“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.
“Put aside the intellectual practice of investigating words and chasing phrases, and learn to take the backward step that turns the light and shines it inward.”
These words are from Zen teacher Dogen Zenji who lived in Japan during the 13th century. I mentioned this “backwards step” to a friend recently and he replied, “but be careful; don’t take it when you are standing at the edge of a cliff.”
We laughed, and in thinking more about his comment, the problem, when it comes to change, is that we always think we are standing at the edge of a cliff, though, of course, we rarely are. Letting go of the known, familiar and comfortable is difficult. What we don’t know feels dangerous. This, I think, is why we hold on so tightly to what we have and know, even if it is not serving us. This must be where the expression “The devil you know is better than the devil you don’t” comes from; reinforcing the idea that change is always bad.
A simple model of change that I find to be useful, for myself and in the teaching that I do, is a three step approach:
1) Letting go of what is either gone or needs to be let go of
2) Being in a place where we don’t know.
3) New openings and new beginnings
Letting go – This is what Dogen Zenji was referring to as the backwards step, at least in part. Sometimes this happens to us beyond our choice – people leave us, people die, property is destroyed or any number of changes happen beyond our choice. We can also choose to make changes – letting go of routines and habits, changing course in relationships or with work.
Not knowing – Most of us want to skip this step. I do. I’d rather be comfortable and know then uncomfortable and not know. Many times we don’t have a choice. Yet, how valuable, though painful it can be to stay in this place of not knowing. Another wonderful expression from the Zen tradition proclaims that “not knowing is most intimate.”
New openings – Often beyond our planning and our control, new possibilities, new openings, and new beginnings emerge. This may take time, or not. The process may be painful or joyful.
I find myself asking the question, What do I need to let go of?; in my routines, my relationship, and my work. Just asking this question helps make room for change and growth.
A great place to begin is with the question – What do you need to let go of?
When my two children were in elementary school, a weekly day of doing less was an important part of our family ritual. We borrowed some ideas from the Jewish Sabbath as well as Buddhist Day of Mindfulness practices. At the heart of our day we had three simple rules that we applied from sundown on Friday until sundown on Saturday evening:
Rule #1: There was no spending money.
Rule #2: There was no watching television.
Rule #3: We did something together as a family.
These three guidelines produced significant results in the quality of those twenty-four hours. What a relief to not buy anything, not have the television on, and spend time simply enjoying each other’s presence. My wife and I talked more with our two children; we read books, told stories, played games, went for walks, and shared meals. The biggest benefit of this structured break was that, for a day, the pace of our lives slowed down and our family connections increased.
One of my favorite parts of this ritual was the formal ending. We observed the Jewish tradition of looking for the first three stars to become visible on Saturday evening, signaling that Sabbath was over. It was fun and exciting for the four of us to stand on our deck together, seeing who could find the three stars as the sun faded and nighttime slowly emerged. Of course, since we live in Marin County, dense fog sometimes forced us to use our imaginations.
To go to war or not to go to war? To act or to wait and see? Women’s rights or the rights of the unborn? Collaborate or challenge? Step forward or step back?
What is our real motivation? How do we decide? Where do we stand?
There is a story, a koan in Zen: “How do you step from the top of a 100 foot pole?”
I was thinking of a New York Times book review I read some time ago about the life of Alfred Kinsey, the famous sex research scientist. His research and books regarding the trends and variety of sexual practices were groundbreaking at the time. The review described the book as an exposé, highlighting the paradox and the alleged gap between Kinsey the person, contrasted with the public image of being a completely detached, non-involved, non-emotional scientist. The book describes Mr. Kinsey as a human being whose emotions were messy and whose personal life was colorful and erratic. The book points to the animal side, or the range of uncontrolled emotions and instincts; in contrast to the more scientific or spiritual side of human beings. The point of the book is in some way the scientific or spiritual is not real or solid, in comparison to the fact of our animal side.
