“Wisdom is acquired by meditation” — Publilius Syrus
We do not receive wisdom, we must discover it for ourselves, after a journey through the wilderness, which no one else can make for us, which no one can spare us, for our wisdom is the point of view from which we come at last to regard the world. — Marcel Proust
This is a detailed list of 10 books I’ve found especially useful over the past year in trying to both understand what mindfulness really is, as well as find tactical advice for applying it at work.
Not all of these are explicitly about mindfulness, but each can help you develop in your practice. They’re presented in the sequence I think would work best for someone just starting out, but all stand fine on their own, so could be read in any order.
1. 10% Happier (Dan Harris)
In 10% Happier, Dan Harris describes his journey after discovering that following years of ostensible striving in his career, he isn’t actually getting any happier (quite the opposite).
To be clear, most of Dan’s struggles are squarely first-world problems. Then again, so are mine, which is a big reason this was such a relatable book.
I found his story relatable for a lot of other reasons, including the way he devours all he can learn on the subject of meditation, from self-help books to clinical research.
Harris, the anchor of ABC’s Nightline, begins the book with something we all struggle with every day — the nagging inner critic in our head:
Most of us are so entranced by the nonstop conversation we’re having with ourselves that we aren’t even aware we have a voice in our head. I certainly wasn’t — at least not before I embarked on the weird little odyssey described in this book. To be clear, I’m not talking about “hearing voices,” I’m talking about the internal narrator, the most intimate part of our lives. The voice comes braying in as soon as we open our eyes in the morning, and then heckles us all day long with an air horn. It’s a fever swamp of urges, desires, and judgments. It’s fixated on the past and the future, to the detriment of the here and now. It’s what has us reaching into the fridge when we’re not hungry, losing our temper when we know it’s not really in our best interest, and pruning our inboxes when we’re ostensibly engaged in conversation with other human beings. Our inner chatter isn’t all bad, of course. Sometimes it’s creative, generous, or funny. But if we don’t pay close attention — which very few of us are taught how to do — it can be a malevolent puppeteer.
The first chapter was meh, but once you get past that, the book is a practical introduction to the general principles of mindfulness and meditation, with a focus on their practical applications to improving performance at work. Here he relates an exchange with Janice Marturano, a corporate attorney leading a mindfulness campaign at General Mills:
A big part of Marturano’s success in bringing mindfulness to this unlikely venue was that she talked about it not as a “spiritual” exercise but instead as something that made you a “better leader” and “more focused,” and that enhanced your “creativity and innovation.” She didn’t even like the term “stress reduction.” “For a lot of us,” she said, “we think that having stress in our lives isn’t a bad thing. It gives us an edge.”
Harris questions Marturano’s suggestion that “purposeful pauses” can improve results even while slowing down effort:
“If I’m a corporate samurai,” I said, “I’d be a little worried about taking all these pauses that you recommend because I’d be thinking, ‘Well, my rivals aren’t pausing. They’re working all the time.’ ” “Yeah, but that assumes that those pauses aren’t helping you. Those pauses are the ways to make you a more clear thinker and for you to be more focused on what’s important.” This was another attack on my work style. I had long assumed that ceaseless planning was the recipe for effectiveness, but Marturano’s point was that too much mental churning was counterproductive. When you lurch from one thing to the next, constantly scheming, or reacting to incoming fire, the mind gets exhausted. You get sloppy and make bad decisions. I could see how the counterintuitive act of stopping, even for a few seconds, could be a source of strength, not weakness. [Emphasis added]
It was helpful that he shared his stumbles along the way, for example, acknowledging that for a time he’d taken “letting go” a bit too far and risked losing sight of his career goals. The last chapter includes a succint summary of what a mindful outlook on life ultimately means, as related to Harris by a friend:
Striving is fine, as long as it’s tempered by the realization that, in an entropic universe, the final outcome is out of your control. If you don’t waste your energy on variables you cannot influence, you can focus much more effectively on those you can. When you are wisely ambitious, you do everything you can to succeed, but you are not attached to the outcome — so that if you fail, you will be maximally resilient, able to get up, dust yourself off, and get back in the fray. That, to use a loaded term, is enlightened self-interest.
