Sunday, February 28, 2010

No Self

The wisdom traditions often point to the experience or state of "no self." But what does this mean? And why do we want to have this experience?

From what I can tell, no self is simply the state of unadorned awareness, what Peter Fenner calls "unconditioned" awareness. When we are in this state, we can look for an identity, but there is none to be found. We can look for good and bad, hot and cold, but these distinctions do not exist in any kind of meaningful way.

Peter's Radiant Mind course and book point to this state and allow people to experience it directly. Genpo Roshi's Big Mind process also comes to mind. And most of the wisdom traditions, in one way or another, point to some kind of pure awareness, without thought or ego, as the pinnacle of the spiritual journey.

As for the second question, why, I have two thoughts. First is that Peter talks of "healing presence" or "healing awareness." And what he means, I think, is that in the state of unconditioned awareness there is no suffering, because there is no one to suffer.

All suffering, in other words, is caused by the self. Suffering is nothing more than the thought that things should be different.

This is a difficult thing for thoughts to accept.

But the second thought is potentially even more devastating. And that is that whenever we ask "why," we instinctively create a story, and that the story is not the reality. There is no why. And when we look for one, we only get further from the experience of awareness, not closer to it.


Saturday, February 27, 2010

There Is No Why

In the wonderful film "Man on Wire," Philippe Petit, the man who walked on a high wire between the two towers of the World Trade Center in 1974, was asked why he did it.

"Why? There is no why!" he says, indignant.

There are things that each of us do that are like that. Where, if pressed, we could probably make up a reason. But most of the time we just do them. They are in our nature.

Why does someone spend their entire lives at a sport, often without pay, to go to the Olympics?

Why does someone paint or write? Why does someone work to master a profession?

The creative urge is present in all of us. Sometimes, fear gets in the way of its expression. We do what is safe instead of taking the big leap. But the desire is there. The dream is there.

Fear is natural. Courage is being afraid and doing it anyway.

That which we are called or driven to do, that thing with no why, is that which makes each of us unique. Let's honor that, in ourselves and others, rather than fear it.


Friday, February 26, 2010


Today is my last day at an employer where I have spent the last 15 years.

There are mixed feelings. On the one hand, the organization is changing, and there is no longer the same kind of fit between what I am good at and what the organization wants to do. On the other hand, I have many close friends here and I will miss working with them every day.

Sometimes we like to think that to make a change, things have to be crystal clear. That the path has to be marked with neon arrows that say "This Way." But it seldom seems to work that way in real life.

Real life is messy. But we can acknowledge the sadness we feel in the endings at the same time that we feel the hope and excitement for the beginnings. And we can embrace, rather than run away from, the inherent uncertainty.

Here's to endings and beginnings.


Thursday, February 25, 2010

Ten Suits

I bought a suit the other day. Then I bought another. And shirts, ties, and shoes.

I worked with a wonderful man named Singh. He gave me great advice. He told me what he thought would work for me, and he told me what did not. He found things at reasonable prices, but also showed me things that he thought were a good value, even if the price was high.

He took care of me. I will be back.

Singh told me his secret. He said "I do not want to sell you a suit. I want to sell you ten suits. I want to take care of all your needs. If you are not happy with me the first time, you will not come back."

This is advice that I could apply every day.

How often are we tempted to go for the short term result at the expense of the long term? When we are in a corporate environment, the pressure to manage to the quarterly earnings result can be tremendous. We can be tempted to cut costs instead of invest for growth. We can be tempted to go for the quick sale instead of building a longer term relationship.

We can make a big profit on one suit and never see the customer again.

This sounds like a complicated rule--like it requires some kind of magical balance between short and long term results. But I don't think so. I think it comes down to doing something pretty simple.

Act from your heart, in the best interests of your client. If you do that, the rest will follow. And you will maximize the results that count--the long term ones.

Here's to Singh's rule.


Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Just This

The witness. Buddha mind. The zone. Your original face. Awareness.

These terms come from a variety to traditions but all point to the same thing. (And to even call it a thing is to misspeak.)

What are you? Are you your thoughts? Then what is thinking those thoughts? What is it that is watching your life? Where do your thoughts come from?

