10 Life-Changing Books To Read In 2010, Or Any Time

The Practice of Right View

I was drawn to Zen practice as a path and practice to finding real freedom, to owning, respecting, and trusting this ordinary, precious life. My practice began, and is regularly encouraged by noticing where and when I am not awake, where I am holding, avoiding, tight. I didn’t know it at the time but, this could be a description of the practice of Right View.

As I was preparing to give a recent talk, I noticed a part of me was tight. My reaction to this tightness was to further contract. I thought – oh, won’t it feel better when this talk is over. What a relief that will be. I was looking into the future, and avoiding any kind of stress, any kind of being uncomfortable.

Then I had to smile, to laugh at myself. Here is another opportunity to step right into contraction, not avoid or suppress it, and step into the moment. After all, no one is dragging me out to talk. In fact, for me speaking in public is how I let go of fear and tightness. As I was thinking about this talk, my hope is to step out of my comfort zone, and ideally for us all to step out of our comfort and habits. I hope that what I’m discovering, as well as what you are discovering is contagious, and we can all find more ease and freedom, right here and now.

So, my question, that I began asking early in my life – What does it mean to be a human being? And more recently what does it mean to be a human being on earth, at a time where living systems are declining, where the actions of our society are threatening the planet we call our home? I’m particularly interested in the way these seemingly separate issues – our own views and perceptions, our spiritual practice and how we engage with environmental issues, with war and peace, with are planet, are connected – how it is a mirage that these are separate issues. What is right view?

Right view is the faith and confidence that we can transform our views, transform our deeply held perceptions and reactions.

Just a few days ago President Obama accepted the Nobel Peace prize; and simultaneously spoke about war, and a just war and peace. Is there such a thing? What is the perspective of right view – killing people to make the world safer? What is right view in this situation?

At the same time, our world leaders were meeting in Copenhagen. Nearly all agree on the severity of the problem – from the economic costs to the threat of the health and survival of our planet.

This so called ordinary world is anything but ordinary – Buckmister Fuller said that spaceship earth was so ingeniously designed, we have no clue we are on one – hurtling through the universe, unaware of the speed, no sense of danger, no need for seatbelts.

Ralph Waldo Emerson once asked what we would do if the stars only came out once every thousand years. Of course, no one would sleep that night. We might all be joined by a sense of rapture and joy. Instead, the stars come out every night, and we play video games or watch television.

What if we didn’t take our hands, our eyes, our hearts for granted. What if we realized that the trees, and flowers, the wind and the rain, our planet earth is not separate from our bodies and minds? What if we could experience the miracle of our bodies, of our minds, of our ability to read other’s energy.

Quantum physics describes that we live in an infinite number of universes. What we call Events, happen not in one universe, but many. The question “Who am I?” is merely a 20-watt fountain of energy operating in the brain. This energy doesn’t go away after death. Energy doesn’t’ die; it cannot be created nor destroyed.

Quantum physics (and Zen Buddhism) says that space and time are not what we think. Everything we see and experience right now is a whirl of information occurring in your mind. Space and time are the tools for putting everything together.

“People like us know that the distinction between past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.” Einstein.

From an ancient Buddhist text – “You should absorb yourself in contemplation in such a way that you manifest the nature of an ordinary person, without abandoning your cultivated spiritual nature.”

How can we live in the spiritual universe and simultaneously live in the ordinary world, the world that needs food and shelter, the world of compassion, and the world of violence and of pain – incredible destruction of our planet. How can we see that these are not two worlds, but one?

Our practice is to cultivate the yoga of ordinariness while simultaneously cultivating spiritual practice. As soon as we see ourselves as separate from nature, or even see ourselves as separate from the troubles and cries of the world; this is a problem.

A basic understanding of right view, is that people/beings are not separate. In fact, separate beings don’t exist in the way we think they do. Separateness is much like the illusion that Einstein described about time – a stubbornly persistent illusion.

Right View is seeing that we don’t need to manufacture love and deep reverence for life. We only need to let go of our views, our deeply held beliefs that get in the way of the love that fills us.

A piece of a poem by David Whyte:
To be human
Is to become visible
While carrying
What is hidden
As a gift to other.