2. The Happiness Hypothesis (Jonathan Haidt)
One reason I enjoyed Jonathan Haidt’s The Happiness Hypothesis so much is that it places mindfulness in context alongside other tools that can be used for achieving many of the same goals, like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy or medications like Prozac and Zoloft, all of which can be just as (or more) effective as meditation for some people. Which ties into another reason I liked this book — it doesn’t try to prescribe “the” way to be or act, instead recognizing that humans are far too complex for that, and that we would be well-served to focus on our unique combination of strengths, experiences, and circumstances:
Work on your strengths, not your weaknesses. How many of your New Year’s resolutions have been about fixing a flaw? And how many of those resolutions have you made several years in a row? It’s difficult to change any aspect of your personality by sheer force of will, and if it is a weakness you choose to work on, you probably won’t enjoy the process. If you don’t find pleasure or reinforcement along the way, then — unless you have the willpower of Ben Franklin — you’ll soon give up. But you don’t really have to be good at everything. Life offers so many chances to use one tool instead of another, and often you can use a strength to get around a weakness. [Emphasis added]
Haidt also rallies plenty of modern research to what ancient wisdom has long been telling us in the form of proverbs and prescriptions about the importance of altruism:
A longitudinal study that tracked volunteering and well-being over many years in thousands of people was able to show a causal effect: When a person increased volunteer work, all measures of happiness and well-being increased (on average) afterwards, for as long as the volunteer work was a part of the person’s life.
Although he takes a fascinating detour deliving into the systems and structures of organized religion and the role they play in the spiritual lives of so many, Haidt focuses much of his writing on where most of us look for meaning in our modern lives, acknowledging that attention to meaningful work can be a genuine part of a fulfilling life:
Love and work are crucial for human happiness because, when done well, they draw us out of ourselves and into connection with people and projects beyond ourselves.
In some writings on meditation and mindfulness there’s a subtle disdain for modernity, implying the ancients had it all figured out and we’re just now rediscovering their wisdom. Haidt instead suggests ways to reconcile the profound insights from great thinkers like Buddha and Seneca with what we’ve learned through modern science. And unlike much of the raw ancient doctrine, there’s as much emphasis on interpersonal relationships as on the inner struggle with the self:
I don’t believe there is an inspiring answer to the question, “What is the purpose of life?” Yet by drawing on ancient wisdom and modern science, we can find compelling answers to the question of purpose within life. The final version of the happiness hypothesis is that happiness comes from between. Happiness is not something that you can find, acquire, or achieve directly. You have to get the conditions right and then wait. Some of those conditions are within you, such as coherence among the parts and levels of your personality. Other conditions require relationships to things beyond you: Just as plants need sun, water, and good soil to thrive, people need love, work, and a connection to something larger. It is worth striving to get the right relationships between yourself and others, between yourself and your work, and between yourself and something larger than yourself. If you get these relationships right, a sense of purpose and meaning will emerge. [Emphasis added]
3. Your Brain at Work (David Rock)
While it’s not explicitly about mindfulness, applying the lessons from David Rock’s Your Brain at Work will lead you to pay more attention to your emotions and your state of mind before, during, and after everyday interactions — and that’s mindfulness in a nutshell.
As the title implies, Rock’s focus is improving how we deal with everyday work, so we see mindfulness presented as a tool for performance improvement, rather than just spiritual exploration:
Leaders who want to drive change more effectively may want to practice becoming more intelligent about their inner world as a first step. A great way to do this is to discover more about your own brain.
