“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.
“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.
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.
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