HR professional and TAT editor Sanja Stankovic from Serbia discusses spirituality in business and corporate life with Nimika Keshri from Finland and Subhashree Thottungal from the UK.
What is mutual to all of us, professionals from all over the world working in different industries is that we found some spiritual and mindfulness techniques which help us maintain our mental health and of course, the mental health of our colleagues and employees in the companies that we work with. We want to share some insights and experiences that people might find interesting. A few days ago, we had World International Day of mental health. And I think that more than ever, this year was all about how to stay healthy, how to stay sane and maintain good mental health.
Usually when spirituality is mentioned in the corporate world, which is not unusual; people think it is something related to religion or life coaching or positive psychology. We want to use this opportunity to share with a wide community, what spirituality is to us and how we enter into what is called the spiritual world and what God has to do with everyday life.
Sanja: Subhashree, can you share how you first felt this desire, this calling, for some kind of spiritual practice?
Subhashree: A brief background: I earned my Master’s degree in finance about 26 years ago from the premier technical institute in India called the Institute of Technology in Mumbai. After that I earned my Master’s degree in Earth Sciences in Applied Geology, then went into remote sensing and Geographical Information Systems, into software and before I realised, I landed in Telecommunication. I’ve been in the IT and software industry for almost 23 years and now I head a global delivery project. It’s been a beautiful journey, an amazing experience. I’ve faced the normal corporate sector problems: deadlines, competition, people problems and problems relating to the past. What made it more exciting was that in between all that I had 2 children to raise. I am a mother in the corporate world who has been living in a foreign land (UK) for more than 20 years, it’s been very exciting.
How did spirituality happen to me? It was not a conscious thought that I was going through stress and needed something external. It just happened very naturally. I would say that the divine, nature and stressful situations over the last 5 years were preparing me for it to happen. When I started listening to Mohanji, my spiritual guide, watching his videos, reading his blogs; I felt that what he was saying was quite practical and helped me to like myself and be myself and be natural. I did not know what spirituality is. For me, more than anything, it just means being myself. I saw the beautiful effects of practicing the spiritual techniques which interested me in my corporate life.
Sanja: Nimika can you share your story and your background?
Nimika: My journey in the corporate world started 14 years ago. I too started as a software engineer and I’ve also been an entrepreneur, so I’ve seen many ups and downs in my career. How spirituality came in my life was: at one point in my career and in my personal life, there was a lot of stress and I needed something to stabilise myself. There are times when you feel that you need to connect to your own self and I started looking for something like mindfulness or meditation that could help me and this brought me to a couple of different techniques. It stabilised me for a while and then I thought that I needed something more. That's when I got an opportunity to meet the world-renowned humanitarian Mohanji. This brought quite a big transformation in my life and not just in my personal life, but in my way of working professionally as well. Usually, in the corporate world, we have so much stress: you have deadlines, you have peer pressure, you have competition, and there are politics as well. All these things sometimes make you insane, and you don't know how to react. But I think gradually, when you start connecting to your own self, you can start visualising things from a different perspective. Earlier, when things were stressful, I was not stable from within. But now when you know that the circumstances, the situations that are coming up, have come to give you some experience, you naturally try to accept them instead of resisting them and that gives you the strength to deal with that situation. I now feel that the situations have not changed much, but there is something that has changed within me. This subtle change that has happened from within has brought me to such an awareness that now the stressful situations are very easy to manage. I'm not into people management right now, I am working as a software engineer, but there's peer pressure, of course, you have peer pressure everywhere and you have to prove yourself, but now I feel that I don't have pressure at all, even if my peers are feeling pressure to prove themselves; I am doing whatever has to be done as perfectly as I can do it, without pressure. I see that my friends and colleagues are also seeing this change in me and they feel that even though there are situations of stress, I am very calm and quiet and I'm always smiling, happy.
I think in the situation of COVID, this has been the major problem with all the corporate world: handling the stress and so I would always recommend connecting to your own self.
