You’ve heard of a “lifestyle” story? Well this is the equivalent, except for the workplace, also known as a “workstyle” story

Techheads find their quest for a spiritually rich life can both feed and confuse their professional development
In the hyperkinetic world of ecommerce, the word “spirituality” rarely rears its hallowed head. But throughout this whirlwind, get-rich-quick world an increasing number of techheads are turning to a rich spiritual practice. While skeptics might find such pursuits dubious or threatening to professional productivity, those on the spiritual path say that regular meditation, prayer, and work with spiritual guides actually makes them more efficient, clear-headed, and focused.

Whether out of desperation, a desire to increase concentration and productivity, or a long-term yearning to nurture the soul, the number of high-tech professionals seeking more meaning in life than just catching up with the billionaires is escalating.

“Mindfulness teachings are becoming more mainstream,” says Gil Fronsdal, a Buddhist priest and meditation teacher who leads several meditation groups that are peppered with tech professionals in Palo Alto, Calif. “There’s more need or demand now for applicability in daily life or at work.”

Such pursuits can ultimately turn a life upside down, spurring people to change their lifestyles “” or quit their high-stress jobs. The worst danger is when people postpone or dismiss long-term work for the soul in order to focus short-term on material development, says Howard Schechter, a psychologist and author of Rekindling the Spirit in Work. “It’s the fire syndrome: feeling you have to put out the fires, so you’re not able to do preventive work,” he notes.

Among those working hard on both fronts “” professional and spiritual “” while neck-deep in the frenetic Internet culture are Walter Cruttenden III, co-founder and CEO of E*Offering, an online investment bank aligned with E*Trade, and Marcos Sanchez, head of brand marketing at iQ.com, which provides a merchandising platform for online sales promotions and loyalty marketing.

No touching
For Marcos Sanchez, it is undoubtedly tougher to seamlessly integrate his spiritual practice with his professional work. He is director of brand marketing at a young and rapidly growing Internet startup, iQ.com, an online marketing venture. But his religion dictates that he can’t touch or be touched by anyone except his wife and priests (even to exchange business cards), he can’t drink alcohol, he can’t be in crowds (one consolation: no more Comdex), he must eat on the ground on a straw mat off a designated plate, and he must always wear white and keep his head covered, even while sleeping. Oh, and no looking in a mirror. (“Shaving is a bit difficult but I’m getting used to not looking,” he says, gesturing how he methodically strokes from the cheekbone downward with a razor.)

On a warm afternoon in October, Sanchez, 30, greets an unexpected potential business partner who had dropped by to visit iQ.com executives. The man holds up his hand with his business card, expecting to be met with a customary shake. But Sanchez instead places his business card before him on his desk, retracts his hand, and explains with an attempted no-big-deal smile that he is suffering from carpal-tunnel syndrome and can’t use his hand. (He doesn’t feel like explaining his religious beliefs to strangers, for fear it might turn them off “” particularly potential customers.) The man says he’s sorry, then while taking a step back casts a curious glance at the floor. “What about the half-eaten burrito on the floor?” Sanchez meekly explains it’s part of a ritual. The man looks increasingly quizzical but continues to talk business.

This all might sound like some sadistic cutting-edge form of high-tech hazing, but for Sanchez, it’s part a willing religious journey to become a santero, a priest of Santeria, an Afro-Cuban religion derived from the African Yoruba religion. A central tenet is that god created orisha, demigods similar to patron saints in the Roman Catholic popular tradition, and gave them the authority to act as his emissaries, watching over and guiding humans. It is believed that everything has an effect on everything else, so adherents try to maintain balance through prayer, offerings, and deeds.

Sanchez started studying Santeria for several reasons: to grow closer to his Latino roots (his mother is from Panama and his father is Puerto Rican), to practice Spanish, and to gain a more spiritual perspective, something he has found lacking in the high-tech world.

“People tend to be very concerned with your startup pedigree, what options you have, and who you know,” he says. “While I can get caught up in that too, occasionally, I try to limit it. Staying in touch with my spiritual side really helps me with perspective sometimes…. And I think it helps me to realize that whatever crisis is the latest, it’s not the end of the world.”

Delicate balance
His perpetual white attire aside, Sanchez looks and acts more like a polished, ambitious Net startup junkie than a self-contemplative priest-in-training. Since he began his high-tech career in 1994 with a stint at a San Francisco public relations firm, Sanchez has jumped to four Internet-related companies “” at each one hoping for the big IPO. One company, NetObjects, a Web development software and service company in Redwood City, Calif., did go public last May but its stock has hardly shown an instant-retirement promise.

In July Sanchez began a three-month training process with a seven-day purification ceremony, during which he stayed in one room under the supervision of his spiritual godmother while Santeria priests made seashell readings, called ita, to divine his future. For those three months, he had to eat on the floor, avoid mirrors, and keep his head covered. After that, some strictures were lifted but some, such as to avoid touching people, wearing jewelry, and being in crowds, and to eat off a designated plate, will continue for another nine months. Once Sanchez becomes a priest at the end of the 12-month training, he will be able to start overseeing rituals, ceremonies, cleansings, and spiritual readings, while learning other spiritual practices.

Luckily, Sanchez and his colleagues treat his spiritual commitment with both respect and humor. “He can’t take documents out of my hand,” says Marcia Kadanoff, chief marketing officer at iQ.com. “So sometimes I throw them at him. You’re supposed to put them on the table, but what if you’re passing him in the hallway?”

Then there’s the mirror that had to be moved from the wall in front of his office and replaced with a framed print. Kadanoff admits that if she had not worked with Sanchez previously, before his priesthood decision, she might not initially have been as accommodating of his special needs.

Carl Meyer, co-founder and CEO of iQ.com, says his initial worries that Sanchez’s highly visible religious practice might affect his performance have faded. “We call him Minister of Buzz,” he quips. “He can spin it the right way.” Adds Tony Hoeber, co-founder and chief technology officer: “It’s good what he’s doing. It reminds us that there’s a commitment to the sacred. It’d be more of a problem if there was a perception that someone’s not [professionally] committed.”

Sanchez appears as committed to the goal of professional success as he is to becoming a priest. And he has no plans to renounce his current career even once he does enter the priesthood “” with or without the Great IPO in the Sky.

— Susan Moran