Integrating Work and Spirit

For many years, I kept my spiritual life (Druidry) separated from my work (computational linguistics). Of course, there are certainly strong overlaps — you only have to look at the 50+ articles under ‘Word and Spirit’ in the sidebar to see that. And every once in awhile I’d cast a spell for prosperity or something similar. And the people at work sometimes good-naturedly joke about how Druids dance naked around Stonehenge. Ha ha! Never heard that one before. But for the most part my professional life has been secular, and my religious life non-professional.

interviewfrankmaceowenI think most people create this kind of separation, and it’s probably not healthy for us. It wasn’t really ever my intent to make this break; and it was my hope, years ago when I started practicing druidry, that they’d come together somehow, sometime. But I didn’t know how that might happen.

Then I got a wake-up call at work: I wasn’t doing so great. My job performance had been disappointing. I needed to step up my game. And if I continued on my course, I’d be in real danger of… well, the consequences remained unspoken, but that of course made the imaginings all the more dreadful.

Reeling From the Shock

What did I do wrong? Well, it wasn’t what I’d done, it was what I wasn’t doing. I wasn’t being proactive enough. I wasn’t being visible enough. I wasn’t taking enough ownership of the projects I was on; I was allowing other people to set the agenda. And furthermore, I needed to take more initiative in the development of my own skills and abilities, particularly in areas of machine learning I was less familiar with.

I’ll be frank: this completely freaked me out for a couple of days. I came home and unloaded everything on my long-suffering wife (who, as always, was a wonderful combination of supportive therapist, priestess, and sounding board). My thoughts ran all over the place; my feelings were chaotic and unpredictable. Sometimes I was sure everything was going to be fine. Other times I gloomily reflected on possible career changes. One day I couldn’t focus on anything, and the next I raced through my work with burning intensity. I even had some trouble sleeping. (Not much, though. I’m a very good sleeper.)

But after a few days the patterns of thoughts and feelings began to repeat. I began to see how certain feelings led to certain thoughts, and those thoughts in turn to other feelings, and round and round. And once I’d recognized my pattern, I could take a step back from it, and say, “Oh yeah, that again.” I was, in a manner of speaking, able to stick a label on it and incorporate it into my self-model.

I began to realize that my thoughts and feelings were converging on a few essential questions. What were my real goals? Was I approaching them the right way? I’d been getting a lot of work done, but was it the right work?

It seemed like I was leaving a lot of important stuff undone.

What Do You Really Want?

wheredoideascomefromI sat down and tried to refocus on my essential goals. It was important for me to first separate the company’s goals from my own goals. If those goals converged, great; if not, then I’d have to do some very serious thinking indeed.

I started brainstorming. I wanted to do well at work, obviously, but more specifically there were particular puzzles I wanted to solve, particular techniques I wanted to explore… Amazon was (and is) doing some really remarkable things in speech-to-text technology, and there was a lot of opportunity to break entirely new ground. But at the moment we were laboring under huge deadlines, and not enough of a workforce — it was hard to set aside time for the most interesting work. Aside from that, I still wanted to write fiction. I’d always wanted to; and I couldn’t just set it aside forever — it always called me back. But it seemed as though I never had time for that, either. And of course I was committed to my wife and my children — they needed me and I wasn’t going to let them down. But my children were on the other side of the country; I knew they were going through a rough time, and there wasn’t much I could do for them on a day to day basis. I also worried that, with my work schedule, I wasn’t there for my wife as often as I should have been. And finally, I was turning 40 soon, and I was conscious that I hadn’t been taking as good care of myself as I should have.

It added up to a big pile of worry.

Now hold on, I said to myself. I live in a gorgeous city. I have a beautiful, amazing, supportive wife. I’m incredibly fortunate to have this fantastic job. And I have some talent for what I do. So why am I under all this pressure? Yes, I want to be able to help people. Can we possibly do all this in such a way that I’m not always feeling inadequate? Why am I always dashing around?

And I think: why can’t I have it all? and then I think: why do I think I deserve to have it all?…

Back into the circular thinking and worrying again.

Ultimately, I decided, it came down to this: I needed to do, to the best of my ability, what the gods asked me to do. It’s not that I’m a slave to the gods, but they often do know better than I do who I really am, and what my goals should be. And how best to achieve them.

