This week there has been a feeling of strange energy, something like sitting in a waiting room at a train station and having faith the train will arrive, yet enough doubt to cause unease. I mention this in our Zen community What’s App to see if others in the group have the same sense. This morning after Zazen, it comes up again, everyone agreeing it has been an odd week. We talk of winter’s transition to Spring and the current cold weather forcing nature to wait before bursting forth. The warm spell that we enjoyed in the last couple of days of February disappearing, winter determined not to let up just yet! This year’s Spring is different, as it waits to burst forth; we too are at the mercy of the forces. We sit patiently waiting for vaccines to take effect and the death toll to fall, urgent in the desire to return to our cycle of normality.
I wander into Coventry City Centre, taking some exercise trying to escape the Lockdown. It is cold, the sky overcast, the buildings looking drab and grey. The square empty, shutters down, a homeless woman sitting hunched between two doorways, pushing her Starbucks cup at me and gazing hopefully, passers-by few and far between. There it is again, hanging in the air, just out in front of me unseen a sort of anticipation, I can’t see it, but I can sense it, something waiting to happen. And from that emptiness, a glimmering light, the sound of drilling, a man emerges his fluorescent yellow jacket contrasting the day. A woman smiles, sweeping the winters debris from behind stacked chairs of the next door cafe. A gang of painters sing across the square as they refresh a shopfront, three doors away, ‘Top Shop’ stands lonely, sad and forsaken, nature leaving nothing untouched.
I keep leaning into the week, attentive, listening deeply, before I am brought face to face with Ryokan, a Zen Master and hermit, famous for his calligraphy and poetry. A survivor of the Cholera Pandemic sweeping Asia in 1820, he speaks to me!
It’s Saturday, and I awoke this morning to a thought, having no idea where it came from. Generally, as I open my eyes in the dark and stretch out my legs and back under the duvet, my thoughts are about should I or shouldn’t get up. I am an early riser doing a combination of practices, Yoga, Chanting, Qigong, which is split at 6 am with 30 minutes of Online Zazen. This morning was different. As I opened my eyes, my voice was there right at the front of my forehead, asking me as clear as a whistle, ‘What do I want to get out of today?’ This type of thought is pretty rare for me, the kind of question I hate if asked by trainers on self-development programmes. I am not the type of person whose to-do lists and goals come quickly, and I don’t fall into bed at night thinking not to sleep if I haven’t completed all my tasks.
Laying in the darkness, the question was so luminous that I had to offer some sort of response. I repeated the question to myself, What do I want out of today? My stomach sinks into the mattress, a reluctance swamping me, a weight keeping me pinned to the bed, a list appearing in my mind, an endless archive fading into the darkness. The clock has run down, and it was time to get up and go with the day and see what it presents. The problem is that the question doesn’t reseed. It hangs around for much of my morning practice; finally, a moment of lucidity appearing during Zazen. ‘What do I want to get out of today?’. I want to spend several hours with the kids giving them my full attention. I want to speak to my Mum on a zoom call and give her my full attention. In fact, what is crystal clear isn’t the need to just be with the kids or listen to Mum; as I usually do, flicking through my phone or sipping my coffee, it is something way beyond. A feeling of completeness, a wholeness that would allow me to evaporate and for them to absorb my consciousness, feeding and thriving, taking what they need. What I want to get out of today is not only to give but to give unconditionally in a way that is rarely possible in a world of distraction. Wow, so simple, so easy, so much fun; play with the kids and enjoy a conversation with Mum. That’s what I want from today.
I have spent the last few days listening to ‘The Long Quiet Road’ by Natalie Goldberg. I came across her book whilst searching for help with writing styles. Natalie Goldberg was a student of Katagiri Roshi, a Japanese Zen master who originally travelled from Japan to teach at the SFZC, and later establishing the Minnesota Zen Centre. The book is a moving tale about their relationship as Teacher and Student, which takes us beyond Katagiri Roshi’s death. In the book’s first few pages, she tells the story of ‘The Mountain Monks’ a sect of monks in Japan who run a thousand marathons up and down Mount Hehi over seven years to obtain Buddhahood. The monks complete each of the 22-mile circuits on pain of death, carrying a razor-sharp blade to take their life should they fail.
I have a simple task in comparison; at least that is how it looks on the outside. All I have to do is complete a book, something that has been sitting at the back of my mind for six years. But all is not as it seems, and in the last couple of months, the book writing process as I saw it had turned itself on its head, and I am writing this to make some sense of what’s occurring, within me. I recognise that the book I set out to write is no longer the book I am writing, having a will of its own, taking over my scribing, often bearing no resemblance to my intention. Urgency and motivation have also appeared from nowhere, something that previously was a struggle is now a stream. I find myself leaping from bed at 4 am or writing into the night to finish a passage. The book appears to have decided ‘IT NEEDS TO BE WRITTEN’.
