3 common myths about zen and why zen helps leaders
I’ve heard these myths many times, but today I found all 3 of them in the same article. So here goes…
Myth #1: Zen is about being egoless
If you’re going to play the game of life, you need an ego. It’s like having a token on a board game: you can’t play the game if you don’t move something around on the board (OK, or move a critter around on a screen, for those of you who are half my age and don’t remember board games). The problem with the ego is that it gets us stuck in too small a sense of identity: we think that’s all we are. And the ego is loaded with subtle fears and games for protecting itself and keeping its game going. Zen training is the only venture in my own life that has seriously gone after the ego – catching it at its own games, and exposing it in all of its good, bad and ugliness. Every other form of training, at best, tacks another capability, another ornament, onto the ego. Zen training attacks the ego.
But here’s the wonder: at some point – right when all seems lost – the whole picture flips inside out and the ego becomes servant, rather than master. One’s boundless being flows through the ego, without obstruction and self glorification. This is what I call getting out of our own way; like the flip in the gestalt drawing from focusing on our vase to serving the faces around us. It is the expression of the true servant leader – the Zen leader in us.
No matter how much one wants this flip, one can’t will it to happen. For the “one” who would strive for it is exactly what’s relinquished in the flip, which leads to a 2nd common myth…
Myth #2: One shouldn’t strive for anything in Zen
While willpower seems to work in many matters of our life, it doesn’t lead to the outcomes we would wish for in Zen. As a result, some schools of meditation take the approach: don’t wish or strive for anything. And if that works for you, great. I don’t dismiss any path. But if you’re already a high need achiever who strives for everything, just saying “don’t do that” doesn’t cut it. Even if it seems to work, all you’ve done is take a striving ego and put a layer of self control on top of it in order to strive to be non-striving. I know this because I did it for years.
Another approach is to strive so hard you exhaust yourself on striving – like the computer that fries its circuits on “Everything I say is a lie.” The great Zen Master Dogen observed that the requirements for awakening to our true nature – the boundless flip side of our ego nature – are great effort, great doubt and great faith. Striving can fuel our great effort and raise great doubt (who’s striving, anyway, and why?). Pierce that.
Sounds like a lot of work, you may think. Maybe one day when you can take a sabbatical or go to the mountaintop you’ll get to these deeper concerns. But right now, you have work to do…which is a 3rd common myth.
Myth #3: Zen doesn’t belong in business and everyday life
While Zen training – the most common form being sitting meditation – may step us away from our everyday busy-ness for 20-40 minutes, we will soon find the opportunities for Zen training are in every moment: from calming tense situations with our centeredness, to influencing more effectively by empathizing, to attracting the future by sensing it, and transforming ourselves to match.
Far from being an esoteric set of concerns we would squeeze in when our “real” life allows it, Zen training is exactly the endeavor that has a chance to show us what’s real about our life. Moreover, just as Zen lets us transcend our own smallness, so it also helps our business thinking move beyond small-minded greed, destructive competitiveness, or getting stuck in the past. It’s no accident that Zen keeps being associated with Steve Jobs – one of the most innovative leaders of all times. The Zen leader in us is endlessly generative and, once we’ve gotten out of our own way, what’s to stop it?
I respect those who go to the mountaintop to find or practice Zen. But I live and work in a world where the need for more awakened leaders is desperately evident, and Zen belongs here as well. Wouldn’t you agree? How else can Zen help leaders? What other myths about Zen would you like to put to rest?