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The Missing Link

For many, work lost its spiritual dimension when labor moved out of the field and into the factory. Now baby boomers are seeking to bring back some soul.

April 06, 1998|ANNE COLBY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Twenty years ago, Pat Sullivan worked as a temp secretary in a conservative Washington commercial real estate firm. She was surprised at the reaction of the other employees when they saw her reading Fritjof Capra's "The Tao of Physics" at her desk at lunchtime.

"Everyone would come and talk to me," said Sullivan, now principal of the Oakland-based Visionary Resources consulting firm. "Every executive except one got me behind closed doors to talk about what mattered to them--their meditation, their dreams and visions for their lives, their spiritual practices." But she was even more surprised when each one said afterward, "Please don't tell anyone what I told you."

In most companies, it has been fine to come to the office on Monday morning and talk about your Saturday golf game--but not about the meaningful church sermon you heard Sunday morning. The discussion or practice of spirituality in the workplace has been taboo.

It hasn't always been that way. Ancient religious traditions often combined work with spiritual practice and rituals.

"In the monastery, work is as much a part of the spiritual practice as prayer, meditation, liturgy," said former monk Thomas Moore in his 1992 best-selling book, "Care of the Soul."

Rabbi Shawn Zevit, a Philadelphia-based organizational consultant and Temple University instructor, sees the association between work and worship in the roots of the Hebrew language. Avodah, the Hebrew word for work, was associated in biblical times with temple service, he said.

"If we look back in the history of man- and womankind to the agricultural age, there wasn't the separation of the spiritual and the economic. That connection existed naturally," said James Berry, the Santa Fe, N.M.-based publisher of BusinesSpirit Journal and organizer of the International Spirituality in Business conference.

Historians and religious thinkers date the change in attitude to the 17th century, when the writings of philosopher Rene Descartes, physicist Sir Isaac Newton and others revolutionized the way we look at the world, ushering in the Age of Reason and reducing the role of the church in Western society.

Descartes theorized that the physical universe worked according to mechanical law and could be understood in terms of its parts. In this Cartesian philosophy, the universe is like a giant clock and the human being like a machine. Physical matter and mind, or spirit, are entirely separate.

Newton took Descartes' ideas further with his discoveries of the laws of gravity and motion. His groundbreaking theories were widely embraced and led the way to the Industrial Revolution and numerous technological advances. Workers seeking factory production jobs moved from the country to the city, Berry said, and the spiritual connection with the earth was broken.

"Our world got separated into the spiritual and the secular," Berry said. "Most organizations ended up in the secular segment. Then we have other organizations that try to meet people's spiritual needs."

Judith Neal is director of the Center for Spirit at Work at the University of New Haven in Connecticut, where she teaches management theory. The former Honeywell Inc. executive received her doctorate in organizational behavior from Yale.

At the turn of the century, Neal said, the Newtonian machine model was still dominant in the business world. "The worker was an extension of the machine. We were hiring the body."

In the 1920s and 1930s, she said, studies of the effects of light on workers showed that their productivity improved not because of a change in the environment, but because management was paying attention to them.

"It was discovered that human beings are social beings, that people have feelings and that if you pay attention to the emotions of workers, you can increase productivity."

Then in the 1960s and 1970s, companies decided they didn't want workers to check their brains at the door, she said. "The worker is the expert" was the governing philosophy. So businesses incorporated total quality management and team approaches into the workplace.

In the mid-1990s, Neal said, businesses started evolving to the stage where "the worker isn't just body, emotion and mind--there's also a sense of spirit. We value the human being not just because they create productivity for us, but because all human life is precious."

As idealistic as that sounds, Neal said she sees many signs of a renaissance in workplace spirituality. Four years ago, when she started listing spirituality-in-business conferences in the center's newsletter, there were just two conferences in North America. This year, she said, there are at least 20. She estimates that about 10% of the management consultants working with corporations today have a spiritual focus in their work. And spirituality in the workplace has become an open topic in the personnel trade journals.

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