Don’t Squander Your Power

Living our life deeply and with happiness, having time to care for our loved ones—this is another kind of success, another kind of power, and it is much more important.
– Thich Nhat Hanh

When I was in my early 20s and a young Zen student living at the San Francisco Zen Center’s Green Gulch Farm in Marin County, an older woman Zen teacher of mine looked me in the eyes and said, “Marc, you have a way of pissing away your power.”

I didn’t know what to make of this. I was stunned at her directness. And I was puzzled. Was this a criticism or a compliment? I felt bad, wondering why and how I was not embracing and utilizing my power. At the same time I felt encouraged because I had no idea I had any power to piss away! I thought: Where and what is the power that she sees in me, and that I don’t see? Over whom and in what context? I suspected that this statement was intended as a gift; one human being looking at another, seeing and expressing what they believe is possible in the other person. Not measuring and comparing but acknowledging an intrinsic positive quality. Perhaps at its most basic offering what she said was a compliment, but one couched in language that said ominously, “Don’t squander that gift.”

This statement has been a puzzle, a “koan” for me ever since. A koan in Zen Buddhism is a story that is used to deepen one’s understanding, to transform the way in which one experiences one’s own self and the world, generally by cutting through habits, patterns, and conventional views and attitudes. A koan doesn’t necessarily have an answer but by staying with the question it can develop understanding, uncover hidden places within one’s consciousness, and develop one’s ability for greater insight, understanding, and compassion.

In order to penetrate that rather startling statement that Zen teacher made nearly 30 years ago, I’ve had to stay with it, keep coming back to it, over and over, even when it is uncomfortable. What is my power? How do I express this power? How do I give away my power, and at what loss to me? What if giving away my power is as much a positive as a negative?
I’ve learned since that time (and I continue to learn) that there are a variety of ways that I give away my power. I give away my power:
– when I say yes and mean no
– not being honest about my feelings (acting nice, feeling angry)
– when I stop myself from reaching out to help someone in need
– when I’m not honest about what I want, and don’t want
– when I act on the fear of not being smart or competent enough
– when I do not show the best part of myself, and want to
– when I abdicate the opportunity to make tough decisions.

When we give away our power we give away our sense of belonging, rootedness and of abundance. We feel less able and less connected. Not only do we move from abundance to scarcity; our lives also shift toward greater complication and less simplicity.

I could keep going with this list, but this seems like a good start. I invite you to ask yourself wherein lies your own greatest power? How do you define personal power? How do you claim that power and how have you further developed it? How do you squander or “piss away” your power? Do you want to change that history or tendency? What part of sharing your power makes you feel better about yourself, makes you a more benevolent and effective leader?

Practicing Generosity

During a recent retreat I was leading, where the theme was “Accomplishing More By Doing Less” one of the participants was a recently retired physics professor, whom I’ll call Michael. For the past fifteen years Michael’s work had been his primary focus, and he generally averaged twelve-hour work days. During lunch on the second day of the three-day workshop, he asked me, “When is the theme of this workshop, how to get more done by doing less, going to become clear?” His impatience was obvious. I responded that I thought that everything we were doing in the workshop focused on ways of exploring how to do less.

When we began the next session that afternoon, I suggested to Michael and to the group that so often we can get distracted by searching for answers. Sometimes, slowing down and being generous with ourselves may create space for the right questions to emerge, often slowly, allowing us to go deeper in our lives and open doors to new ways of approaching and resolving thorny issues.

The next morning, the third and last day of the retreat, I could see tears in Michael’s eyes as he began to speak about an insight. He had come to the workshop wanting to better utilize and prioritize his time as he was leaving his busy professional life. What he came to understand, through doing less and experimenting with being generous with himself, was that what really mattered in his life at this time was healing some of the gaps in his relationships with his two grown daughters.

When you can find composure and act with clarity and resolve, right in the midst of your fears, this is a form of generosity that in Buddhism is referred to as “giving the gift of fearlessness.” I remember several years ago someone approached me after I had given a talk to an audience of several hundred people. He said that he noticed that my hands were shaking as I was speaking, yet my voice and body seemed clear and calm. I responded that this was exactly how I felt — shaky, filled with fear, and at the same time, I felt clear and calm.

Try this: Experiment with the practice of generosity. Give your attention, your caring, and your curiosity to those you live with and work with, without expecting anything in return. Take it on as an actual practice. Say yes, to yourself and to others. Notice and write about your acts of generosity as well as the generosity of others.

