The Three Poisons of the Mind and Their Impact on the Workplace

The three poisons of the mind are a recurring theme throughout Zen Buddhism. These three poisons are most commonly referred to as greed, anger, and delusion. Together or separately, these mindsets cause both internal and external suffering, and tend to perpetuate themselves into more and more damaging effects over time. In the workplace, they damage relationships with peers and bosses, lower efficiency, and crush morale.

However, thinking of these poisons strictly in terms of the three words of “greed, anger, and delusion” leads to a somewhat limited understanding of the attitudes that can hinder our mental well-being, and, in turn, our work. When we hear “greed” we tend to think only in terms of money. When we hear “anger” we tend to think of a very obvious verbal or physical outburst, brushing aside more subtle forms of anger. And when we hear “delusion” we might ask: “Delusion about what?” This is perhaps the most ambiguous term of the three.

In listening to an excellent podcast from the Rochester Zen Center recently (“The Three Poisons as Our Common Lot,” October 22, 2017), I took particular note of the speaker’s efforts to further define the three poisons. Here are some other terms that he associated with each poison.


  • Liking
  • Desire
  • Wishing
  • Longing
  • Fondness
  • Affection
  • Attachment
  • Lust
  • Cupidity
  • Craving
  • Passion
  • Self-Indulgence
  • Possessiveness
  • Avarice


  • Ill-will
  • Enmity
  • Dislike
  • Disgust
  • Revulsion
  • Resentment
  • Grudge
  • Ill-humor
  • Vexation
  • Irritability
  • Antagonism
  • Aversion
  • Wrath
  • Vengefulness
  • Fury
  • Rage


  • Stupidity
  • Dullness
  • Confusion
  • Folly
  • Prejudice
  • Ideological dogmatism
  • Fanaticism
  • Wrong views
  • Conceit

Obviously, we will all have these emotions at some point in the workplace. And we should. We shouldn’t be striving to eliminate “fondness” and “affection” entirely from our lives.

What we need to strive for is excessive buildup of these emotions. As in: such fondness of and attachment to a certain routine in the office that we lose our mental focus and clarity if we have that routine disrupted one day. “Dullness” is another great one for the workplace: are we becoming so numbed to our routine that we don’t notice when there is an opportunity for greater efficiency or an innovation to a product or service? What about “irritability”? Do we get so caught up in our annoyance with the tone of an email, which takes 15 seconds to read, that we can’t keep a sharp mental focus on our work for the next 6 hours of our day? Wishing…lust…possessiveness…ill-will…dislike…resentment…grudge…ill-humor…vexation…irritability…antagonism…confusion…conceit…all of these stand out to me as particularly applicable to the workplace.


For each of the three poisons, pick two synonyms from the bullet point lists above. For each of those two emotions or behaviors, think of the most recent experience in your office or workplace in which you had that feeling. Try to visualize it in as detailed a way as you can, but do not allow yourself to start feeling that same emotion again. View the scenario in your head as a calm, collected, outside observer would. If possible, try to pick some experiences that are recurring in your office, and which you’ll likely come across again soon.

Now, next time a similar situation comes up, try to take on more of that calm observer role while the situation is actually unfolding. Take notice of the negative emotions you’re feeling, but let them slide on by and don’t beat yourself up over the fact that you’re feeling them. “I’m feeling (emotion)…it’s okay, I understand why I’m feeling (emotion)…I can stop feeling (emotion) whenever I decide to” should be about what’s going on in your head as you become better at spotting these negative emotions as they begin to creep into your actions.

As is virtually always the case with any kind of Zen practice, shifting your attention away from the thoughts racing around your head and instead down towards the breath moving in and out via your diaphragm will go a long way towards detaching you from the negative emotions as well.

I hope you find these ideas useful and they make a positive impact for you in whatever your workplace may be. Remember, if you find these suggested practices to be valuable, please consider making a donation by clicking here. It’s quick and simple and all amounts are always appreciated! You can also follow the blog via email at the bottom of the page. Thanks for reading!