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O.C. RELIGION | ON FAITH / SUSAN QUINN

Spirituality at Work Difficult Path to Follow

August 19, 2000|SUSAN QUINN | Susan Quinn, a Zen Buddhist and Jew, is a management consultant who is writing a book on religious and spiritual practices. She lives in San Clemente

So many people are hungering for spirit in their lives and don't even know it.

Many who are awakening to that hunger have been disappointed by, disenfranchised from or disillusioned by traditional religion. As a result, they are looking in nontraditional areas, such as the workplace, where they spend most of their waking hours, to fulfill that spiritual longing. And they are making a mistake.

Don't we want the workplace to be a spiritual environment? It depends on what you call spiritual. I've seen many forms of bringing spirituality to the workplace, but most of them have major flaws. One of the biggest is that the "spirituality" espoused is actually a superficial, simplistic and secular approach to embracing spirit. That kind of approach shortchanges the workplace and cheats individuals of the richness and vastness of spiritual life.

In spite of the limitations, why not try to bring spirituality into the workplace? One reason is that doing so can terrify most of those who already feel alienated from spiritual and religious settings. The more frightened people become, the more rejecting, counterproductive and alienating their behavior toward others is likely to be.

Second, we would mislead people by thinking the watered-down, generic approach to spirituality (which is the only way to provide it in most work environments) is genuine. Employees therefore might miss the opportunity for deep exploration of a profoundly spiritual life because they think, "This is it."

Third, employees will miss the myths, stories and traditions that offer the texture and color of spiritual life. Those collections of antiquity remind us that the search for spirit is timeless, demanding and rewarding, extending far beyond how we treat each other daily.

Fourth, a workplace approach to spirituality may be motivated by people's desire simply to feel good. There's nothing bad about that, and we all have it; however, genuine spirituality teaches us not only how we can appreciate the goodness and joy in our lives, but how to embrace every aspect of our existence, not just intellectually but from our hearts and souls.

Finally, some people would feel compelled to force their personal religious and spiritual beliefs on others, creating a resentful and defensive environment.

Should we give up on the idea of spirituality in the workplace? Not at all. But the path is not easy. You can create a spiritual workplace, but paradoxically, there is only one responsible way to do it: on your own. If you have been alienated from or are uneasy about joining a religious community, you can ask the difficult and painful questions: How do I heal myself? How do I understand my discomfort? Whom can I ask for help? Where is the religious community, in spite of my reservations, that will be a haven, resource and opportunity for me to fulfill my spiritual aspirations? Besides finding that community, what am I willing to do, every day, to seek and involve spirit in my life? What practices can I follow that allow me to be open to divine wisdom, develop my own wisdom and compassion, and deepen my relationship with the divine and the people in my life? How can I bring my spiritual lessons, experiences and goals into the workplace without alienating others or forcing my beliefs upon them? How can I be more compassionate yet responsible, more loving and tolerant, yet hold myself and others accountable?

If we take a personal path to spirit, it doesn't mean we can't expect the organization to espouse any aspects of spirituality. But we need to realize that the workplace is limited in what can be introduced without frightening or offending people.

The most important spiritual factors in the workplace are clarifying of values and defining the expectations of employees in manifesting those values through their actions and behaviors. We need to say not only that employees should be compassionate but help them define that in terms of how each person does his or her work. If we want employees to be responsible, we need not only speak to that value but help them articulate how they understand it and how they will manifest it in the work they produce and the way they treat others.

For example, in my life, I put integrity at the top of my list of values. But if I can't articulate how I carry that out, it is an empty belief. If I tell you, however, that integrity for me means being honest, even when it's difficult, doing what I say I will do, only doing those things for which I am qualified and so on, then the value of integrity takes on life and purpose. By focusing on values, and calling them that rather than labeling them as spirituality, we elevate them and how we treat each other, and we allow employees to define spirituality in their own way.

Pursue the quest for spirit as a personal goal; encourage the establishment and practice of values on the job; and let your actions and behaviors be a radiant example for manifesting spirituality in the workplace.

On Faith is a forum for Orange County clergy and others to offer their views on religious topics of general interest. Submissions, which will be published at the discretion of The Times and are subject to editing, should be delivered to Orange County religion page editor Deanne Brandon.

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