Your thinking brain wants answers to these questions, and it will fill those rare moments of silence with questions and explanations and stories. But what are you when you are waiting for your next thought?

In this state, or space, is anything missing? Can you suffer? Can you be wishing that you were more productive or that your boss was a better person or that you didn't have that deadline coming up?

Just this. Just what is happening, without thoughts or interpretations or stories. There is peace here, a break from the pressures of the day.

We miss it because we always want to be doing things or explaining things or telling ourselves and others stories about what our experience means. But it is always here. Even in the busyness.

Can we notice what is aware in the moments when we are not doing any of those things? Is there anything that could damage this awareness? Is there anywhere it can go?


Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Practice and Perfection

I've been thinking about the different uses of the word "practice."

In endeavors like sports, music, or dance, when we practice, we are working to get better. Practice is a time when it is safe to make mistakes. When we can push ourselves to our limits. When we can fall and get back up. (This same notion of a safe path is also present in mind-body practices such as meditation or yoga or martial arts.)

On the other hand, the practice of law, or medicine, or accounting, does not connote safety. There is tension instead between two ideas. First, that you continue to get better. Second, that you must not make any mistakes along the way. In medicine, mistakes can be a matter of life and death. And many professionals can be sued for malpractice ("bad" or "defective" practice). So the message is be perfect while you are getting better.

When I was with a law firm, the partner who I worked for told me repeatedly that he had never made a mistake. I think he intended this to be helpful. But the resulting pressure was enormous. Today, years later, the pressure is even higher. Because fees are so high now, you also have to be perfect in as few billable hours as possible.

When practice means "the avoiding of mistakes," it leads to very different behavior than when practice means "the safe pursuit of limits." Not coincidentally, the prospect of losing your job if you make a mistake triggers fear, the lizard brain. And it shuts down creativity.

How to embrace this paradox? Those who do are able to set aside their fear. And they do so by building a safety net. Peer review is one great example--a legal opinion can't go out the door without the approval of the other partners, for example. The risks of a controversial surgery must be vetted.

When we open ourselves at work, we can ask advice of a colleague or a mentor. We can also brainstorm within a group. We can try different ways of presenting ideas or a sales pitch and get constructive feedback. In these ways, we can stretch ourselves while minimizing fear. And we can help others to learn and practice, too, so that we all bring our best on game day.

We can build saftey nets no matter what our practice. And knowing that they are there, we can come up with new ideas and more creative solutions. We can push the boundaries. And our practice can be as much about the pursuit of mastery as it is about avoiding mistakes.

When we have found our limit, our edge, the third notion of practice comes into play. Repeating a skill until we know it cold. Rehearsing a piece on the piano. Practicing that presentation or closing argument. To be our best, though, we have to identify that safe edge that is at our current limit. Repitition is the easy part. Finding our limit, though, means that occasionally we are going to fall.

Do you have a safety net? If not, can you build one?


Monday, February 22, 2010

Under Construction

Like almost everything else, our thoughts about thinking, and in particular, memory, have undergone change.

It used to be that memories were thought of as fixed and stable. One only need think of the the Pensieve in the Harry Potter books for an example of this.

It turns out that this is not the case. We may have memories that are particularly vivid. (These usually have a strong emotional component to them, whether it is the birth of a child or something particularly embarrassing.) Each time we remember something, an image appears, but the story that we tell ourselves about the image, the meaning we ascribe to it, is constructed in each new moment of remembering. Winifred Gallagher talks about some of the research in this area in her great book Rapt.

Our memories change over time, because our thoughts are always changing. Have you ever talked with one of your old high school buddies and discovered you remember an event very differently?

In the workplace, we can find ourselves in a place of having to defend our own work, or evaluate another's work, after it has taken place. This can be a profound source of disagreement and stress. I have yet to see a post mortem that did not cause frustration and hurt feelings (and tension between individual and institutional memory as well). But I did see, in another context, the successful use of "feed forward." Instead of talking about what happened in the past, feed forward focused on what to do next time, without blame, and without inferring good or bad intent.

Our brains are always constructing our reality--future and past. Rather than expending so much energy on the past, let's try to focus the act of construction where it belongs. On the future.

