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Excerpt from "Know Yourself, Forget Yourself"

Chapter One: From Paradox to Insight

by Mark Lesser

Can’t say what I’m doing here,

But I hope to see much clearer

After living in the material world.

— George Harrison, “Living in the Material World”

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. His manager had told me that he was a high-performing leader who was now underperforming. During our conversation the executive shared with me his disappointment about work. “What happened?” he pondered. He had begun this job with such excitement and enthusiasm, such belief in his ability to do a great job and achieve lofty goals. Now he felt discouraged and exhausted. Then he shared with me that he had a similar feeling in his marriage and family life.

He said, “How did I get so busy and yet manage to feel so uninspired? Why does my life feel stale? Why do I have a gnawing sense of defeat much of the time? To the world I seem dynamic and productive, but internally I am either churning or numb. What happened to the enthusiasm and excitement I had for life when I was young, just setting out in my career and marriage? When did my life get so out of balance?”

His eyes looked pained, and his shoulders were slightly hunched. Behind him, I noticed a nearly life-size wooden cutout of a rhinoceros. How odd, I thought. What was this large creature doing lurking in the office of this senior executive? “What is that?” I asked.

The man smiled for the first time during our meeting. “Oh, that was from an event that we held about fifteen years ago. Since there was no place to store it and I didn’t want it thrown out, this rhino has been living in my office ever since.”

“That image reminds me of a story,” I told him. “It’s an old Zen story that goes like this: A teacher says to his attendant, ‘Bring me my fan, the rhinoceros horn fan.’ Apparently, the teacher had a special fan that either had a painting of a rhinoceros or perhaps was made with some sliver of rhinoceros horn. The attendant responds, ‘I’m afraid your rhinoceros horn fan is broken.’?

I stopped and asked the executive, “What do you think the teacher said?”

The man shrugged. He didn’t know.

I told him, “The teacher stated sternly, ‘Then bring me the rhinoceros!’?

We both chuckled. It’s a silly, preposterous story that makes about as much apparent sense as the rhinoceros in this executive’s office.

I asked the executive to look at his rhinoceros. I asked him to remember what he felt like, bringing it into his office many years ago. It must have been lighthearted, risky, surprising. “Yes,” he acknowledged and smiled. “I was new to my job, excited and nervous.”

“Let’s see if we can bring back some of that surprise, that energy, into your work and life right now,” I responded. “Some of that rhinoceros energy!”

The Zen story is about surprise and creative energy. The teacher is saying to his attendant, Wake up! Don’t take your life for granted. Don’t take anything for granted. Think, consider, and live outside of your habitual ways. I explained this to the executive and told him, “Your whole life is right here, right now! So let’s begin by having you pay attention to the simple and obvious parts of your life that you may be overlooking. Let’s talk about what is working that brings you joy as well as what you avoid, what annoys and angers you. Just as the teacher used what was directly in front of him, let’s work with what is right in front of you.”

In my role as an executive coach, I help people become more effective, to lead a more effective life. I help them see how they contribute to their own lack of effectiveness and then help them develop the skills and strategies to remove these obstacles. This may sound simple, but nothing is simple when you are growing and developing as a leader and as a person, moving beyond the assumptions and habits that were previously successful but are no longer adequate, or when you are stuck, unsure what to do, at a dead end, or despairing. My role is to unlock what resides within leaders and/or to help them develop new ways of seeing or new competencies. I often describe my work as helping clients to see openings and possibilities that they may not be aware of. At times these openings appear obvious. Other times they are more subtle. Then, once these openings are named, I help people to step forward, exploring and saying yes to this potential.

Clients come to me because they, or the people around them, are experiencing what I call creative gaps — gaps between where people are and where they need or want to be. In other words, they have an opportunity for growth. At times, this gap is experienced as painful; sometimes there’s an emotional breakdown or some troubling or disabling imbalance in their life. Typically, the difficulty is presented as work related — the people are in transition and need to increase leadership skills, team-building skills, or communication skills. Or they know (or have been told by a mentor, colleague, supervisor, boss, or their board) that they have an opportunity for improvement in their job, or they are struggling, or both. They acknowledge that they can, and need to be, more effective in their current position.

My role as an effectiveness coach is to shift their immediate work issues, but paradoxically, to do this I must address, and shift, the person’s entire way of looking at themselves and the world. Simply put, my goal is to help them wake up — to their work, to themselves, to appreciation and curiosity; to life itself.