To remember
The other world
In this world
Is to live in your true inheritance.

…What shape waits in the seed
Of you to grow
And spread
Its branches
Against a future sky?

Appreciating Uncertainty

Several years ago, my then twenty-year-old son, Jason, worked in the Brush Dance warehouse; the publishing company I founded and ran. I received the benefit of his insights about the company as well as his suggestions for improvements. Fairly often Jason would suggest that I take him to lunch, and though this meant spending more money then I normally would, the opportunity made me happy.

During one of our many lunch discussions he asked me, “Do you think of yourself as a confident person?” This was the day before I was scheduled to give a lecture at Green Gulch Farm. He went on to say that he was trying to understand how I could be giving lectures, teaching, and running a company. He saw me as somewhat quiet and shy and had a difficult time seeing me as a teacher. “After all, you’ve never taught me anything,” he blurted out. After my initial surprise at hearing these words, I teased him by responding that I had been planning a lecture series for him, which was scheduled to begin the following week.

I went on to explain that as a Zen teacher and as a businessman my confidence lies in the knowledge that I am certain of nothing. I have no idea where I came from or where I am going. I have no idea what will happen to Brush Dance in the future. Realizing and facing this directly, how do we find our own calm, flexibility, and freedom? I think that this is the kind of confidence that Zen students and businesspeople are constantly cultivating — tremendous confidence and trust in our own sincerity and in our effort and in our ability to meet whatever to come our way, the confidence in our ability not to get in the way of our deepest intentions.

On a practical level, we need to have confidence and some trust or faith in ourselves and in our abilities. Ideally, just enough to continually try things that may be beyond our comfort level. Again, in another paradox, cultivating a sense of confidence, a sense of certainty, allows us to jump into the unknown.

Often when I see friends or family whom I have not seen for a while, people will ask me how my business is doing. I find this a difficult question to answer. Wanting to give a truthful answer, I usually say that we are either on the verge of tremendous success, or we are on the verge of tremendous failure.

There is a Zen story in which the Zen master becomes ill. He had always been a healthy and vigorous teacher. One of the monks asks him, “Are you well or not? The teacher responds by saying, “Sun-faced Buddha, Moon-faced Buddha.” The Sun-faced Buddha is supposed to live for more than a thousand years. The Moon-faced Buddha lives only one day and one night. The point of the story is that none of us knows what the future brings. All we can do is be composed, be ourselves, and meet our lives fully. We never know whether we have one day to live or a thousand years. In any case, all we can do is be open and present and make our best effort.

What are you certain of in your work, in your life?
What are you not certain of in your work, in your life?
How do you feel about uncertainty? How do your feelings about uncertainty help you? How do they hinder you?

Kaizen: Small Changes for Big Results

Many times, we resist change because change seems too big. Change is easier to accept, and to practice, when it’s small. This is the secret power of Kaizen.

Originally a Japanese management concept designed to improve business practices, Kaizen is a process aimed at reducing or eliminating unnecessary physical and mental work. It encourages people to create and perform experiments as part of their daily work lives in order to become aware of and eliminate waste in their jobs. The ultimate goal of Kaizen is to accomplish more by doing less.

In the book Gemba Kaizen, Masaaki Imai quotes Edward C. Johnson, III, chairman and CEO of Fidelity Investments: “Kaizen — the spirit that whatever you’re doing, you can do better — gave us the foundation we needed to work as a team in setting and reaching higher service standards. It also helped us successfully weather a rough patch in our investment business. . . . Over the years, we’ve seen many strategies for management success come and go. In my experience, Kaizen is different. It’s not a fad. It helps us focus in a very basic way on how we do our work. The process of doing our work becomes an end in itself as well as a means of gratification. For me, that’s where the real joy comes in.”

A business associate of mine recently had lunch with an executive from Fidelity Investments. The Fidelity executive shared with my friend that Fidelity has more than forty thousand employees and that the term “Kaizen,” though not written down anywhere in the company’s materials, is on the lips of all forty thousand employees.

