From "Awake at Work" by Michael Carroll, c 2004. Reprinted by arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc.

Rather than rejecting work's difficuties as bothersome interruptions, we can instead acknowledge work, with all its complications, as an invitation to wake up and live our lives honestly and fully. From this point of view, the problems that arise in our jobs are not inconvenient speed bumps or demoralizing battles but valuable experiences worthy of our wise attention. We can learn to welcome whatever stares us in the face--whether disappointing, exhilarating, confusing, or routine--confidently and fully.

If we take a moment to slow down and open up to our work circumstances, we will discover that work is continually inviting us to help, not hide; to listen openly, not close up; to connect, not detach; to perfect our skillfulness, not put it in question. But in our impatience to succeed and become better, faster, and more profitable, we overlook the fact that work, with all its pressures and problems, is encouraging us to be engaged, resourceful, and alive--right here, right now.

. . .

Acknowledging Small Boredoms

All of us experience small boredoms at work--routine, seemingly dull events that we often take for granted: remaining "on hold" on the phone, waiting at the copier or coffee line, pausing for a computer screen to open, being stopped in traffic. We may consider such moments irritating or unproductive, a waste of our time to be avoided if possible. However, properly handled, such small boredoms can ease the speed and restlessness of our jobs, helping us remain alert, available, and awake at work.

A common small boredom for many of us is traveling in an elevator. We press the button and wait a moment or two while other passengers assemble for the brief trip. When the doors open, we pause while passengers exit, then slowly file into the small space, selecting our destination and taking our place among our fellow passengers. The doors close and a familiar yet peculiar experience occurs. If we are paying attention, we might notice two things.

First, during those few seconds in the elevator, our physical circumstances seem quite immediate. We are close to the elevator walls and to our fellow passengers, with little to see, hear, and smell. Our senses seem unusually keen and our surroundings distinctly vivid. The second thing we might notice is that this immediately makes us slightly uncomfortable. We quickly begin to do little things to distract ourselves: we shift our weight from foot to foot, glance mechanically at our watch, check the floor numbers and then glance at our watch again. What is so powerful about the small boredom of the elevator--indeed, about small boredoms in general--is that we are actually trying to avoid our experience, to distract ourselves from the sharp immediacy of the moment.

Small boredoms--whether they are elevator rides, pauses in a speech, or sitting in a traffic jam--can feel vaguely unnerving. We are being poked by our world, provoked, invited to wake up. Acknowledging small boredoms encourages us to engage that slight discomfort by being alert and fully present with no mindless distractions. Rather than letting boredom, short or prolonged, put us to sleep, we reverse the equation, engaging boredom in all its simple, unadorned vividness, letting it wake us up. By relating to small boredoms with this kind of precision, we turn them into practice, stepping stones we walk each day that form the basis for slowing our speed, letting go of our inner rehearsals, and being fully alert to our circumstances.

A common experience in my corporate career was attending meetings in the boardroom. Over the years, the tone and pace of those meetings varied widely--sometimes tense, other times enjoyable; sometimes hurried, other times measured. No matter what the tone or pace, no matter what the topic or difficulty being discussed, there was always a small boredom that reminded me to be alert, available, and curious.

More often than not, before the meeting could begin, my colleagues and I would wait in silence for about sixty seconds as conference calls were placed to bring people into the meeting. It was a routine moment, dull and vaguely irritating and uncomfortable. Some would shuffle through their papers or move their pen about on the table. Others would glance out the window or at their watches. The brief pause was a small boredom for me where I would often drop my rehearsals and anxieties and, for a moment, thoroughly relax and notice my surroundings.

In the middle of the boardroom table was a speakerphone used for conducting the conference calls. Sitting prominently on the table with its keypad and open speaker design, the device was slightly dented and the numbers on some of the keypads were worn and faded. Over the years I got to know it quite well. In time the speaker by itself represented for me an invitation to cut the speed of my mind, drop my rehearsals, and be present. Eventually just seeing the speakerphone reminded me to wake up. To this day, whenever I see the same model phone, I can't help but be alert and curious about my surroundings.

Acknowledging small boredoms has a peculiar way of permeating and informing our work experience, inviting more and more aspects of our physical setting to poke us and wake us up. The familiar landscape painting that we see each morning as we exit our small boredom in the elevator invites us time and again to wake up. Our coffee mug, in hand as we wait for the coffee to brew, pokes us throughout the day. The worn metal post at our train stop that greets and awakens us each morning now greets and awakens us on our way home at night. Our favorite tie or scarf, the view from our office window, our computer keypad--all invite and provoke us to be awake at work. As we extend our experience of small boredoms, our entire work setting becomes a greater invitation to wake up.

Eventually we begin to feel at home at work. Not in the sense that we can kick off our shoes and walk around in our robe and slippers. Rather, our familiar routines and work settings become a continuous reminder that our world is at once vast and profound yet highly personal and routine. We gradually begin to appreciate the natural pace of our every act: holding a door for a colleague or closing a million-dollar deal, handling a pen or pencil or handing medicine to a dying patient. Surprisingly, by being precise with small boredoms, we discover a way for being precise with work overall. Acknowledging small boredoms reminds us that we need not be numbed by work's pressures or routines. By taking time to notice the seemingly insignificant moments that invite us to wake up, we can, over time, rediscover a natural and precise pace that can inform and uplift all that we do throughout the day.

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