I'd love to hear your thoughts about feedback and memory in the workplace.


Sunday, February 21, 2010

Thoughts, Values, Truths

Thoughts, repeated, become stories.

Stories, repeated for a group, become values.

Values, repeated for a nation, become truths.

Values can start arguments. Truths can start wars.

When we are a member of a family, or an company, or a nation, we are implicitly agreeing to the collective stories of that group.

Some stories lead to great things. President Kennedy's promise to put a man on the moon comes to mind. Others lead us astray.

I have a friend who worked for a company that identified the bottom twenty percent (by work group) each year and fired them. The company wanted people to challenge themselves to be better. Instead, fear took over. The survivors were those who were best at making their colleagues look bad.

We owe it to ourselves to identify and, when called for, challenge not only our own stories, but those of the groups that we are part of. And if that doesn't work, we can find better groups. Or start them.


Saturday, February 20, 2010

The Habit of Just Sitting

We are our habits. If I eat ice cream every night, I tend to keep doing it. If I exercise, I will tend to keep doing that. And the same is true for how we think about things. The thoughts that we have can be powerful, and can remain hidden if we do not actively work to expose them.

The habit of just sitting has been the most powerful habit I have. I have been doing some version of it for almost 14 years.

Why is just sitting so powerful? When we are sitting with nothing but our own thoughts, we can't help but notice them. We see the things that we think about over and over again. These thoughts can be positive, but often they are negative. There might be a sense of fear that pervades them. We might worry about our jobs, or think about how we screwed something up, our about how we are afraid our boss doesn't like us. We might feel like we are not good enough.

These are not pleasant experiences. In the course of our every day lives, we tend to run away from them. Like touching a hot stove, we recoil. We do something else. As the yoga teacher Max Strom says, "anywhere but here."

My experience has been that with just sitting, we realize a couple of things. First, we begin to see that being with an unpleasant experience is not nearly as bad as we think it will be. And this is related to the second point. When we do not push something away, it tends to fade on its own. This is true for good thoughts and feelings and bad thoughts and feelings. We see that our experience is in constant motion. And we see that what is behind that experience, our awareness of what is happening, is the one constant unchanging thing in our lives.

This can happen gradually, or suddenly. And it can happen with or without just sitting. But it seems like just sitting improves the odds substantially.

I'd invite you to consider the habit of just sitting.


Friday, February 19, 2010

Knowing the Future

We spend a lot of time trying to predict the future, and most of the time we are wrong.

I find myself viewing things like revenue planning, annual budgets and the like as folly. Don't get me wrong--we have to plan. We have to hit our numbers. Corporations have shareholders who expect a certain return. They do not buy your stock because the want results to be random and erratic. Quite the opposite.

In The Black Swan, Nassim Taleb argues that we cannot predict the unpredictable, even though we are convinced that we can. The is an obvious point, but one we ignore most of the time.

Most of the events that shape our lives are events that look obvious in retrospect, but that one one saw coming. The internet. 9/11. Katrina. The credit crisis. These events shape and reshape our lives. Yet we continue to think that the future is going to be just like today, only a little bit better (if you are an optimist) or a little bit worse (if you are a pessimist).

Our minds are constantly creating stories about what will happen in the future, and explaining what happened in the past. Why? Because we crave certainty. Because we want to understand. Because we want to believe that we are safe. Because we want to know that the bad thing that happened to someone else is not going to happen to us.

But we can't know any of those things. When we think we can, when we get attached to what is "supposed" to happen, we lose the ability to see new possibilities. At some point, we have to see that the map we made doesn't reflect the terrain anymore.

Can we? Are we willing to accept that we do not know anything? That something wonderful or catastrophic could happen in the next moment that we never saw coming?

We need goals. We need to plan. But we also need flexibility. Can we be open to seeing new futures? Are we willing to rewrite our stories?


