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Contemplative Life and Professional Life Can Coexist

Contemplative Life and Professional Life Can Coexist

Can a working professional in a high-stress job and stressful environment maintain a consistent spiritual focus—or are the stresses of work and the city incompatible with the contemplative life?
I’m what they call an extreme commuter. On a typical workday, I drive several miles to a bus that takes me on a seventy-five-mile trek from south-central Jersey to the Port Authority bus terminal in New York City. Once there, I walk a mile across town to my office on Manhattan’s east side. My usual one-way commute time: two hours and five minutes—and that’s on a good day. If there’s traffic, it’s more like two-and-a-half hours.I then go to work in the frenetic world of advertising, where on most days I have a couple of tight deadlines to make, two to three meetings to attend and an average of a crisis a day to handle. I work eight hours alongside people who approach advertising with the same level of intensity you might associate with brain surgery. At the end of the day, I get to repeat my long commute in reverse.

Now I consider myself a spiritual guy and place the utmost importance on my relationship with God/the Divine. Which raises an important question:

Can a working professional in a high-stress job and stressful environment maintain a consistent spiritual focus—or are the stresses of work and the city incompatible with the contemplative life?

* * *

Just being in the city on a regular basis presents its own set of challenges. In the book The Power of Place, Winifred Gallagher discusses how the city shapes our thoughts, emotions and actions. A resident of Manhattan herself, she knows well the special allure the city has but points out that “since the days of Sodom and Gomorrah, cities have been singled out as bad places.”[1]

While the city provides mental stimulation with its sights, sounds, and constant buzz of activity, the huge number of people there “ensures that it will not only be more crowded than other places, but also more restrictive, competitive, bureaucratic, hectic, and just plain arousing.”[2] Gallagher warns that:

The Manhattanite’s rapid clip has some advantages, but the heightened arousal that feeds it has a dark side. The overstimulation…can lower mood, increase withdrawal and aggression, and decrease helpfulness. Some believe the city simply provides too much stimulation of every kind, bombarding us so relentlessly that in self-protection, we tune out and turn off.[3]

Gallagher points out that this “tuning out” mechanism is the result of coping strategies we create for ourselves, causing us to erect social barriers. Walk down a crowded city street, or take a ride on the subway, and you can see these barriers in action. It seems half the population have their heads glued to smartphone screens and/or are plugged into music devices.

And this detachment from one’s surrounding stretches into the office. On the morning ride up a crowded elevator the barriers remain intact, the riders unconnected to the humanity all around them. That is, until you walk into a buzzing office and the illusion of private space is quickly shattered and replaced by the organized chaos of a busy workplace.

Is this city/work environment detrimental to the contemplative life? You would think so. But I found a group that is totally committed to living the spiritual life—and they not only work in New York City, but live there as well: urban monks.

If you asked me to name the place least conducive to the contemplative life, I’d probably have a hard time topping the Lower East Side of Manhattan. It’s home to an eclectic mix of trendy bars, clubs and restaurants, and retail businesses as diverse as shoe stores, art galleries, and tattoo shops. It’s buzzing all the time, especially on weekends, when it’s jam-packed with mostly twenty-somethings looking to blow off steam and have a good time. The scene is lively and loud, with music blasting from the clubs, sidewalks overflowing with boozy revelers and the streets jammed bumper-to-bumper with horn-blaring taxis and cars.

Yet there, on First Avenue near First Street, is precisely where you will find a community of fifteen Hindu monks. So why would a group committed to the austerity and solitude of the monastic life choose to live on the raucous Lower East Side of NYC? An explanation comes from a resident there, Gadadhara Pandit Dasa (a.k.a. Pandit), who has authored a book titled The Urban Monk. The monastery’s location is no accident as its inhabitants practice what’s called the Bhakti tradition of Hinduism. According to Pandit:

It is recommended that some monks live in the city because that’s where people are most stressed and therefore need the most spiritual guidance. The city is a very intense place where everyone is constantly scrambling from one activity to another, always keeping themselves busy, often times leaving their spiritual pursuits by the wayside.[4]

As someone who spends forty-plus hours a week in New York City, I can relate to how easy it is to lose your spiritual compass when you’re in the midst of the chaos, the stress and the noise. But what of the monks themselves? How do they keep their spiritual bearings and provide “sacred service” amidst all the racket?

