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Work retreat

Taking note of our state of mind at work

Young woman smiling, helping a young man on the computer.
We are checking our minds every hour while at work (away from work is fine, too), noticing our mental state. (Photo by Gates Foundation)

Dear Venerable Chodron:

Bets and I are doing something very exciting. We’re calling it a “work retreat.” Since we each constantly bemoan our choice to work so much, which impacts Dharma study time, we came up with the idea to use our work time as an opportunity to transform our minds (well, obviously the idea of using off-cushion time to transform the mind is not our original idea!).

This is the history of how the idea of a work retreat came about … I’ve been cycling through various Dharma tapes when driving and recently listened to Venerable Robina. She was describing the second type of suffering, the suffering of change, and it really grabbed me because, what with the (thankful) lack of outright suffering currently and to-date in this life of mine, I figured working with that one might help me to realize the first noble truth. I’ve always had a bit of difficulty understanding the idea that even the experience of pleasure is suffering but her analogy to a junkie made an impact. I can certainly stand back and consider that the life of a drug addict is pure suffering, all the time. Even the moments when experiencing the pleasurable high of the drugs is basically suffering because the high will soon wear off. The high is a set-up for feeling horrible later when the rush is past. As soon as the high starts, it is leading inexorably to wearing off. It is the same with all the pleasures I experience in my life. However, I’m fortunate to be able to get one “fix” right after another, thus not going through withdrawal between fixes. This happens because the things I’m addicted to are socially acceptable, I’m good at planning how to get them, and I’ve been very lucky so far (read: have experienced the results of a lot of positive karma).

Venerable Robina also talked about transforming problems into happiness, and that’s also exactly what you are talking about on the tapes we’re listening to in the Tuesday evening class at DFF. She quoted Lama Zopa as saying we should learn to love problems as much as we love ice cream. For me, that’s a whole lotta love. She said that, if you can even do this once a day, it is enormously purifying.

I’ve whittled the logic down to this: the feeling aggregate is one big indicator of whether a positive or negative previous action is currently ripening. The situation that seems to be “causing” the feeling I’m having right now is just the cooperative condition, a kind of context for the ripening. Attachment to worldly concerns drives me to pay a lot of attention to those cooperative conditions and, when the conditions temporarily satisfy those concerns, I consider myself happy. When they do not, I consider myself unhappy. But I have little control over those conditions because they’re the result of completed actions. Associating happiness with temporary, external conditions is not very smart, but it’s a very strong habit. A better source of happiness is the attitude of taking joy in virtuous actions. So, in the midst of my mundane activities, I can stop, analyze the situation, see how I’m continuing the habit of thinking the satisfaction of worldly concerns is the cause of happiness when it is not, and transform my mind, taking joy in the analysis, the ripening of past negative actions (if that’s what’s happening and usually, given my mind at work, it is), and in the opportunity to practice patience.

Bets and I were talking about this and together came up with the idea of a “work retreat.” We are checking our minds every hour while at work (away from work is fine, too), noticing our mental state, analyzing the relation to the eight worldly concerns, and then transforming it to happiness for as long as possible. If nothing else, it keeps the agitation level during the work day from escalating, which is good. We made a “practice guide,” which we keep on our desks at work. Throughout the day, in addition to stopping to do the analysis and transformation, we look at the guide so as to keep on track. For me it helps to keep the “logic” of it. The practice guide is below.

This practice has been very useful. We agreed to do two weeks as a start but I, for one, plan to continue. Because we were listening to your transforming problems tapes in class, I ended up briefly describing the practice in my small group discussion one evening. The next week Barry, who had been in my group, told me he had done it at work all that week!

Practice guide for a work retreat

The thing to do is to turn your everyday life—relationships and social involvement and work—into your spiritual path. Everything we do, if it can be done with sufficient awareness, can be transformed.
Venerable Tenzin Palmo


Transform the mind that links happiness and unhappiness to the eight worldly thoughts.


Through this practice, we will gain a deeper understanding of the suffering that we experience in this life and use this understanding to realize renunciation (the determination to be free from cyclic existence and to attain liberation), and furthermore that this understanding will also be the cause for developing genuine and spontaneous bodhicitta, with which all actions we do will benefit all living beings without exception.

Background for the retreat

Bodhicitta is a necessary element to achieve Buddhahood. Bodhicitta grows out of renunciation. Renunciation is born from the realization of the suffering of oneself. Bodhicitta is born from the realization that all living beings are suffering in the same way that we are.

We deeply believe that satisfaction of worldly concerns is the cause for happiness and not having those concerns satisfied is the cause for unhappiness. We link these and feel happy when our attachment to worldly desires is satisfied. When they are not satisfied, we are unhappy.