Thursday, February 18, 2010

Finding Flow

One of the most fascinating trends of the last few years is the ongoing blurring of the distinction between that which is "spiritual" and that which is not. I want to be clear that I think this is a good thing. In my own experience, I simply cannot find a boundary between spiritual practice and the rest of my life.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi of the University of Chicago has written several books about the phenomenon of flow, in which the sense of self is lost and we are completely engrossed in our work. It is here that we are most engaged in our lives and here where our creative energies are the strongest. An example of this might be the athlete who says, after the fact, that she was "in the zone," or that the game "played itself." This loss of the sense of self is the goal of many of the wisdom traditions as well. In fact, those who speak of enlightenment almost always use words like "the dropping of the self."

For most, this state of flow is identifiable, but elusive. But what if there were a road map to flow? What if you could find this state at will? Like most things, this seems to be a matter of practice, but Zen Habits has a guest blogger who lays out a great road map.



Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Giving Up

Today is Ash Wednesday, which for many Christians, starts the period of Lent. I did not grow up in a church that observed Lent, but many of my friends did, and each year I saw them giving something up "for Lent."

Generally, there was something they saw as a vice and they decided to forgo it for 40 days. That vice might be ice cream. Or chocolate. Or alcohol. I remember one of my friends trying to give up cursing.

And when the 40 days had passed, there was a celebration because now they were permitted to do these things again. Sometimes there would more ice cream eating or alcohol drinking (or cursing) than there was before, because the desire to do so had been supressed for so long.

As an outsider to this tradition, it always struck me as a bit odd. I could understand the idea of giving something up. But if we were giving it up because it was "bad," then why not give it up for good? And why were sweets bad at some times and OK at others?

From a nondual perspective, the idea that there are bad parts of ourselves that need to be excised is a duality--just a concept created by our minds. If we look for that line between the good parts and the bad parts, we simply cannot find it. What is it that we are looking to remove?

Each day I do things that I regret. But there is nothing that I can do about having done them. We cannot remake the past. We can apologize, we can try to heal relationships that might have been damaged by our actions. But that route feels more like accepting than denying. And it feels like it is more about embracing what is happening in this moment, than regretting what has happened in the past.

Can we embrace all the aspects of ourselves, even those we don't like? Can we, just for one moment, give up the notion that there is something to hide, or protect, or defend?


Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Not Knowing

For me, one if the most difficult things about the work place, and about life generally, is our inherent struggle to know.

We have jobs where we are supposed to know what to do. We give presentations where we are supposed to know what we are talking about. We are asked questions and are expected to know the answer. In fact, our lives are filled with questions that have answers. If you ask me "What is the capital of Vermont?" or "How do you get to the Whole Foods on River Road?" there is a correct answer. If I ask the guy putting in my sump pump where it should go, I expect an answer.

But most of the really important questions have no clear answers. Why are we here? How are we to be our best in the world? How do we break the gridlock in Washington?

This blog is about presence and mindfulness in the work place, and about our struggles and mistakes and occasional insights. Like gridlock in Washington, there are often no easy answers. But despite my best efforts, I find myself tempted to bring "the" answer to this blog more often than I would like. We want to give and be given the easy answer, or the clear path to follow. If you do x, for y amount of time, then z will happen. But unless you are baking, life just doesn't seem to work that way.

In moments of clarity, I see that that there are no answers. That not knowing can be a strength. Not knowing helps me open to possibilities that I otherwise might not have seen. Not knowing leaves me vulnerable. Not knowing fosters intimacy and connection. For me, these fleeting moments of not knowing have been incredibly moving and powerful. Even in the work place.

I'd invite you to consider the role of not knowing in your own life, and to share your experiences of it.


Monday, February 15, 2010

Five Minutes

My teacher, Peter Fenner, asks that his students engage in a "minimal contemplative practice" of twenty minutes a day. And he calls that practice "just sitting." No pressure. No rules. Just sit in one place quietly for twenty minutes each day.

No mantras, no breath counting, no lotus posture. (And no prohibition on any of those.) Whatever happens during those twenty minutes--focus, relaxation, distraction, frustration--is exactly what should be happening. You can't mess it up!

This is incredibly freeing. I have talked to a lot of people who have tried to meditate, and yet are convinced that they were "bad" at it or doing it "wrong."

There is no way to do "just sitting" wrong.

