“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.
“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?
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?