Animal side, spiritual side; in what ways are they connected or opposed? Native American cultures and shaman traditions and many wisdom traditions have well-developed ways of integrating the so-called animal and spiritual sides. Each of us, particularly we as westerners, steeped in the scientific tradition, when we hear these words, has our own spin, history, opinions, conditioning. It is easy to get caught by these words and ideas, to think and believe, and fight wars over these ideas and distinctions.
From a Buddhist view, all emotions that keep us from seeing things as they are, or emotions that unnecessarily push us out of equilibrium can be called destructive. Our practice is to become intimately familiar with our so-called animal side and spiritual side, to go beyond these labels and return to our authentic, free and un-nameable natures. This koan says that in order to do this, to be genuine, we must be willing step from the top of a pole. That is, to step outside of our usual safety, to go beyond our comfort zones.
What are you really feeling? What’s under that, and what’s under that? It is so easy to hide from our real feelings and to obscure our feelings and emotions.
This is one reason why working with a teacher and working with a community is so important. All of us, no matter how much effort we make, are not always capable of seeing clearly. We are like fish in our own tank. Little by little the water can get dirty, and since it is just a little bit each day we don’t even notice it is dirty. Then our friend or teacher comes into our space and it is so obvious – hey, the water here is pretty dirty. Even though we may be working hard each, with the intention of cleaning the water, we may not notice the subtle leaks, the ones we can’t see, that may be obvious to those around us.
Stepping off the 100 ft pole can be as simple as paying attention, truly investigating reality. It may mean really listening to ourselves and those around us. Sometimes this means inquiring deeply about our feelings and emotions. Sometimes it means being open to a friend or teacher; being willing to be open to the perceptions and perspectives of our friends and teachers.
Destructive emotions can be summarized by five negative emotions: hatred, desire, confusion, pride, and jealousy. The more you examine, the deeper you look into the source of the human mind, the more these emotions appear, and the more they fade and disappear. At the core of these destructive emotions is actually a core of clarity, and brilliance, something not in any way harmful.
These obscuring emotions can be on the surface and they can run deep, getting in the way of how we see the world, the nature of things, our view of permanence and impermanence. These emotions actually cause us to lose our freedom. Thoughts become chained in a particular way, affecting how we think, speak and act
Meditation practice is another way to work with negative emotions. Sitting practice allows us to investigate the reality of our minds, feelings and emotions, to just watch. At a subtler level we can begin to allow some space in our thinking and feelings, to undo some of our conditioning; the embedded way that our feelings and emotions are part of our bodies. We see that the emotions themselves are not the problem; it’s the attachment to the emotions, the way they take hold of us and the gaps between our emotions and what really is.
1) If you are feeling hatred, practice love and compassion.
2) If you feel jealousy, practice kindness and joy.
3) You go first:
If what you want from your friend or spouse is more openness, acceptance and love, then you go first. You practice being more open, accepting and loving of the other person. If you want and need more vulnerability, sharing and risk taking; then you go first – be more vulnerable, more disclosing and more risk taking. Your actions, your going first is the antidote for whatever it is you find lacking in others. You have the courage and skill to take these actions because through your meditation practice you have a taste of impermanence and a taste of emptiness, – you come to know that everything is empty of being separate.
Since our lives are so short, everything we do is quite significant. And, the fact that we are not separate from others doesn’t mean that therefore we don’t have to take things personally. Again, just the opposite. Everything is personal, everything is important.
The koan says that you step from the pole. It doesn’t say that you wait for someone else to step from the pole.
Stepping from the pole is being willing to enter new territory, to say things that are not rehearsed, not safe, not part of our conditioning. The term “beginner’s mind” is easy to mention, especially when talking about others. But what really is beginner’s mind? How do we practice beginners mind not only on our meditation cushions but in our lives – with our spouses, lovers, children, parents, co-workers.