Adapted from LESS: Accomplishing More By Doing Less

Eyes Are Horizontal. Nose Is Vertical: Radical Simplicity

There is a story from 13th century Japan about Dogen, the founder of Zen in Japan. As a young man he had a variety of burning questions about life and death and how to live a profoundly meaningful and beneficial life. He couldn’t find anyone in all of Japan who could adequately answer his questions, so he ventured across the ocean and traveled to China, where Zen was flourishing at the time. Upon his return from China was asked:

“What did you bring back from China to Japan?”

He said, “I came back empty-handed.”

“What did you learn?”

“Not much, except gentle-heartedness.” He responded.

“And,” he added, “I learned that eyes are horizontal, nose is vertical.”

We expect that this great Zen teacher, the founder of Zen in Japan would have some profound teaching, insights, something intellectually challenging, or at least stimulating. Instead, what we get is – all I learned is 1) He came back empty handed; 2) gentle-heartedness, and 3) eyes are horizontal, nose is vertical.
Perhaps, there are some lessons here, for us, in this place and this time that we can apply to our lives, eight centuries later:

Empty handed – We are born empty-handed, and we will die empty-handed. How simple and freeing, the practice of emptying, the practice of letting go; of what we expect and of the things we think we need. Our minds want some kind of map, some assurance, we want something solid, some protection.

Letting go, to me, is the opposite of avoiding. So often we avoid what is difficult in our lives. Letting go means to face and experience the difficulties, and the joys of our lives fully and directly, without getting all worked up about outcomes. How do we make commitments, act decisively, plan, strive – all with a sense of letting go?

Gentle-heartedness – I can’t help but think of the Dalai Lama quote – “My true religion is kindness.” He could have also said – My true religion is gentle-heartedness. How can we practice gentle-heartedness in the midst of a world filled with difficulty, and violence, poverty, and great disparity? Or perhaps asked differently, how can we not practice gentle-heartedness?

Eyes are horizontal, nose is vertical – Such a simple, obvious observation. So obvious, we often miss it, don’t notice – our own eyes and nose, our own breath and body. The smile of a child. We are too busy; have much more important things to go. What if we pause, and notice, with everyone we see, everyone we meet – each person is just like us – eyes horizontal, nose vertical. What if we just appreciate these eyes, this nose, this amazing life?

Embracing Change

On the subject of change, the Buddhists got it right. Everything changes. Everything is impermanent. Everything that we take for granted is changing, constantly. The formation of the clouds in the sky at this moment is unique and will never be repeated. Every cell in our bodies is replaced, some quickly, some more slowly, every seven years. Our planet and the universe are in a state of continual, inconceivable transformation. As I write, the price of gasoline has drifted to over three dollars per gallon. By the time you read this piece, this price may seem outrageously inexpensive or very high.

The fact that everything changes is good news. Or, actually, as the Buddhists and scientists would say, it is neither good news nor bad news. It is what is, neither good nor bad . . . and this is good news! However, we often find it difficult to accept change and the uncertainty that goes along with it. We grasp at what we know and what is familiar and resist anything that might change them. Our desires can also be a form of resistance: perhaps we want things to be different than the way they are, or we desire a particular outcome, a certain future, and we resist other possibilities.

When we stop resisting what is or what might be, when we let go of grasping at what we have or what we want, we see that change is neither good nor bad. When we do this, we can see our lives and the world the way they actually are. We become more effective because we can respond appropriately to any situation. Like change, any event is never wholly bad nor wholly good. For example, a negative effect of expensive gasoline is that it puts an undue burden on those with lower incomes, since high gas prices drive up the costs for everyday necessities, such as food, clothes, and household items. On the other hand, a positive effect of higher gas prices is that they will encourage the development of alternative energy sources and better forms of public transportation, resulting in fewer greenhouse gasses and a less gasoline-dependent world.

We inhabit a changing, dynamic world in continual flux. When we don’t cling to what we have and resist change, we can more fully enter the situation at hand and be more open to learning from whatever may arise. As with all the aspects of our lives, this is easier to see and understand than it is to implement in our daily lives.

Here are some practices to explore to embrace and embody change:

– Beginners mind – seeing things fresh, being curious and open, not trying to be an expert

– Nonjudgment – not labeling and judging, seeing that we create story and context

– Nonstriving – not grasping or pushing away

– Equanimity – balance and wisdom, resilience in the midst of change

– Letting be –no need to let go, just let be

– Compassion – cultivating love for yourself and for others

Adapted from Less: Accomplishing More By Doing Less

Five Ways To Do Less, And Accomplish More

What do I mean when I say you can do less and yet accomplish more? Less and more of what? In fact, the particular activities in both cases must be determined by the individual, and often they are dictated by and change with circumstances. Doing less is more of an art than a science. Doing less is a way of being, an effective way of approaching life and work, and with this practice, we can live with a great deal more satisfaction — in nearly any situation.

