Tackling problems in life & at work with the Buddha

The Asian Age.  | Alfea Shaikh

The author deftly weaves into the work-field narrative Buddhist philosophies, particularly those espoused by 13th century monk Nichiren Daishonin.

Geetanjali Pandit

Human resources professional and life coach Geetanjali Pandit has had one hell of a conversation with a man called Gautam (Buddha?) in her recently-published book Buddha At Work.

The author deftly weaves into the work-field narrative Buddhist philosophies, particularly those espoused by 13th century monk Nichiren Daishonin.

Gautam advises her on how to deal with them all — stress, bad bosses, spiteful colleagues, regressive work culture, and even the pink slip.

Geetanjali’s book talks of solutions, physical and spiritual, of that one path that can lead to the end of suffering and of means to give our productive best. Look within, to face the world, she says.

Excerpts from an interview:

Any incident inspired this book?
Not one, but many. I went through a lot — professionally and personally — after I came back from my studies abroad. But, my attitude changed when I started reading, understanding and applying the principles of Buddhism to my situation.

I am a keen student of history. I was very sceptical of King Asoka’s transformation after he adopted the principles of Buddhism. I spent a lifetime at loggerheads with my father, who was a great scholar.

I am really ashamed to say that in 1989, in the midst of ongoing family problems, I believed an old wife’s tale and threw out three busts of Buddha from our home in the mistaken belief that they were unlucky and prevented folks from “settling down”.

My life changed when I embraced the principles of Buddhism. My life, my career saw a sea change. I wanted to naturally share this understanding with others.

Who is Gautam in the book? Was it actually a voice who spoke to you or a real person you met?
You know, the character of Gautam has raised so many questions. I think the curiosity about this character is to figure out whether there is actually a person like him — calm, composed, wise and deeply compassionate. But to answer your question: Well, I am Gautam. And you are Gautam.

Do you think women aren’t taken as seriously as men professionally? How do you think one can work around this?
I think women often lead more complex lives than men, both biologically and emotionally. I think it was Indra Nooyi who said the biological clock is totally at odds with our career cycle and this is so very true.

In India, our situation is worse because the urban milieu is changing fast, but without a concomitant social support structure. For instance, the number of good and reliable day care facilities is very limited, our working hours are wretchedly long and made longer by the pathetic traffic conditions in most metros. We no longer depend on our parents or in-laws, let alone our husbands, to lend us a helping hand. In our very nuclear worlds, the practical stress and strain on women is enormous.

All this makes it tougher for women in the workplace, especially in higher paid and more professionally complex roles. So women, I think, need even more wisdom and calmness to deal with life and work situations.

These techniques shared in Buddha At Work have enabled and empowered me as a woman in the workplace, helped me deal with the complex, the uncertain and the downright turbulent with greater wisdom, to always find solutions, create a support system and bring a better me to the workplace. I am sure when women readers read this book, they will think: ‘I am not alone in this experience.’

How should one deal with toxic co-workers, as studies show even after being reported to HR, 40 per cent feel organisations do nothing about misbehaving colleagues?
The underlying cause of toxic behaviour lies elsewhere within the individual — usually in their fear, stress or unhappiness. When we experience toxic behaviour at the workplace, we are actually experiencing that underlying cause. Though there are no easy solutions on changing others and their toxicity, there is much that we can do to grow as human beings, as colleagues and as professionals. Our growth enables us to respond in a very different way to the same negative behaviour. With a changed response (one that emanates from our better self), we are able to change the situation such that our suffering stops, options emerge and we may even be able to start a dialogue or befriend the toxic co-worker.

I share this not from some lofty, preachy point of view. I share this from the conviction of my own experiences and observation of others at my own workplaces.

I have learnt, over the years, to deal calmly with toxicity of colleagues and bosses. I know I didn’t succeed all the time. But I did succeed most of the time. I did make choices that I have had cause to regret — my chosen response to other’s toxicity could have been different — but I never gave up on myself or even on the others around me.

How important is it to sit down and contemplate in today’s fast-paced day and age?
Precisely because our lives are so fast paced — the breakneck speed of work and different roles that we’re required to play in our daily lives — we need to set aside some time daily for ourselves before insanity engulfs us. It is absolutely necessary to set time aside on a daily basis for yourself — for physical activity or exercise, for meditation or breathing, for reading and the pursuit of a hobby.

This time-out has three facets – the first is time for the body; the second is time for communicating with ourselves and the universe — this includes meditation, calming techniques, “me time”. The third aspect is taking time out for a pleasurable activity or hobby. The rarest element of life today is of time, of finding time and making time. The finest research across the globe has linked our physical and mental health and even longevity to taking time out for ourselves.

Gautam says, “Management of time depends entirely on your own will. It depends on you. On what is important to you. Not on what you say is important to you. You will always find time for what is an absolute priority for you. But if you haven’t learnt to identify it, you will never find time for it.”

How inspired is it from Nichiren Daishonin’s teachings?
Buddha At Work was born out of the teachings of Nichiren Daishonin, but I had to shelve my first manuscript which was based entirely on the principles of Nichiren Buddhism. It was too technical. I had to really struggle and think of ways to present it all in a different way. And so, in a kind of backward integration, I started my study of Shakyamuni’s life and his teachings and philosophy.

Nichiren Buddhism is based on the second last sutra of Shakyamuni’s life called The Lotus Sutra. The essential nugget of wisdom contained in this sutra is the element of appreciation and respect for self and others. This is at the heart of all Buddhist practices.

What are the 5 top tips you would give to any young working person for them to lead a better life?
Given the paucity of time available today to the young professional, I will make my answer as pithy as possible:

1. Never start your day with surfing the Internet, answering emails, or checking WhatsApp. Focus on yourself.

2. Set time aside for meditation to connect with yourself.

3. Respect and appreciate your uniqueness.

4. Consciously adopt the practice of gratitude and keep with it your whole life. It is transformational.

5. Chart out and understand your own life purpose. It is truly the wind beneath your wings.