But I will say this. If you have never sat before, twenty minutes can be an incredibly long time to be still, no matter what you call it. Twenty minutes with nothing but your own thoughts can be uncomfortable (though, like many things that are good for you, a certain level of discomfort is part of the process). And many busy people feel that they do not have an "extra" twenty minutes in their day for something new.

But you can do five minutes, right? Even in today's hyper-busy reality, most everyone can find five minutes somewhere. (I find that it is easier to schedule my "must dos", including meditation and blog writing, at the beginning of the day.)

Is five minutes the basis of an ongoing practice? No. But five minutes a day can start the habit of sitting. It can get us used to the idea of observing our own thoughts. It can build a foundation to a more extensive inquiry into our lives. If you enjoy it, you will find yourself gradually devoting more time to it. And if you find it is not for you right now, you can always come back to it later.

Five minutes. Can you find five minutes today?


Sunday, February 14, 2010

Valentines and Stories

Valentine's Day is a great chance to examine stories.

"There is one special person for everyone."

"If you have not found your special person yet, there is something wrong with you."

"If you don't celebrate Valentine's Day with your special someone in a special way, you must not care about your beloved. Your relationship is doomed!"

A story is just a thought--shared, repeated, and, most importantly, believed.

When we notice our thoughts, we notice than some of them come up over and over and over. These are our stories. Some of them we created. Some we were told (by our parents, or our companies, or our countries).

But are we our thoughts? No, when our thoughts are not there, something is still looking through our eyes. And that something has no gender, no height, no weight, and no stories.

The human brain makes narrative. It takes our experiences and turns it into stories. And these stories affect how we behave in the future. These stories become values and truths.

But they are just thoughts. And when we observe our thoughts, even about something as inconsequential as Valentine's Day, we begin to see how our stories shape our world.

Happy Valentine's Day!


Saturday, February 13, 2010

Good Days and Bad Days

Some days, you just feel like phoning it in. You have a headache, or you're tired, or you're cranky, or all three. It is easy to see this as a personal failing. To think that something is wrong. To think that things should be different. But good days and bad days are part of the experience of being human. I have yet to meet someone who does not have an occasional bad day (and let's face it, we all know some people who seem to have a lot of them).

What do we do with our bad days? Sometimes, we shut down. We stay home from work or we stay in bed. We decide to do nothing, or to wallow in the fact that we are having a bad day. My experience is that this does not make me feel any better, and sometimes makes me feel worse.

Sometimes, we push through. We do the minimum. We keep going. We get through the day, knowing that tomorrow will be better.

Sometimes, though, in the pushing, we find that things are just fine. We find our edge, our passion, our drive. Sometimes, in the pushing through, we find some of our best work.

The point is, how the day begins does not have to be how the day ends. Each moment is new. Every moment can be a fresh start, a clean slate. No matter what has happened so far (and no matter what the story that we have told ourselves), each moment can be the beginning of a good day.

Can we find the good moments, even in our bad days?


Friday, February 12, 2010

The Leap

Today, I told my employer that I am taking an offer to work with another firm.

The news has not come out yet--there is the issue of how to announce, whom to tell and when. There is a sense that the message can be controlled, when of course it really can't. I will honor that request--I have no desire to burn any bridges.

But the question arises--why leave? Why now?

Seth Godin talks about "The Dip", which is part about knowing when to quit, and part about knowing when not to. And the idea that permeates this short but very readable book is that those who succeed are those who stick through the hard work of  The Dip. There is a point where you are doing more work than others are, where you are moving from mere competence (which is widespread) to mastery (which is not). Not many people make it through The Dip, so those who do are very valuable.

Conversely, there are times when sticking with something is just a dead end, a cul-de-sac. The trick is to know which is which. To see if there is value in what you are working so hard to do.

You cannot know this in advance. But there is a "knowing" that is there in the moments when the lizard brain is quiet. For me, even though I hear the lizard brain chattering away, making this change feels like the next step on the journey toward ever-elusive mastery. I have done this before--I have changed jobs within the same company, I have relocated, I have changed areas of expertise. And each time there is a combination of excitement and fear.

It is too easy to get into a rut, to dig in while the world changes around us. It feels safe, and it might be safe for awhile. But the world changes, whether we want it to or not. Wayne Gretzky said that to succeed, you skate to where the puck is going to be. This is my attempt to do that.

