When I entered the business world in the late 1970's, open discussions on spirituality at work were taboo. Yet, while searching through a desk drawer for correction fluid during one temporary assignment, I found a Bible. Other desks held hidden books on Buddhism and poetry, plus numerous inspirational quotes.
At a conservative commercial real estate firm, almost all of the staff and the executives got me either behind closed doors or off-site to speak about spirituality. After remarking that they had noticed me reading Fritjof Capra's "Tao of Physics" during breaks, they swore me to secrecy ("No one else here would understand," everyone insisted), and then told me their stories.
During those secret conversations I learned that one executive meditated regularly and another dreamed of doing creative service. The receptionist was a devout Christian; the researcher had spent a summer at Findhorn, the eco-spiritual community in Scotland. The mailroom clerk's spiritual journey was initiated by a poem that helped her heal from a near-suicidal depression.
Today, spirituality has come out of hiding throughout the business world. Trade journals and magazines such as "Business Week" and "Training Magazine" regularly discuss the subject. Judi Neal's website
lists dozens of conferences and graduate-level classes where participants ponder ideas from ancient Buddhist teachings to everyday business management. Hundreds of books offer practical insights and inspiration on how to work with increased meaning and joy.
One executive who has found time to do just that is August Turak, CEO of the rapidly growing Raleigh Group International software company. Turak regularly retreats to a Trappist monastery. When he works, he works hard and enjoys it, but most of the time he refuses to carry a cell phone after hours. His home telephone answering machine died three years ago, and he doesn't work on a laptop during plane trips.
Turak learned from his mentor, Lou Mobley, founder and recently retired director of the IBM Executive School that "the higher up in the organization you go, the more important people issues become. A really good executive spends enormous time on people issues, the rest on vision, to decide the things that are worth doing. These are values decisions, not efficiency issues."
When workers instinctively act from their values at work, the work can become more efficient and profound. During a hard time, legal secretary Brenda Fuller, placed a prayer she loved by her telephone. Later she added a photo that makes her laugh and a quote by Goethe to go boldly towards her dreams. Tiny frames filled with prayers graced her computer monitor stand.
Brenda inspired me to collect examples of other "workplace altars"--a natural response to the need for respectful reflection wherever we are. "Stop here long enough to consider what matters," altars invite. "Reconnect here to the wonder of life. Gain strength and guidance."
Because of business practice and labor laws, workplace altars need to be discreet. The underground workplace of Patsy Attwood, a station agent for the San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit System, is an example. You could walk by and never notice how subtly she has altered her space to integrate faith and work.
Attwood's glass-walled booth is enlivened by plants and flowers. Whenever she enters her space, she blesses it. On her phone console, a prayer she wrote helps her live her values moment to moment.
From July 1999 until May of 2001, I wrote about spirituality and work for the San Francisco Chronicle's Career Search section. People I interviewed demonstrated that meaningful work has little to do with job description and everything to do with attitude, especially a willingness to see the world of work with fresh consciousness.
"Becoming a dad and businessman forced me to discover that people I used to think of as adversaries are really people like me who made different decisions because they had different information," says cultural anthropologist and mountaineer Jeff Salz, Ph.D. "I got my information from the Andes, the Tibetan mountains, the sunrise over the Grand Canyon; they may have learned from the Wharton School of Business or Tom Clancey. We have much to teach each other."
Salz, author of "The Way of Adventure: Transforming Your Life and Work with Spirit and Vision," uses stories from his adventurous life to help corporate executives see their work environments as an opportunity to make a difference in the lives of those around them.
An accomplished mountaineer, Salz has mapped the Himalayas and scaled some of the world's most dangerous peaks. "Whenever we leave behind our particular milieu and try something new," he says, "we rekindle our love affair with life. Adventure sharpens intuition, which is particularly useful in a world that's changing faster than we can plan and prepare for."
But adventure doesn't require physical danger or exotic locales. "The key to adventure is to live vigorously and authentically," says Salz. For many of us, says the author, balancing relaxation and work is our edge.
That edge has become more stressful because it's harder now to enjoy a spiritual or emotional release from the workday. Perpetually connected to work via cell phone and e-mail, workers often feel disconnected from their hearts and souls. It's easy to drown in information while thirsting for wisdom.
We often forget how different people and computers are, notes Lois Silva, OP, Senior Vice President for Mission Services at St. Joseph's Regional Health System in Stockton, Calif. Computers act out a quick rhythm of "enter, send, receive, respond. People also need time to reflect, to sort, judge and evaluate."
People who travel for work also have altars. Inside his locker, a firefighter posts meaningful words and pictures. A meter maid keeps devotional materials in her truck. So does a carpenter, who also blesses his tools and each task.
Most employees agree that their right to practice spirituality at work is balanced by other employees' rights to practice different values. An unspoken etiquette is evolving: in private space (desk drawer or a section of the desk that faces away from visitors), it's usually acceptable to place small symbols of a particular faith. In more public space, including office walls and desk sections that face visitors, employees need to be extra careful not to make others uncomfortable.
If you'd like to create an altar at work, take a cue from the PBS documentary "Jane Goodall: Reason for Hope." This shows ecologist Goodall carrying four symbols of hope
wherever she goes. A leaf from a tree that survived the atomic bomb in Nagasaki speaks to the restorative power of nature. Chunks from the Berlin Wall and the South African prison where Nelson Mandela and his comrades were incarcerated call forth the power of the human spirit to overthrow injustice. A stuffed toy chimpanzee, touched by attendees at Goodall's workshops, spreads laughter and hope among people throughout the world.
The documentary didn't use the words "altar" or "spirit at work," let alone "workplace altar." As Goodall spoke about each symbol, however, faces in her audiences glowed with hope and inspiration. There was reverence not for the items themselves, but for the spirit they evoked.
May your spirited response to your work be this simple and profound.