Echoing Haidt’s “elephant and rider” metaphor for the relationship between our “higher” brain (the executive function) and our “lower” brain (notably the limbic system), Rock says that one of the most important roles of that “higher” brain is to be the “director”, paying close attention to what the “lower” brain is doing. And that concept of training ourselves to pay as much (or more) attention inwardly as we do outwardly is at the heart of mindfulness:
For thousands of years philosophers have said that to “know yourself” was the key to a healthy and successful life. Perhaps what is emerging from the new research about the brain is a new way of thinking about “self-awareness.” Only in this case, the “self” is the functioning of your own brain. One of the first things to discover upon exploring the brain is just how much it appears to be like a machine. So much of your mental activity is automatic, driven by forces out of your control, often in reaction to predefined goals, such as maintaining status or certainty. The realization that we are so automatically driven can be frightening to some, but if that is where the story ended, you would be missing a key aspect of being human. While your brain is a machine, it’s also not just a machine. However, the only way to be more than just a machine is to deeply understand the machine-like nature of your brain. When you begin to know the machine-like nature of your brain, you are building your director. This enables you to say, “That’s just my brain,” in more situations, which gives you more choices of behaviors. Your capacity to change yourself, change others, and even change the world, may boil down to how well you know your brain, and your capacity to consciously intervene in otherwise automatic processes. [Emphasis added]
Extending the stage/director metaphor, Rock reinforces what many of us already know, which is that multi-tasking is a myth, and it’s best to focus on one important thing at a time:
Here’s a new perspective: each time you use your mental stage, allocate it to something important. It is a limited resource that can’t be wasted. No matter how much effort you put in, you can’t sit there and make brilliant decisions all day the way a truck driver can stay on the road.
He goes further, advocating not just single focus, but breaking down the object of that focus into it’s simplest components to improve the odds of true understanding:
Since there are limitations to the number of concepts that can be held in mind at one time, the fewer you hold in mind at once the better. The ideal number of new ideas to try to comprehend at once seems to be just one. If you have a decision to make, the most efficient number of variables is likely to be two: Should I turn left or right? If you have to hold more information in mind, try to limit ideas to three or four at once.
4. Walk Like a Buddha (Lodro Rinzler)
Walk Like a Buddha builds on Lodro Rinzler’s Huffington Post column, “What Would Sid Do?” (where “Sid” is short for Siddhartha Gautama, aka the Buddha). The column dispenses advice for the modern age filtered through Buddhist principles, aimed less at finding enlightenment and more on just making better choices in matters like dating, drinking, and workplace gossip. Rinzler’s perspective is uncommon because he was raised with Buddhism and meditation from early childhood, but in the context of the Western world.
He had me at the books’ opening line, which sums up the fundamental “OK-ness” that comes with accepting what is right now (both good and bad) rather than obsessing about what “should” be different:
Straight off the bat, I should mention that I’m sort of a mess and also okay.
Echoing other writers on this list, Rinzler gets right to the heart of the dissatisfaction that many of us carry around every day tied to an endless stream of expectations about the future:
We spend so much of our time thinking through exactly what we want to see happen in the future. When we get to that point in time and everything is not exactly as we imagined it, we end up disappointed. This is the nature of life: the more fixed expectations we carry, the more we are likely to be let down.
Linzler’s description of meditation is among the most succint I’ve seen:
Meditation is something that changes you, thankfully for the better. It highlights your habitual patterns and neuroses and gives you a chance not to engage in that activity so much. It gives you space in your life so you can approach your world with a fresh perspective. It offers you an opportunity to be more present with your world and realize just how sacred it can be.
And he relays an amusing (but very astute) perspective on the boredom that often accompanies meditation:
At one point during a public talk [Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche said]: “You know, when you meditate, you’re only spending time with yourself. So if you are feeling bored, it’s not meditation practice that’s boring. It’s you.”
Linzler notes that all that mindfulness and meditation serves an important purpose, which is to train our rational mind (ie, Haidt’s “Rider” or Rock’s “Director”) to first and foremost simply observe what are often incredibly powerful — yet ultimately fleeting — thoughts and feelings:
Emotions come and go, like the waves of an ocean. Sometimes they are powerful and knock us over; sometimes they simply lap at our feet. They are not good or bad; they are all a part of the vast ocean of our mind.
5. The Obstacle is the Way (Ryan Holiday)
This is another book that’s not explicitly about mindfulness, but has much to offer on the subject. In The Obstacle is the Way, Ryan Holiday takes a look at the philosophies of the Stoics, and what they have to teach us about modern life. There’s a lot of overlap between what they said and what you get from Buddhism. Applying the Stoic advice and perspective he presents is implicitly practicing mindfulness.