It may have something to do with their tightly-scripted daily routine, which every one of the dozen-plus monks who live in this city monastery follows. Their schedule is repeated seven days a week and goes something like this:

4:00-4:30 a.m. Rise and shine.

4:30-5:00 a.m. Wait your turn to hit the shower; put on a fresh robe before entering the temple room.
5:00-8:00 a.m. Meditation, followed by morning services.

According to Pandit, “we start with the more grave mantra meditation and after an hour, we move into a devotional practice of song and dance. We sing different songs…[moving] back and forth and side to side and eventually dance in a circle.”[5]
8:00-9:00 a.m. Additional meditation or yoga. Some monks take a quick nap.
9:00 a.m.-5:00 p.m. Various activities including cooking and cleaning, teaching and counseling, and going out into the neighborhood to engage with the local population.

After dinner, the evening can include hours of additional mantra meditation, as the monks chant “the holy names of God,” which helps keep the outside noise at bay as they “focus their entire being on connecting with God.”[6]

Pandit claims that “the city can actually push one to greater levels of focus in one’s meditation” and that their work in Manhattan “can be very satisfying and even blissful” in spite of the ever-present roar of the city. He admits, though, that this spiritual route is not for everyone. It all depends on one’s purpose in life:

If one is aspiring to focus only on one’s own individual meditation and spiritual practice, then a busy city environment can definitely be counterproductive. However, if one is residing in a city for the purpose of helping people, then there’s no better place.[7]

Would it not be easier to be a monk in a bucolic country setting? The prolific American writer and Catholic mystic Thomas Merton served in a Trappist monastery in the hills of Kentucky. It is said that the biography of his early life, The Seven Storey Mountain, painted such a compelling picture of the monastic life that after its publication, monasteries across the country were flooded with young Americans looking to take their vows.

Though Merton joined the Trappists at the age of twenty-five, he was already a man of the world, having travelled extensively throughout Europe. Even after becoming a monk, he retained his love for jazz clubs and drinking beer as evidenced by this Merton quote: “I drink beer whenever I can get my hands on any. I love beer, and by that very fact, the world.”[8]

Merton, who clearly knew the joys of life beyond the monastery, had an interesting take on vocation and spirituality. It’s a subject he addressed head on in his book No Man is An Island, where he reflects on spiritual values and advises us on how we can live the richest, fullest life.

Like Winifred Gallagher, Merton was well versed in the ways of the city. He graduated from Columbia University in upper-Manhattan with a B.A. in English. And like Gallagher, Merton saw the difficulty in trying to live the spiritual life within a city setting.

Everything in modern city life is calculated to keep man from entering into himself and thinking about spiritual things. Even with the best of intentions a spiritual man finds himself exhausted and deadened and debased by the constant noise of machines and loudspeakers, the dead air and the glaring lights of offices and shops.[9]

Yet that did not mean that Merton thought we should follow his lead and head to a religious community in the hills. Having lived both inside and outside the monastery’s walls, Merton realized the monk’s life could present an even more difficult path for those truly interested in the contemplative life.

The mere fact that everything in a contemplative monastery is supposed to be geared for a life of prayer is precisely what makes it difficult…there is more working than praying in the daily round of duties. In a life where all is prayer, those who do not have a special contemplative vocation often end up by praying less than they would actually do in the active life.[10]

Merton offers encouragement to those who seek to live “the active life” while engaging in contemplative living, realizing that the path he chose for himself was not for everybody.

There are some people who are perfectly capable of tasting true spiritual peace in an active life but who would go crazy if they had to keep themselves still in absolute solitude and silence for any length of time…what a hopeless thing the spiritual life would be if it could only be lived under ideal conditions. [11]

When Merton speaks of work, he does not differentiate between the daily chores and labor involved with monastic life and the responsibilities of the nine-to-five world. He stresses the vital role work plays in our lives no matter where that work may take place.

Work occupies the body and the mind and is necessary for the health of the spirit. Work can help us to pray…and brings peace to the soul that has a semblance or order and spiritual understanding. [12]

Ultimately, Merton suggests that it’s up to us to find our own path, for only we can know for sure which road will lead us to the destination we seek.

