My friend has recently lost a job she loved working for a yoga-based company.
While she retrains and applies for new jobs, she’s taken on a few shifts a week at a cafe (she’s also the mother of two children).
She confessed this work that working at the cafe is difficult—going back to what can feel like menial work for minimum wage.
It’s challenging to the ego, in more ways than one. Beyond a certain age, service jobs like this feel like they’re beneath us, like we’re worth something more and that we’re wasting our talents.
I get this.
I’m so passionate about being a mostly full-time mother while writing and teaching yoga, I would be devastated if circumstances meant I had to go back to waitressing. It would be heart-breaking. Yet I know that, like everything else in my life, I would turn into my practice—specifically, it would become the practice of Karma Yoga.
Karma Yoga is one of the main four paths of yoga, it’s the yoga of action. It’s about how we do what we do in the world. At its ultimate, Karma Yoga teaches us to fully immerse ourselves in the action of the moment with no thought of reward or attainment. We do what we do for the love of it. We do what we do because it’s right in front of us and it needs to be done.
Yesterday at the supermarket I watched a cashier ringing up the items of the customer in front of me. There was a support bandage around her right wrist and she struggled as she attempted to lift a 24 pack of beer off the conveyor belt and across past the barcode checker.
She looked tired and wrung out, as if life had sucked every last juicy piece of happiness from her.
I gave her a broad smile as I began to put my items through, but it failed to penetrate.
The cashier had to call over the manager to help her ring in the 20 So Good soy milks I was buying. (They were on sale for 50 cents each—time to stock up!) He came over with a smile, and as he helped her out she apologised for not knowing what to do.
He responded with a smile and a wink:
“It’s all good. Life’s So Good.”
The moment broke the tedium at the check-out. It was an unexpected pun from a man who was present to the moment, as compared to the cashier who was listless and empty. I felt for her—I don’t know what her story was, what she’s been through, or what her life is like. Yet when life is awful, standing on your feet for eight or 10 hours a day doing the same actions, saying the same words and being paid barely enough to live on must suck.
In contrast, my friend knows she’s got a great life, and she has an active yoga practice. She’s aware of her thoughts about her current job and knows that those thoughts are adding to her suffering. She knows that these thoughts are something to work with.
She might not be able to change her circumstances right now, but she can change how she perceives her circumstances.
Musing on the supermarket manager, and how that small moment had turned and lifted the energy at the supermarket check-out, I wondered what it would be like if more of our service staff were present, fulfilled and joyful at what they do.
Once upon a time I waitressed at an apres ski bar called The Longhorn Saloon, in Whistler, BC. It was a sought after job because we made great money, thanks to tips. Weekends in particular were hum-dingers. Yes, we worked super hard, running our arses off for eight hours while carrying fully loaded trays of drinks high above our heads through throngs of skiers, but we were well-rewarded for it.
As a result, we loved our jobs, we excelled at them, and we had fun doing it. The bartenders would often kick off Sunday morning with a simple ritual of swinging all the light fixtures above the bar in tandem. There was a light-heartedness to us all and we loved seeing what kind of experience we could create for our customers.
I don’t see this in the service industry in New Zealand at all. For one, tips are non-existent and most staff are lucky to make more than minimum wage. Plus there’s little respect for the skills required to do a good job in the service industry.
Service jobs do take skill, and patience, and a whole lot of love. Standing on your feet for eight hours while running after the needs and wants of other people and doing it all with a smile is seriously draining.
The rest of society often looks down on people who work the fast food joints and the cafes and the fish and chip shop. There’s no prestige in those jobs at all.
In contrast, when I worked at The Longhorn Saloon, it was difficult to get a job there as turnover was low and demand high. Bartenders from other bars would come and end up as bar backs for at least a season as they worked their way up to the highly coveted bartender position.
Bartenders and waitressed easily made $1000+ in the busy season—per week. There’s kudos in that—even though materially we were doing the same job as service staff back here in New Zealand who are making minimum wage.
When you’re being paid crap, it’s difficult not to feel like you’re worth crap and by extension that you are crap.
Therein lies the work of Karma Yoga—to realise that you are not determined by the job that you do. This works both ways too—working a prestigous job while making swack-loads of money does not define you as awesome anymore than working minimum wage cleaning toilets defines you as pathetic.
