Romantic attraction at work! You are attached/married, how should we conduct ourselves? : Applying Buddhist principles at the Workplace

Written by PJ Teh
5 mins read
Published on Oct 14, 2022

Editor’s note: 

Does applying Buddhist principles of compassion and kindness make you a walking doormat at the workplace? How about attractive colleagues at work? PJ Teh, a former Strategic Planning manager at EDB, challenges that view and gives us points to ponder under this mini-article series.

The last section of this mini-article series deals with conducting oneself. Missed the first two? We’ve got your back!

  1. How often do we wisely choose our workplace?
  2. How do I make tough decisions and solve issues at work?

TLDR: How should we conduct ourselves at work. What is better than focusing on improving on our faults? How do we deal with attraction at the workplace when we are in a committed relationship?

In particular, it is important to cultivate one’s own mind correctly. Personally, I think the most pertinent would be the use of the Metta sutta

Loving Kindness is one of the most important qualities to cultivate in the Dhamma, and it helps tremendously in removing many of the largest defilements such as ill-will. 

That is the reason why I deliberately recited the Metta Sutta when I was studying in Copenhagen: it helped me with coping with the road rage on the bike lanes during Peak hours!

Two kinds of thoughts

But in addition, it is also important to focus correctly on one’s own wholesome attributes. Remember Buddha’s teaching on two kinds of thoughts:  

Whatever a mendicant frequently thinks about and considers becomes their heart’s inclination. 

If they often think about and consider sensual thoughts, they’ve given up the thought of renunciation to cultivate sensual thought. Their mind inclines to sensual thoughts. 

If they often think about and consider malicious thoughts … their mind inclines to malicious thoughts. If they often think about and consider cruel thoughts … their mind inclines to cruel thoughts. 

So whatever you focus and dwell on about yourself, that’s what your mind will incline towards. 

There is a tendency (due to our societal conditioning, especially education) to focus on our faults and to also focus on using willpower to overcome our faults. 

What is truly right effort?

On the surface, this might seem to be aligned with the Sixth Factor of the Eightfold Path, Right Effort. But if you read the details of Right Effort, it is quite clear that the Buddha’s description of Right Effort is NOT the use of willpower, but about using wisdom-power to grow wholesome mental qualities and reduce unwholesome ones

Each of these Right Efforts requires seeing and understanding correctly, not about powering through or simply wishing for one’s mind to not have unwholesome states. 

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“And what, mendicants, is the effort to restrain? When a mendicant sees a sight with their eyes…When they hear a sound with their ears … When they smell an odour with their nose … When they taste a flavour with their tongue … When they feel a touch with their body … When they know a thought with their mind, they don’t get caught up in the features and details. If the faculty of mind were left unrestrained, bad unskillful qualities of desire and aversion would become overwhelming.

And what, mendicants, is the effort to give up? It’s when a mendicant doesn’t tolerate a sensual, malicious, or cruel thought that’s arisen, but gives it up, gets rid of it, eliminates it, and obliterates it

And what, mendicants, is the effort to develop? It’s when a mendicant develops the awakening factors of mindfulness, investigation of principles, energy, rapture, tranquillity, immersion, and equanimity, which rely on seclusion, fading away, and cessation, and ripen as letting go. 

And what, mendicants, is the effort to preserve? It’s when a mendicant preserves a meditation subject that’s a fine foundation of immersion: the perception of a skeleton, a worm-infested corpse, a livid corpse, a split open corpse, or a bloated corpse.”

Buddha On sense restraint, and Right Effort (to grow the wholesome mental qualities, & reduce unwholesome mental qualities) 

Meeting an attractive colleague at work?

The same four Right Efforts are applicable in the workplace. E.g. assume you’re married but you meet an attractive new colleague of your desired sex. 

The tendency will be for your mind to cling to one aspect that you find attractive (e.g. their hairstyle). How should you react to that?

– Restraint: recognise that if you allow your focus to just go wherever desire tells it to go, you will just end up feeling more and more desire for the person, maybe threatening your own relationship. So, direct your attention to some unattractive part of the person e.g. the pimple on their face. 

– Giving up: when the desire arises, don’t indulge in the desire or fantasies, but instead focus on getting to a more balanced mental state

Similarly, if your bias is towards aversion, then focus on cultivating what you truly admire about the person, in order to get to a more balanced mental state. 

A smart quail vs an arrogant hawk

The last excerpt from a sutta that I want to cover is a recent text I encountered, which is a great strategy for an individual in a workplace. 

Basically, find your own territory where you have a competitive advantage over others. Even a quail, with the right conditions, can beat a hawk, as the Buddha spoke about in this text: 

“Once upon a time, mendicants, a hawk suddenly swooped down and grabbed a quail. And as the quail was being carried off he wailed, ‘I’m so unlucky, so unfortunate, to have roamed out of my territory into the domain of others. If today I’d roamed within my own territory, the domain of my fathers, this hawk wouldn’t have been able to beat me by fighting.’ 

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‘So, quail, what is your own territory, the domain of your fathers?’ 

‘It’s a ploughed field covered with clods of earth.’ 

Confident in her own strength, the hawk was not daunted or intimidated. She released the quail, saying, ‘Go now, quail. But even there you won’t escape me!’ 

Then the quail went to a ploughed field covered with clods of earth. He climbed up a big clod, and standing there, he said to the hawk: ‘Come get me, hawk! Come get me, hawk!’ 

Confident in her own strength, the hawk was not daunted or intimidated. She folded her wings and suddenly swooped down on the quail. When the quail knew that the hawk was nearly there, he slipped under that clod. But the hawk crashed chest-first right there. 

That’s what happens when you roam out of your territory into the domain of others. 

So, mendicants, don’t roam out of your own territory into the domain of others. If you roam out of your own territory into the domain of others, Māra will find a vulnerability and get hold of you. “

A hawk sutta

There are many other sutta texts which have great applicability to the workplace, illustrating and applying many Buddhist principles that are useful to human beings. I hope this has sparked some interest for you to explore the sutta texts in more detail, and please do share with me when you encounter something interesting or relevant! 

Wishing you happiness, health and peace of mind and body. 


Wise Steps:

  • Ponder about how we can apply right effort at the workplace. It’s not about using willpower, but understanding and learning to see with wisdom. What would you restrain & give up?
  •  Which areas at work do we have a competitive advantage, like the quail vs. the hawk? Ask your close colleagues what they think you are excellent at doing, which is very natural or effortless for you to do. 

Author: PJ Teh

PJ Teh discovered Buddhism while procrastinating as a student, and later discovered Ajahn Brahm and the Suttas in a 2010 Chiang Rai Retreat. He procrastinated on the spiritual path through various roles with the Singapore EDB, including industry development and strategic planning. He is taking his time working towards being a no-body.

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