A Zen teacher from the 9th century in China could sometimes be heard having a stern conversation with himself: “Master Zuigan!” he would call out. “Yes?,” he would inquire, “Are you here?” “Yes!” He responded to himself.
How sweet, how odd, and how wonderful! This Zen teacher underscores how challenging it can be to be present, to show up, to be present for ourselves, and for our lives. And he didn’t have a smart phone, the internet, or television to contend with. It seems that showing up and being fully present has always been challenging.
I’ve been reading a book by poet Jane Hirshfield called Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry. In an essay about concentration she says:
“Violinists practicing scales and dancers repeating the same movements over decades are not simply warming up or mechanically training their muscles. They are learning how to attend unswervingly, moment by moment, to themselves and their art; learning to come into steady presence, free from the distractions of interest or boredom.”
How can we learn to attend to ourselves, to our relationships, our work, our lives? What prevents us from the simple act of showing up? Fear, greed, wanting what we don’t have, not wanting what we have. Or as Jane points out – the distractions of interest or boredom – the need to be entertained or the anxiety and distraction of not being entertained.
How can we be more present? By practicing again and again, noticing when we are present and when we are not. By leaning in toward our fears, and our discomfort. As well as embracing our joy and our appreciation. As Jon Kabat Zinn says, being present for the “full catastrophe” of being alive, of being human.
I like the practice of Zen teacher Zuigan, “Are you here?” He asks himself. “Yes!” We can all try this – are you here? – when listening to another person, when driving a car, when eating your food. Checking in with ourselves – what’s happening, right now, with your thinking, your feelings. What’s in your heart?
There is a famous story from the Zen tradition that has been passed down for more than a thousand years, about two Zen teachers discussing a primary issue of where we put our focus and attention:
One teacher asks another, “Where do you come from?”
The second replies, “From the south.”
The first asks, “How is Zen practice in the South these days?”
The second responds, “There is lots of discussion.”
The first states, “How can all the discussion compare to planting the fields and cooking rice?
The second asks, “What are you doing about the world?”
The first replies, “What do you call the world?”
What do you call the world? How do you take care of the world and take care of yourself?
I find myself grappling with this question: What is the world and how do I take care of world and at the same time, how do I take care of myself – earning a living, shopping, cooking, eating, helping others, to solving the problems of “the world.” Could I be doing more and how can I have the most impact, best leverage my time and resources.
And the larger, underlying question – What do you call the world?
Many of us are committed to taking care of the world. We work hard to take care of our financial world, our family world, our internet/phone/electronic worlds, the world of our friends, our communities, the world of our body, and our spiritual worlds. Each person we meet is like their own world. Each experience we have can be its own world. Every organization is its own world. Sometimes each moment can seem like its own world; when we slow down enough to notice.
The question that this dialogue is raising is – What really matters? In what way is our activity helping, or not? What about the world of being, the world of just doing the simple, mundane things; things like planting the fields and cooking rice; things like meditation and other less goal-oriented activities; things like taking care of our children, or tending to our lives and the lives of others. What about taking care of these?
This simple dialogue also raises the issue of context and control – how much do we create our worlds, as well as the different worlds that exist and are created around us. What can we influence and what is beyond our influence?
There are many ways, small and large to change the world. One powerful way is to change the structure of corporations. I’m excited about the creation of a new corporate structure called a For-Benefit Corporation or a B-Corp, now legal in several states including the state of California. This movement has the potential for creating significant systemic change. Whereas the definition of a corporation today is that its sole responsibility is to maximize profits for its shareholders, a For-Benefit corporation has a different, wider responsibility built into its corporate By-Laws. A B-Corp’s responsibility is to be of benefit to its stakeholders and its customers. It operates with not just one bottom line, profits, but with three bottom lines: people, planet, profits.
Capitalism without a conscious is destructive and foolish. Just look slightly beneath the surface, at the damaging effects of our food supply systems, our manufacturing systems, issues of social and economic injustice. Building a society where greed is the only value leads to many unintended harmful consequences. The brilliance of redefining corporations is that it allows for all of the advantages of free markets combined with the consciousness and sensibility of taking care of people and the environment.
Balance: Forget about balance. We are always out of balance. Always in perfect balance.
