The Spirit of Labour

There was a spiritual foundation to the labour movement and it comes out in such words as amalgamation, union and brotherhood, which were often attached to the different labour groups.

Robert: Welcome to Inner Sight. Inner sight is simply seeing that which is always present but not yet fully recognized. You have within you the ability to see yourself and the world around you in a new way with new eyes. So, stay with us, and together we’ll look at the world and ourselves with inner sight. Our theme for today is the spirit of labour. And here’s a thought from Kahlil Gibran, that has to do with that theme, from his book, The Prophet: “work is love made visible.” I like to think of work in a spiritual way myself. I like to think of my work as being my prayer. Is there a spiritual dimension to the labour movement? 

Sarah: There most definitely is, and it’s one of the really interesting aspects of the writings of Alice Bailey because when she goes into the inner spiritual dimensions of it, you realize that the labour movement really reveals the sweep of the divine Plan for our world in the sense that it can be traced throughout history. The labour movement goes back two or three hundred years, and because it is something that affects millions, if not billions of human beings.  It’s a mass movement, not an event that affected just a privileged few; it affected millions and millions of ordinary working people. It developed as a result of the industrial era that began in the late 1700s and the early 1800s. As the machine age started to develop, this led to human beings turned into a kind of cogs in the process; they were used in a very utilitarian way to create these manufactured goods. And the conditions were really terrible as I understand it for a lot of the working people, not only in this country but in Europe as well, especially for children; children were misused. Ordinary working men were forced to work six or seven days a week and for long, long hours. The living conditions that they had were terrible because they received such low wages. It also caused the growth of the huge urban areas that we have today; that had not always been the case. Society had been basically rural before the industrial era, but the growth of the industrial era caused the urban areas to build up, and the tenements and the slums in the great cities. So, out of this very difficult condition for the ordinary working people, there developed a movement to bring people together in “solidarity”—to use the word of the Polish labour movement of two decades ago—to support each other, to unite together to bring about better working conditions for themselves. And it’s an example of how something of spiritual significance can be directly linked to physical plane reality. There is no gap between spiritual values and the outer realm. 

Dale: Yes, it was a great spiritual movement because what it did essentially was to improve not only the working conditions, but also the living conditions of the workers of the time, and it exposed them and enabled them to gain literacy. They also started the educational movements in those times, so all of this together really began to enable the workers of that time to expand their consciousness and their living conditions. It was a great spiritual movement in that sense because whenever there is an expansion in consciousness, then you have a deeply spiritual movement at hand. 

Sarah: And it is true that we can look at the labour movement today and see that it, in its own way, has become a great capitalistic kind of enterprise. The labour unions, some of them in this country and in the European countries as well, I think, contain in them or have authority over huge sums of money and wield great power, both economically and politically. And they have their own weaknesses—the accusations of corruption that are sometimes lodged against the unions. But at the same time, they arose out of a condition that was one of great suffering and deprivation. And they still look out for the rights and the well-being of people who don’t have a lot of power in worldly terms, which is most of us, the ordinary people of the world who don’t have class or family or lineage or wealth behind them. They need their rights protected perhaps more than anyone and the unions have looked out for the working person. 

Dale: And I think one of the indications that this was also a spiritual movement was that there was something from the “Higher Powers,” let’s say, that was behind this movement and that’s very much covered in the writings of Alice Bailey because she goes into this in great depth. There was a spiritual foundation to the labour movement and it comes out in such words as amalgamation, union and brotherhood, which were often attached to the different labour groups. The amalgamation of workers and the Brotherhood of Teamsters, the Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen workers, the coal miners and the builders’ unions. It’s interesting, but you might say or think that there was some great spiritual being behind this, but actually the founders of the unions in those early days back in the 1830s were just ordinary men that came out of the working class themselves. In England there was a man by the name of Robert Owen who was one of the first founders of the Guild of Builders and later there was Samuel Gompers, here in the United States. who established the American Federation of Labour—these were just ordinary men, but they were impressionable and they had a vision for the improvement of the working class and they forced it through. 

Sarah: By impressionable you mean responsive to the impression of the spiritual forces that stand behind and watch and, you could say, prompt human evolution. We’ve talked about the Masters and the Spiritual Hierarchy on other programs. They are not beings who intervene in human affairs or manipulate human affairs because man has free will, but they prompt the consciousness of human beings who are responsive to the divine Plan of God and they prompt, in the sense of the impression of ideas regarding the evolution of our planet. And the people that Dale and I are talking about are people who could respond to this evolutionary urge to bring about better conditions for the great masses of working people. It’s interesting in the writings of Alice Bailey that she talks about these people like Gompers and Owen. A more modern and great one would be Walter Reuther. They were ordinary people, highly flawed in the personal sense, and yet utterly dedicated to uplifting the state of living for millions of people. That to me is an interesting example of what it means to be a spiritual worker. You are not perfect necessarily, you are not saintly, you are not even probably a sweetie pie! Sometimes these people had to be very, very tough to put up with the conditions that they ran into in terms of the capital and management level of the industrial era. They had to fight for the betterment of working conditions. 

