Spirituality and the Rat Race: can you maintain a spiritual focus in the 9-to-5 world?

I work in New York City in the frenetic world of advertising. After a two-hour early morning commute, I usually walk into the office with a couple of tight deadlines to make, two to three meetings to attend and an average of a crisis a day to handle. I work with people who approach their jobs with the same level of intensity you might associate with brain surgery.

Now I consider myself a spiritual guy and place the utmost importance on my relationship with God/the Divine. Which raises an important question:

Can a working professional in a high-stress job maintain a consistent spiritual focus—or are the stresses of work incompatible with the contemplative life?

One person who thought about this subject was the prolific American writer and Catholic mystic Thomas Merton. When Merton joined the Trappists at the age of twenty-five, he was already a man of the world. He had graduated from Columbia University in Manhattan and travelled extensively throughout Europe. Even after becoming a monk, he retained his love for jazz clubs and drinking beer.

Merton, who clearly knew the joys of life beyond the monastery, had an interesting take on vocation and spirituality. It’s a subject he addressed head on in his book No Man is An Island, where he saw the difficulty in trying to live the spiritual life while working in a city setting:

Everything in modern city life is calculated to keep man from entering into himself and thinking about spiritual things. Even with the best of intentions a spiritual man finds himself exhausted and deadened and debased by the constant noise of machines and loudspeakers, the dead air and the glaring lights of offices and shops.

Yet that did not mean that Merton thought we should follow his lead and head off to a religious community in the hills of Kentucky or elsewhere. Having lived both inside and outside the monastery’s walls, Merton realized the monk’s life could present an even more difficult path for those truly interested in the contemplative life.

The mere fact that everything in a contemplative monastery is supposed to be geared for a life of prayer is precisely what makes it difficult…there is more working than praying in the daily round of duties. In a life where all is prayer, those who do not have a special contemplative vocation often end up by praying less than they would actually do in the active life.

Merton offers encouragement to those who seek to live “the active life” while engaging in contemplative living, realizing that the path he had chosen for himself was not for everybody. He explains:

There are some people who are perfectly capable of tasting true spiritual peace in an active life but who would go crazy if they had to keep themselves still in absolute solitude and silence for any length of time…what a hopeless thing the spiritual life would be if it could only be lived under ideal conditions.

When Merton speaks of work, he does not differentiate between the daily chores and labor involved with monastic life and the responsibilities of the 9-to-5 world. He stresses the vital role work plays in our lives no matter where that work may take place.

Work occupies the body and the mind and is necessary for the health of the spirit. Work can help us to pray…and brings peace to the soul that has a semblance or order and spiritual understanding.

But later in life, Merton seemed to have a change of heart warning us about the perils of the active life. Writing in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, he railed against the specter of overwork and hyperactivity. He took a forceful stance on the subject suggesting that working too much takes us away from inner peace and in fact causes us great harm. He preached that:

The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence…to allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything is to succumb to violence…it destroys our own inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of our own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work [and life] fruitful.

So what is one to make of Merton’s seemingly contradictory advice?

Like all things in life, I suppose it’s about balance, about finding the happy medium between the working life and the contemplative life. It’s a fluid situation, with the demands of work ebbing and flowing—but then isn’t finding and defining our purpose in life fluid as well, a constantly moving target?

For me, this ongoing shaping of purpose is intertwined with managing the work and spirituality balance, the former always threatening to squeeze the latter out of existence. But with diligent effort, I do my best to see that the balance is maintained.

This morning, for instance, I dug deep into my bag of spirituality tricks. After rising at 5:30 am, I sipped a cup of freshly brewed coffee, then hit the floor and stretched. I meditated. Then, I put in a brisk three-mile run. And once on the bus for my long commute into the city, I silently recited a prayer of gratitude and did some spiritual reading.

I will walk the mile to my building with my eyes and senses wide open, to fully take in my surroundings. Then, once I enter the office, I’ll remind myself to be kind and generous in spirit to all I encounter during the day, no matter the circumstances. And should things get especially intense, I’ll remember to b-r-e-a-t-h-e deeply and possibly take a short walk. I’ll try to put my best foot forward, hopefully having a positive effect on all those I encounter.

But as the years tick by, and I enter my fourth decade in advertising, I feel the pull of the contemplative life even more. Its call grows stronger, its rewards grow richer, and I know it’s merely a matter of time before I abandon the working life, or at least the path I’m now on, and give in to it completely. This is what life will demand of me. And ultimately, it’s what I will demand of myself.

This post is an excerpt from a longer article written for Contemplative Journal and published November 4, 2013. You can see the full story here.


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