I sat meditation this morning as I do nearly every morning at about 6:00 a.m. This morning it was quiet, dark and cold. A wonderful way to begin my mornings. I don’t take it for granted, the privilege to begin my day in this way. The privilege to live in a place where I can feel safe. The privilege of having a body and mind, to be able to sit cross legged on a black cushion. I know I won’t always be able to cross my legs. What a pity, impermanence. And how wonderful and mysterious. And I don’t like it, that I won’t always be able to sit, to hug my wife and children, to chop fresh garlic for zucchini soup, to walk to the beach with my friends. I often think of creating a support group called BAC, Buddhist’s Against Change.
It is effortful and more painful, at times, to sit in this way then it was 10 years ago; more difficult than 35 years ago. And so much easier then when I first began my sitting practice, when I was 21 years old. My legs and hips were stiff and inflexible. Sitting every morning I could see and feel my hips opening, a little each day, my knees began lowering toward the ground, until sitting in this cross-legged posture began to feel more comfortable than sitting in a chair. This posture became my home.
I don’t take it for granted, the privilege of being able to follow my breath on this cold and dark December morning. It is pitch black dark this morning. I notice this as I bow toward my cushion, turn clockwise and bow away. This motion, this routine that I have performed innumerable times. Sometimes paying attention, sometimes lost in thought. This morning, I notice and I don’t take it for granted. Like a ballet dancer, my hands raise from my sides and palms come together. I bow from my hips, toward my cushion, turn clockwise and bow again. I notice. I don’t take this dance for granted.
This ritual that was taught to me, passed on from person to person, over hundreds, perhaps thousands of years, passed on from warm hand to warm hand. It is unusually dark, black dark, no light. I remember – The street light outside the window of my home is broken. As I notice the absence of light I’m reminded that I called PG & E a month ago to report that it was broken; then called again a week ago to find out when it would be fixed. The second time I called the woman from PG&E said she would resend the request and mark it as “critical.” This was a week ago, I thought. Perhaps I need to call 911 to get their attention, I thought. This dialogue with myself happened in a millisecond, as I sit on my cushion. I’m annoyed, settling, swaying my upper body from side to side, amused at myself. Amused at it all. I don’t take any of this for granted, as I gently bring my attention back to my breath, body, and feelings. Knowing that this won’t always be the case, to experience darkness, to miss the light, to be annoyed, amused about anything, to be able to bring my attention back, again and again.
I glance at my clock on the bookshelf. It says 6:30. Thirty minutes seems to go by in an instant this morning. This isn’t always the case. I begin to slowly move my head, shoulders and upper body from side to side, an ancient routine for transitioning from meditation to entering the world. The words of Shunryu Suzuki float into my mind. “Swaying from side to side is not preparation, not transitioning for anything. This too is meditation.” Where is the line between meditation and not meditation, between paying attention, and not paying attention, the line between amusement and annoyance, the line between birth and death; these few delicious and impossible moments of time we call our lives. Just show up, fully alive. Just appreciate being alive. Just meet yourself, meet each situation, alive, and juicy, and boring. Broken and whole, completely in balance and completely out of balance.
I stand up. Noticing the stiffness in my legs, feet, lower back. Appreciating each creak and grown of this body as “they” say in Zen this “bag of bones.” I turn and bow toward my cushion. I turn clockwise and bow away from my cushion. Bowing to you, to my family, to my friends; bowing to the world. Bowing to the Buddha that is me, the Buddha that is you. Remembering Buddha; letting go of Buddha.
As I bow to my cushion there is a strange sensation under my bare and cold right foot. “What? What is that?”, I ask myself. What is under my foot, lying on my rug? I reach down in the black empty darkness, reach down, and there is an object in my hands. My glasses! The glasses I took off and placed in front of me 30 minutes ago. My beautiful, old dependable pieces of wire and glass that turn the world from fuzziness to sharpness, from out of focus to clarity. I forgot about them. I stepped on them, thoughtlessly. I feel ashamed, forgetful. I smile. Ah, so happy these glasses are flexible, nearly unbreakable. They easily return to their original shape.