It is for each one to find out for himself the kind of work and environment in which he can best lead a spiritual life. [13]

* * *

It’s about 1pm on a Thursday afternoon and as I walk from my office in midtown Manhattan, I venture north on Lexington Ave. The sidewalks on this late-summer day are clogged with primarily business people, most of them either going to or coming back from lunch. I make a right on 43rd Street, and the traffic thins just a little and mid-way on a block lined by towering office buildings and inexpensive lunch joints is a peculiar site: a weathered but well-kept church.

I swing open the church’s thick, wooden doors, walk up a few steps, open another door, and I am in another world. The noise from the street has been silenced; I’m in the midst of a Catholic mass. I take my place in the back row, and join in on the proceedings, kneeling as the priest delivers the Eucharistic Prayer. I find myself silently mouthing the appropriate responses.

I’m in the Church of Saint Agnes, which is unlike the ornate Catholic church I grew up in with its ubiquitous stained glass windows and shiny marble floors. By comparison, Saint Agnes has minimal ornamentation, a simple wood cross hangs over the altar. And while the church of my youth had a single morning mass, St. Agnes is an active place with weekday services held at 7:10, 8:10, 8:40, 12:10, 12:40, 1:10 and 5:10. Though I rarely attend church anymore, there’s something comforting about this ritual. I find this communal gathering has me feeling at ease and oddly comforted. Maybe it’s the ritual itself, which has been permanently imprinted on my brain, that soothes me with its familiarity.

As I look around, I see that I’m surrounded by people from all walks of life. There’s a man who appears to be homeless down the row from me and others who look like they come from the lower rungs of the social ladder. But as I look around at the hundred or so people in the church, I also see many in business attire who I’m sure, like me, have slipped in for a few moments of respite from the stress of the workday.

I begin to sense a spiritual energy in the air. It’s something I normally associate with places far from here, like when I’m sitting on the beach staring at the ocean. Maybe it’s the communal setting or the fact that these people are attending church not as a Sunday obligation but as a way to link to God in the middle of a weekday afternoon. All these hearts and minds are uplifted to God and, as if listening, the Divine seems to be making her presence known.

I can see the importance of this mid-day church session, especially for the businesspeople. They are reminded there is a greater dimension to life, one that dwarves the role-playing and responsibilities of the office. I walk out of the church with a renewed perspective on what really matters and step onto the busy sidewalk feeling refreshed, ready for whatever the afternoon may bring my way.

* * *

Are there other ways to keep from being ground up and spit out by the relentless pressure of the business world? Some work-specific advice comes from Chris Lemig, author of the book The Narrow Way, by way of a blog post he wrote titled “Find the Way to Be You: Four Ways to Live Authentically.” Lemig points out that while our society pays lip service to the idea of “letting go of the compulsion to work ourselves to the bone” a lot of people haven’t gotten the memo on achieving work/life balance. So he points out some actionable, common sense ways for us, and those around us, to put some balance back into our lives:

SLOW DOWN. I know from first-hand experience that this can be hard to do when you’re sitting in your cubicle being hit from all sides by work-related requests. But sometimes, you need to put your computer on sleep, get up from your chair and just step away. Lemig agrees, suggesting that:

We need to honor the fact that down time is essential if we really want to get in touch with our authentic selves. Take a long, deep breath. Close your laptop and go for a walk. Go in a direction you’ve never taken before and just take your sweet time. Give yourself some space to be you. [14]

UNPLUG. This means taking the personal time to refresh and recharge—and may involve taking a day off, even if it’s a so-called mental health day, without checking your voice mail or e-mails. Lemig advises that:

It’s good to unplug from all of this from time to time and give your own voice a chance to pipe in…so take a break from the intake of information. Pick a time during the day, or even a whole day off during the week, to turn off the computer, the television, the radio….take some time to listen to what you really think and feel. [15]

But what about those days when you can’t unplug because your workload is too heavy and slowing down just means you’ll be at the office late?I pondered this question for a while, realizing there is no easy answer.

