who don’t know this law, it goes like this: As we sow, so we reap.
If we sow pain and anger, we get that back. If we sow love, we get that. For our business to thrive, we want people to come and use our services and products and be happy to pay for them. How do we engender this? By cultivating our own generosity. If we are generous, then, according to the Law of Karma, generosity will come back our way. This also works on another level: As we cultivate a generous heart, a loving heart, we will experience more love coming from the source of love inside of us. Love comes from the soul, not the ego, and the more we are in touch with our own love, the more we are in touch with our soul.
So one of the things you can do is to give a little more than expected, a little more than you are being paid for. In the old days, there was the concept of a “baker’s dozen”, of giving an extra piece. With regard to instituting this “baker’s dozen” practice in your life, Swami Veda Bharati says: “If you do that with every customer from morning till night, imagine what effect it will have on your mind at the end of the day -- what satisfaction you will derive from that compared to shorting each customer a few tiny grains throughout the day.”
Another way to do this would be to give a certain amount of your profits toward unselfish purposes. The word for this is “tithing.” Make tithing a part of your business, and do it just to give rather than in the hope of getting some return. Gifts given in the hope of receiving a return are not really gifts. Rather, as Swami Veda says, they are “grabbing”.
5. Begin with fullness.
One of the experiences that one has as s/he experiences the spiritual essence is a sense of fullness, interior fullness. However when our ego is blocking the experience of our Soul, we have a sense of emptiness, and this emptiness drives us to grab at the world in a hopeless attempt to fill ourselves up. When we are acting in our lives or our business, we don’t want to come from such an empty, grabbing, ego-consciousness. Rather, we want to act from our fullness, and meditation is a method to get in touch with this fullness.
We practice meditation to immerse in the fullness that is our birthright, and then we don't have to grab from our clients outside of ourselves. Instead, we can give a little extra because we feel so full, and our customers will feel our joy and our generosity, and they will respond.
6. Service Orientation
There is a spiritual principle called Seva, or service. If you go to live in an Ashram, you’ll be asked to serve. Back when I lived in a yoga community in the Santa Cruz Mountains, I was assigned many service duties, including washing several toilets. My father was aghast that his son, the lawyer, was washing toilets, but for me this job was a big help: it taught me to do service and to do my best at it. I always felt good after a day of working.
So, in the same way, let your mission, your business, be to provide service. You need to make money, yet let the primary purpose of your business be to serve, and the money will take care of itself. Look to both earning money, and earning karma. Look at both. Not just at the one.
Do your work for others. Ask "How can I make your company prosper so that it may give to social causes without hurting the environment?”
Now let’s return to the image of the ego being a shade that blocks and diminishes the light pouring from the soul. The more that Soul shines through, the more joy, love, fulfillment we will experience, and the more we will feel connected, filled up, and part of everything. So, actions that reduce the ego, that make it thinner, more transparent, are excellent spiritually direct actions.
A common human error, which happens when we are out of touch with our Soul, is to feel small and to compensate by making ourselves, meaning our ego, big. But a big ego is a thick, opaque ego, and it really blocks the Soul’s light. When we live our life, and do our work, in a way that expands our ego, we become alienated from our Essence. It’s so common to expand the ego in modern business that it seems right to do so. In fact, we might feel like we are doing something wrong if we don’t go around shouting about how great we are.
The antidote to this social trend of ego exaltation is humility. Being humble. This doesn’t mean being a door-mat, but rather it means not paying tribute to the ego, and, instead, letting your Soul shine out. It means not making yourself BIG and others small. It means doing your work, as best as you can, without a big noise. This excerpt, from the Tao Te Ching, the ancient book of simple yet profound wisdom from ancient China, captures the essence of humility:
When the Master governs, the people
are hardly aware that he exists.….
The Master doesn’t talk, he acts.
When his work is done,
the people say, “Amazing:
we did it, all by ourselves!”
(Translation by Stephan Mitchell)
You can use one, some, or all of these principles in your work, and see the effect. Over time, applying these principles will turn your work into part of your spiritual practice, and both will thrive. May you enjoy with renunciation.