Genuine, lasting happiness is not linked to satisfying worldly desires, and we need to transform our mind to break that habitual association. The fact that these worldly desires are constantly present in our mind whereas the satisfaction of them is sporadic and not within our control is a fundamental situation we face in cyclic existence. It constitutes the type of suffering called the suffering of change.

We have created the causes for feeling happy and unhappy, and the arising of those feelings is a ripening of those causes. There is nothing wrong with feeling pleasure and happiness, but when we get attached to the happy feelings or the objects that cause them, we become self-centered. We also tend to act unskillfully, doing things that harm others and ourselves in our attempt to be happy. To avoid that unproductive chain of events, we will practice being aware during the times we are happy, that we are experiencing the results of our previous actions. Then, rather than get “addicted” to the external things and people who seem to be the cause of our happiness, we will react in a more balanced and compassionate way and create causes for future happiness.

Right now we have both the fortune to have met and taken an interest in these teachings and we have the leisure to practice and thus realize them. This precious opportunity will not last long. We must not squander it.

The practice

This practice will mostly be performed at work. Our work day will be considered our practice sessions. However, as with other retreats, we are encouraged to remain mindful and bring the practice into our “between sessions” times also.

On the way to work, we will remind ourselves of our intention to bring our practice of mindfulness and analysis into our work.

Every hour we will bring our attention to the state of mind we are experiencing. We will notice whether it is a happy state (feelings of satisfaction or contentment) or unhappy state (agitation, frustration, irritation, disappointment, etc.). We will then notice the relationship of that state to the eight worldly concerns:

  1. feeling delighted at receiving money or material possession or
  2. unhappy because we don’t get them or lose them
  3. feeling happy when we are praised and receive others’ approval or
  4. unhappy when we are criticized, blamed, or receive disapproval
  5. feeling good about having a good image or reputation, or
  6. feeling bad about having a bad image or reputation
  7. feeling happy when we have sense pleasure—contact with nice sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and tactile sensations, or
  8. unhappy when experiencing displeasing sense objects.

If our state of mind is a happy one, we will consider that the happenstance of the satisfaction of a worldly concern at that time is a very precarious and untrustworthy thing to rely on for our happiness. Continuing to seek worldly pleasure from external people and things is to remain in a situation in which we actually have no control over whether we experience so-called happiness or not. In addition, we put ourselves at risk of creating negative actions in the pursuit of the worldly concerns, and that can only bring unhappiness.

To avoid attachment to the happiness, we will offer it to all sentient beings and to offer whatever has caused it—nice objects, praise, and so on—to all the Buddhas and bodhisattvas. This doesn’t mean we deny the good feeling or feel guilty about it. Rather, we enjoy it, but remembering its impermanence, we don’t cling to it because we see there’s nothing there to be attached to. We will also remember that our present happiness is a ripening of past positive karma and remind ourselves to create more of it, but this time to dedicate our virtues for full enlightenment and the benefit of all beings.

If our state of mind is an unhappy one, we will note how our attachment not getting what it wants is the cause of the unhappiness. We will see how vulnerable we are to being unhappy so long as we accept the association of dissatisfaction of worldly concerns and unhappiness.

At that point we will bring to mind a sensation of being happy even though we are presently experiencing the dissatisfaction of a worldly concern. This is the actual transformation of our mind. We are breaking the habitual association. We will try to maintain this state of mind as long as possible. One basis for this new happiness is knowing that whenever we experience the dissatisfaction of a worldly concern, it is the ripening of a past negative action, in effect eliminating its potential to ripen in an experience of unbearable suffering.

Another way to transform our mind is to give the unhappiness to our self-centeredness and be happy that it—the source of all our suffering—isn’t getting what it wants. Another basis for happiness is to see the experience as an opportunity to practice patience. Without it, we can never realize the far-reaching attitude of patience, which is essential for attaining full enlightenment.

We can also use this as an opportunity to practice the taking and giving meditation and think that we’re bearing the unhappiness for the benefit of sentient beings. All of the above ways of seeing the situation are trustworthy reasons for happiness.

We will track each instance of performing this analysis and transformation throughout our work day. It may be useful to set certain events, such as lunchtime, as a time to review and refresh our intention. To help with tracking, we can do this practice with a friend and e-mail each other daily or otherwise to report how the tracking is going. The key element is tracking the performance of the practice throughout the day. This tracking will help to support our mindfulness during the retreat and the reporting will serve as a way of being accountable and offering support to each other as fellow retreatants.


At the end of each day, we will review how the practice went, considering whether we remembered to do it, whether we took a few moments to perform the analysis, and whether we were able to transform problems into happiness, at least briefly. We will also examine if we were able to avoid being carried away by attachment when happy events happened. We will then rejoice in our doing this retreat and dedicate the positive potential of our actions to the benefit and enlightenment of all living beings.

Guest Author: Leah Kosik