Stepping from a 100 foot pole is to step out from behind ourselves and our habits. This doesn’t mean to step away from our pain and confusion, and our messy, unpleasant emotional life. Instead, stepping from the 100 foot pole is just the opposite – we step directly into our feelings and emotions, our motivations and condition. We step and embrace whatever is most messy and difficult. We inquire. Ask others – Is there a way that my words hurt you? Have I done anything that causes you pain? Please tell me. Please let me know how I can support and be there for you. How can I express my love and care for you?
Why is it so difficult to talk with those we love in this way? What kind of armor do we have on that prevents us from being real and disclosing? What is this treasure we are protecting, this idea that we need to keep things safe?
You who sit on the top of a hundred foot pole,
Although you have entered the Way, it is not genuine.
Take a step from the top of the pole
And the entire universe is in your eye
The goal of our life’s effort is to reach the other shore…the true wisdom of life is that in each step of the way, the other shore is actually reached. To reach the other shore with each step of the crossing is the way of true living.
– Shunryu Suzuki, from Zen Mind Beginner’s Mind
It is important to have goals, in our work and in our lives outside of work. Goals provide a target to aim for, whether we want to reach certain revenues, develop new products, reduce disease or violence, or lose weight. Goals provide benchmarks and allow us to make appropriate and useful adjustments as we move along the path toward meeting these goals.
Whereas goals act as the “what” we want to achieve, our intentions can act as the “how.” Our intentions can clarify the spirit and attitude with which we want to pursue our goals. Goals, by definition are something in the future. An intention can be right now, in this moment. We may have a one-year or three-year or five-year goal. Our intention can begin immediately and can act as a container in which we move toward our goals.
I understand that intentions have gotten a bad name (i.e. “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”) Of course, decisions we make with certain intentions may have outcomes that were not intended. We can’t hide behind our intentions. Instead we can act both boldly and with humility, learning from our mistakes, adjusting as needed.
Having goals can be powerful. Taking an idea and committing to it has weight and gives energy and meaning to our activities.
Setting intentions can also be powerful. Our intention might be to work with less stress, to live with more joy, to meet difficulties and opportunities more openly and directly. Intentions can act as a compass to keep us more alive and more focused, as we pursue our goals.
In the Shunryu Suzuki quote above he is saying that our real goal, the goal that truly matters in our lives is the goal of finding complete freedom, to live a life of responsiveness, of joy, love, and compassion; to free ourselves from small-mindedness, self-centeredness, and an ego-centric existence. This is the true goal of being a human being. Our deep intention is to live in a manner in which we are reaching our goals in each moment, without waiting. We don’t need to be attached to some outcome in the future. We make our best effort, not only to meet our goals, but to set an intention to live with freedom and compassion; right now, in this moment.
I recently led a 3-day retreat called Step Into Your Life. We began the retreat by asking everyone to write down their intention for these days together. At the end of the retreat we all checked in with what we wrote at the beginning of the retreat.
What is your intention for today, for this week, and this year?
I was recently celebrating my friend Darlene Cohen’s life by re-reading one of her books, Turning Suffering Inside Out. Darlene was a wonderful, brilliant, outrageous person, and long-time Zen teacher. She suffered much of her life from severe rheumatoid arthritis. She embodied her teaching through working with and learning from her difficulty, and exuded both joy and wisdom.
I often think about my plans and my future. I imagine we all do. In Darlene’s book she writes about the time in her life when she and her husband and son left residence in the San Francisco Zen Center. Darlene was a teacher for many students and also had a practice of helping people who were in physical plan. Many of her clients began to be concerned about her and asked about her financial plans and her life plans. She began to feel irresponsible, especially since she had a family, and decided that she did indeed need to develop a five-year and ten-year plan.