The guiding principle is that when we approach any task in the right spirit, we become more successful and efficient at it. When we engage in less self-defeating behaviors, when we feel less fear, when we become less distracted, we accomplish more of whatever we set our hearts to. Thus, by recasting our attitudes, we reap tangible, practical benefits: we then “do less” by jettisoning activities we think are urgent but aren’t; we “do less” by streamlining our efforts and eliminating unnecessary or reflexive responses. But to achieve these external real-world benefits, we first have to turn inward and “do less” within ourselves.

Here are five important ways we will learn to do less:

1. We do less by taking the time to rest mentally and physically in between or outside of our usual activities, perhaps instituting a regular practice of meditation, retreats, breaks, and reflection.

2. We do less by pausing in the midst of activities: mindfulness practice (such as coming in touch with our breath in between reading or sending emails) and walking meditation are two examples.

3. We do less by identifying and reducing unnecessary activities. In this case, “unnecessary” means those things that are not in alignment with what we want to accomplish.

4. We do less by the very quality of our being. We must be completely present for what we are doing, without sacrificing or rushing what’s in front of us in order to get to “more important” stuff later. No matter how mundane the activity, treat everything as important and take pleasure in it. At bottom, whatever we are doing right now is what we are engaged in and it deserves our full attention and appreciation.

5. We do less by integrating effort with a feeling of effortlessness. This sounds like a contradiction but it isn’t. With practice, we all can find that sweet spot that combines engagement, creativity, and composure.

Adapted from Less: Accomplishing More By Doing Less

An Easy Way To Meditate Every Day

Having a regular meditation practice has been shown to have significant benefits to a healthy life — less stress, more flexibility, more connectedness with others (even immunity from certain diseases). I’ve noticed, as a long-time meditation teacher that finding or making time to sit can be difficult for many people. I have two suggestions. First, try sitting for at least three minutes of meditation each day. Everyone has three minutes — to just sit, relax, let go of your list of things to do, your comparisons. For three minutes, just let yourself breathe; just appreciate being alive.

Another practice is a way to bring meditation into our daily lives that can be done throughout the day — while sitting down for a meal, while in your car, or as you are sitting at your computer, or even at work before a meeting begins. It is a four-step practice that takes a total of about fifteen seconds (once you have practiced it a few times.) It contains four simple steps. Each step can be done in a few moments.

1. Breathe: when you exhale, see and visualize your breath swirling down into the earth.

2. Gravity: pay attention to gravity. It is gravity that keeps you on the ground, on the earth. Also, notice how gravity pulls at your chin. Just notice.

3. Energy: your body is an energy field. The temperature all around your body is influenced by the heat and energy your body produces. Just notice this for a moment; paying attention to your front, sides and back.

4. Quality: think of a quality you want more of in your life; whatever it might be; one word or one phrase and let yourself bring up the name of this quality. Give your attention to this quality for a moment.
That’s it. Simple. You can do this once a day, or 10 times a day. Try it a few times slowly; then repeat.

Oh, and don’t forget about the three minutes of meditation.

3 Life-changing Questions

Harry Roberts was a friend and teacher of mine while I lived at Zen Center’s Green Gulch Farm. He was fond of saying that life is very simple — all you have to do is answer three questions:

1) What do you want?
2) What do you have to do to get it? And
3) Can you pay the price?

After stating these questions he would usually laugh heartily, saying, yeah, real simple; most people don’t ever ask themselves the first question.

Harry was trained as a medicine man in the Yurok Indian tradition. He had been a cowboy and a farmer and was a PhD agronomist who designed the gardens at the University of California, Berkeley. Harry used to say that a primary difference between American Indian culture and Western culture is that Indians believed that each person is born with a particular skill and strength, that there is a primary reason for each person to be on the planet. The responsibility of parents is to provide opportunities for each child to discover his or her purpose and mission, to discover the kind of talents he or she was born to express. Indians believed that by careful observation, you could usually see by age three what a person’s lifelong work was likely to be. Harry often said that it is vital for each person not only to discover her song but also to sing it.