The Usefulness of Paradox

To thrive in our lives, and be happy and effective, we must be in balance; on a very real level, our personal life, work life, and spiritual life are not at all separate. But how do we achieve balance? More importantly, how do we keep our balance when life seems designed to knock us off balance? One answer is to become as adept as a tightrope walker. A tightrope walker can feel when he or she slips out of balance and adjust, stepping more quickly or not at all, bending a little to the left, now to the right. As an audience, we see the acrobat losing balance and know that the person will fall if it goes uncorrected. Indeed, that’s the entertainment. We marvel at how the tightrope walker shifts in and out of balance constantly and continually, moving back and forth across the wire while performing tricks that only increase the difficulty. How, we wonder, does the person do it?

Acrobats achieve this skill through practice, by understanding and honing their kinetic sense of inner balance. They come to know their internal gyroscope so well that they can feel every wobble
and instinctively correct it. They also learn to balance their inner and outer awareness while never losing focus on the present moment: as performers, they must remember their audience and the show itself even as they adjust for every shift in their environment and in their physical position on the wire. They need to be absolutely in-the-moment about themselves and also hold in mind the next trick, the show’s progress.

This isn’t easy. In order to find balance you must be open and responsive to imbalance. This is the paradox of the tightrope walker.

I have come to believe that embracing and responding to paradox — turning our assumptions upside down, expecting the unexpected, comfortably holding two opposing viewpoints at the same time, resolving conflicting requirements, and so on — is the key to waking up to ourselves and the present moment and discovering the right thing to do. Paradox is the doorway to insight, just as falling is necessary for learning how to balance on a tightrope. We all want more clarity, more ease, more connectedness, more possibilities, more compassion, more kindness. We want healthy relationships in order to thrive at our work and to be effective in all areas of our life. What is hard is knowing in any given situation what the appropriate action or response should be. We want the insight to know how to achieve all these things, but our vision and experience are limited.

There is an expression from the Zen tradition, “Don’t be a board-carrying fellow.” This refers to the image of a carpenter carrying a wide wooden board on his or her shoulder. The board blocks and limits vision, allowing the carpenter to see only one side of things. This expression is meant to caution us from thinking we see fully and clearly, when we see only partially. We are all board-carrying fellows. We usually just see the world from our ordinary, habitual viewpoint and neglect the mysterious, the profound, the obvious. If we don’t know or acknowledge that our viewpoint is limited, we will find it virtually impossible to gain the insight that allows us to respond in new, more successful ways. To become aware of our limitations, to achieve the insights we crave, we need to wake up.

Accepting the power of paradox is one of life’s ways of waking us up, shocking us into awareness, so we can find our balance again. Waking up can be cultivated, practiced, so that it becomes a way of life, so that it becomes our habitual approach to life. Then we may become as skillful as a tightrope walker, who lives on the edge of falling and yet (almost) always catches him- or herself in time.

Paradox means many things and can be worked with and utilized in our lives in many ways. Many Zen stories embody or are steeped in paradox, and I use them often in my work, as I do in this book. Yet paradox can also simply be a startling, peculiar, playful, or unexpected observation that challenges our habitual way of thinking. It is asking, “What is this rhinoceros doing in my office?” It is the late anthropologist Gregory Bateson observing that spaceship Earth is so well designed that we have no idea we are on one. Here we are, hurtling through space at a million miles per hour with no need for seat belts, plenty of room in coach, and excellent food. Imagine. Paradox is anytime you hear that whisper in your ear, “Wake up, the world is extraordinary. This life you take for granted isn’t what you think!”

The Five Truths

Shunryu Suzuki, the founder of the San Francisco Zen Center, once proclaimed in a public talk, “The secret of Zen is just two words...not always so.” He and the audience laughed. He clarified that in Japanese, his native language, this expression can be stated in two words. How funny and appropriate that the statement itself exemplified his point. Whatever we think, life is not so simple...and yet it is.

Speaking personally, I’m not happy or satisfied with the idea of paradox. I don’t really want this book to be about paradox; I want this book to be about clarity. Who wants paradoxical relation-
ships, or paradox in business? We all want confidence and assurance. Imagine a stockbroker or surgeon or soldier using the word paradox to describe his or her work. Paradox seems the opposite of clarity, the opposite of action, a nonanswer; for some, a shrug.

In my work life and personal life, I’ve come to realize that embracing what is obvious is not always so easy. Meanwhile, paradox can point to a radical clarity. My hope is that this book will help you see that with paradox comes a kind of clarity that is more accurate, more true, more clear than clear, than what we usually accept at face value. Life and death are a paradox; in our day-to-day lives, we are constantly torn between opposites and dualities, between competing desires and needs. There is no escaping the paradoxical nature of the world. If we accept this, and meet paradox head on, if we work with and penetrate these apparently unsolvable conundrums, the place we reach is insight.