In that instant, that moment my glasses become my teacher. Turning fuzziness into clarity, resilient, returning to their original shape. They are not ashamed. “What is your original face before your mother and father are born?” My glasses help me understand this silly and profound Zen question. I place them on my face; this time paying attention. I’m delighted, grateful. I smile. Feelings arise. I bow to my glasses, my shame, my resilience. I notice a tear, perfectly balanced under my left eye. I don’t take any of this for granted, the tear, slowly rolls, gone. The traces of thoughts, bows, darkness, tears, longing, memories, shame, aliveness, black cushions, Buddha, sweet caresses.
“If you have these two things – the willingness to change, and the acceptance of everything as it comes, you will have all you need to work with.”
– Charlotte Selver
“Don’t stop the line.” For many years this was an agreement, almost an unwritten law of the General Motors assembly lines building cars and trucks. Management believed that keeping the car assembly line going at all times was essential. Keeping the line going was clearly more efficient than stopping the line. According to a 30-year GM employee, management assumed that “If the line stopped workers would play cards or goof off.” As a result of this philosophy and way of working, problems were ignored instead of addressed. Defective cars, some missing parts, or cars with parts put on backwards were put into their own special “defective” lot. This lot grew to enormous proportions. At some point, addressing and fixing these problem cars became too costly.
In late 2008, a group of General Motors assembly workers were sent to Fremont, California, as part of a GM/Toyota collaboration called NUMMI (New United Motor Manufacturing, Inc.). Several GM managers were flown to Japan to learn the Japanese methodology for building cars. What they discovered— was an amazing aha! Anyone on the assembly line who had a concern about the quality of a part could stop the line at any time. Problems were addressed immediately. Groups of workers got together and address and solved problems. Toyota managers assumed that their workers wanted to build the best cars possible. At Toyota, constant improvement was a regular motto and attitude, and was regularly integrated within all aspects of car production. Teams were assembled to discuss problems, look for insights, and develop better methods for producing problem-free cars. Toyota consistently built better quality cars with more efficiency and lower costs.
General Motors went into bankruptcy and needed to be bailed out in 2008 by American taxpayers for many reasons. There were so many problems facing the company, but one notable contribution to its downfall was producing a poor quality product caused in part by not stopping and solving significant problems. I imagine that this “don’t stop the line” attitude was embedded in the company’s planning and strategy as well as assembly line. Just keep doing what we are doing and everything will be fine.
It is easy to look at GM and see their folly, and this particular GM tale is a well-known story in today’s organizational effectiveness lore. But what about my company and your company or organization? In my coaching and consulting practice, I notice many versions of “don’t stop the line.” It might take the form of “don’t question the boss” or “don’t confront the rude star salesperson.” It can also come in the guise of spending more time projecting and planning instead of cultivating strategic and critical thinking. There are many other subtle and not so subtle behaviors and habits of overlooking problems in the world of work. Stopping, admitting mistakes, working collaboratively and improving processes that are for the good of the organization, require courage and often require asking difficult questions.
What version of “don’t stop the line” is embedded in your organization, relationships, and life? What might stopping look like? What would courage look like?
“I am always doing that which I cannot do, in order that I may learn how to do it.”
– Pablo Picasso
“The antidote to exhaustion is not rest. The antidote to exhaustion is wholeheartedness.”
– Brother David Steindl-rast
I was recently sitting in the office of a senior executive of a major corporation in the San Francisco Bay Area. We were meeting for the first time. During this conversation he shared with me his disappointment about work. “What happened?” he pondered. He had begun this job with such excitement and enthusiasm and now he felt discouraged and tired. “How did I get so busy, and disconnected? What happened to the enthusiasm and excitement I had for life as a child? When did my life get so out of balance?”
It is easy to fall into ruts of thinking, patterns of activity, false and undermining assumptions about our lives. If we continually make choices to be safe and secure, little by little we can find ourselves safe, secure and our edges dulled, work as more drudgery then heroic, and our relationships predictable.
Some questions I began with: Is there something you love about your work? Or, what might you love about your work? What do you look forward to doing? What brings you joy? What inspires you?
I asked: Who has been your most inspiring mentor, in your life or that you have read about?
