stories from the training: rebecca

 From Rebecca | The Zen Leader | Spring Green Dojo:

We woke up early, before dawn, and piled into our vehicles to caravan from the House on the Rock Resort to the dojo. We trudged through the snow in the dark, making our way up the path to the dojo, stomping our boots as we entered and setting them in pairs. We arranged our cushions in silence, the lights dim, a fire in the wood-burning stove warming the room. We were beginning to move together, anticipating, responding, harmonizing. Already, the jerkiness we had when we first arrived – bumping into one another, making a show of holding a door, gesturing for someone else to go first– had subsided. As the training continued, we dispensed with some of the formalities and conventions that we were accustomed to. Instead, we began to do what needed to be done without unnecessary words, filling in gaps where we saw them, taking care of ourselves or dropping back when we weren’t needed. We did not have to ask what to do at any given moment: we could just respond. As the Zen saying goes, “If you see a weed, pick it.”

Morning sittings tend to be the deepest and richest for me; sleep has not yet been pushed to another, faraway realm, and the imagery, emotions, and vivid characters of my dreams feel present and alive – a world both in and beyond me. As I smell the incense and listen to the vibrations of the bell fade into the background, the idea of a rock-solid self seems to be farther away than the taste of last night’s dreams. The grip of the ego has loosened – just barely – and this loosening creates space. I breathe in, noticing the sensation of air in my nostrils, the lift of my chest, the expansion of my ribcage, the slight tightening in my throat. As I slowly exhale, I ground down through my lower abdomen – the hara – and feel my spine extending, long and straight. I notice a tension in my shoulders and release. Thoughts swirl around me, sometimes spinning me up and dropping me somewhere new, many small tornadoes. At times, I am able to sink below all of the activity, staring up as if watching children playing in a pool, splashing at the surface, buoyed by air in lungs. I lie on the bottom – sometimes in shallow water and other times sinking to the depths, my breaths slow, smooth, and soft, as if I have somehow found a way to breathe underwater.

The idea that meditation – or zazen in the Zen tradition – is good for us is now widespread. Popular magazines extoll the benefits of meditation to alleviate stress and combat the overly hurried pace of modern life. In the glossy pages, we learn that meditation can calm the mind and lower blood pressure. If we exercise our bodies and minds, eat well, and meditate, we have reason to expect that we will be well. But popular culture says little about the content of meditation, other than that one should sit quietly, calming the mind and breath. But how to calm the mind? How to deepen the breath?

We may imagine successful meditation as a state in which we experience no thoughts or worries, in which we are blissed out and not troubled by the concerns of this world. Or, perhaps, we think of meditation as a trance-like state where inner wisdom emerges. When our experiences fail to align with these expectations, we worry that we are ‘doing it wrong.’ The chatter of our minds, flitting between emails to write and groceries to buy, the spiral of negative thoughts, the sense of frustration that ‘this is not working!’ or at least not going how it is supposed to go – can dissuade us from pursuing a practice at all. Besides, we may reason, we live in the real world: we don’t want to disengage. We accept our stresses as the consequence of modern lives, or at least, our particular lives. Our stress is immune to correction by meditation, we think, while harboring the secret thought that some stress does us good, makes us more productive, more efficient.

The Institute for Zen Leadership challenges, expands, and transforms these common assumptions.

For starters, Zen training and IZL teaches us to be more engaged in the world, not less. In sittings, I listen – to the crunch of footsteps on snow, the rustling of the wind in the trees, the calls of birds no longer indistinguishable. I aim to cultivate awareness – rather than retreating into myself, I pay attention to those around me, feeling their breathing, perceiving tightness in their bodies, noticing and being energized by their steady intensity and focus. I taste – the food at IZL workshop feeds, and I inhabit a world with flavor and texture and profound nourishment. I reconnect with my physical body – though movement and stillness, sometimes pain, noticing a fatigue and finding on the other side of it a penetrating and enduring energy. These practices of sharpened awareness translate – not into stress reduction exactly – but rather into more effective leadership, management, performance, and living. Ginny does not want us to retreat; she wants to help us advance. To lead fearlessly, to adapt and respond instinctively, to get out of our way.

The final day of the IZL workshop, we were asked to set an intention to bring with us as we returned to our daily lives; my intention was to lead with my authentic voice. Several weeks later, I was anxious about meeting with an employee whom I supervised and with whom I had been having a difficult time. I knew that he could sense my obvious frustration, and I could also see that my negative assumptions could be driving performance. I could, I thought, exercise my new ‘leadership’ through dressing this particular individual down, overcoming my strong desire to avoid conflict. I considered pretending that there was no problem, reasoning that the failings weren’t so grievous in the grand scheme of things. Drawing on my experiences at IZL, I sought to transform the situation. I engaged him, asked what I could do to encourage his full participation on our team, asked open-ended questions about his professional aspirations. I noticed the tension in my shoulders, released, caught myself breathing as labored and short, exhaled slowly and evenly. I asked about the standards he hoped for us to meet as an office, how he envisioned us working most effectively. I uncrossed my legs and arms, relaxed my furrowed brow. I set my hara, and spoke clearly and directly. He leaned forward for the first time, spoke excitedly about a project he wanted to take the lead on, relaxed his defenses. I felt as if I was beginning to turn the train gently in a new direction, rather than confronting head on or letting it get derailed.

The IZL workshops have helped me to connect a sitting practice to my professional life. In the same way that I do not squirm when my legs begin to ache or when an itch on my nose seems unbearable, I strive not to shrink from conflict or to immediately roll over to ease any disagreements. In the same way that I cultivate awareness of those around me – recognizing what my role is in the group and in the training – I participate in meetings with the aim of jumping in at the right time with an effective comment that will push us in the right direction, rather than dominating the conversation to soothe my ego or convince others that I am smart and capable. IZL and Zen training have taught me to listen as well as to act, to lead by stepping forward or by stepping back.

Ginny’s teaching does not require us to become people we are not; she encourages us to find our authentic and unique selves. Her teaching allows us to expand our vocabulary, to have available to us new tools and to sharpen and refine those that we already have. By allowing us to acknowledge our strengths, we can see how those strengths can help and hurt us. They are gifts, but they are not perhaps as reliable or beneficial as we thought.

At the closing lunch of the IZL workshop, I see my fellow participants with a clarity on their faces, with less strain around their eyes and mouths. I sense the firmness behind their intentions. Not radical transformations that will take us away from our lives and our goals, but subtle and small adjustments, lived daily. They are as simple as noticing our posture while we sit at the computer and paying attention to the temperature, taste, and texture of what we put in our mouths. These changes ripple out into our lives into personal relationships, professional lives, and even our interactions with the receptionist at the dentist office or the flight attendant on a long journey. Through these quiet but powerful transformations, IZL can help us to become more grounded and lighter, more aware of the world around us and more able to focus and invest deeply.