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The Tao of Business: How Cultivating Yin Energy at Work Can Address the Crisis of Burnout

And a new perspective on the Future of Work

By Katharine Bierce

With inspiration from Audrey Lorde, Rita Shimmin, Robert Horton, Rev. angel Kyodo Williams, bell hooks, adrienne maree brown, Lee Holden, Liya Garber, Dr. Willow Brown, Mimi Kuo-Deemer, Alexis Sheppherd, authentic relating, Aristotle, Buddha, Lao Tzu, and others

The global coronavirus pandemic has shifted business, perhaps permanently. More and more thought workers are working from home. Some companies may not assign dedicated desks to workers ever again. And although many are suffering, for the top few percent, business is booming – especially among companies that facilitate remote work. And at the same time, even at companies that appear to be thriving financially, employees are facing increasing levels of burnout.

Although the vaccine will help improve our health and potentially our stress levels, the expectation of booking back-to-back meetings all day without downtime that we used to have (for travel, for getting between buildings at corporate office campuses in person)… well that’s not going to work anymore.

Everyone is talking about the Future of Work, as if productivity, telecommuting, and the future are the only things that matter. 

But to borrow a page from the great philosophers, from Aristotle to Buddha to Lao Tzu and beyond – what makes life worth living? What is the good life? What is good work? How can we be more mindful of the present moment? In corporate terms, how do you improve employee engagement and reduce burnout? 

Silicon Valley companies, of all companies in business, are constantly searching for the Next Big Thing. 

I think the Next Big Thing is in reimagining creating company cultures and ways of working that are in balance with what I call the Tao of Business. 

How can you love people and run things, and do so by not doing?

-Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, translated by Ursula Le Guin

Women in Business and the Future of Work

For too long, women who want to rise through the corporate latter are expected to become like men, or at least embody the unhealthy aspects of masculine energy. When it is imbalanced or overactive, masculine energy is hyperactive, thinking, running around trying to fix something all the time. It’s exhausting. When it is balanced, masculine energy is action in the service of one’s highest values or intentions. 

When it is balanced and healthy, feminine energy is receptive, wise, nurturing; open to receive the gifts of the universe that want to come through. (I don’t know as much about an excess of feminine energy as I tend to run a lot of masculine energy in my system.)

Energy, Culture, Emotions and Balance

The thing about the “feminine” and “masculine” is that they are energies, which any person of any gender can have any amount of. The important thing is balance. Masculine energy is like the fire of the sun and feminine energy is like the water and nutrients in the earth: you need both sunshine, water, and nutrients to grow food. If you just have summer all year round, with not enough moisture, plants die. Burnout happens.

Nature has seasons for a reason: rest is important. Time in nature is cyclical, not linear, and the idea that we can or should be “always on” is absurd as the idea that we should have eternal summer. As we honor the cycles of the seasons in nature, how can we honor the cycles of nature within our own bodies? The Taoist perspective is that humans are not separate from nature. The idea that we are separate causes problems, such as burnout. 

Especially if we are raised in a Western culture that emphasizes thinking over feeling, doing over being, the individual over the community, separateness over connectedness, it is easy to get stuck in unhealthy or imbalanced energy patterns. As a person who identifies as white and female, I’ve absorbed a lot of unhelpful views about how I “should” be in the world. The idea that I “should” look a certain way, have a certain weight, body type, skin type, productivity level, what counts as “productive” (e.g. doing rather than being), or only express happy emotions externally and something is wrong if that’s not the case… I’ve internalized the patriarchy when I succumb to the narrative that if I’m feeling bad, it must be my fault, that I’m doing something wrong. 

I’m focusing on the feminine & masculine energy flows, or yin and yang energies, because I identify as a cis female and this is a convenient example. However, this analysis also applies to other under-represented minorities in business and intersectionality.