Ultimately, all work is of the same dignity. All work is as important—from the janitor to the CEO. Ideally, minimum wage would increase to a living wage and CEO wages would come down to only be ten times that of a janitor. But that’s not going to happen anytime soon, and it’s not in our immediate power to make it happen.
So if you’re working a minimum wage job and it sucks, but that’s where you have to be right now, what can you do about it?
How can you apply the principles of Karma Yoga to what you’re doing to alleviate your own suffering and get more out of each moment?
1. Look at how you’re identifying with your job.
- Do you judge your self-worth according to the job that you do? If outside circumstances determine your value and worth in the world, you’ve going to find it hard to clean toilets. If you already feel worthless, you’ll feel even more miserable. And if you feel superior to cleaning toilets, you’ll be resentful and bitter. None of these states of being are happy places in which to reside. Yet they’re not caused by the fact you’re cleaning toilets. They caused by your thoughts about cleaning toilets.
- Are you defined by your job? Sure, it’s hard to go out to parties and handle that oh-so-important question—What do you do? No one wants to say they work at Burger King, or that they wipe old people’s bottoms… It takes courage to stand in the face of other people’s perception and judgement of what you may or may not do. Yet your job doesn’t define you – what you think about your job and how you approach it—that defines you.
- Does your status depend on the job you do? in some echelons of society, it does. There’s no getting around it. Some people look down their noses at folks who keep society ticking over. But you can’t spend your life looking for validation and approval from other people. You have to find that place inside of you where you know that you have value simply because you are a human being. That’s your work.
2. Look at how you’re nurturing and supporting yourself out of work.
- Are you eating well? Yes, it’s more difficult to eat healthy on a low budget, but with ingenuity and persistence it is possible. Remember, it’s always cheaper to eat vegetarian. You may be working for a fast-food joint but that doesn’t mean you have to eat their food. Make a big salad for dinner and take the leftovers for lunch. Make soups from scratch on a Sunday and take containers in each day. Figure out how to get nutritious food into your diet because you’re worth it.
- Are you doing any kind of body-practice? Yes, on a low wage it can be difficult to afford to attend yoga classes but you can practice at home for free. Use YouTube, or pay $20 a month for online yoga classes, or develop a home yoga practice. Where there’s a will, there’s always a way,
- Are you meditating? Meditation is amazing at helping to both still the mind, but also reveal the fluctuations of the mind. You can see more clearly that how you’re thinking about your job is defining your experience as much as the job itself.
- Are you getting enough rest? Sleep is vital. I can’t say it enough. It is almost impossible to function with sleep-deprivation let alone do a demanding eight hour job. Get to bed early and get that zzzzz’s, you owe it to yourself.
- Are you steering clear of toxins like coffee, alcohol and drugs? You don’t necessarily have to be completely clean, but if you’re drowning your sorrows with a bottle of wine a couple of nights a week it’s going to be more difficult to maintain a centered and calm state of being
3. Look at what you really want to do and identify a pathway to move in that direction.
- If you dream of publishing a novel one day, but you’re working 50 hours a week to support your family it can be really hard to see how that is ever possible. Yet if you were to dedicate 20 minutes a day to writing 400 words, you’d have 2000 words written every week. 40 weeks and you’d have the draft of a novel. Etch out that time, any way you can. Forget TV, forget Facebook, forget bars and pubs.
- If you want to train in a particular profession, identify what you need to get into that training. Can you start to save even $10 a week toward tuition fees? Can you borrow books for the library on that topic? Are there free lectures at your local university or college you can take?
- If you dream of working in a different industry, can you start making contacts in that industry? Is there volunteer work you can do that will help you get into that industry?
- Get clear on where you want to go, break down the steps into the smallest possible components and then every single week do one thing that takes you closer to your big dream. If possible do something every single day.
4. Take a look at the people in your life—friends, family, flatmates and partners
- Ae they supportive of you and your dreams? Or do they pull you down?
- Do they support your steps towards realising your dreams or do they pull you towards more partying and tuning out?
- Do you have enough really good friends? Good people who support you and encourage you and listen to you and care about you?
- Can you cultivate relationships with people who are nourishing and supportive? The people around us are so important, and often when we decide we want to break out and go for our dreams or take a different road, it can be hard for the people around us to support us because we’re inadvertently challenging their lifestyle choices. Be aware of this.