For example, you can hear echoes of Linzler and Harris in this passage about the patterns that so often lead to disappointment when the future fails to live up to what we’ve become thoroughly attached to in our minds:
When we want things too badly we can be our own worst enemy. In our eagerness, we strip the very screw we want to turn and make it impossible to ever get what we want. We spin our tires in the snow or mud and dig a deeper rut — one that we’ll never get out of. We get so consumed with moving forward that we forget that there are other ways to get where we are heading. It doesn’t naturally occur to us that standing still — or in some cases, even going backward — might be the best way to advance. Don’t just do something, stand there!
And here’s a delightful description of the folly of most of the worrying we do:
“When you worry, ask yourself, ‘What am I choosing to not see right now?’ What important things are you missing because you chose worry over introspection, alertness or wisdom?” Another way of putting it: Does getting upset provide you with more options? [Emphasis added]
Again, while this book isn’t about mindfulness or meditation per se, it has much to offer those who want to cultivate a more mindful perspective on life and work:
For all species other than us humans, things just are what they are. Our problem is that we’re always trying to figure out what things mean why things are the way they are. As though the why matters. Emerson put it best: “We cannot spend the day in explanation.” Don’t waste time on false constructs.
It’s incredibly difficult not to behave like the center of your own universe, and I appreciated this sobering advice on the banality of our circumstances, whatever they may be:
Stop pretending that what you’re going through is somehow special or unfair. Whatever trouble you’re having — no matter how difficult — is not some unique misfortune picked out especially for you. It just is what it is.
The second half of this list dives a bit deeper into Buddhism, though mostly in a secular and philosophical way, rather than a religious one. (While Buddhism has no monopoly on meditation, I’ve rarely encountered one without some reference to the other.)
6. The Art of Stillness (Pico Iyer)
As a father and husband fast approaching middle age, mortality is rising among my worries in less-than-mindful moments. Iyer’s words have lingered as a profound reason for cultivating mindfulness that goes far beyond productivity or performance:
To me, the point of sitting still is that it helps you see through the very: idea of pushing forward; indeed, it strips you of yourself, as of a coat of armor, by leading you into a place where you’re defined by something larger. If it does have benefits, they lie within some invisible account with a high interest rate but very long-term yields, to be drawn upon at that moment, surely inevitable, when a doctor walks into your room, shaking his head, or another car veers in front of yours, and all you have to draw upon is what you’ve collected in your deeper moments.
Like Ryan Holiday in The Obstacle is the Way, Iyer also draws useful insight from the Stoics (along with the Bard):
As Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius reminded us more than two millennia ago, it’s not our experiences that form us but the ways in which we respond to them; a hurricane sweeps through town, reducing everything to rubble, and one man sees it as a liberation, a chance to start anew, while another, perhaps even his brother, is traumatized for life. “There is nothing either good or bad,” as Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet, “but thinking makes it so.”
And again we’re reminded that our emotions, however tempestuous, always pass:
Clouds and blue sky, of course, are how Buddhists explain the nature of our mind: there may be clouds passing across it, but that doesn’t mean a blue sky isn’t always there behind the obscurations. All you need is the patience to sit still until the blue shows up again.
Iyer reinforces the futility of multitasking, along with a reminder that a thoughtful pause is often the most effective response to information overload:
And the more facts come streaming in on us, the less time we have to process any one of them. The one thing technology doesn’t provide us with is a sense of how to make the best use of technology. Put another way, the ability to gather information, which used to be so crucial, is now far less important than the ability to sift through it. It’s easy to feel as if we’re standing two inches away from a huge canvas that’s noisy and crowded and changing with every microsecond. It’s only by stepping farther back and standing still that we can begin to see what that canvas (which is our life) really means, and to take in the larger picture.
7. Waking Up (Sam Harris)
While I loved all of the books this list, Waking Up was my favorite, edging out the rest by the quality of the prose. Harris might be a polarizing figure in many circles, but he’s a delightful and skilled writer.
Harris admirably cleaves spirituality from religion, and in the process eloquently describes the mechanics underlying meditation and mindfulness:
Every experience you have ever had has been shaped by your mind. Every relationship is as good or as bad as it is because of the minds involved. If you are perpetually angry, depressed, confused, and unloving, or your attention is elsewhere, it won’t matter how successful you become or who is in your life — you won’t enjoy any of it.