Many of the people who get funded by Silicon Valley venture capital are young, white, able-bodied, cis men. How we shift cultural patterns of imbalance in capital flows might start with how we shift our own patterns of energy, both in ourselves as well as our communities and companies. 

Cultivating balance at work

With that in mind, here are some practices, inspired by the Taoist perspective.

Balanced or Healthy Yang (Masculine) Energy

  • Be impeccable with your word. 
  • Act with integrity.
  • Cultivate good judgment: 
  • Be clear on what your values are, and integrate them into your life. 
  • How can you be a servant leader: understanding the needs of others and integrating them into your perspective and actions? 
  • Ask more questions: draw out the best from your team by listening.

Balanced or Healthy Yin (Feminine) Energy

  • Start with feeling: what do you notice in your body, throughout your day? In each activity? 
  • Ask yourself throughout the day: what do I need right now? 
  • Act as if your feelings matter. 
  • Start a meeting with a minute of movement, dance, or even silence to reflect on what your highest intention is for the meeting.
  • Be sensual: How much attention are you giving your five fabulous senses, compared to the sixth sense door of the mind or thinking? For example, eat lunch outdoors: Taste your food. Smell the fragrance of some tea. Hear the cars or the birds going by. See the colors of the sky or plants or buildings. Feel the touch of your socks in your shoes. 
  • Time is cyclical. How are you following it? Consider using the phases of the moon to make sure you have time for rest and renewal. Before the new moon, whether it’s the one in the sky or the cycle in your body, remove three things from your calendar or your closet. Making space to clear out the old helps make way for the new. 
  • Plan your activities according to the seasons: Spring for new beginnings, summer for if you want to take an extra course on top of work, fall to harvest your accomplishments, winter to do less and reflect. 
  • Listen to silence. Contemplate your intention before speaking. The wisdom that comes from silence gives birth to kind thoughts, words, and actions.
  • Choose yourself first before your work. Your health and happiness are more important than your work. What does it look like to set healthy boundaries with your work? If you work from home or remotely, what ceremonies can you create to start and end your workday to maintain those healthy boundaries? 
  • Say “no” to at least one thing a week. If you can’t say no and have it be respected, your “yes” doesn’t really matter. This is true of both personal relationships and work commitments. If you have trouble prioritizing things at work, talk to your manager and get clear on their priorities! 
  • Affirmations (which are distinct from goals or intentions), inspired by Liya Garber:
    • I choose to let go of what is not important.
    • It is OK to have ease in my life and work at the same time.
    • It is OK to take care of myself.
    • Money is energy, but it is not my god.
    • I listen to space.
    • I work in the vibration of the divine feminine. 
 A photo of the Tao Te Ching book in a garden.

To close with some more inspiration from Lao Tzu in the Tao Te Ching, translated by Ursula Le Guin:

Knowing other people is intelligence,

Knowing yourself is wisdom.

Overcoming others takes strength,

Overcoming yourself takes greatness.

Contentment is wealth.

To be comfortable in the cold, keep moving;

to be comfortable in the heat, hold still;

to be comfortable in the world, stay calm and clear.

What other practices help you balance yin and yang at work? 

Email me at info@businesscasualyoga.com with your comments! Or work with Yin Wellness master teacher Willow Brown, who taught me a lot of what I know here.

About the Author

Katharine is a yogi and a techie who first studied qigong and Taoist philosophy with Willow Brown in 2016. As a yoga teacher and meditation enthusiast, Katharine enjoys supporting others in finding ways to integrate mindfulness and compassion into their busy lives. Although she started practicing yoga as a teenager, she really got hooked on the practice while putting in 12 hour days as a consultant in New York City. She completed her first 200-hour yoga teacher training in 2014 and is an RYT-200 Yoga Teacher, Reiki Master practitioner, and Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of Chicago. Katharine works full time in technology marketing at a Fortune 100 company based in San Francisco.

Disclaimer: Opinions are hers and not those of her employer.

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