The Thrill Of Zen Working
By Paul Agostinelli. Edited by Julia Dopp.
Half my life ago, I faced a dilemma and made a choice that has now come full circle in my new consultancy, Zen at Work. The dilemma was finding a way to simultaneously honor my desire to explore my sacred nature while also discovering the sacred purpose of my work in the world.
When I was 27, I became a resident at the Zen Center of Los Angeles, the spiritual community founded by Taizan Maezumi Roshi, one of the most influential transmitters of Zen Buddhism from Japan to America. I had taken lay ordination as a Zen Buddhist the year before, and was deeply committed to the Zen path.
However, for some time I had been struggling to find work that inspired and sustained me, while honoring the Buddhist notion of Right Livelihood. Since graduating with an undergraduate degree in Physics, I had gone on for a Master’s in English Literature, then bopped around the world, working as a teacher in China, a waiter in London, a cook in Kentucky, and a truck driver in Colorado.
After I landed at the Zen Center in LA, my meditation practice thrived while my work in the world — such as as it was — continued to meander. I wrote four screenplays (of course!) and a chestful of poems, and paid the bills with uninspiring work as a technical writer. My fateful decision came a year later, when a couple friends back in Colorado announced they had started a technology company, and asked if I wanted to join the team.
I was torn. I had found a home and my spiritual path at the Zen Center. If I left and joined my friends, I knew I would grow professionally, but feared my opportunities for spiritual development would diminish.
I finally decided that I needed to relocate, and grow through my work in the world. In the language of spiritual psychology, we are simultaneously “humans waking up as Buddhas” and “Buddhas growing up as humans.” I was confident in my commitment to waking up, but I had to apply myself with greater intention to the growing up. And on this path, conscious livelihood was key. I yearned to discover (or was it create?) a sacred dimension to my work in the world.
The company I joined became the launchpad for my entrepreneurial career in technology.
For the following two decades, I worked in startup tech, as a founder, executive and product designer. In 2000, I co-founded my first startup, Kaivo, which was a consultancy dedicated to bringing the benefits of Open Source software to non-profits, government and media organizations. I learned a lot about the importance of community support for spreading helpful new ideas and products throughout the world. In 2014, I raised two million dollars in angel funding and served as CEO for a new venture, a digital publishing startup. We created an amazing platform for writers and publishers, and saw some success before industry headwinds made our value prop untenable.
All the while, my spiritual practice remained at the center of my life. I practiced daily with my Zen community, attending extended meditation retreats every month. Through my practice I was able to discover and honor the sacred dimension of my work life, by connecting with my gifts and becoming intentional about those they served. In the sacred realm, all our Being and our Doing are focused on the greater good, and not on ourselves alone. In the words of Ram Dass, “we are all walking each other home.”
I have come to see that modern life presents the opportunity for us to honor the three sacred contracts (with Self, with Work, with Other) more directly than previous cultures. In the Western world especially, we have well-elaborated understandings — even entire industries! — devoted to human development in the psycho-spiritual, professional and relationship domains.
At the same time, with such a wealth of growth potential, we all run the risk of focusing on one or two of the contracts, while leaving others unserved. It is common for individuals to spend their lives focused on family and professional careers while yearning to explore the deepest dimensions of their selves. It is also possible for those who commit to a spiritual path to neglect conscious growth in relationship and work. (This is called “spiritual bypassing.”)
Having struggled for years to balance these often conflicting commitments, I have come to understand the practices through which they can best be honored and the conflicts resolved. The contract with Self is honored by the practice of Presence (aka Meditation or Mindfulness), and the contract with Work is honored by the practice of Purpose. In the practice of Purpose, we uncover the conscious or unconscious vows that guide our service, and discern the skilful means by which we can effect meaningful change.
At the heart of these practices is the recognition that all sacred contracts are motivated by our core aspirations for authenticity and service, otherwise known as Truth and Love.
Zen at Work is my way of sharing these practices and principles in a more direct and personal way. I provide Executive Mentorship, Presentations, Workshops and Retreats to individuals and teams, wherever they may be. I believe that when our own sacred natures manifest in the world through sacred work, the world can be transformed.
Social Enterprises are at the cutting edge of this movement. I am thrilled to be a part of COMMON, appreciating all the amazing ventures, and all that you serve.