Part of deciding what you want is performing discernment. I turned to my most trusted tools: meditation and the Tarot.

Listening to Spirit

I boiled down what I wanted to three things: career, health, and family. The cards came back Queen of Pentacles, High Priestess, and King of Cups. All positive cards — that was a relief!

Queen of Pentacles for career: this is very much worldly success, in a very pleasant way. A lot of the books talk about career women, but also about striking a good work / home balance and so on. I realized that this was talking about organizing my time so that everything I want to do — everything — really does get done. I’d been falling behind both at work and with my writing, so it felt impossible to do both. But the card suggested that anything was possible.

The High Priestess, for me, generally means that I have the power within, if I can just discover and use it. And this was quite obviously so, when it came to my health (and my time and sanity). Really, almost no one was making real, immediate demands on my time or on what I put in my mouth. It’s just that I was… not exactly lazy, but somehow it’s just been hard to balance all the factors (boredom, tiredness, hunger, nutrition, exercise, etc.) to end up with a net loss of weight and gain of muscle, rest, and overall health. The card suggested that the answer was hidden, but available.

The King of Cups, for my family situation, was a great comfort. Basically it indicated I’d continue to be able to provide for the people I loved. I was happy to go with that.

Bringing Spirit to the Work

Somewhat reassured, I began making lists — lists of things I really wanted to achieve professionally. And not vague things, specific things. Unfortunately I can’t share that list publicly, or Amazon would have my hide; but when I wrote it out it lit a fire under me.

And this is where the overlap between Druidry and my professional work began to come into clearer focus for me. I have the chance to work on things that strike at the heart of how thought and language are organized; and as any Druid — or mystic of any spiritual stripe — will tell you, language is sacred.

Odin hung from the World Tree, a sacrifice of himself to himself, to discover the runes, the holy alphabet that simultaneously encodes human language and the symbols of spirit. Odin is my mentor in this. I’m not just trying to teach a machine to understand speech; I’m trying to uncover a representation of language and meaning that’s even more basic than letters — a representation which can be translated into the building blocks of machine code.

Meanwhile, on a more mundane level, Amazon had set its own priorities for me. My boss agreed that I needed to do more machine learning, but that I also needed to work harder on improvements to our lexical resources and tokenization. And in general, I should be more proactive and more visible.

Fortunately our goals — mine and Amazon’s — overlapped a lot. And for most of these goals, I knew what I needed to do to get going.

Managing Management

But what about “being more proactive and visible”? For me, this was way too vague. I didn’t even know where to begin.

So, almost on a whim, I stuck that phrase — “being more proactive” — in Google, just to see what came out. And guess what? There are thousands of articles about that. I started reading… Article after article, for the better part of an hour. It gave me lots of things to think about. When I stumbled on something that resonated with me, I wrote it down. After a day or two of thinking and allowing my subconscious to ruminate, parts of these pits and pieces began to congeal into an an action plan — something concrete that I could actually believe in.

First, to be more visible: in email and in meetings, always contribute your point of view. Try to be less afraid of making a fool of yourself. Even if it’s just to explain why you agree with someone else. Occasionally, send out a mass email about your concerns.

Second, focus on learning more. The more you learn, the more you can contribute. And the more you can contribute, the better you’ll be known and liked.

The most interesting exercises for boosting self-confidence were here and here. As for being proactive, I decided to develop a meditative practice to encourage it, based on this article.

While reading and thinking about ‘being proactive’ and ‘taking ownership’, it finally struck me how passive I’d been in my career thus far. For whatever reason — probably just my personality — I’d been largely content to allow other people to set my agenda and judge my progress. After all, I never had a big-picture view of the company, the department, or its goals; how was I to know how to set priorities?

But it’s become clearer to me over time that no one has a true big-picture view. This isn’t a jab at Amazon, or any other company I’ve worked for; it’s just a fact about any large organization (i.e., one with more than, say, a thousand people). Any one person, in management or out of it, only has a small piece of the information they need, and so they rely on others to be experts. And they need their experts to not just answer questions and give advice, but to anticipate problems and fix them ahead of time. Managers, in other words, shouldn’t tell you what to do; they don’t know what you should do. They should provide goals and resources and get out of the way.