What do you want? This is the simplest question, and the most difficult. What is really important to you? What is the purpose of your life? What is your true intention? How do you want to spend your time? What do you want to accomplish? What has meaning for you? What do you want from your work life? What do you want from your relationships? Where is your passion? What kinds of activities do you find most satisfying? Spending time with any one of these questions can change your life.
What do you have to do to get it? Once you have answered this question, it is time to determine what you need to do to get what you want. What skills do you need, what training or schooling is required? What steps do you need to take? What do you already have, and what is needed?

These questions make me think of a woman who tells her friend that she really wants to be a lawyer, but she is forty-two years old. Because of her age, she doesn’t think she can fulfill this goal. She says it will take her three years to complete law school and that she would be forty-five by the time she finishes. Her friend asks her, “How old will you be in three years if you don’t go to law school?”

Harry used to say that everything comes with a price. Can you pay the price? Choosing something means not choosing something else. Choosing what you want and laying out a plan requires that you then take the steps needed, do the work, or go through whatever difficulties you are likely to confront. Every choice comes with a price that begins with risks. This question puts your resolve to the test — once you know what you want and what you have to do to get it, are you willing to risk failure, are you willing to give up other paths?

And, here I am, asking these questions again.

Less Fear

A mind that has any form of fear cannot, obviously, have the quality of love, sympathy, tenderness. Fear is the destructive energy in man.
— J. Krishnamurti

Fear can be a useful ally. It can focus us, keep us safe, even at times keep us alive. Fear of illness or injury can motivate us to stop smoking, to exercise, and to eat healthier food. In our communities, it can motivate us to make our air and water cleaner, our bridges and levees stronger, our workplaces safer.

Fear can also be an enormous hindrance. Fear can color our world so that a stick can appear as a dangerous snake or an offer of friendship can be perceived as an imposition or even an attack. We can fear not getting promoted or losing our jobs; fear what people think about us, or fear that people aren’t thinking at all about us. We can fear the loss of a loved one, fear getting older, fear dying. The list of possible fears is almost endless, so it is not

surprising that, sometimes without being aware of it, our actions and decisions can become ruled by fear. Living with fear can become an accepted and habitual way of being, leading to thoughts and actions that create more fear in a difficult-to-stop chain reaction — in ourselves, in relationships, in businesses and organizations, and in the world.

When we are afraid, our first impulse is to tighten our bodies and shut down our minds. We become the opposite of receptive and playful, and this is an enormous hindrance to learning new skills in the workplace, to collaborating, and to making interpersonal connections. The impulse to tighten can become so deeply ingrained that we may not even be aware of the ways that we keep ourselves back, or of the subtle and not-so-subtle ways that we communicate our fears to others.

Buddhism speaks of five primary fears:

• Fear of losing our state of mind
• Fear of public humiliation, or fear of speaking in public
• Fear of losing one’s reputation
• Fear of losing one’s livelihood
• Fear of death
Reducing fear (and its physical manifestation, anxiety) and opening oneself to new possibilities — surprises, even — is the first step, I believe, toward a more lasting sense of accomplishment. Reducing fear can be the first action that frees us to achieve a goal (even when, in losing our fear, our goal becomes something very different than previously imagined).

To reduce fear, however, we must acknowledge and become aware of our fears. This may sound daunting, but I’ve noticed that this process of increasing awareness of fear is strangely freeing. My hope for myself, and my sincere hope for you, is that each day brings experiences in which fears are acknowledged without self-flagellation, so that these fears can be set free. This can allow wholly new approaches or solutions to appear.

Adapted from LESS: Accomplishing More By Doing Less

Enlightened, Fool, or Enlightened Fool

For many years I was the primary “manager” of the early-morning routines in my house — waking my children, making breakfast and lunches, getting the kids to the kitchen table and to school, on time. Every day the challenges were unique — some days there were no clean socks, or someone overslept, or one or both kids just didn’t feel like eating. Once we sat down to breakfast, we often experienced a few moments of calm. At other times I would have to remind my kids that breakfast is a noncontact sport! After dropping them off at their schools, I felt a sense of relief and accomplishment. The rest of the day, being CEO of a small, growing, complex company seemed easy in comparison to the task of getting my children to school, on time, every morning.

Whether in or out of the work setting, or at home with our families, when we are open and pay attention, opportunities to connect, to grow, and to learn are everywhere — while waiting in line to pay for groceries, while driving our cars, or while standing by the coffee machine in the office.

Finding fulfillment and satisfaction at work and outside of work is vital to our health and our spirit. According to Suzuki Roshi, (founder of the San Francisco Zen Center) “On one side we are all fools. But when we realize this, we are enlightened.” This, I believe is an important aspect of work, of spiritual practice, of life. It is actually okay to be a fool! If we don’t sometimes laugh at the surprises and challenges, and difficulties in our lives, we cannot learn and grow and become more fully ourselves.