It’s a recurring theme in the books on this list, but Harris’ take on the primacy of the present moment stands out:
It is always now. This might sound trite, but it is the truth. It’s not quite true as a matter of neurology, because our minds are built upon layers of inputs whose timing we know must be different. But it is true as a matter of conscious experience. The reality of your life is always now. And to realize this, we will see, is liberating. In fact, I think there is nothing more important to understand if you want to be happy in this world. But we spend most of our lives forgetting this truth — overlooking it, fleeing it, repudiating it. And the horror is that we succeed. We manage to avoid being happy while struggling to become happy, fulfilling one desire after the next, banishing our fears, grasping at pleasure, recoiling from pain — and thinking, interminably, about how best to keep the whole works up and running. As a consequence, we spend our lives being far less content than we might otherwise be. We often fail to appreciate what we have until we have lost it. We crave experiences, objects, relationships, only to grow bored with them. And yet the craving persists. I speak from experience, of course.
Amid a culture accustomed to training our bodies, Harris reminds us that much of spiritual practice such as meditation is just doing the same for our minds:
But it is your mind, rather than circumstances themselves, that determines the quality of your life. Your mind is the basis of everything you experience and of every contribution you make to the lives of others. Given this fact, it makes sense to train it.
The imagery of cultivation comes up a lot in Buddhism, specifically the notion that our thoughts and actions are the consequences of the intentions we feed (a concept echoed in the apocryphal proverb of the “two wolves”), and our emotions, however strong, are ephemeral and will fade unless we actively nourish them (for better or worse):
Becoming suddenly angry, we tend to stay angry — and this requires that we actively produce the feeling of anger. We do this by thinking about our reasons for being angry — recalling an insult, rehearsing what we should have said to our malefactor, and so forth — and yet we tend not to notice the mechanics of this process. Without continually resurrecting the feeling of anger, it is impossible to stay angry for more than a few moments.
This passage is nearly a synopsis of The Happiness Hypothesis, and serves as another reminder that beneath the surface of mindfulness (i.e., gentle awareness of whatever happens to be right now) is a tremendous power to reduce the needless suffering we subject ourselves to through our own misperceptions:
Happiness and suffering, however extreme, are mental events. The mind depends upon the body, and the body upon the world, but everything good or bad that happens in your life must appear in consciousness to matter. This fact offers ample opportunity to make the best of bad situations — changing your perception of the world is often as good as changing the world — but it also allows a person to be miserable even when all the material and social conditions for happiness have been met. During the normal course of events, your mind will determine the quality of your life. [Emphasis added]
8. Buddhism Without Beliefs (Stephen Batchelor)
I doubt I’m the first beginning meditator to get tripped up by the minutia of Buddhist doctrine while just trying to learn the ropes. (Indeed, one of my motivations for compiling this list was to help others orient more easily than I was able to to the core concepts of mindfulness and its benefits before getting lost in the weeds of philosophy or religion.)
But once you start to practice and appreciate mindfulness and meditation, it’s hard not to wind up wanting to learn more about Buddhism too. That’s where Buddhism Without Beliefs comes in. While it’s inspiring to read the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh, Batchelor presents a perspective that I found more digestible as a novice:
I have tried to write a book on Buddhism in ordinary English that avoids the use of foreign words, technical terms, lists, and jargon.
When you first begin meditating, it’s natural to become discouraged when you notice how quickly and how often your mind wanders. At first, you fight it — and even grow angry (with yourself!) for not being able to keep your attention in one place; as Batchelor writes:
No matter how strong your resolve to be present and concentrated, it is difficult to keep the mind from wandering off into memories, plans, or fantasies. Several minutes may pass before you even notice that you have become distracted.
But eventually there’s a breakthrough to be had, tied to realizing just how appropriate the “wandering” mind metaphor really is, and that your mind will always wander, so instead of fighting it, you should just watch it wander, because you are not your mind. That constant chatter in your head has two parts: a voice and audience; mindfulness means noting the difference.
When we primarily identify with the incessant voice, the result is a Sisyphean struggle to placate it:
We seek to arrange the details of our world in such a way that we feel secure: surrounded by what we like, protected against what we dislike. Once our material existence is more or less in order, we may turn our attention to the psychomanagement of our neuroses. Failing which, the worst anxieties can be kept at bay by a judicious use of drugs. This approach works well enough until the unmanageable erupts again as sickness, aging, sorrow, pain, grief, despair. No matter how expertly we manage our lives, how convincing an image of well-being we project, we still find ourselves involved with what we hate and torn apart from what we love. We still don’t get what we want and still get what we don’t want. True, we experience joy, success, love, bliss. But in the end we find ourselves once more prone to anguish.