I also recounted a short but powerful dialogue that comes from the Zen tradition: A student approached her teacher and says, “I’m feeling discouraged. What should I do?” The teacher responds by saying, “Encourage others.”
This executive has three people who report to him and oversees a department of more than 30 people. Imagine how his team must feel. Even if he doesn’t express his dissatisfaction, I imagine others can feel it and are influenced by it. Our emotions are contagious. Sometimes a way to shift our own mood is to become more aware of those around us. How can we help those we work with; how can we encourage others.
I also asked about some areas of his life that I think of as the most obvious and often the most important:
Sleep – what can you do to get a good night’s sleep.
Exercise – do you walk or play or exercise for at least 30 minutes a day.
Food – do you pay attention to eating good, healthy food.
Conversations – do you have at least a few meaningful conversations each day, conversations where you are connecting on the level of your emotional life.
If you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it’s going to spend its life believing it’s an idiot. – Einstein
We are all heroes on our own journey. Sometimes we forget. Whatever we are doing, however mundane, however meaningful, this moment is unique and cannot be repeated.
We are always in some kind of transition. Writing now for me is a transition. I begin the process, setting out from the known to the unknown. I leave the comfortable world of not saying anything. Now, what to write? Then, at some point this transition will be complete.
The hero’s journey, our hero’s journey is like this. We set forth toward something, leaving the comfort of what we know. At this stage of the journey we need to let go of something. What is it that needs to be let go of for you in your life?
Then we enter the unknown. At this stage we might find some help in the way of guides or allies or mentors. We may encounter difficulties and challenges. We may find our power.
Then, we find our way, for now. Whether we are in the midst of a large life-changing transition or a small change. We open to something new; we find our way home.
Zen practice offers the realization that we are always in transition, and that we are always home. Our journey is to move from anxiety and difficulty to peace and freedom. And, we don’t need to wait; we can find peace and freedom with each step along the way.
What are some of the transitions you find yourself in now?
When deciding about the work I do, I envision three circles: Impact, Joy, and Financial Sustainability. Does my work have positive impact, does it bring joy to me and to others, and is it financially sustainable for my life?
First, just applying these criteria shifts my focus from fear, worry and survival; shifts my attention from my day-to-day concerns to something larger, to how I want to show up, to how I want to live. There is certainly a lot to be afraid of and to worry about. There is so much instability in many parts of our economy, in our relationships, and our lives. And yet, where do we choose to put our attention?
When it comes to work, I choose to put my attention on doing what has impact, what brings joy, and moves me toward financial sustainability.
Impact may mean helping one person, a team, or a company. I remember once when I was about to lead a workshop in which there were six people registered, being upset at the low registration. I was hoping for at least ten people. When I mentioned this to my son, his response was, “Dad, even if you can positively impact the life of one person, isn’t that enough?” The workshop, with six people turned out to be wonderful. A small community formed and went on to meet several additional times over the course of the year.
There are many ways, small and large, to positively impact others in our work – those we work with and those we serve. Sometimes just listening, paying attention to another person can make a large difference. From another perspective, a great question to ask is – How does my work serve others? How could I have more impact?
We usually don’t think of joy as being important in our work. Buy why is that? Most of us spend more time at work than any other place in our lives. Why not look for ways to bring a sense of lightness and enjoyment to what we do.
This criteria of joy also raises the question – what do you really like doing; what is nourishing, challenging, interesting to you. Is what you are doing aligned with the answers to these questions? What steps might you take to bring your work more in line with a sense of joy.
Money and issues of financial stability are complex and personal. Of course we all need to pay the bills, to earn enough income to meet our basic needs. With the current state of our economy this may be no small matter. People sometimes make work decision based solely on money, sometimes with the belief that money brings more joy and impact. Other times, people seek money as a response to fear or a desire for power. The point of having this criteria is to bring more awareness to the question – What is financial sustainability for me? How can I do work that is financially sustainable.
Does my work have impact? Does it bring me joy? Does it bring me financial sustainability?
“The essence of personal mastery is learning how to generate and sustain creative tension in our lives.” – Peter Senge, The Fifth Discipline
Personal mastery is the practice of increasing our awareness, reducing our blind spots, and developing our responsiveness. Creative tension can be defined as the gap between where we are now and what we want. This creative tension might exist in many aspects of our lives – our relationships, our work, particular projects and aspirations, or creative endeavors such as writing, or art, or something physical. Or it might be in answering the question, what is my calling; why am I here on this planet?