Perhaps the best way to arm yourself against the stress of the work environment is the contemplative prep time you put in before you go into the office, or the detoxing exercises you might do after quitting time. I believe the monks on the Lower East Side, with their choreographed daily routine, may be onto something. But are these merely coping mechanisms that take us away from a fully contemplative life? I’m not sure, but sometimes we have to prop up the imbalances of our lives with the techniques that work for us in order to find true balance.

As I write this I’m returning to work after a ten-day vacation, again taking the long bus ride into New York City. Last night I began to feel the subtle angst that accompanies going back to work after some time off, whether it’s a week or a weekend. So this morning, I dug deep into my bag of spirituality tricks. After rising at 5:30 am, I sipped a cup of freshly brewed coffee, then hit the floor and stretched. I meditated. Then, I put in a brisk three-mile run. And now on the bus, after a prayer of gratitude, I have begun some spiritual reading, which will be followed by some spiritual listening of a Sounds True podcast hosted by Tami Simon. I will walk the mile to my office with my eyes and senses wide open, to fully take in my surroundings. Then, once I enter the office, I’ll remind myself to be kind and generous in spirit to all I encounter during the day, no matter the circumstances. And should things get especially intense, I’ll remember to b-r-e-a-t-h-e deeply and possibly take a short walk.

There’s a part of me that envies what Thomas Merton did or what the Hindu monks are now doing on the Lower East Side. (Though if it were me, I’d prefer to go full-monk like Merton—put me in an isolated country monastery!) Yet, I know when I look deep down into the core of who I am, I realize the city is where I am supposed to be—part of the world, not apart from it. As Merton would say, I have chosen to live “the active life.”

Yet, I was recently reminded by the poet Ivan Prefontane that Merton also warned about the perils of the active life, railing against the specter of overwork and hyperactivity. Later in life, Merton took a forceful stance on the subject suggesting that working too much takes us away from inner peace and in fact causes us great harm. He preached that:

[Overwork] is a pervasive form of contemporary violence. The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence…to allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything is to succumb to violence…it destroys our own inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of our own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work [and life] fruitful. [16]

So like all things in life, I suppose it’s about balance, about finding the happy medium between the working life and the contemplative life. It’s a fluid situation, with the demands of work ebbing and flowing—but then isn’t defining our purpose in life fluid as well, a constantly moving target? Aren’t we always trying to figure out who we are, what we’re doing and where we’re going? In The Power of Purpose, the author Richard J. Leider states that:

Purpose is not a thing, a static condition. It is a continuous activity, questions we ask over and over again. It’s a process we live every day. It’s a process for listening and shaping our life stories. [17]

And, for me, this ongoing shaping of purpose is intertwined with managing the work and contemplative balance, the former always threatening to squeeze the latter out of existence. But with diligent effort, I see that the balance is maintained, my running and reading, praying and meditating, enabling me to put my best foot forward in life, hopefully empowering me to have a positive effect on the lives of my family, friends, co-workers and all those I encounter.

But as the years tick by, and I enter my fourth decade in advertising, I feel the pull of the contemplative life even more. Its call grows stronger, its rewards grow richer, and I know it’s merely a matter of time before I abandon the working life, or at least the path I’m now on, and give in to it completely. This is what life will demand of me. And ultimately, it’s what I will demand of myself.

 


[1] Winifred Gallagher, The Power of Place (Harper Perennial Publishing, 1999).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[9] Thomas Merton, No Man is an Island (HBJ Publishing, 1955).

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[15]Ibid.

[17] Leider, Richard J. The Power of Purpose, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2010.

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Contemplative Life and Professional Life Can Coexist

Tom Rapsas
Tom Rapsas

Tom Rapsas blogs on issues related to spirituality at Patheos, Elephant Journal, and Contemplative Journal. A long-time spiritual seeker and student of philosophy and religion, his influences include Thomas Moore, John Templeton, Napolean Hill, Ralph Trine, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Tom lives at the Jersey Shore with his wife, daughter, and nine cats. In 2012, he published Life Tweets, available at Amazon on Kindle and as a trade paperback. He has another book coming out in September 2013, a follow-up to Life Tweets, titled God Tweets. You can reach him at tomrapsas@gmail.com or via Twitter @TomRapsasTweets