What do you think?

The Practice of Right Speech

There is a Zen story about two groups of monks arguing over a cat. The teacher, in response to the conflict, picks up the cat in one hand and a knife in the other. He says to the group of monks, “Say something of the truth of Zen, or I will cut the cat in half.” No one said anything, and the cat was killed. (Remember, this is a story — I’ve always imagined that the teacher pretended to kill the cat.) Later, the teacher was describing this event to one of his most revered students. Upon hearing what had happened, this student, without saying a word, took off his sandals, put them on his head, and left the room. The teacher said, “If only you had been there, the cat would have been saved.”

What did this student do to save the cat? What does this story have to do with business and our work lives?

I remember being in a staff meeting in which I was feeling uncomfortable. We were discussing our product-development strategy for the next six months. I felt that there were conflicts and unresolved issues among my managers and staff. We were not all in agreement and were not all working together. My attempts at achieving clarity and a unified vision did not seem to be working as well as I would have liked. In the midst of this meeting, I felt an opening, a chance to guide the discussion and at the same time to transform our strategies. Being preoccupied with trying to say the right thing, I hesitated. I was concerned about making a mistake. The discussion progressed. The time no longer seemed right to make my point. I had missed my chance to say something that could make a difference. I had “killed the cat.”

In the story above, the student would have saved the cat by fully meeting the teacher. He didn’t hesitate. He responded to another person in a way that was direct and authentic. He wasn’t trying to look good, wasn’t trying to think of a clever or even a clear answer. He acted. He wasn’t caught by his past and wasn’t thrown off center by his teacher. He responded, without using words.

The definition of right speech is to speak truthfully, being loyal to the truth when speaking with others, not creating harm or speaking cruelly, not exaggerating or embellishing, and speaking in a way that relieves suffering and brings people back to themselves.

Being Loyal to the Truth
Saying what you know to be true and not saying what is not true is a clear and powerful practice — and much more difficult than you might imagine. When we speak truthfully we become worthy of trust, and the people around us feel cared for and safe. Sometimes just telling the truth can be very refreshing, even though it can also be painful.

Not Creating Harm
Our words have the power to cause tremendous harm or tremendous healing. I’ve seen much pain caused in the work environment by people not being careful with speech and underestimating the power of words. Even when we have no intention to cause harm, our words may affect our colleagues in ways that are completely outside our own experience or expectations. I have noticed, as a manager and especially as “the boss,” that my words, particularly how I express my displeasure, can have a tremendous impact. I have learned the importance of giving great care to where, when, and how I express my insights regarding performance or behaviors that need to be changed or improved.

Not Exaggerating
So often in business, people describe situations and outcomes in ways that make themselves or their projects appear more successful or more certain then they really are. I have also noticed that people sometimes make tasks appear more difficult and complicated then they actually are as a way to protect themselves from criticism or from being given additional work. The word spin, meaning to put a positive — or negative — light on a situation, has recently been in vogue,. Spin is just a euphemism for exaggeration.

Relieving Suffering
Our speech has the potential to provide comfort, positive challenge, and transformation in our work environment. By speaking clearly and directly from our hearts, we can touch the people around us and turn suffering into acceptance and joy. Just listening fully to others is often enough to relieve suffering. This requires stopping and just being with another person, in whatever state they are in.
I was recently surprised to discover that aspects of my management style and speech were habits I had learned as a child. When I was very young I sensed the tension and stress in my household. There was very little talk in my household about feelings, difficulties, or needs. I developed a strategy of dealing with difficult situations by ignoring them or distancing myself from them. Though this strategy may have worked for me as a child, it could have proved disastrous for me as the CEO of a small, quickly growing company. I needed to learn and grow.

Deep Listening
The foundation of right speech is deep listening. Our speech does not occur in a vacuum — it must include our awareness of others. When people don’t feel heard they become isolated and unhappy. Their work suffers, and the work of everyone around them suffers as well. Right speech means being present and meeting each person and each situation directly.

Notice how you speak to others and how others speak to you. Just notice. Notice how your speech varies with whomever you are speaking — someone whom you report to, who reports to you, a family member. Try speaking directly and openly. Take risks with your words by speaking openly from your heart. Notice how your words touch and affect people. Experiment with beginning your sentences with the words “I want,” “I need,” and ” feel.” Make statements instead of asking questions. Use your speech to be clear, open, direct, and vulnerable.

What does “Right Speech” mean to you and your life?