Here's to the leaps, large and small, that we make each day.


Thursday, February 11, 2010

No Separation

There is an old saying that "when the student is ready, the teacher appears." For me, it seems that Peter Fenner appeared at exactly the right time.

Peter is a native of Australia, and a former Tibetan monk who has combined elements of eastern nondual thought and western psychotherapy into an approach he calls Radiant Mind. Radiant Mind focuses on identifying the distinction between "conditioned mind," which is the mind of comparisons--up, down, good, bad, hot, cold--and "unconditioned awareness," which is clear presence, without condition or boundary. Peter's work is to patiently and precisely point out the unconditioned awareness that is already here, for everyone, in the midst of our busy lives. This is the state that the wisdom traditions point to, and it is here that there is no suffering, or even the possibility of suffering.

While there are some that have claimed to be a permanent state of unconditioned awareness (or enlightenment), for most, the realization of this state is moment by moment. We are caught by our conditioning, yet we begin to see through it. We have moments of clarity, and are gradually able to presence this state for longer and longer periods of time.

This may not make any sense if it is the first time that you have seen these words. For me, though, it has made all the difference in how I approach the rest of my life. In nondual thought, there is no line between this "part" of my life and this other "part"--life is one undivided whole that is unfolding in each moment. I am doing things, and yet in unconditioned awareness, I do not find that I!

When I am without that I, there is a creative force that comes through, that cannot be stopped, that is without fear. And yet "I" cannot say where it comes from or why it does what it does.

If this makes no sense, no worries. It doesn't make sense to me, either--it is beyond logical thought just as it is beyond fear.

The nondual manages to be both frustratingly subtle and utterly obvious. But ask yourself, in those brief moments when you are without thought, who (or what) are you? That clarity, that pure presence, is unconditioned awareness. And it is there all the time, no matter what else is happening.

May we begin to see the pointers that are all around us.


Wednesday, February 10, 2010

One Hundred Percent is a Breeze

Jack Canfield wrote a great book a few years ago called The Success Principles, which is a compendium of 64 different motivational ideas. It is great for those of use with short attention spans--summarizing each idea with a high impact story. For most of us, even incorporating three or four of the principles would result in big change in our lives.
One that stuck with me was called "99% is a Bitch, 100% is a Breeze." The principle is about commitment, and about having no exceptions to those promises we make to ourselves and others.

If you say "I will exercise when I feel good," or "I will meditate when I have time," then your lizard brain will convince yourself that this morning is an exception. You can always do those things tomorrow, right?

I travel for business, and almost always (see?) plan to workout when I am gone. But often if I have had a late dinner or have an early meeting, I tell myself that "just this time" I will let myself sleep in. As a result, I bring home a lot of clean workout clothes!

But I always meditate, because I got in the habit a long time ago of meditating every day, no exceptions. And we tend to have that "no exceptions" mentality around the things that really matter to us.

The life that we have is, in large part, a product of our habits. How many of your habits are optional?


Tuesday, February 9, 2010

A Case of the Shoulds

It shouldn't be snowing this much.

The plows should have come by now. The power should not have gone out. Comcast should have better service. People should appreciate me more at work. I should work harder. My kids should behave better.

Each one of us has an internal almost nonstop dialogue of shoulds. I could come up with many more. (Maybe I should have.) But I hope this is enough to resonate.

How real are these shoulds? We have expectations of how we want our lives to be. How we want to behave and how we want others to behave around us. How we believe our leaders and nations around the world to operate. And we believe, strongly, that the world would be a better place "if only" if operated the way we think it should.

To paraphrase Byron Katie, though, in a battle between what you want and what is, reality always wins.

The snowstorm comes, the boss doesn't get it, the kids yell and fight. This is human life. This is the beautful mess we live in.

We create suffering when we insist on pining for a world that is different than the one we have. Can we accept the world as it is, even as we try to change it? Can we see that, despite our thoughts, that everything is really OK? That nothing is missing?

A first step is to see what happens to our shoulds in a moment where we have no thoughts. Look at the new snow first thing in the morning. Where are your shoulds before you start thinking about them? You can survive a second or two without them, right? Who are you when your shoulds are gone?