Creative tension requires two important practices. One, is knowing what we want. Second is knowing where we are in relation to what we want. I’m reminded of the words of my mentor Harry Roberts, a Yurok, shaman, phd agronomist who sometimes said that life is simple; we just need to answer three questions: What do you want; What do you have to do to get it: and, can you pay the price? He would laugh, saying that most people never even ask the first question.
The second practice, knowing where we are means knowing our feelings, our inner voices, the stories we tell about our vision, competence, and power. It also means knowing who are supporters and allies are as well as understanding the source of our power.
Though creative tension is essential, Senge points out how we often confuse creative tension with emotional tension or stress. To reduce our emotional stress we may respond to creative tension by:
– Lowering our vision or goals
– Motivating ourselves through fear and stress
– Using sheer will power (“having lost sight of our goals, we redouble our efforts.”)
What to do? Spend time reflecting, unpacking, and clarifying your calling. What inspires you; really, what brings you joy. What has meaning in your life?
Spend time assessing where you are in relation to what you want. This often requires guides, in the form of a therapist, coach, mentor or some kind of group or community. And, develop healthy routines – getting enough sleep, a regular meditation practice, having real conversations – paying attention to your physical, emotional, social, and financial life.
“When you prepare food, do not see with ordinary eyes and do not think with ordinary mind.”
This quote is from a document titled Instructions to the Head Cook, written by Eihei Dogen in 13th century Japan. Dogen is one of the most revered teachers in the Zen tradition. His temple, Eiheiji is one of the premier training temples in Japan today.
I find it an encouraging and inspiring reminder for the 21st century; how to cultivate an attitude of caring, a spirit of generosity and of focus, right here in my kitchen. I can do this while chopping vegetables, steaming kale, or washing dishes. Meditation, bringing awareness and focus to day-to-day activities, can be done anywhere, even in the kitchen.
Dogen goes on to say, in his instruction to the Cook, that you should bring three minds to your work in the kitchen: Joyful Mind, Grandmother Mind, and Big Mind. Joyful Mind is somewhat obvious, but not always easy to practice – enjoy what you do in the kitchen. Be present, have fun, create an atmosphere that is playful and alive. Bring your knives and vegetables and pots and pans alive.
Grandmother Mind is the attitude of unconditional love of sincerity and of acceptance. Imagine planning, cooking, and cleaning with this mind, working with others with this mind, and serving food with the mind of grandmotherly love and acceptance.
Big Mind is the mind that is wide and open, accepting things as they are. There is an expression in the Zen tradition that says “The Way is easy; just avoid picking and choosing. When you give up grasping and rejecting, the Way unfolds before you.” This is pointing to the spirit of Big Mind. On one level, impossible. On another, this is how are lives really are, beyond picking and choosing. And yet, what should we make for dinner?
Experiment. Bring into your simple activities of working in the kitchen — the mind of joy, grandmother mind, and big mind.
We learn from the past what to predict for the future and then live the future we expect…. Predictions based on the past allow for more efficient brain function in the present, but can lead to mistakes.
— Regina Pally, The Predictive Brain
In the Zen tradition, there is a famous dialogue between two leading teachers in sixth-century China, a time when Zen was flourishing. One teacher asked another: “What is the Way?” This is another way of asking — How can I live a happy, meaningful life? Or, How can I find real freedom? The other teacher responded, much to the first teacher’s surprise, “Ordinary mind is the Way.”
I find this to be a wonderful, encouraging answer, as well as a terrific way to cut through our ideas and assumptions. This was not the answer that was expected or assumed, then or now. Ordinary mind is the way. Just trusting, or returning to, our ordinary mind is the way to find happiness and meaning! To find satisfaction, composure, and results — we don’t need anything extra, fancy, or special. We don’t need to do or add more; we need to do less! We just need to let go of some of our assumptions, particularly our thinking that our freedom and happiness lie someplace else, or during some other time, or with some other mind. Instead, let’s be guided by our inclusive, playful, mysterious, and plain ordinary minds.