The average person will spend 90,000 hours – about 20% of their waking life – at work. The French philosopher Simone Weil calls work “part of an ever-renewing rhythm of human existence”. ⁠Work is my everyday existence. How can it also be the site of my spirituality?

According to some of the major religions, work is a crucial arena for spiritual connection. Mindful work is one of the four paths to enlightenment in Hinduism, karma yoga and Zen Buddhists consider every action a means of mujodo no taigen, actualising the Way. In Islam, finding moral and ethical ways of making a living is seen as part of worship. And then there is my aunt, a dyed in the wool, country town Catholic, who once told me that if she has to do anything unpleasant she just “offers it up” to God.

If I have the privilege to choose what I do for a living then I must constantly check in with myself that I am doing more good than harm. The Buddhist Eightfold Path includes “right livelihood”, which states that people should avoid certain forms of work, including traffic in people, weapons and poison.

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Joan Halifax, an American Zen Buddhist teacher and author, recommends “micropauses” throughout the working day. By taking a deep breath, focusing briefly on my body, I can check in with myself and my values. Am I doing more good than harm, right now in this moment, to both myself and others?

When my dad was a kid he went to a tiny rural convent school where the nuns threw chalk at him until he remembered to write “AMDG” at the top of his slate. This is a Latin abbreviation for the Jesuit motto, ad majorem dei gloriam, for the glory of God. The German composer Johann Sebastian Bach used to write the same thing at the top of his compositions.

These days I am not Catholic, or Buddhist, or anything other than spiritual. But I still sometimes think “AMDG” as I place my hands in prayer position on my heart and my head. I recite my version of the daily Buddhist metta mantra, wishing wellness and happiness to myself and all beings. I add to the metta recitations, “May I be of service”.

As a freelancer, the thing I miss about working in an organisation is the same thing I miss about organised religion. Working in an organisation brought me into close daily contact with people I had to get along with, even if I didn’t particularly like them, nor they me.

Community comes from the Latin communitas, which means “working together”. According to the research, if I focus on relationships and authenticity, my workplace can become an arena for genuine, heartfelt growth and connection.

Working in an organisation, I could connect with my co-workers through the best way I knew how: food. I could bake cupcakes to share in the coffee room and build up the courage to smile at people in the lobby.

If there are conditions in a workplace that I don’t agree with, I could challenge them in small and large ways. I might have workplace discrimination or modern slavery in the supply chain in my sights, but I can start off with a small act of resistance: I can clock off exactly at the end of my shift and smile at my manager on my way out the door. I can reflect on, and articulate, the meaningfulness of my work – not in a cheesy, corporate mission statement way but in my own little cubicle. I can establish, for myself, how I contribute, how I am making a home in the world, for myself and others.

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When I think of my sister the doctor, or my other sister the nurse, saving lives, I feel like I am seven years old all over again, trying to be helpful but really just getting in the way. If I were filling a metaphoric spaceship with people who could found a human colony far from Earth, I would pick them.

But, I work as a slashie, juggling multiple gigs so I can pay the bills, and have time to write and volunteer. I care for my family, conduct ceremonies, study and play Solitaire. I might not be saving lives. But I can still say to someone every day (except perhaps when playing Solitaire, but let’s not nitpick) I see you. You are seen. There might be a spot for me on that spaceship after all.

  • Jackie Bailey is an ordained interfaith minister and the author of The Eulogy, which won the 2023 NSW premier’s literary multicultural award. This article includes an excerpt from her forthcoming nonfiction book about spirituality in a post-religious world

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