This task was so important that she decided to spend an entire day devoted to this exercise. (Yes, this made me laugh…) So, on this special day, a warm Spring Sunday in San Francisco, she and her husband packed yellow legal pads and pens in their backpacks and went off on a bike ride. They stopped for coffee and pastries and rode through beautiful places along the bay. Finally by late morning they were ready to take up the task at hand. They sat down in a coffee shop, got out their pads and pens, and readied themselves for the task at hand – writing their five and ten year plan. But, nothing happened. There was tremendous resistance.
Then, Darlene says, she realized that she became clear about her five and ten year plan during the bicycle ride. For the next five and ten years she would do exactly what she had done for the past five and ten years – meditate, work with her students, and continue working with clients who were in physical pain.
Darlene goes on to say that this doesn’t mean that you should ignore money and finances and financial planning. Of course we all need to take care of our financial lives. However, what she learned was to see and appreciate the life she was already living, to embrace what she loved and appreciated about her life. She did not need to sacrifice the present by worrying unnecessarily about the future.
Darlene died several weeks ago after a long battle with cancer. Now, looking back at her life, when she began to work with cancer, she didn’t have as much money as she needed to pay for alternative treatments. Her friends and students gave her money. When she moved from San Francisco she didn’t have enough money to build a meditation hall in her home. Her friends and students supported her and provided funds for this as well.
I miss my dear friend. And I’m grateful to have her spirit and her teachings of courage – the courage to work with suffering and physical pain, the courage to appreciate the gift of our lives, and the courage and wisdom to turn suffering into joy.
If it seems as though there is never enough time to accomplish all that we intend to do in a day, perhaps it’s all Benjamin Franklin’s fault. In 1784 he famously declared “Time is money.” His intention was to motivate people to work more and shun “idleness.” He worried about the young country’s potential to generate industry and be innovative and industrious. How the pendulum has swung!
Today, one of the more insidious anxieties of modern life is fearing a lack of time. But time is an abstract human concept. The natural world flows seamlessly, a succession of days and nights, moons and suns. The natural world changes, but there is only ever the current moment. Once people invented calendars and clocks, they could measure and divide this endless flow, and time became a thing that could be “spent,” “lost,” or “wasted,” and having a “shortage” of time became a source of stress. Now, if we have a task in front of us, we often pay more attention to the zipping-away, fleeting clock time — the hour or half hour or ten minutes we’ve allotted for finishing the task — than to the task itself. If a task takes longer than expected, if we rush and make mistakes, anxiety sets in, our breathing becomes shallower, and our sense of enjoyment and accomplishment disappears. Frequently, the more we’re distracted by trying to beat the clock, the longer tasks take to complete.
But no matter how well we manage our time, the underlying problem and fear regarding time remains. To transform our fear, we need to change the way we think about and experience time. We have to think of time as more than a ticking clock.
Relative and Absolute Time
Relative time is clock time and psychological time. While relative time is an artificial human construct, it is a compellingly useful one. We can only plan and prioritize in the realm of relative time. Past, present, and future are essential tools for understanding, visioning, and planning. Once we’ve decided what is most important or essential to accomplish, relative time allows us to measure the future (in hours, days, or years) so we can successfully achieve it. In practice, this means reflecting on the past (how long did things take before?), weighing options (how long will it take if I do it this way or that way?), and effectively planning each day so that our time is “spent” effectively, rather than “wasted” by constantly reacting to distractions or focusing on lesser priorities.
Absolute time is the unmeasured, ongoing “now” moment of the natural world, and it is equally important. When we enter the realm of absolute time, we see and experience ourselves and the world beyond the human construct of relative time. In absolute time, there is no “time.” Instead, we become fully aware of and focused on the present moment and the activity in front of us, without regard to past or future. Paradoxically, as we become completely aware and present in absolute time, we also lose an awareness of ourselves. This is what the great thirteenth-century Japanese Zen teacher Eihei Dogen referred to when he said, “To study Buddhism is to study yourself. To study yourself is to forget yourself. To forget yourself is to awaken with everyone and everything.”
