An Interview with Claude Whitmyer
Integral Yoga Magazine, pp. 38-39, Winter 2011 (The Yoga of Business).
In the early 1990s, business consultant and spiritual seeker Claude Whitmyer set out to explore the integration of mindfulness and meaning in the workplace.
He discovered that work can be one of the most difficult things to integrate with spiritual practice.
Based on his research with clients and essays that he gathered from leading thinkers (including Thich Nhat Hanh, Gary Snyder, Joanna Macy), he wrote the book Mindfulness and Meaningful Work.
In this interview, he discusses his findings and the seven characteristics of successful people.
Integral Yoga Magazine (IYM): What led you to write about mindfulness and meaningful work?
Claude Whitmyer (CW): I was a small business consultant who knew a lot about the technical aspects of business, was profoundly influenced by Buddhism, and wanted to integrate my values into business. So, right livelihood became a focus. I was searching for how to develop and sustain right livelihood. Bringing all this thinking together in the book served to motivate me and others to think about doing what we love while still paying the bills. My overall goal was to deepen my understanding of the concept of right livelihood to show how to go about overcoming the obstacles in one’s path to find and maintain meaningful, satisfying work; and provide encouragement to live in a way that increases one’s inner peace, self-worth, and purpose.
IYM: What did you discover about trying to do that?
CW: I began trying things and making a record of what worked and didn’t work. I have a file cabinet in my garage with notes from hundreds of clients I counseled, and that became the foundation of the book. I found that, like me, other people were interested in right livelihood. I wanted to help so I began developing what I called “Good Work” guidance. I use that phrase on purpose as it represents something archetypal. People have in the back of their minds “good works”—work that has something more to it than collecting a paycheck. So, I began advising people about finding good work and advising entrepreneurs on how to start businesses in which they didn’t have to give up their values, which I called “Good Business Advice.”
IYM: How does one do that?
CW: It starts with mindfulness. It continues with mindfulness. It ends with mindfulness. Mindfulness allows us to live in the present moment. It keeps our sense of what our personal purpose is in front of us and it rejuvenates us. It’s the context in which a better life takes place. Without mindfulness, there can be no right livelihood because of all the complexities of the world today. You can rely on mindfulness always being there for you and, if you stay mindful, you will generally make better choices. Most world religions have a teaching that you can’t do anything about saving the world until you stabilize your own financial situation. If you have to constantly worry about how to bring enough money in to pay for food and rent, then you don’t really have the psychic energy and spiritual freedom to pursue a better life. You are operating from survival. So stabilizing your economic condition is the first step to take as you embrace mindfulness. Next, you have to see the consequences of what you are doing. You can be having a great time working in a bar but when you see the consequences for those who drink too much, it’s difficult to keep working there.
IYM: What are the characteristics of successful business people?
CW: As I said, everything starts with mindfulness, but there seem to be seven main characteristics of people who are succeeding at right livelihood. The first and foremost is persistence. You have to be able to keep at it, regardless of how difficult it is. The second is facing the facts or knowing when to stop. You have to recognize when the thing you are being persistent about is no longer worth investing your energy in. The third is minimizing risk. In entrepreneurship, the common conception is that it’s risky, wild, and crazy people who take big chances that may or may not pan out. It’s like gambling. The reality is that good entrepreneurs actually know they are about to embark on a sure thing, as they’ve studied every aspect. It may look like a gamble to the uninformed, but to them, there’s only a small chance it won’t work. There were a lot of people called entrepreneurs during the dot.com craze, but they were just taking advantage of a lot of loose money. But when you look at the efforts of those people who really succeeded, they intimately understood the opportunity. For them, it wasn’t a risk.
