A personal meditation on layoffs


“If you can practice mindfulness of the facts of life-impermanence, impending death, emptiness and so forth-in your daily life, if you can maintain constant awareness of the basic nature of phenomena, you will be able to stop disturbing, emotional thoughts from arising. Normally, these disturbing thoughts control our lives, torture us daily, always give us trouble and prevent our minds from experiencing any peace. Instead of peace, happiness and satisfaction, all we get from them is dissatisfaction, unhappiness and problems-not only in this life but, through the karma they force us to create, in many future lives to come.

Thus, practicing mindfulness of impermanence, death and emptiness-the fundamental nature of phenomena, which cuts the root of suffering, ignorance, the unknowing mind-everything we do in our lives becomes the cause of our liberation from all suffering and its cause. In this way, we can help others at a deeper level by also liberating them from the cycle of death and rebirth and its cause, the disturbing thoughts and the actions they motivate, karma.”

~ Lama Zopa Rinpoche, “Virtue and Reality”

The wind is blowing strong, rattling the windows. It’s still dark outside. On schedule, Patrick’s dog is whining softly, waking him up so he’ll let her out. Patrick opens his eyes a crack and remembers with a groan that he doesn’t have a job to go to. He’s been pink slipped, had turned his identity badge, packed up his office and had said good bye to his boss and colleagues for good. He’s burrowed deep into the darkness of his comforter and pulled the pillow over his ears. In the blackness, he comes face to face with the loss of his identity and the erosion of his self-respect. Like a soda can tossed out the window of a speeding car on the highway, he rolls, twists, and bounces, until he stops abruptly by the side of the road.

Who is he now that he doesn’t have a job? He is no longer an “employee”, a “colleague”, a “professional”, not even a “commuter”. It all seems so unfair. He’s worked hard, put in lots of overtime and always went the extra mile for clients. His reviews have been great. His colleagues and clients love him and lament his leaving. But “fairness” implies some kind of impartial judge, some kind of natural consequence which maybe doesn’t exist. As we grow up, we’re taught that if we behave in a certain manner, our good behavior will be rewarded. When someone breaks the rules and gets away with it, or circumstances don’t turn out the way we expect them too, we think it’s “unfair”. It’s not just unfair when bad things happen to good people, it completely floors us.

The Buddha taught something different. According to him, every misfortune that we experience today is the result of a non-virtuous action performed in the past – in the case of a job loss (i.e., loss of wealth) it’s the result of stealing. The karmic results of stealing can take many forms that ordinary people such as Patrick can’t necessarily identify. He remembers hearing about a Dharma practitioner whose business was losing inventory. Through analytical meditation, she guessed that the loss was because her company wasn’t honoring the terms of payment to its creditors. When she renegotiated the agreements so that they her company could strictly honor them, the inventory losses were reduced. 1

What’s so unsettling about karma is that it’s a potential that ripens when certain causes and conditions come together. Positive actions lead to happiness, negative actions lead to suffering, and these energies come together in a complex way in our lives that only a Buddha fully understands. Patrick remembered a good friend of his who was laid off from a job that she really liked in 2001 during the dot com bust. As a consequence of this layoff, she had to move to another city, and lost money and possessions. However, she has since found another job that she likes even better. It’s been a stable situation for her and has helped her to become very successful in her career. In this way, karma is not always clear cut. We have both negative and positive karma ripening at any time, as well as “blessings in disguise” that we can only see in hindsight.

Other friends have been less fortunate; many have had to change careers, put their homes up for sale, and were unemployed for years before finding another position. So from moment to moment our lives unfold as the coming to fruition of our past intentions and actions. In Patrick’s case, losing his job was the completion of some negative karma. Maybe he’d find another job and lose it again, or maybe not.

But now that he doesn’t have a job, the day ahead of him was wide open. No commute, no meetings, no waiting in line to get coffee. On the one hand we’re all aware of how quickly the days fly by – we’re rushing around and before we know it, the day is over. Like many people, he usually compartmentalizes and plans his schedule almost down to the minute so when anything changes (the bus is a minute late, his son won’t get out of bed on time), it throws him into an instant tizzy. You’d think that we’d learn from the daily experiences of well-laid plans going awry that our lives are inextricably inter-related, that we label and create our version of what our lives should be like, that everything is constantly changing, and oh by the way, the person who read the first paragraph of this blog is not identical to the one who is reading this sentence Now!

Patrick’s Mom consoles him saying that job wasn’t so great anyway, the salary was low compared to other places, and the benefits were lousy. All of which gets him wondering, what is a “job” anyway? The Buddha taught that things lack inherent existence, that phenomena exist in a conventional sense only as a product of language and shared culture. There are so many kinds of jobs – full time, part-time, shared jobs, volunteer jobs, corporate jobs, work from home jobs, self-employed jobs, etc. Is there an inherently “good” or “bad” job? Patrick enjoys being a programmer and staring at a computer all day suits him just fine, but for someone else who likes the great outdoors, eight hours of Patrick’s job would be like a day in purgatory.

Among his colleagues who were laid off there’s a wide range of reactions. Some are angry and defensive and lash out against their boss, blaming their unemployment on his poor marketing skills and lack of vision. These people waste time wallowing in their anger while alienating co-workers and friends who otherwise would have continued to be important references and contacts. Others are so depressed they are unable to job hunt at all.

