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Personal Growth

Ask a Buddhist: My Boss is Stressing Me Out!

Ironically, the fight-or-flight approach to problem-solving can cause us to reenact, over and over again, the very scenarios that cause us suffering.

Your shoulders bunch. Your jaw clenches. “No!No!No!No!” screams a voice inside your head. “Hello!!” you hear yourself saying – just a little too brightly – “How are you?” 

This sort of reaction to the sight of your boss (or spouse, or anybody at all) might have some real history behind it. Perhaps you’ve decided that she’s a vicious tyrant or a wearying pontificator. Maybe she’s the embodiment of everything that drives you nuts about your mom. Maybe she feels exactly the same way about you. 

But however numerous and well-documented your grievances may be, your boss isn’t manufacturing your stress – you are. “You have created the stress-inducing boss,” says Kadam Morten, a Buddhist teacher in the New Kadampa tradition, founded by Buddhist leader Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, the author of Modern Buddhism. Stress, Kadam Morten suggests, is the result of “uncontrolled mind states” like anger, or a sense of professional inadequacy. Buddhists practice meditation to understand and transcend these states. The point is that whether or not your boss is verifiably horrible, it’s up to you how badly she stresses you out. 

What’s the Significance?

According to the CDC, chronic, work-related stress is an increasingly widespread phenomenon. And over a long enough time span, it can cause serious psychological and physical harm. Western medicine has only recently begun to pinpoint the mechanisms whereby chronic stress – through the adrenal gland’s excessive release of the hormone cortisol – can cause a wide range of illnesses, from obesity to diabetes to heart disease. But the evidence is mounting, and it’s conclusive: chronic stress is poison for the body and the mind. 

Kadam Morten isn’t surprised by these findings. They align neatly with the 2000+ year-old teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, commonly known as Buddha (Sanskrit for “awakened one”). According to Buddhist tradition, most people’s lives are characterized by suffering. Optimistic, can-do Westerners may balk at that notion, but keep in mind that we’re not necessarily talking about famine, war, and pestilence here. For Buddhists, suffering is the endless push-pull of desire – for a new car, for a nicer boss, to be anywhere at all other than where you are right now.

The mind-states that desire induces, Kadam Morten maintains, can limit our creativity and mental flexibility in the moment. Ironically, the fight-or-flight approach to problem-solving can cause us to reenact, over and over again, the very scenarios that cause us suffering. Meditation, he says, is a practical method for investigating your own mind and transcending harmful habits of thinking.  

 Applied to the modern workplace, this doesn’t mean blissing out and letting your “horrible boss” walk all over you. It means freeing yourself to make calm, reasonable decisions about how best to deal with him, including – if necessary – the decision to find a new job. 

Follow Jason Gots (@jgots) on Twitter

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