This insight can express itself uniquely in any situation and yet embody universal truths. I have found it useful to distill this work into five core insights. These five insights present themselves as paradoxes, or seemingly conflicting statements, but nevertheless, they hold the keys to right action, effectiveness, and balance.

The five truths we will explore in this book are

• The skill, in every moment, to know ourselves fully and forget ourselves entirely

• The trust to be confident in the face of doubt and to have the confidence to question everything

• The discernment to know when to act to improve our lives and the world and when to accept life as it is, as events present themselves

• The openness and capacity to embrace our emotions, our joys and pains, and find calm and composure in the midst of the demands of work and life, in the midst of difficulty and change

• The wisdom to turn toward helping others and healing the world while simultaneously caring for and developing ourselves

These truths are meant to be practiced, not merely understood or studied. Through practice, we can learn to clarify and shift our habits so that we are more successful in our everyday lives. For instance, sometimes the way we protect ourselves brings us unnecessary pain and suffering; we react to our fear and anxiety in ways that cut off or compromise our experience of kindness and compassion. Often, I’ve found, the most effective solutions are counterintuitive: we must allow pain to feel less pain. We must let go of our desire in order to gain what we want. We must heal our spiritual problems to solve our work problems, or our family problems, or vice versa. We must accept that we are all things all at once in the only moment that counts, this one.

For instance, I am present, right here and now, and I am also reviewing the past and thinking about the future. I live in this moment, spacious, present, and curious. And I’m aware of this new moment, this sense of living on the edge of the wave of time. My life feels full and, when I look deeply, also empty. I laughed many times today, and I also cried, and the pain and release of tears made me feel full and happy. During the most recent winter holidays, the happiness of being with my family was wonderful and full of loss and sadness — knowing that not only would these moments not last, but that these lives would not last. I was both pained and proud to wave good-bye to my twenty-four-year-old daughter, as she drove away with a caring and sensitive young man at her side.

When someone asks about the status of my work life, I’m often tempted to answer that I’m on the verge of both tremendous success and tremendous failure. I can list all the things that are making this a good year: new skills I’ve learned and ways I’ve grown, the money I’ve earned, the projects I’ve completed, the positive impacts of my coaching and consulting work. I can also list all the errors I’ve made, the failed projects, the missed opportunities, and all the more and better things I have yet to achieve. Depending on my mood, I might prefer one list or the other, but both are valid and true; neither is the whole story.

We are all spiritual creatures masquerading as practical creatures. That is, when we are not practical creatures masquerading as spiritual creatures. I know that washing the dishes can be just washing the dishes. Sometimes they just need to get cleaned and put away, ready for the next meal. Washing the dishes can be incredibly tedious and boring. It can also be a sensual event, paying attention, noticing the feeling of warm water touching the hands, the hardness of the plates, the sharpness of the silverware. It can be a communal act, sharing the burden of household chores; even thinking to do them at all could be an expression of loving attention to those you live with. It can also be a spiritual act, just being present, giving yourself over to an activity with gentle enthusiasm and gratitude for your home and nourishment, or of letting go of self-concern and self-awareness. Just washing the dishes. Having no other thought or ulterior motive. Imagine, if this were the first time, your first experience in dishwashing, seeing a dish and water and hands come together. Or imagine, perhaps this will be the last time. Never again will you have this experience.

In any one moment, all of these things can exist, whether we are washing dishes, commuting to work, writing a check, giving a presentation, hiking in the woods, or making love. Typically, we choose how we want to experience something and that guides our actions. Then, when and if we experience difficulties or unhappiness, insight is whatever wakes us up so that we see the choice we’ve made. Insight is understanding that we have, in fact, made a choice (that we are board-carrying fellows), and thus we can choose differently and change our approach to the task or interaction. Insight is recognizing that we are imbalanced and then discerning how, specifically, we need to shift our perspective and actions to come back to balance. This is a never-ending process and challenge. Yet by following the five insight practices in this book, we can learn to walk this tightrope. We can learn to distinguish and balance our own self-interest, the interests of others, the interests of our companies and communities, and even the interests of our ecosystems and planet. This subtle, profound practice can’t be made with the thinking mind alone. It involves thinking and feeling, action and acceptance, selfishness and compassion, right brain and left brain, head, heart, body, and soul.