We study ourselves in order to become aware of our conditioning, which is the sum of our past experiences. To understand our conditioning is to understand how we project our past into the present and the future. For example, when I say the word sky, you form an image in your mind of the sky. You know what the sky looks like because you’ve seen it before. But your image of sky might be different from mine. More importantly, when you step outside, you might not pay any attention to the sky because you think you already know what it looks like. You’ve seen it a thousand times. However, in truth, the sky is new every moment and never the same — it is always changing, sometimes subtly, sometimes dramatically.
The same is true of ourselves. We think we know who we are, for we have been conditioned by our past experiences. As with relative time, for the sake of convenience, we become set or fixed about our ideas of ourselves — so that we unfold with a reassuring predictability, like the hours of a day. Within the realm of absolute time, however, these increments, these labels from the past, do not exist. Human constructs based in relative time disappear. Experiencing absolute time is to experience the world as it actually is in the moment, and doing so requires that we loosen our ideas and constructs.
When we drop our conditioning, it’s quite remarkable how the ordinary becomes extraordinary: the sky comes alive, the flowers come alive, time comes alive, and our experience comes alive. In this state of aliveness, we are more composed, more ready, and more productive. This sense of aliveness instills a fresh sense of meaning to one’s activities and relationships. It also opens up new possibilities, since we are no longer bound by our past. The result is increased focus, creativity, and productivity. And less fear.
Playing with Time
Here is a way to practice and play with time:
Each day, decide one thing that you want to accomplish during the day. Create a written list of next steps and associated dates when each of these steps will be initiated and projected completion dates.
Each day, spend some time totally unconcerned with time. You can do this by bringing your attention to your breath and your body, for a period of three breaths. Or, bring your attention to flowers or trees or the sky, seeing them as if for the first time. For part of each day, let go of your “to do” list.
“Don’t be a board-carrying fellow.” This expression, sometimes used in Zen, refers to a carpenter carrying a long, wide wooden board on his shoulder, blocking his view in one direction. It is an admonition about seeing the world and ourselves as ordinary and mundane without also considering the sacred, mysterious, and unfathomable aspect of our hearts, minds, and surroundings.
This expression can also help us understand that our work is not separate from our lives. One side, an important and vital side of work, involves goals, achievements, money, ambition, and developing your career. Understanding and implementing the technical and strategic aspects of your work are critical for your organization or business to fulfill its mission.
What about the other side? We are all human beings. We all bring a vast set of rich and complex experiences, skills, patterns, needs, aspirations, and emotions to our work. The other side, often more difficult to see, is the sacred aspect of your work, the way in which your work can expose and transform habits and patterns in your life while uncovering your authentic, compassionate, inner wisdom.
When you remove the board from your shoulder, a new world opens, a new way of understanding yourself, of seeing others and the true meaning of your work. Removing the board doesn’t mean turning your work into a self-help workshop. As a business owner with an M.B.A., I understand the importance of results, hiring and motivating talented people, sales and marketing, strategic planning, and cash flow management, as well as the many skills required to start, manage, and grow a business. As a human being and a Zen teacher, I also understand we all bring our full selves to work: our wishes, dreams, desires, anger, and frustration, as well as a deep yearning to find real inner peace, freedom, and happiness
One of the most famous pieces in Zen literature, read or chanted every day in Zen practice centers, is called the Heart Sutra, which in a few paragraphs describes the essential path of Zen practice. A phrase from the Heart Sutra says, “without any hindrances, no fears exist.” These hindrances are the ways in which we protect ourselves, shield our hearts, and keep ourselves closed and separate. Zen practice provides a method and discipline for identifying and loosening the ways we get in our own way. It helps us move from living and acting from fear, to living and acting with fearlessness. By searching for safety and control, and from responding out of fear, without realizing it, we sacrifice the freedom, flexibility, and connections that are our birthright.