Monday, February 8, 2010

Risk and Reward

I often read that we shouldn't get too attached to things we can't control. Like big snowstorms, for example.

But it seems like a lot of the things that we do in our lives are things where we have some control.

For example, our company is giving a conference in NY tomorrow. We are expecting 200 clients. I am supposed to be speaking. It is theoretically possible for me to get there, despite the aftermath of the snow. It would be difficult, but I might be able to pull it off. Yet I am deciding to stay here.

How do we make these decisions?

Our lizard brains are all about minimizing risk. But we also have a side that recognizes and drives toward reward. For me, the reward of going to New York is not worth the risk (having trouble, getting stuck, or having Jen and the kids have trouble while I am gone). Different situations might have a different result. But for now, I am here, doing the best I can from home.

How do we think about the risks and rewards in other areas of our life? When the risk is more about being laughed at than some kind of physical harm?

It can be very powerful to look at what we are afraid of, and see what the actual downside and actual upside really are.


Sunday, February 7, 2010

Measuring Up

We measure everything. Even our babies. We measure how long they are, how much they weigh, what percentiles they are in, and when they hit various developmental milestones--rolling over, sitting up, crawling, walking.

We are constantly assessing is my baby good, bad, ahead, behind? Is there something wrong? (And if there is, what should we do about it? Where can we find someone who will give us something to do about it?)

But the measurements are not the baby (and later, neither is the report card, the transcript, the C.V.).

Who is the baby without the measurements? It is so easy to see that joy, that spirit, that creativity and energy in a baby. It comes through in a simple smile or laugh or coo. Sometimes it is not so easy to see it in ourselves. Can we see that which is beyond measurement, that which cannot even be measured? Can we see that which is doing the measuring? The measurer rather than the measurement? The thinker, rather than the thought?


Saturday, February 6, 2010

Snow Day

In the DC area, we are being buried by a snow storm that looks like it could break records.

Over the course of last night and today, I have been shovelling for about five hours. There is a small path out back with a patch of grass for the dog to do his business, a fraction of the front walk is done (to the street at least, just narrow), and about half of the driveway is still left to do.

We lost power for about eight hours and we do not know when our side street will be plowed (I am guessing it will be a couple days). There are a lot of cars that are covered in snow. The digging will continue tomorrow, and probably the next day. Everything is quiet for now.

As I was shovelling, it struck me how snow storms and shovelling are a lot like life. We can be upset, we can think that the storm should not have happened, or that the power should not have gone out. We can think that we should be making faster progress. But all we can do in each moment is move a bit of snow.

We move snow bit by bit and eventually the drive is clear. And any thoughts that we should be able to do it faster or that it should not have snowed as much as it did only add to the burden.

In each moment, just move the snow. Do the task in front of us. That is all we can do.

Snow comes, and we shovel. Can we keep that simple attitude in each moment? In the other storms that come?


Friday, February 5, 2010

Taming Our Lizard Brains

It seems like most of what I have been doing the last several years has been devoted, in one way or another, to the lizard brain. And I have only come to realize this in the last month or two.

The lizard brain, or in more technical terms, the amygdala, is part of the brain that we share with lower species. It is fight or flight, about maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain. It is about eating the chocolate cake--not about consider the consequences. And most interestingly, it creates very strong emotional associations, often based on fear.

Behavioral economics, which has been a work "hobby" of mine for the last year and a half, is about how the decisions that are made by the lizard brain are very different from the decisions made by the rational brain. And it is also about how our emotions, primarily fear, trigger or lizard brain so that it takes control. The lizard brain is older and faster than our rational brain. And it often makes decisions for us, before we even realize it.

When we talk about doing something unconventional, or even just a little bit different, there is a fear of standing out. There are very strong social norms that prevent us from straying too far from the pack. Those norms protected the lizards, I suppose. But do they protect us now? Or do they kept us from doing something remarkable?

I have seen a lot written about working with this fear. Getting used to the fear. Working through the fear. But I believe there is a way to substantially lessen the fear, and I say this based on my own experience.