Sanja: Thank you so much to both of you, It's very interesting how we are from different countries, different cultural backgrounds, different industries, but actually, for all of us, the trigger was something external that brought us to ourselves. In the corporate world, one of the main issues is often leadership. How to train our people, how to be great at leadership. I would say, reflecting on what you shared, that spirituality is actually about self-leadership.
Similar to your experience Nimika, the trigger was actually a stressful environment and I'm always laughing when people say things like, ‘What do you mean spiritual things, I have so many stressful situations, and I don't have time. I don't have the energy for this, ‘being in the present moment’, philosophy. And I always recall a discussion with Mohanji, in one of the corporate online programs that he was holding, when someone asked him how to stay calm, how to regulate yourself, when you're in a stressful situation in the busy business world. He said, ‘Well, actually, I believe that stressful situations are the best in which to practice being in the present moment, because when you're in a stressful situation, the only thing you can do, the only thing you can think of, is that stressful situation.’
I have a Master's degree in sociology and I also had an education in psychotherapy and coaching. I was already doing one-on-ones, having clients, helping people with their mental health. Then I just thought to myself, ‘Okay, now, suddenly, it just doesn’t feel so authentic.’ I realised I needed something more. For years I was a trainer in emotional intelligence, so I knew about all these techniques, how to connect, how to recognise the, shall we say, positive functions of unpleasant emotions. Looking back, I see that, that was more conceptual than real, successful connectedness to myself. I started digging deeper. I started researching, and I saw this flyer invitation for Conscious Walking. I think it's a very nice technique, especially during the summer or spring days when it's very nice to go to the park. It's only half an hour’s walking, dynamic meditation so everybody can practice easily. So I went there and I met some people who were authentically content and I could “smell” this contentment. They invited me for a Power of Purity meditation and it was actually a meditation from Mohanji. I had never heard about Mohanji because I never looked for spiritual masters, meditations, those kinds of things. I started googling and I realised Mohanji was a very successful corporate man. He was leading a few companies very, very successfully until he reached a point that he realised he doesn't need anything from the external world and he actually dedicated his whole life to contributing to society.
I started volunteering for charity events and started meditating regularly. I realised that this can be a part of my everyday lifestyle, so I started getting up just half an hour earlier, before we even had the Early Birds Club. This was something that I just intuitively started practising. 30 minutes earlier, I was usually getting up, and just doing 10 minutes of simple light yoga for beginners, and meditating for five minutes, preparing healthy breakfasts. Then, as Subhashree mentioned, slowly I started noticing changes, I started connecting with myself. Slowly, really slowly, the people around me started noticing too.
Sanja: Nimika, What were the first changes that you experienced when you started practising, be it meditation, Conscious Walking, breathing techniques; whatever you're practising which is related to spirituality. When you started connecting more deeply to yourself, what were the first signs of change that your colleagues might have noticed in the workplace?
Nimika: That’s a very beautiful question. In my case, first of all, the change was a reduction in anger, although I haven't seen anger in my corporate life, my personal life was affected because of my anger. One change was that I was able to realise why anger was coming to me, I could realise that there were certain expectations that we all usually have regarding people around us and as soon as I realised this, slowly, this anger started coming down. The other thing was awareness and clarity of what I have to do. Earlier when I was working in my daily life; I was working, but most of the time the mind was wandering, thinking something else, even though I was trying to concentrate on my work, this clarity was not there. I'd be working and suddenly something else comes up and I’d be distracted by that thought, but as soon as I started meditating, I felt that my level of concentration had become much higher. The amount of time which I used to need to complete a task had reduced quite drastically. I feel that productivity has increased a lot.
Sanja: Subhasree, how was the beginning of your spiritual journey and how did it affect your working environment?
