Nine Ways to Be Like a Shaman at Work

by Brant Secunda and Mark Allen

The Huichol people, an indigenous tribe that lives in the mountainous region of central Mexico, are some of the happiest, healthiest, wisest people on earth. Many of them are shamans, and a surprising number of their tribe surpass age 100 and work in the fields up until the day they die.

Brant traveled to Mexico as a young man and was invited to live with the Huichols for 12 years, where he became the adopted grandson of a shaman named Don José Matsuwa, who lived to be 110.

There are many lessons Brant learned from the Huichols. One of them is how to make small behavioral changes at work that keep us happy, relaxed, motivated, and performing at our best. Here are some lessons learned from the Huichol shamans that can be applied to your everyday life in the workplace.

1. Make the task at hand your priority.

We all have tasks that are hard to focus on because they're either boring or exceptionally difficult. The Huichols have a simple yet effective way to cope: Think of the task as your top priority, rather than a means to an end. A shaman might tell you that sawing through a giant tree trunk using a hand tool is daunting, but moving the saw back and forth with precision and consistency isn't. The same is true for your work. Place all your focus on what you're doing in the moment, and don't let discouraging thoughts interrupt your progress.

2. Seek new in the old.

For the Huichols, every day is a new opportunity to connect with oneself, with others, and with nature. They are the ultimate optimists. When work seems like a grind, see yourself adopting an attitude that knocks the old negative way of being out of your work life. Envision how you'll look, feel, be perceived by others, and most important, see yourself with this new attitude, whether it's a new way of relating to coworkers, a change in your work schedule, or just a fresh way of thinking about the value of your contributions.

3. Embrace challenge as normal.

We tend to get burnt out and overwhelmed under the weight of challenge. The Huichol people don't focus on the size of the hillside they're about to plant with corn. They just plant one kernel at a time and keep at it until, seed by seed and row by row, they've planted a steep hillside with corn. Challenge makes us stronger, smarter, and more resilient. That's one way to think about it. Another way is to simply adjust your attitude and focus on putting one foot in front of the other.

4. Be who you want to become.

A Huichol shaman knows his limitations, but always strives to do better. It's that simple. Asking for more work-life balance but then taking on more than you can handle is an example of living out of sync with your dreams. If you want to feel happy at work, surround yourself with people who understand you and support you. If you want to move up in the company, take on tasks that stretch your capabilities. Identify aspects of your work life you want to improve, and then ask, "Does this behavior/decision/person help me move forward, or block my progress?"

5. Balance your response to stressors.

The Huichols are exceptionally relaxed people. They work extremely hard, but they also spend time napping, laughing, eating well, and visiting. Chronic stress will make you sick, physically and emotionally. Stress can come from multiple sources including negative emotions, too little sleep, poor diet, overwork, toxic chemicals, and inflammation. Evaluate each of these stress triggers in your life, and work on finding small ways to reduce excesses and achieve more balance in each area. Seek more play, rest, and quiet in your life.

6. Refresh your brain with a dose of nature.

As people who live and work close to nature, the Huichols are outside every day, tending their fields and animals, experiencing the changes in weather and seasons. Being in nature calms and centers us, but office work tends to separate us from the natural world. Try to spend at least half an hour each day in nature, whether you’re walking to work, taking your lunch break on the roof or in a nearby park, or doing something outdoors in the evening, such as riding a bike, swimming, or watching the sunset. Nature replenishes and reenergizes us.

7. Slow down to become more efficient.

Elders of the Huichol tribe carry huge loads on their back up the mountain every day. They are able to do this because they move slowly and deliberately, securing each foothold and putting one foot in front of the other. Doing a difficult task slowly and methodically is a great way to accomplish a goal. Many of us feel the need to push ourselves to the limit to make any gains. But slowing down allows the body and brain to function at their optimal efficiency. Apply small, focused changes that are gradual versus intense.

8. Don't sit through the day.

Our bodies weren't designed to sit. They were designed to work and move. People who work with their bodies often have fewer health problems than those who sit. Try to identify those activities at work that don't require sitting—for example, reading a report, talking on the phone, or conferring with a colleague. Conduct 15-minute stand-up meetings. Or get up every half hour and do jumping jacks and stretches. Getting off your duff is good for your brain and overall health.

9. See repetition through new eyes.

Farmers like the Huichols have tasks they must do daily, but instead of seeing them as monotonous, they celebrate them. Every day's fieldwork is an investment in the tribe's future. At desk jobs, we often have to do the same thing every day—reconcile the books, enter data, answer e-mails. One way to prevent boredom is to embrace the repetition. Start to see chipping away at the same tasks day after day as powerful steps on the way to reaching your professional goals.

Shaman-healer Brant Secunda and world champion Ironman Mark Allen are authors of the book Fit Soul, Fit Body: 9 Keys to a Healthier, Happier You.

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