Finding Purpose in Work

Meet Ethan, a YA from Tucson, Arizona. Ethan shares some insights about how his practice of the eight-point program helps him and his patients in his work as a physical therapist.


Months of grueling, seemingly futile effort can be made worthwhile in an instant. Picture the man in the wheelchair who has been taxing himself for weeks to strengthen his legs so he can finally lurch to a sloppy stand in the parallel bars. He pauses to catch his breath before he can say, “Ethan, thank you so much for EVERYTHING! I couldn’t have done it without you. I honestly feel you always had my best interests at heart.”

Moments like these are the pinnacle of my practice as a physical therapist. I can’t think of a greater reward from my job than to receive such a compliment. The confirmation that I have done everything I could, and that the patient is better off from our combined efforts, is as an exhilarating boost.

I would estimate that breakthrough moments like this make up a very small portion of my workday, perhaps less than one percent. Still, those moments are what keep me coming to work every day. The rest of the time can be drudgery if I let it. People come in to see me, one after another. Many are in pain, afraid and upset. The people I try to help are certainly not in their best states, physically or mentally. Additionally, due to the unfortunate state of healthcare, practitioners see more patients and spend less time with each one. Given the pressures of the job, the path to burnout is quick without a strategy to continually reaffirm a greater purpose behind the work. My strategy is passage meditation and practicing the eight points.

Typically, I find myself beginning my workday fairly fresh and ready to give patients my complete attention with a genuine desire to help. As you might imagine, by the tenth patient of the day, I’m fairly loaded with people’s problems. I want to care. I want to serve this tenth patient as if they were my first and give them my full effort and empathy. However, I often feel that I have met my capacity for compassion. My eyes glaze over and all of the stories start to sound the same. I begin to feel sorry for myself, burdened with the expectation of finding quick solutions to problems that take time to correct.

I brought this problem of becoming too overloaded to care to my local satsang several years ago. One of the members is a physician, and she offered me some great insights. It turns out that as a practicing doctor, she deals constantly with what she refers to as “compassion fatigue.” One great tool she uses to combat this fatigue is the mantram. For her, the mantram serves as a space or buffer between stimulus and conditioned response. With the mantram, she is able to quiet that flood of negative and selfish thoughts of “why me?” and instead direct positive energy to the patient.

I have been using the mantram in this way for over a year now. I have developed the habit of stopping throughout the day when I feel sped up to take a few breaths and say my mantram. When I have a challenging patient coming up and I feel agitated or upset about it, I always try to insert the mantram. I have found this strategy brings me back to the present and to one-pointed attention. I can more effectively address the situation at hand without my mind jumping around, and I stop worrying about all of the other daunting tasks I must accomplish that day, or week, or month. With a focused mind, I don’t get as fatigued, and I am able to serve more people more effectively. On days when I am most successful at implementing this strategy, it becomes clear just how much vitality I drain by worrying about things that I can do absolutely nothing about in the present moment.

After I began meditating, it became very clear to me that to be the most effective at serving people in my job, I needed to slow down. I was very sped up in my first job, working 50 to 55 hours per week and treating so many people that I would forget who patients were when they came in for appointments.  I have since switched jobs to a practice that is much slower paced. I am among coworkers who value quality patient care, and we schedule every patient for one hour of one-on-one time. I now have time to slow down, to listen to my patients, and to help without causing additional anxiety.

In my current job, I enjoy an excellent balance between work life and personal life. In addition to seeing fewer patients, I now work fewer hours. This extra time has allowed me to build a deep relationship with my fiancé and to grow and maintain quality relationships with friends. Outside of work, I spend time with others hiking, biking, rock climbing, camping, swimming, traveling, and at dinner parties. I see this time not as a selfish endeavor, but as a means to recuperate and improve my capacity for putting others first. I came up with a short directive that I try to use to maintain this balance: “Work hard and serve others. Play hard to recharge.”


Ethan at a recent YA retreat where he also had the opportunity to "work hard" and to "play hard."

I’m not sure where I’d be now professionally without meditation and the allied disciplines. I suspect that I would not be able to thrive or even survive in a helping profession without the eight points. My career plays such a large part in defining who I am and who I aspire to be. Physical therapy is a powerful vehicle that provides daily opportunities to help others and practice the eight points. I am so blessed and grateful to have Easwaran’s teachings in my life.