Subhasree: I started my spiritual journey with selfless service. The first thing that impressed me about Mohanji, which I will never forget because it was the first time I met him, was when he said that for years we have taken from Mother Earth, but what have we given back? That really shook me hard, because my thoughts at that time were always about me, my family, my children, my school, my house, my parents, my car, and so on and so forth. It was always my, my, my...nothing beyond me and my health. There came a moment when I thought that I should look for opportunities to help the slum children back in India. I did not know what to do or anything like that, but simple thoughts like, “Why can't I do some Indian snacks which I love to cook. I can cook with our colleagues in the office. We can have a snack sale and immediately all my colleagues agreed and it was a fun thing. Everybody came together. Teamwork, not working for a corporate project, but working on the snack sale and we raised quite a big amount, enough to help 300 children and from there on it started and I realised that once you know that the truth of your inner self is love and that that love is not just for your home or your children, but is there for everybody, even people around me in my office. Slowly that broke the barrier of: ‘I am their leader and they are my juniors’, or, ‘I have a senior that I have to be scared of’, or, ‘I have customers that I have to maintain.’ The boundaries broke. We all have our different roles and that's fine, but in the end, everybody is human, with a pure soul behind. That was the first lesson that I learned. Secondly, I don’t remember many of Mohanji’s teachings from my early days with him, but one word which stuck was, ‘acceptance’. That was what actually brought change in myself and in my behaviour and my handling of situations. Acceptance of whatever is happening. I stopped with the word: ‘acceptance’, and the second teaching that stuck with me was: ‘Respond. Do not react.’ That was key and even until today, I would say that is the most important tool that I use in my office, in my job. ‘Respond. Don’t react.’ The third thing, which helped me internally was: No ownership. I do my duty, play the role that I need to, but I do not own it. The moment I dropped ownership, I dropped the stress, because then I delivered as I needed to, to get the work done, but I'm not controlling it. I just do my job, I don't carry the stress back with me. This had the ripple effect that people started feeling very comfortable with me, I started looking into their positive aspects. Everybody has got some positive and some negative, so you look into people's positive, you share what you can do, and don't get unnecessarily insecure, because after all, everybody is playing their role. You do what is best, you respond and do not react, and things will happen; you simply do whatever is required.
I dropped my insecurity, and that helped me in making decisions. I’ll give an example: About 3 years ago, when I was handling a big project that involved a couple of hundred people and we lost that project which meant a couple of hundred jobs, not to mention my own job. When I look back at that time, I realise that I did not actually get stressed about what was going to happen to me. I didn’t ask, ‘Why did this happen? How can somebody do this to us? Why these politics? Blah, blah...’ I actually called up Mohanji and he said that I had to be strong and stable and come and say: ‘Okay, we'll handle whatever happens. Just handle the situation as is.’, I focused on the people more than on myself and my insecurity. Three months later, everybody had settled and not even one person lost their job. I did not lose my job and was also taken care of. It was quite a drastic change, but it was only those few things that I mentioned earlier which made the difference: acceptance of the situation, don't react but respond and don't take unnecessary ownership about it and think of everybody else as yourself. There was selflessness even in the corporate sector. The difficult times are when our inner calmness, inner peace, inner stability, shows out and is very relevant externally as well.
Sanja: So, we need to avoid unrealistic expectations from ourselves, from the situation and from our colleagues. We need to set up clear expectations and be compassionate in the way we communicate those expectations to our team and respect the fact that it’s a human being we are dealing with. This is especially relevant in these unusually stressful times.
Subhasree: I think it’s also very important to understand that you cannot achieve success alone and that teamwork is necessary and that fear cannot serve as a basis for professional relationships. Rather, mutual respect is better. If I give love and respect, they will give back love and respect. There is not a huge amount of work required for this; it could be as simple as sending a message to a colleague when they or someone in their family are sick, just to see how they are doing. In our industry it is very common for people to put in more time than the usual ‘9 to 5’ hours and it’s important to compensate people when they put that extra time in; either by giving extra time off, or giving a little appreciation, or taking them out for dinner. You can build bonds in this way and by working with a single motive as for example me and my team did when we raised funds for the slum kids in
India. There they joined me in the work, not because I was their leader, but because they believed in the philosophy of serving. I used to share everything that I learned with my team, for example: I learned to practice yoga because I had rheumatoid arthritis and then shared that knowledge with my team by hosting weekly yoga sessions along with weekly Power of Purity meditations. Whichever relationships you are in, even if it is with clients; if you are radiating calm and composure it has a good effect on them and it can’t be a pretense of calm and composure, it has to be a reflection of your inner peace.
