The Hidden Side of Deep Resilience in Leadership
The Hidden Side of Deep Resilience in Leadership
by Ginny Whitelaw.
Originally published on Forbes.com on February 1st, 2024
Image created by the author using MidJourney
Experiencing ourselves as riding the waves, it’s up and down all the time; experiencing ourselves as the ocean invites a deeper resilience.
As we enter the Dragon Year, which is looking to be disruptive, turbulent, and one of the hottest on record, resilience will be a premium quality for leaders. Here, resilience means not just the ability to bounce back to some previous form following a disruption—i.e., one’s old self or business as usual—but the ability to adapt to and create with the new conditions on the other side of that disruption.
Resilience applies at many levels, spanning outer forms, such as socio-ecological resilience, and inner forms, that is, personal resilience. Our focus here is the latter. While ways of developing inner or personal resilience are many, they are generally based on the view of the human being as an autonomous self. Resilience research has shown numerous ways that a separate self can be resourced by connection with other people, systems of meaning, good habits, self-care and so forth. These are not unimportant, yet from a Zen Leadership perspective, they start from an illusory foundation from which only limited and conditional resilience can be constructed. A far deeper, greater, unshakeable resilience is available as one experiences a reframed self that is both autonomous and universal, both a local self-in-a-skin and a whole Self embracing the whole picture. Moreover, when one experiences oneself this way, one’s actions become inherently caring for the whole picture. This deep resilience in leadership engenders not only a joyful, purposeful life, but creates a more joyful, resilient world.
In fairness, many researchers and teachers of resilience point toward what we might call this hidden or spiritual dimension to resilience. William Keepin speaks of it as Belonging to God. Norris Hansell refers to it as a “comprehensive system of meaning.” Unfortunately, filtering all of this through the lens of a separate ego, we think of the spiritual dimension as another set of thoughts or beliefs that “I” have, rather than a radical reframe of “I” itself. Likewise Indigenous and other wisdom traditions point to the interconnectedness and interrelatedness of all beings and things. Yet, in our ego-based ways of thinking, that gets easily translated into “I” having a lot of relationships, rather than “I” not existing except for its relationships.
While the reframe of “I” may seem extraneous to resilience, it is truly at the heart of it. To use a metaphor, if we think of ourselves as individual leaves, fall is a pretty scary time of year. If we define resilience as how long we can cling to our branch, it’s a proposition sure to fail. If we think of ourselves as the whole tree, fall is just another season. Recycling our leaves is actually a part of our resilience. As another example, imagining ourselves as a wave, we’re up, we’re down, we’re crashing on a shore. But if we imagine ourselves as the ocean, the ups and downs are just a part of our surface nature. Metaphors like these point us in the direction of how resilience takes on broader, deeper dimensions depending on how we define ourselves.
We might think that our sense of self is relatively fixed because our self is the frame of reference we use for thinking (just as we don’t feel the hurtling of the earth through space because being on the earth is our frame of reference). But, if we look closely at our sense of self, we can see that it has already expanded many times throughout our life. At birth, we did not have a sense of an autonomous self at all. It takes a couple years for an ego boundary to form, which arises with the onset of language and two very important words: “No” for everything we don’t want crossing that boundary and “Mine” for everything we do.
Assuming we keep growing in a healthy way, our sense of self will expand to become a child within a family, a student at a school, a person within a community, an employee at a job and so forth. We’ll embrace qualities like empathy, logic, and beliefs, habits and values we live by. Our brains will mature to be able to think in more complex patterns from arithmetic to calculus, from piggy banks to economics, from connect-the-dots to systems thinking. Our circle of care—that to which we feel connected and would want to be resilient—starts with our self-in-our skin, but expands to include our families, communities, business, countries, perhaps even the planet. Again, our lens of “I” may misconstrue this expanding sense of self as just more attributes and relationships “I” has, rather than the many bits of information holographically contributing to an expanding “I.”
Ordinary growing up shows us how malleable our sense of self is. But what really stands our self-concept on its head is contemplative practice. There are ways of using breath and posture in meditation that induce the experience of one-withness, dissolving the illusion of separation. In such a state, “the true human body is the entire universe,” as the 20th century Zen master, Omori Sogen, expressed it. Others have experienced this state—i.e., samadhi—spontaneously in near-death experiences or using hallucinogens; Jill Bolte Tayler experienced it following a stroke that temporarily wiped out the left side of her brain. So, this experience is not confined to those in contemplative practice, but when combined with deep practice, the “I” no longer interprets this state as a peak experience “it” has, but as a revelation of true nature.
And what is that nature? It is nothing short of a foreground-background flip of form and emptiness, of our moving parts in space and time and the boundless stillness out of which all this commotion arises. We flip from being a grasping leaf to being all leaves, the whole tree, and the whole cycle of regeneration. We flip from riding a wave to being all the waves and the boundless ocean. We lose the fear our ego has been protecting us from all along—namely, annihilation—as we experience that part of ourselves beyond space and time, beyond birth and death.
It’s easy for us to perceive our physical form as being who we are, but how can we know that this absolute emptiness or boundless stillness is also our nature? Many Buddhist writings deal with this question, but perhaps the clearest pointing toward this truth comes from the Surangama Sutra in the metaphor of host and guest. The setting of this sutra is a dialogue between Buddha and his nephew, Ananda, who is searching for his true nature or absolute Mind. The Buddha asks him if he comes to an inn, how can he tell the difference between the host of the inn and the guests. Ananda answers that the guests come and go, whereas the host stays in place. So, as Buddha continues to challenge Ananda, if you apply the same logic to your own self, your own mind, who is the host and who are the guests? The hint here is that if it comes and goes, it’s a guest. So, all thoughts come and go—guests, all of them. The physical body comes and goes, another guest. For that matter, all forms come and go (some albeit slowly, but every material form has a lifetime, and every energetic form has a frequency of vibration), so they’re guests, too. But the field of perception in which these forms arise is not itself coming and going; it’s already all-pervasive. Can you feel that is also your nature? as Buddha challenged Ananda, and we are challenged as well.
A practice we use in Zen Leadership to sense this boundless, timeless nature, inspired by the Surangama Sutra, is what we call, “Send it Back” meditation. To get a feel for this, focus on a sound you hear right now. On the one hand, you can feel this sound vibration entering your body and kicking off a chain reaction leading to hearing, interpretation and whatnot. But try going in the other direction; invert the sound to its source, and that to its source. If the source is still moving, keep going to what it arises out of until you reach something that’s not moving, not changing, beyond ordinary language or comprehension, i.e., the host. We can then trace the whole chain forward again, experiencing our unbroken connection with host nature.
For example, hearing the fan of this computer, I might send it back to vibrating air molecules, atoms, sub-atomic particles, wavicles, energetic fields, potentiality, stillness. Or perhaps I send my hearing back through ears that hear, hammer, anvil and stirrup cells, nuclei, nucleic acids, atoms, subatomic particles, wavicles…suchness. Playing the whole chain forward again, both suchness (host) and movement (guests) remain.
When we experience ourselves as guest and host, resilience takes on a deeper, more expansive quality. Yes, we need to take care of our guest-self because that’s what we get to play the game of life with. It’s easier to lead, help people, heal what’s broken and create value in this world when we have a working body. But when we can also touch our host nature, which is no-nature, something deep in us loses its fear and knows beyond knowing that there is nowhere to be lost to.
As we ride the many waves of this Dragon Year, let us also feel beneath their swell to the vast ocean we also are, and from which our deepest resilience and greatest creativity is sourced.
Ginny Whitelaw is the Founder and CEO of the Institute for Zen Leadership.
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