The fourth quality is that you have to like to get your hands dirty. If you plan to grow a business with lots of employees, you can’t do all the work yourself, so you have to know the business well enough to train and monitor all the people working for you. This starts with your own hands-on learning. Most people hate accounting, but the biggest mistake you can make in starting a business is failing to understand bookkeeping. You have to do it in the beginning and as the business grows and you can take on a bookkeeper or accountant, you have to be able to monitor and audit what someone else does. The fifth quality is about having self-starting energy. This may come from cultivating mindfulness or it could be a genetic quality, but it means you get up in the morning and get to work. You don’t sleep in when you should be doing what needs to be done. Maybe you are not that eager to face the challenges of the day or you are in a rough spot because the boss I unhappy with you. You still need the vital energy that gets you up and keeps you going. That comes from a sense of physical well-being and the desire to live life to the fullest. I suspect it generally arises from mindfulness.
The sixth quality concerns developing a community of support. To succeed, you need the friendship of like-minded people who you surround yourself with. It’s mutual, not you as the center of the world, but a network of individuals who support one another in what they are doing. Without that, you are probably going to live in a fantasy world. There’s no such thing as a rugged individual who doesn’t need anyone. Lastly, you need emotional stability. The truth about emotions is that they aren’t stable—but, in order to be truly successful, you need some kind of consistency in your behavior. Your inner turmoil may be rampant but you will have to leave your light on. When you practice mindfulness you notice this. One major practice is simply to watch emoticons rise up and flow away so you can dis-identify and not have to constantly act on them.
IYM: You have some Yoga teachers as clients. How do you advise them?
CW: Yoga means “yoke.” As a yogi or yogini, you are “yoked” or dedicated to a particular lifestyle. You aspire to certain practices, not unlike the eightfold path of Buddhism. Yoga can be an avocation or vocation or both. The question is, can you as a practitioner see the application of Yoga principles in the everyday management of your business? If you can, that’s right livelihood. You are practicing what you -preach and you are teaching others about it. There’s an implied level of mindfulness. If you can’t see the application of Yoga principles in running a Yoga business, maybe it’s not right livelihood and you should look elsewhere for a living.
Yoga and Buddhism teach us that we are each born with a self-centered craving. Patanjali said this is one of the five obstacles in life. Buddha said this is the3 source of suffering. We always want something different than what we have. Practicing Yoga and practicing mindfulness allows us to identify the craving and, in the moment, let it go. The better you get at it, the more awake you become. As humans with consciousness, if we want to wake up from the walking sleep we have to practice mindfulness or Yoga so as to make better choices. If someone is coming at me with a knife, I want to make that stop, but if not, I am not truly in danger. So, should I be counter-aggressive and mean and defensive about something that really isn’t threatening to me? We see so much conflict in business that arises from our own lack of mindfulness.
I also have to be steady in my awareness so that, if I have a sudden eruption of enlightenment, I’m not toppled by that. If I have a satori, a samadhi, or an “ah ha,” I can get knocked off balance or crave it and keep running after it. Mindfulness is about coming back to the moment, to a neutral place. The point of Yoga and mindfulness is to be on the middle path—not spending all your time trying to have pleasure or avoiding pain, but staying balanced. Then you have conscious, rational thinking that can be used as an aid. You can identify the assumptions of thinking and patterns of behavior you picked up as a kid and question those assumptions so as to interrupt those patterns, and that will enable you to keep coming back to a neutral place in order to reprogram the bio-computer (our evolutionary mechanism). You want to develop character strengths that help you abandon assumptions and patterns that lead to unhappiness. You also want to develop character strengths by actively doing practices that lead to happiness for yourself and others. Mindfulness helps you to go down that path by anchoring your experience in the reality of your physical body—just like Yoga.
Claude Whitmyer edited and contributed to Mindfulness and Meaningful Work: Explorations in Right Livelihood. He is co-founder of FutureU™, a veteran business educator and organizational consultant who has served more than 2,000 clients in several hundred corporations, non-profits, and small businesses. His consulting focus has encompassed strategic planning, market research, corporate communications, executive and management coaching and computer systems design, among other areas. In the early 1990s, he developed one of the first online graduate business programs in the U.S. You can learn more at FutureU.com, MeaningfulWork.com, and ClaudeWhitmyer.com.
Copyright © 2011 by Claude Whitmyer. All rights reserved.