It’s What You Do: the Practice of Skillful Action

A group of volunteers with their hands stack on top of each other

One of my most difficult business decisions was letting go of twelve people in one day. This was at a time when my former publishing company, Brush Dance was pursuing an internet strategy. In just a few months we had grown from ten to twenty-two employees. Then, six months later, as the environment for internet businesses plunged, our investment group announced that they had decided to stop funding the internet business. We had completely run out of money and needed to take some dramatic steps to save the wholesale business. There appeared to be no choice but to let go of our employees who were working primarily on the Internet side of the business and to cut back on the number of people working for the wholesale division.

Letting go of people who had worked hard for the company, in some cases for many years, in a way that felt true, authentic, and compassionate was painful and challenging. I met individually with most of the employees who were being let go. I explained the history of our growth, the circumstances that had led to the current situation, and our thinking about the steps we needed to take to save the company. I shared my pain and my vulnerability. Many of these meetings were difficult and heartfelt, often filled with tears. In the midst of the pain and difficulty of these encounters, there was real human connection. I learned that sometimes just one word or a smile can help transform someone’s difficulty.

The practice of right action can be defined simply as doing good and avoiding harm. Right action is intimately connected to right view, right thinking, and right speech (the first three practices of the eightfold path). Our views, thinking, and speech cannot be separated from how we act. I once heard a teacher explain that the essence of mindfulness is just to “not make things worse,” highlighting just how difficult it is to be a human being. Mindfulness defines doing good as expressing compassion, cultivating kindness, working toward ending social injustice, and being generous with your time and energy.

Expressing compassion. Compassion is acting to relieve and transform difficulty. In business we often have the opportunity to practice compassion with people with whom we come into contact. This might include colleagues who are just beginning a new job or who for whatever reason are leaving the workplace. Sometimes just fully listening to other’s difficulties, whether work related or not, can be an act of compassion.

Kindness. We may not think of our jobs as a place to practice kindness, but why not? We are all vulnerable human beings, even at work, or especially at work. The more we recognize and acknowledge this truth, the more we can be ourselves, and the better we can perform. I find kindness to be one of the most valuable practices in the workplace.

Social justice. Nearly every business has the opportunity to work toward social justice, internally or externally, directly or indirectly. Does your company practice social justice in its hiring practices and in compensation, roles, and responsibilities? Does your company have policies and standards in working with your vendors and customers that foster fairness and equality? How can you bring about fairness and justice within your company and in relationship to your community?

Generosity. Work provides constant opportunities to practice generosity. Our time and our energy are precious gifts that we can choose to withhold or choose to give freely. A student asked his teacher, “I am discouraged, what should I do?” The teacher responded, “Encourage others.” Being generous, most fundamentally, is seeing that we are all intimately, deeply connected. Helping ourselves is helping others; helping others is helping ourselves. We don’t help others for our own benefit or to get something. We see that someone needs our us, and we make ourselves available.

Right action is paying attention, noticing how you act when you feel uncomfortable or threatened. Paying attention to what pushes your buttons and what situations lead you to feel uncomfortable? The more we pay attention, the more we learn about ourselves. The more we pay attention to our actions we see how difficult it is to consistently act in a way that is aligned with our values and intentions. It is said that the life of a Zen teacher can be defined as “one mistake following another.”

Right action is the practice of coming into contact with our caring, with what we love, and with our vulnerability. It is the practice of seeing and acting strategically by understanding that there is no conflict, no difference, between taking care of ourselves, taking care of the people we work with, and taking care of the mission and goals of our organization.

Try this:

  • Notice what you do when you first come to work and what you do as you are preparing to leave work.
  • Notice how your thinking and speech affect what you do and how what you do affects your thinking and your speech.
  • Pay attention to the actions that bring you toward joy and greater freedom.

Speaker, Executive Coach, Author of “7 Practices of a Mindful Leader.” CEO: ZBA Associates. Zen Priest, Mindfulness Teacher. https://www.marclesser.net/