Reading Batchelor is another reminder that much more is at stake here than just productivity or performance:
Nothing can be relied upon for security. As soon as you grasp something, it’s gone. Anguish emerges from craving for life to be other than it is. It is the symptom of flight from birth and death, from the pulse of the present. It is the gnawing mood of unease that haunts the clinging to “me” and “mine.”
A common response to mindfulness principles is to question whether it just means sitting back and watching the world go by without taking action or initiative. After all, it does seem odd to square the image of a contemplative monk with what we see of meditation from popular culture, like LeBron James courtside, but Batchelor notes that confident action sits quite comfortably within mindfulness:
Self-confidence is not a form of arrogance. It is trust in our capacity to awaken. It is both the courage to face whatever life throws at us without losing equanimity, and the humility to treat every situation we encounter as one from which we can learn.
9. Search Inside Yourself (Chade-Meng Tan)
The last two books on this list bring us back to applying mindfulness and meditation in a work setting.
Search Inside Yourself comes from Chade-Meng Tan, one of Google’s earliest engineers who now carries the title of “Jolly Good Fellow” and focuses on helping Googlers practice mindfulness. Adding to his credibility, Meng snagged forewords from two of the biggest names in the field, Jon Kabat-Zinn and Daniel Goleman.
While Meng covers much of the same ground as others on this list, his book works as a helpful capstone, and having the deeper context from reading the rest makes it clearer why the exercises he provides matter (and makes it more likely you’ll actually do them).
Here Meng references a key principle of Buddhism, the relationship of grasping and aversion:
The key is to let go of two things: grasping and aversion. Grasping is when the mind desperately holds on to something and refuses to let it go. Aversion is when the mind desperately keeps something away and refuses to let it come. These two qualities are flip sides of each other. Grasping and aversion together account for a huge percentage of the suffering we experience, perhaps 90 percent, maybe even 100 percent.
One of the reasons I liked Meng’s book was how often he talked about just being kind to other people. Whether you meditate or not, acting with greater empathy and compassion toward those around you will inevitably improve your situation:
Practice giving people the benefit of the doubt: Most people do what they do because it feels like the right thing at the time, based on what they want to accomplish and the information they have. Their reasons make sense to them, even if their actions do not make sense to us. Assume that they are making the right choice, even if we do not understand it or might make a different choice ourselves.
And here Meng reminds us that kindness and compassion can be reconciled with self interest:
Having the mental habit of kindness means that every time you interact with a human being, the thoughts in your mind that arise habitually and effortlessly are, “This person is a human being just like me. I want him or her to be happy.” Having this mental habit makes you more receptive to other people, and them more receptive to you.
It’s embarrassing to admit this, but one of the most valuable parts of this book for me was the encouragement think mindfully about e-mail:
When we engage in mindful e-mailing, that recollecting quality of mindfulness is the main one we rely on. The first thing we recollect is that there is a human being on the other end, a human being just like me. The second thing we recollect is this insight that people who receive e-mails unconsciously fabricate missing information about the emotional context of the sender, so we apply the appropriate care and caution. [Emphasis added]
Meng’s goal is lofty: world peace. But he also frames it as the natural consequence of something much more tractable, which is to elevate meditation and mindfulness to the same standing in our culture as physical exercise (echoing Sam Harris’ point on training the mind). It’s a useful analogy; he reminds us that a few decades ago, very few non-athletes spent time specifically engaged in deliberate physical exercise by choice, yet now we all accept its benefits (even as many of us struggle to keep up the habit):
In other words, exercise has now perfectly aligned with the modern lives of real people. It has become fully accessible to all, and humanity benefits from it. I aspire to do the same with meditation. I want to create a world where meditation is widely treated like exercise for the mind … Everybody knows that “Meditation is good for me.”; Anyone who wants to meditate can learn how to do it; Companies understand that meditation is good for business, and some even incentivize it; Meditation is taken for granted; Everybody thinks, “Of course you should meditate, duh.”