Resolute and Clear, Unfathomable Gate

My entire adult life, I have been a Zen student and a businessman. I am a CEO, MBA, and Zen teacher. For the past eight years, I have run a consulting practice (ZBA Associates) as an executive coach for businesspeople at major corporations (such as Google, Twitter, Genentech, and Facebook) and at nonprofit organizations throughout the United States and the world.

When I was twenty-one years old, I took a one-year leave of absence from Rutgers University in New Jersey and traveled to California. This did not please my parents, but I knew I needed a break from academics. At the time, I had no clue that this journey would turn into ten years of living at the San Francisco Zen Center, or that my Zen training would result in a new name and a calling.

During this time I lived at all three of the San Francisco Zen Center’s locations — two years in San Francisco, three years at Green Gulch Farm in Marin County, and five years at Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, the first Zen monastery in the Western world. As a Zen student I practiced sitting meditation with a community of about fifty people every morning and every afternoon. I found Zen philosophy and practice to be a wise, inclusive, deeply spiritual, nonjudgmental explanation of reality. It provides ethical constructs, community guidelines, and a physical practice. My work at the center was varied and nearly always stretched my sense of myself and my capabilities — I was trained as a bread baker, cook, and draft horse farmer, and during my tenth year at the Zen Center, I was director of Tassajara.

After five years, it became time for my Buddhist Lay Ordination Ceremony. The ceremony primarily involved anchoring my life to “do good, avoid harm, and help others.” In Buddhism these are called the “three pure precepts,” or practices, for purifying the mind. To me, the ceremony was expressing that practicing meditation, and living a meditative life, was a central part of my life, and this was one way to publicly make this statement. Since the Zen Center is part of the Japanese Soto Zen tradition, I spent a year sewing by hand a small version of what is thought of as Buddha’s robe, a small piece of cloth about the size of a bib, that is worn around the neck. The pattern of the robe is modeled after a rice field, as in China, where these were originally developed. Each stitch is sewn by hand, and you affirm your intention to practice with each stitch. These were originally developed so that monks could wear robes while farming and doing other forms of manual labor.

As part of this ceremony, I was given a new Buddhist name, which was bestowed by the then-thirty-nine-year-old spiritual leader, or abbot, of the San Francisco Zen Center, Richard Baker. The name Richard chose for me: Benefit Decree, Material Gate.

I was completely puzzled by this name. The first part, Benefit Decree, seemed to be saying that I was being requested to make my life a way of benefiting others. This felt right, and I was both comforted and challenged by this part of my name.

Material Gate, the second part of my name, was more difficult to understand or connect with. I pictured a large opening, a gate, something that I needed to walk through, and that somehow this gate was connected to the world of work, or money, the world of material things — in contrast to the world of ideas or philosophy.

Over the next several years, I puzzled over what this bizarre name meant for me. By my tenth year, as Tassajara director, I was surprised to wake up one morning and notice that, though I was a Zen monk, I was also running a business. As Tassajara director, I was responsible for a million-dollar budget, a staff of sixty, and the problems and challenges of an organization serving seventy overnight guests daily. I was surprised how much I enjoyed leadership, and even more surprised at not only the lack of conflict between leadership and spiritual practice but by how well they integrated and informed each other. Leadership, management, and spiritual practice are all about seeing more clearly, finding creative solutions, and waking up!

This profound insight revealed the deeper meaning of my name, and I decided to devote my work life to this mission — to integrating contemplative and work practices, to changing the world by helping business leaders become more aware, awake, and wise, and doing all these things to solve real problems. This set the course for my own personal, professional, and spiritual growth: I would step into a mission that was large and audacious, I would do something very different and unexpected from the path I thought I would take, and I would take it one step at a time.

Naturally, paradoxically, my first step was to leave Tassajara and enroll at New York University’s Graduate School of Business, which was on Wall Street at that time, to pursue a leadership education and MBA degree. Then, in 1989, three years after graduating from business school, I founded and was CEO of Brush Dance, a publishing company that made inspirational greeting cards and calendars from recycled paper.

Brush Dance began literally in my garage as one of the first companies in the world to make products out of recycled paper. Over the next fifteen years, Brush Dance grew and evolved into a multimillion-dollar company producing beautiful and inspirational cards, journals, and calendars that touched the lives of millions. However, like every successful CEO, I earned my stripes as much through my failures as through my successes: failed initiatives, failed products, failed hires. As the business maxim goes, I learned the most from my failures, even though failure was the last thing I wanted. Like every business owner, I felt passionately about my company, and I poured all my creativity, brainpower, pride, personal capital, and time into its success.