Sanja: Talking of being kind and how it resonates with people I’m reminded of how in a corporate environment, when you want to bring some sort of positive change, you get resistance because people don’t like leaving their comfort zones so they fall back on the excuses, for example: ‘We can’t go beyond the established procedures’, but as you explained it, you don’t need any procedures for kindness and for compassion, you simply start with yourself.
Subhasree: Insignificance is a good word. That is what I was referring to when I said, ‘No ownership’. You may think things like: ‘I am the delivery head’, and ‘I’m doing this’, or ‘I can change this. This is all under my control.’ But, when you practice insignificance, when you realise you are just playing a role and all you have is your duties to fulfil and other people also have their duties to fulfil and both are equally valid, then a sense of responsibility emerges. If instead of trying to control people, situations and outcomes, you simply handle your responsibilities, then you are more sensible and conscious about everything; you are more aware and you’re not going on an ego trip. You will get respect not just for what you have achieved, but also for who you are.
Sanja: How do you think spiritual practices and connecting to yourself, can help give more resilience and help maintain stability, especially in the current COVID situation?
Nimika: Accepting the situation as opposed to resisting it helps. If you start resisting a situation which is not under your control, you lose the capacity to handle it. If one the other hand, you are calm from within, aware of the situation and the fact that you have to handle it, then you automatically find ways to handle the situation positively as opposed to focusing on and energising the things which create stress.
I recall a conversation with Mohanji wherein someone asked him how to tackle stressful situations and he replied, ‘Tackle yourself first’. Our power is within. We cannot control any external circumstances. We only have what is within us; we can only share what is within us.
Sanja: What advice would you give to people who need to face everyday working challenges and who have, I would not say ‘leaders’, but bosses and managers with whom they don’t get along, who have different values; to people who are stressed out, perhaps having to work from home because of COVID? What can they do for themselves to help themselves become self-sufficient and not have to rely on good external leadership?
Subhasree: First of all give what you want to receive. If you want your boss to respect you, give respect and if you want to be heard then listen not just to your boss, but to all people around you. Secondly, if you are truthful, there should not be any fear or insecurity inside you. It’s fine to make mistakes, everybody does, but it’s good to be truthful and not hide or justify or be defensive. When you are truthful to yourself, when you have no fear, you can convey everything with absolute clarity. All your relationships, with peers or boss, should be very clear with nothing hidden and not governed by fear. Understand that there is a nice soul within the other just as there is in you. Gratitude is also important. Before COVID I used to travel to a different country every week, but after COVID and lockdown, I started working from home and my first reaction was: ‘Thank God I’m at home.’ My family was safe and I said, ‘Thank God we are safe.’ Gratitude came before anything else. It works in the workplace too: Be grateful that you have a job; that you are able to talk to your peers and colleagues. It’s all about yourself. Whatever role or position you have, understand that your responsibility is equal to that of another. Nobody is lower, nobody is higher. Always maintain clear communication with whomever you deal with.
Sanja: In summary, it's very important to understand that everything starts within us. It's not important whether someone is using breathing, meditation, Conscious Walking, yoga, anything to help someone stay in the present moment, help us to practice being aware of ourselves, of the situation and aware of other people. Aware that we are all unique, no higher or lower. That kind of attitude will help us to accept ourselves. Thirdly, that we need to develop the flexibility to respond and not to react. Only companies and teams which are flexible and who adapt to changes will survive. Especially during this crisis. If we stick to all these steps, we will be stable, self sufficient; not reliant on external circumstances.
Building on the idea of taking the essence of spirituality into the business world, the Mohanji organisation has launched a new initiative called “Invest in Awareness” - a series of programs for the corporate world, based on Mohanji’s teachings and designed to enhance awareness, contentment and success, both for the corporate worker and the corporate itself!