How we choose to deal with misfortune is still within our control and is entirely up to us. For example, through meditation we can develop mindfulness and alertness. These are two crucial skills for controlling our minds so that we do not let our afflictive emotions overcome us, causing us to perpetuate our suffering by creating even more negative karma.

“So come what may, I’ll never harm
My cheerful happiness of mind.
Depression never brings me what I want;
My virtue will be warped and marred by it.

If there is a remedy when trouble strikes,
What reason is there for despondency?
And if there is no help for it,
What use is there in being sad?”

Shantideva, “The Way of the Bodhisattva”

From the safe protective cocoon of Patrick’s comforter, he remembers that it’s February. It’s easy to practice the giving and taking (Tibetan, tong len) meditation in the winter because the days are short and the cold weather is a constant reminder of physical suffering. The homeless people in the streets in D.C. sitting on freezing sidewalks, the sparrows shivering with their little feathers all fluffed up, all are instant targets for tong len. Whenever we are in a situation where we are deeply hurt and suffering, and there doesn’t seem to be any way around it, we can use our suffering to open our hearts, connect with the suffering of others and to develop great compassion. We sit with this opened, aching heart and develop a sincere wish that from now on, this suffering will suffice for the suffering of all others going through this similar experience. And that someday, we will be able to alleviate this suffering.

We can imagine that all of their suffering pours into us in the form of black smoke and enters our hearts destroying our self-cherishing mind – that inner enemy that caused us so much pain before! Then we radiate back pure white healing energy thereby relieving the other person’s suffering as well as ours. Pema Chodron writes, “…your own experience of pleasure and pain becomes the way that you recognize your kinship with all sentient beings. Practicing tong len is the way you can share in the joy and the sorrow of everyone who’s ever lived, everyone who’s living now, and everybody who will every live.”

By going through this difficulty, may I exhaust my negative karma and exhaust all suffering of others.

— Posted by Dina Li and Lisa Wilcox, with patient editing from ani Tenzin Lhamo and Lorne Ladner

Some Additional Reading that we have found to be helpful during difficult times:

  • Pema Chodron, “Comfortable with Uncertainty”
  • Pema Chodron, “When Things Fall Apart”
  • The Dalai Lama, “Healing Anger: The Power of Patience from a Buddhist Perspective”
  • Dharmarakshita, “The Wheel of Sharp Weapons”
  • Lama Zopa Rinpoche, “Virtue and Reality”

1. From the Discovering Buddhism video series, Lession #6, “All About Karma”.

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2 thoughts on “A personal meditation on layoffs

  1. Coping with Unemployment — Dalai Lama Quote of the Week (courtesy of Snow Lion Publications, http://www.snowlionpub.com)

    Among Tibetans, at least traditionally, the economic conditions are such that this nine-to-five daily employment isn’t really an important part of [working life]. In Tibet, either you are a farmer or a nomad or a merchant. The work is seasonal…. During the season they work very hard, and when they finish they come back and don’t have any employment.

    …in modern society, and particularly in industrialized nations, the issue of unemployment is a very difficult situation. There are no easy answers. One has no choice but to try to cope, and make one’s best effort to find new work. There is just no other solution.

    However, the basic attitude of the individual plays a very significant role, and can make a big difference in how someone responds. While we may not have control over our situation, our attitude is something that we have some control over. So first, what we need to realize is that uncertainty and change are very much a part of the modern economy, particularly with regard to employment. That is a serious problem, but a fact that we have to accept. There is no guarantee that there will be a job tomorrow if you are working today. So, if we understand this ahead of time, it may change how we respond when that happens. Then we won’t feel so surprised, as if we are singled out. We understand that the loss of a job has many factors, the result of many causes and conditions. We will understand that, in many cases, it may even have roots in global economic issues. This way, we won’t become so upset by taking it personally, or looking around us for someone to blame for our problems. This alone may help reduce our mental agitation. Of course, here we are talking about unemployment due to some wider causes or layoffs, not due to being fired because of one’s own incompetence.

    So there might be different ways in which individuals will respond to the challenges of change. What is important is to acknowledge this fact and try to work out how best to cope with the immediate problem itself. For example, if you need employment as a means of your livelihood and if you become unemployed, then all your efforts should be put into looking for new employment so that your livelihood will be secure. But there are two different responses. One person may feel demoralized and become sort of paralyzed, thinking, There is no hope, I lost my job, what am I supposed to do? But another individual in the same situation might look at it as an opportunity to make some changes. As a challenge. So that is the more positive way, the more proactive way of dealing with this problem. But of course it is not easy.

    There may also be other ways that might help at least reduce the mental anxiety of dealing with the situation, so that a person can use all their mental energy to find new work. For Buddhists, there are certain thought processes and considerations that help–for example, the belief in karma [one’s actions] and ultimately taking responsibility for one’s own karma. Although this kind of mental attitude may not have any effect in physically resolving the situation, at least it will help ease the individual from the psychological effect of losing the job, and so on. And of course, believers in other religious systems can also take some consolation in their own beliefs.

    –from The Art of Happiness at Work by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and Dr. Howard C. Cutler, M.D.

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