During the years I grew Brush Dance, I learned a huge amount about business and managing people, and even more about myself. I discovered that the energized, innovative, high-stakes business world can be immensely rewarding, even with all the financial setbacks and stress that perpetually hover around it. I learned that I have a proclivity and passion for financial forecasting, product development, and marketing. Most important, I found that, surprisingly, I love working in the for-profit world, and I was particularly drawn to the people, the human side of business — to the importance of trust, of teamwork and collaboration.

However, in 2004, I decided it was time to step down from Brush Dance. After fifteen years as CEO, I found my heart was no longer in the publishing business. This was disorienting and painful since I had started the company. Yet as I privately planned my transition, I was preemptively fired by my board of directors. This felt like a major failure, and in the aftermath, I was forced to honestly assess how my waning creativity and leadership helped lead to this outcome. This assessment, and these lessons, only increased my resolve to help others in business, and over the next several years, I successfully launched the executive consulting company ZBA Associates.

Through these years, I also continued to develop my Zen training, and I was ordained as a Zen priest in 2003. During my priest ordination ceremony, my teacher at the time, Norman Fischer, decided to change the first part of my name, to make it more direct; he called me Resolute and Clear, Material Gate. He thought that the second part of my name was perfect, mirroring the way in which my work life revolved around bringing spiritual practices into the business world.

Or perhaps not, for in 2011, my name was changed again. My teacher at that time, Michael Wenger, decided the last part of my name needed fine-tuning. As I was completing the last stage of my formal Zen training (known as Dharma Transmission), he changed my name to Resolute and Clear, Unfathomable Gate. Yes, a paradox, one that Michael felt is more aligned and representative of me and my practice today. While I remain challenged by my Zen name, I am no longer confused by it. Though it was given to me, I see it as representing the human condition. We all aspire to be resolute, to have a firm conviction, and to be clear. Yet, counterintuitively and paradoxically, the path, the gate, the experience and trajectory of our lives — all of these are deep, profound, and unfathomable.

Just the other day, I co-led a “day of mindfulness” at Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, California, as part of the mindfulness-based emotional intelligence program called Search Inside Yourself. The last exercise of the day was an exploration called the Game of Self. Two people sit facing each other and, in turn and repeatedly, ask each other who they are.

To demonstrate, my colleague Meng asked me, “Marc, who are you?”

I responded, “I am a Zen priest, a CEO businessman, a father, husband, son.”

“Marc, who are you?” Meng asked again.

“I am compassionate, courageous, vulnerable,” I replied. “I am this body and mind, and I am more than this body and mind. I am playful, searching, caring. I love to laugh and appreciate my tears. I am passionate and calm. I love to teach and to learn. I am an explorer.”

We then had all forty people in the class get into pairs and play the Game of Self.

This simple game has a variety of purposes. We learn that our idea of who we are is deeper, wider, and more complex than our usual biographies or elevator speeches about ourselves. We are so many things! And we can see that, though all of these statements may be true, none of these descriptions or labels defines us. What we each often think of as “me” is extremely limited and may in fact not even exist.

In my work now, I help clients create a more interconnected view of their work-related life and their emotional landscape, the latter being the part of their life that is sometimes the greatest and most mysterious part of who they are. I then try to help them brighten and further balance these two elements with something I believe is essential to the deepest human happiness: spiritual fulfillment. It is the sense of the sacred (not necessarily religious) that fills us with a profound sense of wonder and awe and that uplifts us.

When these dimensions are integrated, we are able to accomplish more, with fewer distractions. We can do more of what we wish to do, with less stress. This was the theme of my previous book, Less, which made this promise in four words: Accomplish more. Do less. Yes, a paradox! This book builds on the premise of Less while focusing on surprise — on how we can utilize surprising statements and surprising practices to enliven, wake up, and transform our personal, professional, and spiritual life.

I believe we are all Zen students and all businesspeople. Zen is the practice of being a vibrant, effective human being while embracing our pains and vulnerabilities as an essential part of being fully alive. Zen is the practice of finding our innate freedom and practicing compassion in the midst of the stark reality that we are born and we will die. Zen is responding to the needs, problems, and cries of the world with effectiveness and with an open heart. And we are all businesspeople, whether teachers or doctors or nonprofit executives or homemakers or salespeople working the aisles of Walmart. There is no avoiding the need for money, goods, and services. No avoiding the material world. My passion in life is to help people to become more present, alive, and awake, to help people integrate — balance — their work life, spiritual life, and personal life, and to do so in the very real material world.

From the book, Know Yourself, Forget Yourself. Copyright © 2013 by Marc Lesser.

Reprinted with permission from New World Library. www.NewWorldLibrary.com.

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