Then, just by coincidence, a few days after this I met with a local Fidelity representative. Within the first few minutes of our conversation, the representative mentioned the practice of Kaizen. He said that at their weekly staff meetings, each person was expected to address how they had implemented Kaizen in their work — each person was expected to identify one small improvement they made or planned to make in the coming week. This sounded to me like a practical and effective method of enjoying the process of change, rather than resisting and grasping at what is known and comfortable.

Reduce your own resistance to change and practice Kaizen in your own life. Ask yourself: What is one change you could make in your life today that would have an impact in the quality of your day? Everything is constantly changing — your body, your intentions, your life, the environment — and this simple practice lets you gently enter and dance with the stream of change.

Take a moment to reflect and write down your answer to the question — identify one change in your life. This change doesn’t need to be large — just one small, even seemingly insignificant difference. This change could be in the way you do something, it could be something you stop doing, or it could be a small adjustment of your outlook or attitude. By focusing on one item, giving it your attention, and measuring it, you can reduce resistance and increase your effectiveness.
Traditional Kaizen practice is generally guided by three core principles:

1) Results: Create benchmarks and measurements for a process in your work, or for a particular project. Create a way to quantify the impact of the change.
2) Systemic thinking: Pay attention to the larger picture. How does what you do fit into the overall system? Who connects with what you do? How can these systems and relationships be measured and improved?
3) A nonjudgmental, nonblaming attitude: This is an important part of the Kaizen practice. Not only do judgment and blaming interfere with making improvements, but judgment and blaming are by themselves unnecessary and wasteful, and encourage more resistance.

People at all levels of an organization can participate in Kaizen, from the CEO down. And Kaizen can be practiced in any setting: by individuals, by small or large groups, by families. Kaizen is not a competition; it operates under the principle that an individual cannot benefit at another’s expense. It is also never static or finished. In Kaizen methodology, one makes changes, monitors results, and then adjusts, in a continual cycle.

Here is an overview of that cycle:

1) Pay attention to the details, especially the small ones, of your activity.
2) Create goals or benchmarks and ways to compare what you actually do to those benchmarks.
3) Create innovations and put these into action.
4) Pay attention and measure the results of these innovations.
5) Find a way to incorporate these improvements, in ways that are practical and concrete.
6) Continue this cycle.

What’s Your Story?

Every once in a while I like to take beginning improv classes – a great way to explore and develop responsiveness, helps me with not over-thinking, and also a great way to play and have fun. (If you are in San Francisco, check out Bay Area Theater Sports

I once arrived at a class in San Francisco; the teacher entered and announced with much enthusiasm, “Today we are going to do improvised Shakespeare.” I could feel my body tighten; a touch of dread setting in. I turned to the teacher and said that I didn’t have a good deal of experience with Shakespeare, hoping she would change the topic. Instead, she looked at me and responded with an even more enthusiastic, “Great!”

In that moment, my “story” shifted. I was pulled along by her enthusiasm, let go of most of my dread – I didn’t need to be an expert, didn’t need any special preparation. It was ok to be a beginner. I had a really good time in the class. (She did hand out a Shakespeare cheat sheet).

We all tell ourselves, and others, stories about what we do and who we are – I’m competent or I’m not competent; I’m a writer, or I’m not very good at writing; I’m a teacher or not much of a teacher; I’m a father, or not a very good father.

For many years, when I was running Brush Dance, a greeting card and calendar company that I founded, I noticed that one of the stories I often told myself was that I was a survivor. With this story, I had a tendency to keep the company in a survival mode and mentality. We weren’t failing, but we also weren’t thriving. This story may have been useful when the economy was sinking, but became a hindrance as the economy rebounded. For me, this was a powerful and subtle recognition – a story that I learned as part of my family system, growing up in a family struggling to survive.

My book Less: Accomplishing More By Doing Less is essentially about bringing more awareness to our stories and provides tools and practices to transform them. Just by using the word “story” changes the story – it implies that we have a choice, that we make a choice, in how we define ourselves, others, our situations, our world.

Here is something to experiment with, some voices, some stories to explore. You may want to write these down, or just spend some time thinking about these:
– What is your story about success; about failure?
– What is your story about control?
– What is your story about hope?
– What is your story about wisdom?