10. Awake at Work (Michael Carroll)
The last book on this list, Michael Carroll’s Awake at Work, is a deliberate effort to translate classical Buddhist teachings into a modern context to cultivate mindfulness at work:
In this book we will cultivate mindfulness on the job by working with a set of thirty-five principles or slogans designed to help us rediscover our natural wisdom, openness, and poise as we engage work’s daily demands. The slogans I offer are inspired by a classical Tibetan Buddhist text called The Root Text of the Seven Points of Training the Mind and its transformative spiritual practice called lojong. This text comes from the eleventh-century Buddhist master Atisha Dimpamkara Shrijnana and at its essence it seeks to loosen our resistance to life, ease our self-deception, and reveal the awakened state as ordinary experience.
(The Buddhists are big fans of lists: “The Noble Eightfold Path”; “The Five Hindrances”. They would have done great on Buzzfeed.)
Carroll distills 35 principles, intended for easy reference and recollection. (After finishing the book, I wrote all 35 down on index cards, and find it quite helpful to thumb through, especially when feeling stressed or anxious.)
Carroll has a way of bringing into stark relief just how much energy and quixotic effort goes toward trying to impose order and control on our work:
The sober reality we face is this: resisting work’s difficulties and hoping for smooth sailing is pointless. Work, indeed all of life, is often disappointing and uncertain, and it is futile to expect otherwise. Being hostile toward any of life’s difficulties only amplifies our discomfort, and we end up at war with ourselves, arguing with our lives rather than living them.
Echoing what Dan Harris concluded through his own striving, Carroll reminds us that thinking we will be happy/satisfied/complete/finished/calm once the next project/milestone/promotion/deal is “done” is ultimately just fooling ourselves:
Work has a peculiar way of keeping us off balance, focusing us on the future, worrying about where we are going, concerned about whether we will arrive at our destination with our career and paycheck intact. Being out of balance in such a way — focusing mainly on getting somewhere — can make us feel hesitant, worried, and restless. We may feel alert at work but not as free and open as we sense we could be. We may be enthused by the challenge, yet we are cautious and uneasy. The old question “What keeps you up at night?” is quite literal in business. Will the new accounting system launch smoothly this weekend? Will the presentation to the division president go well tomorrow? Will I get the promotion or will I be passed over again? The hecticness of succeeding, measuring up, responding to emergencies, getting somewhere fast, can keep us living in constant anticipation, robbing us of any sense of well-being and enthusiasm, making work a burden and distracting us from our lives.
That is not to imply we should abandon ambition and initiative! But it does mean understanding and accepting that true happiness and well-being can only be found first and foremost within us, never solely from external circumstances:
There is nothing outside us that can offer true well-being at work — indeed, in our lives. No paycheck, no retirement fund, no promotion, and no sympathetic boss — no circumstance can give us the confidence and well-being we are seeking.
Cornell professor Karl Pillemer famously researched the greatest regrets among more than 1,500 Americans over the age of 65, and the most common response — even among people who survived two World Wars and the Great Depression — was that they wished they’d spent less time worrying. On that front, I loved how Caroll described the constant “time travel” we all do that fuels a lifetime of worry: lurching between the past and the future while neglecting the present moment:
We discover that we live our lives in a kind of rehearsal behind the curtain of our thoughts, rehearsing what we could have done differently and what we will do differently in the future.
And while Carroll’s book (and this list) are mostly about applying mindfulness to our work, yet again we’re reminded that the stakes are ultimately much, much greater than that:
Is there really anything outside ourselves that can offer us lasting peace or security in this ever-changing world? Can money and material wealth really give us confidence and joy? We need money for basic necessities, certainly, but no amount of money can relieve, for example, the suffering of our child struggling to survive leukemia. No amount of wealth can slow our parents’ aging or return our lost youth. Money cannot make us a better artist or friend; nor can it make the breeze any cooler or the sky any bluer.
As your reward for reading this far, you get … a confession: I don’t want you to read these books so that you’ll perform better at work (though I think that you will). I want you to read these books so that you’ll be just a little bit kinder to those around you, and more importantly a little bit kinder to yourself. Namaste.
Here’s the full list of 10 books again