With meditation, I find that I have come to understand my lizard brain. To see when it awakens. To feel the pangs of fear. And I believe that in the process of repeatedly oberving my emotions, their intensity has become much less. Does the fear ever go away? Not in my experience (nor would I want it to--there are still some good reasons for fear!). But I now see it as a natural reaction, a process that comes and goes, and something that is different from whatever the "me" is, where the creative, extraordinary energy seems to reside.

To me, that is the missing piece. It is one thing to say "work through your discomfort." It is another thing entirely to see that your discomfort could be much less that it is now. I don't want anyone to think of this as a quick fix--it is neither. But it is a different way to be in the world, and a pretty powerful one.

Just for today, sit quietly for a few minutes and see what happens.


Thursday, February 4, 2010

The Conference Circuit

I am at a health care conference today, and I must admit a little dread.

I assume that health care conferences are the same as conferences in other industries. Think about the types of conversations that you have at a high school reunion. With few exceptions, you have the same 5-10 minute conversation over and over again. Another apt comparison might be speed dating.

The challenge, for me, is how best to push through this. How do I bring my best to each conversation? How can I be there for each person I am talking to, so that I am hearing what they are saying, and not just thinking about what I am going to say next?

Today, this will be my practice.


Wednesday, February 3, 2010


In addition to Seth Godin, one of my favorite writers has to be Dan Pink. You could spend days looking at Dan's website--just the list of blogs is a treasure in and of itself!

Dan makes the point in his new book, Drive, that we inherently drive toward autonomy, mastery, and purpose, and that when we are doing that, we thrive. (Other authors have made the same point, including Malcolm Gladwell and Geoff Colvin.) In other words, we are satisfied by the attempt, not by the external rewards that we get from these things. Turns out that the old saying about the journey, not the destination, appears to be true.

True mastery may be impossible, which may also be why it is so enticing. Ben Hogan, who spent hours every day on the practice range working on every golf shot that he could imagine, said that in a typical round, there were only two or three shots that came off perfectly. Michael Jordan said that the only reason that he succeeded was that he had failed so many times.

May we push ourselves to fail, and learn mastery in the process.


Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Embracing Fear

In our day jobs, very few of us have a clear blueprint of what exactly we have to do every minute of the day. Even manufacturing jobs have gone through a tremendous change over the last few years, as Japanese methouds have pushed more and more decision-making to the shop floor.

There is power in this. Power in being able to say "no," and power in being able to say "yes."

How are you exercising that power? Are you fighting to change? Or are you fighting to stay the same?

If you are fighting to stay the same, to preserve the status quo, your fight is futile. It won't happen. I don't know what will happen, but I do know that it will be different than what is happening now. And those who are rewarded will be the ones who fight through the fear and embrace the unknown.

Fear is something that most of us feel every day. Fear of change. Fear of failure. Fear of being laughed at. Fear of being different.

And fear of standing out. Fear of power. Fear of success. Fear of reaching your potential.

What is your fear telling you? What is it that you are not doing because you are afraid to? And what would happen if you embraced your fear and did it anyway?


Monday, February 1, 2010

Welcome to The Corporate Zendo

Why The Corporate Zendo?

Two words I suspect you don't see together that often.

It might make sense to give you a little background. I am an attorney and consultant who has been working in the corporate world for the last twenty years. The last eight have been at a public company, with all the challenges that brings.

I have been a seeker all that time and more. And I have engaged in meditation practice for the last decade and a half. I am looking for others who, like me, are trying to combine the demands (and rewards) of corporate life with the demands (and rewards) of a more personal inquiry. I have spent time working with teachers (mostly in eastern traditions), in retreat, and I even lead a small group here, but most of the people that I have come across have not had careers that look like mine. Put simply, I have not seen a place where "corporate seekers" can share. So I decided to start one.

A zendo is a meditation hall. A place to look at ourselves and our thoughts. At the patterns that arise in us and define how we see the world. But don't be too attracted to, or put off by, the term zendo. This is not "Zen and the Art of Work." It is just a place to share and inquire into our lives and how we live them. I don't pretend to know what is best for me, let alone for you. No dogma, or even answers. Just a profound reverence for the mystery of it all.

If you are interested in sharing, or just in following along, let's start a community and see where this goes.