Notice how all these steps are so far all about you and what you’ve got going on. It’s so important to look after and nurture yourself. If you’re not looking after yourself—if you’re not nourished, you’re not going to have anything to give to other people.
And most minimum wage jobs involve giving to other people—service jobs, caring jobs. Problem is, you often end up giving so much to others you have nothing left to give to yourself, and nothing left to nurture your own dreams with. That’s why you have to take care of yourself first, before you even think about work as Karma Yoga. Otherwise, it’s too easy to get all Karma-fied and saintly about what you’re doing without feeding and nourishing yourself.
On to the Karma Yoga practice of So-Called Menial Work (there’s nothing menial about it).
5. At work, focus on being completely present with each and every interaction.
- Do what you do whole-heartedly, and with no expectation of reward or recognition.
- Do what you do because it needs doing and do it well because you care about it.
- If you’re cleaning toilets—be right there with the toilet and literally love the toilet. Make the act of cleaning the toilet an act of love.
- If you’re serving people all day long, challenge yourself to move past auto-pilot and be as present with each person as much possible. Truly listen to them as they’re speaking to you. Take time to see them as a person, rather than just one more number.
- Pay close attention to your colleagues and see if you can support and encourage them.
- This is a difficult practice and you will constantly fall out of presence. Every time you do, and you notice, take few full breaths and come back to the present, noticing something beautiful about this one moment. The way the light is glinted off the toilet bowl. The hair colour of the punk-rocker ordering a double Big Mac. The song playing on the radio. Anything. Something. Use your senses to be here now.
6. Find the joy and fun and lightheartedness in all that you do.
- If you love to sing, sing while you mop the floor. If you love to tell jokes, see how much you can crack up your co-workers while you’re working through mountains of plates.
- Take time to step outside the moment and see what you’re doing—the magic of being in the place you’re in even when it all seems so mundane and ordinary. Imagine you’re watching a movie, or on set at a sitcom. See the dance of life around you as a cosmic play. Shifting perspective like this helps to leap-frog us out of our minds.
- Smile, laugh, dance, connect. There’s people all around you that you can connect with—genuinely connect with!
- Remember that joy and fun and lightheartedness is within all of us at all times—it’s finding ways to access it, getting out of our own ways—that’s the challenge.
7. Know that there is only this moment, and yet that all will change.
- You will not be in this position forever. One day this job and these people will all be gone, just a memory of once was.
- When the drudge gets too much and you just can’t stomach another day or another hour or another minute, know that that too is ok. It’s ok to hate what you’re doing and where you are. Feel that as strong as you can and making it into a game of it’s own. Journal it out when you get home, write down everything that you hate, item by item, Challenge yourself to come up with 100 things you hate. Get it all out, and then use that as fuel to continue to nurture yourself and chase your dreams.
8. Know that you have the power to dramatically impact someone’s life just with the light of your being.
- You come in contact with hundreds of people every day, many of whom are going through a tough time too. The way you see them, and talk to then, and smile at them matters. You can brighten up someone’s lunch hour, you can light up someone’s day.
- Yet conversely, you’re not doing this for them—you’re doing it for yourself. There’s a danger in service jobs, especially for those of us who are natural givers, to over-extend and give too much so we drain ourselves completely. This serves no one at all.
- Getting in touch with the inherent value of who you are, just as you, and the value of what you’re doing, just for the sake of doing it, is a powerful practice. You will glow just from that. And you will glow from your centre, not giving anything out that depletes you but just radiating in the same way the sun does.
I often wonder what it would be like to walk into a Big Box store where the staff were all in a fabulous mood, laughing and joking and singing and playing as they went about their jobs. It seems like a huge thing to ask of people who often have difficult lives and all kinds of stress going on—as most of us seem to have.
Yet I still believe it’s possible.
It often feels like this is the practice of our lives—how to full accept and embody the moment we’re in—whether it’s flipping burgers, cleaning toilets or washing bottoms.
Life doesn’t magically get better when our circumstances change. It gets better when we change. When we learn how to love where we are and be who we are with love. This is the hard road though—not everyone has what it takes to face into their own issues and hang-ups and work through that so their light can shine through bright.
Because that’s what you’re doing.
You’re polishing yourself.
Letting go of ideas and thoughts that are causing you suffering.
And allowing the glory of You to shine forth—no matter what job you’re working.
You are glorious.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Editor: Catherine Monkman