I realized I shouldn’t be asking for permission. I should be saying, “Here’s what I’m doing. Here’s how long it will take. And here’s how it’ll help.”

Plan vs. Action

This whole process took a week or two — orienting myself, figuring out a new plan, and getting started. It wasn’t pleasant.

But then I was in motion, and I had some inertia. I felt much more in control of what was going on. I began to see opportunities to step up and get things done, making myself more helpful and more visible. I made a lot of progress very quickly, and started to get excellent feedback.

Oddly enough — and perhaps it’s surprising to read this — ultimately, I didn’t stick to my plan at all. After I read all that advice about productivity and proactivity, and made plans to do exercises and meditations and so on… I honestly never did any of it. A plan, after all, isn’t really about the future; it’s about getting yourself in motion now. A specific, rock-solid plan is only useful when you’re standing still. When you’re actually moving, plans have to become fluid immediately; you must hold them loosely and reexamine them often. As it turned out, for me personally, the exercises and meditations would have been a distraction from actually doing the work.

Integrity and Death

When Odin hung himself from the World Tree, part of him died. If it had not, it wouldn’t have been a sacrifice. But as death is a part of nature, it is also part of the soul; it is how the soul changes. A life cannot be constant growth, with no pruning, no pause. Eternal growth is cancer, not life.

In a very small way, when I was given a poor performance review, I was told that part of me had to die. It was no wonder that I went through stages of denial, panic, bargaining, and so on. It was difficult. Fortunately, I had help — from my wife, my guides, and my gods. And by pulling together parts of myself that I’d been holding separate — by integrating them, and thereby, in a very real sense, increasing my integrity — I rallied myself and created the seeds of a new whole.

Even death is not to be feared by one who has lived wisely. –the Buddha


Of course, once I had myself going properly, I quickly reached such a frenzied pace that I began to burn out. Fortunately my wife and I were able to take a weekend retreat for some deep meditation and soul work based on a fantastic book called Personal Mythology, which was incredibly helpful. I’ll be writing about that next.

6 responses to “Integrating Work and Spirit”

  1. Very interesting stuf.f I have a very hard time integrating work and spirituality. It’s something I want to work on soon. Thanks for the ideas, and for the book recommendation!


  2. Thanks! I’m glad you found it interesting, and I hope the ideas are useful for you.


  3. Hi Jeff. I’d forgotten that I signed up for your blog until I got your email this morning. But, one sentence after another, I continued to read. Thanks for sharing your wake-up call process. I can relate to many of the issues and questions you faced.

    I was motivated to re-examine everything all during the year of 2012 and continue even now with the question of “What do I ~really~ want.” One of the best things I learned was that I am an introvert. You may have noticed the emerging re-education of society about what that means. Susan Cain’s TED talk is the best starting point. With that knowledge in hand, I’ve been able to find ways to engage and participate that take my sensitivity into account. And admitting it has been a kind of death – of a false personality.

    Best of luck with your new outlook and process.
    ~ Christine


    1. Thanks, Christine; I’m glad you found this reflected your own experience. I debated whether to write this as a how-to post (“Top Six Ways to Integrate Work and Spirit!!!”) but decided that really I couldn’t speak to anyone’s situation but my own, and perhaps by writing as honestly as I could about my own experience, people could draw their own lessons.

      The recent introversion conversation has been very interesting, and it has provided me with a different perspective on my laid-back, retiring personality. My wife has helped me a lot with that, as well — for whatever reason, I’ve always had a lot of extroverted friends (my ex-wife is about the most extroverted person I know), and I’ve always been urged to be less shy and speak up more. And honestly, to the extent that I’ve done that, it’s helped me a lot in the business world. That’s how the business culture is set up. It would be nice if that changed, but if it does, I think it will be a long, slow process.


  4. Lovely post, Jeff. What an awesome journey.

    Been doing some similar traveling myself lately. The bit you wrote about constant growth being cancer really struck me. that and the bit about death-rebirth. Even though my mind THOUGHT it was fine with that concept I’ve experienced a few “deaths” this year that have had me kicking and screaming in panic until I realised they were rebirths.

    Good luck, every blessing on your journeys


    1. Thanks, Michelle! I’m so glad to hear that your ‘deaths’ have become ‘rebirths’! That’s always a relief…!


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