by Meridith Levinson

Work and Spirituality

Nov 21, 20085 mins

Most people don’t consider their work a spiritual endeavor, but the connection between work and spirituality is deeper than we think. An upcoming book, Five Minutes on Mondays: Finding Unexpected Purpose, Peace and Fulfillment at Work, seeks to show us how we can unite our spiritual lives with our professional lives. 


About 10 days ago, a coworker forwarded a pitch from a PR person to me with the subject line, “Finding Unexpected Purpose, Peace and Fulfillment at Work.” Shyeah, right, I thought when I read the e-mail’s subject. While I agree that work can be meaningful and fulfilling (it certainly is for me), for most people, it’s just a means to an end, and all the competition and politicking associated with work is hardly a peaceful or spiritual endeavor. Nevertheless, the e-mail piqued my curiosity, so I opened it and read.

It contained a pitch for an interview with the author of one of these inspirational business books—you know, the Seven Habits—type. The book, due out next spring, is called Five Minutes on Mondays: Finding Unexpected Peace, Purpose and Fulfillment at Work (FT Press: April 2009). The book’s title and description struck me as a cross between Tuesdays with Morrie and Who Moved My Cheese? The author, Alan Lurie, is a rabbi who works for a real estate services company, Grubb & Ellis, in NYC as a project manager.

Intrigued, I quickly responded to the PR person to schedule a phone call with Mr. Lurie.  The two main questions I wanted to ask him were basic: Do you really think it’s possible to find purpose, peace and fulfillment at work? (Finding all three seems like a tall order to me.) If so, How?

Lurie, who’s 50, understands my—and others’—cynicism about finding some kind of inner peace or spiritual transcendence at work, and he addresses it head on in Five Minutes on Mondays (which is named for the five-minute sermons he began offering every Monday in a Grubb & Ellis conference room when he joined in January 2007.) I would argue that most people don’t think to find tranquility or “oneness” at work. I certainly don’t. Work and spirituality seem so contradictory: one is focused on the material, while the other is focused on the other-worldly. When we do seek a spiritual experience, we don’t look for it at the office. We search for it in churches, mosques, temples and synagogues, at yoga retreats, in nature or someplace deep within ourselves.

Lurie believes otherwise. He believes work can in fact be a most spiritual enterprise. The business world, he says, presents challenging opportunities to grow spiritually and to put spiritual teachings into practice. He writes in Five Minutes on Mondays, “…we may think that spirituality is found only in prayer, religious text study, or on the meditation pillow, but the rubber hits the road when we are faced with implementing these ideas in the complex world of work.”

Lurie believes that work and spirituality are much more closely aligned than we realize. And he points to the Hebrew word for work, avodah, which also means prayer, to prove his point:

In Hebrew, the word for work is avodah, which also, surprisingly, means prayer. This teaches us that there is a direct connection between the physical world of work and the non-physical world of the spirit. … Just as we pray for the blessings of spiritual sustenance, we work for the blessings of physical sustenance. The connection of these words creates an understanding that work must be approached with the same reverence that we give to prayer (and, conversely, that prayer requires work, commitment, dedication and regular practice).

Work also presents us with moral and ethical choices—between good and evil, greed and charity, power and restraint. Lurie says we don’t have to make deals with the devil to succeed in business. We can conduct our affairs ethically, with honesty and integrity, and still be successful. 

To illustrate that point, in the first chapter of his book, Lurie recounts an old Hasidic tale about “a poor, pious shopkeeper” named Safra, who needs to sell his donkey. One day a man who wants to buy a donkey comes by Safra’s shop while Safra is deep in prayer. The man, not realizing Safra is praying, offers Safra a price for his donkey. It’s just the price Safra is asking, but because Safra does not respond, the man seeking the donkey doubles his offer. Safra, still in prayer, doesn’t respond to the second offer, so the man triples his offer. When Safra finishes his prayers, he accepts the man’s first offer and he explains that he will not use the fact that he was praying to get more than his asking price.

Lurie writes that the story of Safra exemplifies “the opportunity for spiritual growth that business presents to us because when business is approached with the same spirit as prayer—with positive intention, honesty, and humility—a deeper and lasting success will naturally emerge.”

Lurie’s message is particularly timely when we’re experiencing—many of us first-hand—the devastating affect of the financial service’s industry’s greed on the U.S. economy.

As for my first question, whether Lurie really believes we can find peace and fulfillment at work, he told me, “Yeah. Have I done it? No. But it is possible.  It’s possible to find peace and fulfillment anywhere if your consciousness is aligned with peace and fulfillment.”

Oh, another thing about Lurie’s book: It cures headaches. The morning I interviewed Mr. Lurie, I woke up with a terrible headache.  When I got to work, I began reading his book, and his message did far more to alleviate the pain I was experiencing above my right eyebrow than the four ibuprofen I took earlier in the morning. Needless to say, I recommend it.