Dale: And also, there is this underlying factor of persistence that seems to impress me because the labour unions, many of them, failed at first. They were established and would last for a couple of years and then they failed, or some kind of barriers would be put up in their way, but they kept persisting and persisting and persisting. That’s why we still have the labour movement today because this underlying evolutionary force—which I think is Hierarchically inspired— gives it the strength to persist on the way it has. 

Robert: Work can be so many different things. It can be a way that we express our talent. It also can be a way that we express our love for humanity. What is good work? 

Sarah: What is good work? Well, even the Buddha in his Noble Eightfold Path addressed the need for work in the sense of right livelihood. That’s one of the eight conditions of the Noble Eightfold Path of spiritual development and liberation:  right livelihood, which is good work. Maybe some of our listeners have heard of E.F. Schumacher, who was a British economist and visionary who died, I think, in about 1980 or so. He wrote the book Small is Beautiful, which I think is his best-known book. He wrote another book called Good Work, which outlines what he viewed as the three conditions of good work. There are three purposes, rather. One, he said, is to provide useful goods and services; to do something utilitarian that society wants. Another reason for work is to enable every worker to perfect their talents, their personal gifts, their aptitudes—to develop those; and the third is to do something in cooperation with others so as to liberate ourselves from our egocentricity, as he put it. I thought that was very interesting. We work for something larger than ourselves, greater than our personal circumstances and family, and thereby liberate ourselves from our self-centred view of the world, and that third condition is especially interesting because it includes the workers who are involved in sometimes the most humble positions. They are working for the larger good. I don’t know if you remember a performance artist here in New York, ten to fifteen years ago, who made it a project to decorate the garbage trucks that pick up the trash with mirrors on the side of them. She put mirrors on so that when you saw the truck, it reflected yourself. In other words, garbage is us! Her project also included personally shaking hands with every garbage worker she met just to say, “Thank you for doing what you do. The world’s a better place literally because you do your job.” I thought that was a wonderful idea. 

Robert: It certainly was, yes. 

Sarah: There is value in all work if it is honest; it has dignity to it because it serves the greater good. Another example is a person I heard interviewed the other night on television, who was describing his work. His job was a mortuary attendant. He goes around picking up dead bodies and bringing them to the mortuary. I never thought about somebody having that as a job, but he said he loved his work. It made him feel that he was doing something important and useful for society, and goodness knows it is. So, I don’t think we need to look down on people who may not have a great deal of prestige or a huge salary. If they are doing something that aids the larger community, that’s good work. 

Dale: Yes, I would agree with that. And it’s good because it stimulates something within the person. They begin to identify more inwardly with something of greater value than just the material values in life and I think that’s very important. Whether they do that consciously or not, there is some inward recognition of a greater benefit. 

Sarah: And you can also look at some very prestigious positions and maybe they can’t look at their job and say, “it links me to the larger whole; it enables me to contribute to the greater good.” In other words, there are some highly coveted positions in the business world that may be quite selfishly oriented, self-serving and not necessarily beneficial to society. So good work by definition doesn’t necessarily mean the most prestigious or most well-paying kind of work. 

Robert: What I think too is that so often people look upon work almost as if life is stopping during that forty hours a week and everything else is put on hold. We can’t look at life like that. I think it’s very important to enjoy every moment and not look upon work as being a large block of time out of our life. I think Sarah and Dale are absolutely accurate with looking at it as a chance to touch other people and perhaps as self actualization. How do we prepare young people for work so that they have the right attitude toward work? 

Sarah: In our society, I think it’s absolutely crucial that we bring up our children to look and expect more out of life than just material compensation. This is such a materialistic society and occupation, work, is becoming increasingly linked with the salary that it offers you. People don’t seem to want to do a job unless it really rewards them well and the work that they would prefer to do, if it doesn’t pay very well, they turn away from it. For example: it’s harder and harder to find people who want to be schoolteachers because those salaries are not competitive with salaries that they might get in the business world. I think it’s a shame because the point of work is not only to earn a big salary. You want to earn enough to enable you to sustain yourself, but I don’t think we need half as much material stuff as we seem to think we do in this country. And what is more important in life than having work that you love? It’s absolutely vital and if there were one thing that young people should learn, it’s that you prepare yourself for work because it evokes from you a sense of love, of joy, of commitment, of service, and that might include any range of occupations. Who knows? I think it’s very good for young people to prepare for work by working in very mundane level jobs. I think back to my own early jobs when I was going to school. I was a waitress, I cleaned motel rooms, I washed dishes, I was a clerk typist. I’m so glad I had those jobs because it exposed me to the conditions of a lot of people who work in those kinds of positions all their life, and it made me aware of the need for respect and for dignity, regardless of whatever job you’re doing; all honest work has dignity. These are things that I think young people have to learn, that work gives you experience; it gives you skills; and also, a paycheck. 

