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Zen and the Art of Anger Management at Work

What Buddhism can teach us about serenity on the job


by Sean Elder

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Imagine a workplace free of conflict, one in which you and your coworkers and even your boss work in harmony, sharing a common goal and avoiding misunderstandings.

Okay, we can’t imagine that either.

Perhaps you think such an environment would exist among more enlightened beings – a Zen monastery, for instance. Paul Haller, former abbot of the San Francisco Zen Center, laughs drily. “People bring their own stuff” no matter what the workplace it seems. Some of his advice applies to all places of employ:

1. This isn’t your family “Working in a community I am struck by people’s reconstruction of the family dynamics of their youth,” says Haller. “’I had a hard time with my father,’ someone will say, and I know we are going to have a rocky relationship.” What about coworkers? “Sibling rivalry is in there too.”

2. The boss isn’t your dad. Haller recalls one student who was very wary of him. “I had to convince him I was not there to judge or criticize,” he says. “I was a mentor and an ally who wished him well. This was a radical departure from what he had experienced at home and school.”

3. You play a part in this too. For the person seething with resentment over a boss or coworker, Haller suggests looking inside. “From the point of view of Zen practice you ask, ‘What’s happening?’ Can you acknowledge your anger? That opens the door to what the experience is like.” The desired conclusion is to be able to sort the problem: “This is my stuff, this is my boss’s stuff. Say it in a quiet clear manner that allows something good to be the consequence.”

4. You are not alone. “Treat everyone as if they have the same stuff going on,” says Haller – the same kind of smoking baggage that makes you react as you do. A person who upsets you at work probably    “didn’t think they were going to push your buttons; you were an afterthought.”

5. You can clear the air. “A year ago I had a problem with a peer,” says Haller, “so I sat down with the peer and said, ‘Here’s what you did’ – I wanted it to register. My peer got it and apologized.” The encounter gave him a sense of personal authority. “I don’t have to whisper in someone else’s ear; I can go to the person I have a problem with. If that doesn’t work, bring in someone else; there’s even an official grievance process” at the SF Zen Center.

These days Haller is a senior dharma teacher in San Francisco; he spends more of his time teaching meditation at a center in his native Belfast, where conflict has been the watchword for hundreds of years.

“The whole group is an interesting case study,” says Haller. There are plenty of divisions and disagreements, “but sometimes the divisions are not along Catholic and Protestant lines. That’s something!”

There is no difference between the sorts of emotions and issues raised in a Zen monastery and those in any workplace, except maybe in how – and when – people react to them. There’s an old joke about a monk who took a vow of silence; he was only allowed to speak two words every ten years to the abbot. The first time he said, “Bed hard.” Ten years later he returned and said, “Food bad.” And the last visit he said, “I quit.”

“I’m not surprised,” said the abbot, “you’ve done nothing but complain since you got here.”