Dale: Yes, I think everybody that’s born into this world is born to work at some capacity or another, and I think the key—this is particularly true for young people—is to discover what your work is, what your particular niche or your vocation is. You may not know that right away; it takes a certain amount of time to stop and listen to yourself. Listen to your inner self, because present there is the soul that brought you into the world for a purpose. So, it’s incumbent upon every young person or every old person to look within themselves and try to discover what that vocation is. It may not be something spectacular, nothing that’s going to give you a lot of success and recognition like becoming a world-famous basketball star or whatever, but it may be, as Sarah just said, doing something rather menial. If that’s what you think you should be doing, then do it well, because then you will be in sync with that inner self. 

Robert: I think you’re right and it’s frightening what’s happening today where so many young people are choosing jobs primarily because of the money. And what you’re saying I think is so crucial. You’re saying that their job, that their work should really be an extension of who they are, who their personality is. And I can see that as being a frightening lot in life, if someone is a very socially oriented person and gets involved with the nuts and bolts of computers as a career—they might be very unhappy if the money is all that they’re thinking of. What is the future of work in a society where technology is doing away with so many jobs? 

Sarah: Well, I think this is a question that we’re really having to face now because more and more people are being laid off from jobs. They’re finding themselves having to reconsider their whole career orientation. You hear of a lot of people that take up a second career in midstream and having to go back and get education and training. There’s a lot of questioning I think on the part of people who are also currently employed who are asking themselves, “what is the point of what I am doing?” It used to be that you knew what your place in the world was. I think back to my father. He was a dairy farmer and every morning of his life he got up at 5:00 AM and milked the cows. If it was Easter, if it was Christmas, if it was 30° below out, or if it was 90° above, no matter, he milked the cows because that was what he had to do. I think there are a lot of people today that go off to work without really having a very clear idea of why they’re going through what—for many of them—is the torture of the daily commute, and working in an environment and for a purpose that they don’t really understand or identify with. All of this is part of the materialism of our world that has made the pursuit of an improved economic condition the be all and end all. Certainly, we want people to have a decent standard of living, but it’s become the only value for a lot of people. 

Dale: Yes, I like the statement that I read in one of the Alice Bailey books recently, where she said, “all work becomes spiritual when rightly motivated,” and by rightly motivated she means when there is a soul presence in what one does. I think that’s a very important element to bring into work. 

Sarah: This also comes back to the right livelihood condition of the Noble Eightfold Path of the Buddha. We have to ask ourselves, whatever our job is, does it align with my spiritual values in some way? Now, somebody who has a job as a cleaning lady can answer that question and say, “yes, I leave the world in a better shape at the end of my day than it was when I arrived.” But can everyone answer that? Can everyone say that whatever my task is, the world’s better after I’ve done my work for the day? That’s part of what right livelihood is. Some of us, I suppose, have to say, “maybe my talents are not being put to use for the benefit of the soul, even though I’m successful at what I do.” It may not meet the soul’s goal and there might be that friction, and that might be part of why there’s such discontent today. 

Dale: And when the soul is present, the emphasis begins to shift, and work becomes an expression of refinement in a sense. 

Sarah: What do you mean? 

Dale: Well, the soul injects its values. The sense of values begins to shift, and it shifts off the purely physical orientation to something of a more spiritual nature. Then we begin to look at life and work in a much different way, and I think that’s very important when there is a refinement taking place in consciousness. 

Robert: You mentioned teaching before and what more important of a job is there than to be able to take an individual, a child, and turn them around and show them that they can be something more in life. And yet people don’t want to do that anymore because the money isn’t there. So, I hope that changes, and I hope this show helps that to change. That’s about all the time we have for our discussion today. You’ve been listening to Inner Sight and now we would like to close with the world prayer called the Great Invocation. It’s a call for light and love and goodwill to flow into the world and into our hearts. Let’s listen for a moment to these powerful words. 

Sarah: Closes the program by reciting the adapted version of the Great Invocation

(This is an edited transcript of a recorded radio program called “Inner Sight”. This conversation was recorded between the host, Robert Anderson, and the then President and Vice-President of Lucis Trust, Sarah and Dale McKechnie.)

(Transcribed and edited by Carla McLeod)




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