I am in the arena standing on the field gun’s drag ropes, flanked by seventeen men their lives depending upon me and mine upon theirs. There is a buzz, twenty thousand onlookers exuding an electrical pulse, illuminating the gladiators in the pit as they elude death with the oneness of precision timing and drill. The bugle sounds, the fizz as the Battery Officer lights the thunder flash to start the run, my arms tense, and the drag ropes strain. BANG! I disappear gone, committed the fate of three years devotion, to my master and teacher, my fate condensed into three weeks of competition, the toughest team sport in the world, defeat is not an option.
The book is a vision so clear it scares me, the colossal effort and reverence putting fear into my belly. I know this journey is beyond all others, crossing the bottomless chasm no escape. Instead, free-falling into its dark depths, as I plummet towards the abyss, resisting anything and everything that will pull me from the agonising path. I must dedicate myself, the only way I know how, saturation, drowning in my writing, absorption so complete, form to formless and formless to form. No Flying Angel’s, no Marathon Monks, it’s 3.51 am, fingers tap the keyword words pour onto the screen, somewhere in the dark expanse no end in sight.
As the full impact of Covid19 began to hit globally back in early February, it came as a realisation that leaders who have attended the Institute for Zen Leadership, learning ‘The Ten Flips’ of the Zen Leader were in an excellent position to deal with what was arising. It was as if the moment for Zen Leadership had arrived.
Think of business leaders you know or you’ve seen in the media, who are seizing opportunities and growing as a result, and who is struggling? Which organisations have the agility to learn from the current situation, adapt and thrive, and which have been unable to turn their ships around?
One of the mantras we teach zen leaders is “Live like a ball on fast-moving waters”. This analogy helps leaders to shift from focusing and worrying about external forces they can’t control and instead let go and place their efforts on their internal power. Covid19 is an excellent example as we have seen world leaders being swept downstream on fast-moving waters trying to fight the virus, instead of letting go and working with it, not against it. As Covid 19 has highlighted, it is essential not to become stuck, expecting a return to what we thought as ‘normal’. This invisible, deadly virus has spread fear throughout the world, at the same time as flipping us into a new reality, grounding the entire global airline industry, shutting borders, and causing the most significant worldwide economic downturn ever seen.
The speed with which we can accept what seems to be catastrophic circumstances, the quicker we can see the opportunity and full potential at that moment. Acceptance is not only the beginning ‘Flip’ for the Zen Leader but also the first sign of transformative energy. It doesn’t mean we have to like what we’re dealing with, but it means we don’t become stuck in whether we like it or not, we work with it. As soon as acceptance starts working, it opens up the possibility of further transformation.
Zen Leaders, rather than allowing the pressure to drain their energy, use it to propel their development and ‘Lead the Way’ creating a better world and manifesting a radically new consciousness. These leaders lead beyond their egos and attract the future with joy and enthusiasm. Being able to build and align energy is a foundational tool for sustainable leadership, and ‘Flip Two’ allows the Zen Leader to ease out of ‘Tension’ that holds back growth and into ‘Extension’ the home of opportunity. In this process, the three laws of energy management are a vital resource, the first of which is ‘Rhythm, not relentless’. The Zen Leader understands that this new consciousness emerges in waves, a rhythm of increasing effect and endurance, and becomes skilled at sensing and matching this rhythm and building out from here. We see this with Covid19 as a second wave begins to circulate the globe. The creation of methods that can come and go with each wave of the virus, such as social distancing, wearing masks and testing & trace systems, allows governments to align their energy and vision with a way of working that is intrinsical to the virus, not against it. The Zen leader sees these measures as merely part of the rippling path that lies ahead and continues without resistance.
We develop this rhythm further with Flip 3 by learning to shift from coming to going and going to coming, the art being to identify measures on both sides that tell us when to move. So in the case of a lockdown, the flow becomes going into lockdown, (we have tested and can see the data showing an increase in the virus) and coming out of lockdown, (the data is showing a reduction in the virus spreading). As time passes ease comes into the flow of back and forth allowing us to work with both poles of the paradox and in doing so reaching a higher-level goal, which in these times may be a more sustainable economic model.
Covid19 also demonstrates that we cannot always control what happens to us, but we can forever control our response to it. In Flip 4 the Zen Leader must sincerely inquire into how we play into the situations we face, and what they relate to in us; is our response aggravating, or maybe even building, a position or are we supporting the transformation out of it.” We can ask ourselves ‘What do I fear in this situation?’ Inquiring deeply into this question is to find the root of those fears. Positive, go-getting people may at first think they don’t fear anything, but becoming stuck and not being able to move forward is evidence of fear itself. We know that fear attacks in the dark, and once we begin to discover the root and see our fears, they can no longer get all of us. The good news is that by shining the light of awareness on these, we know the fear is not itself afraid. As Franklin Roosevelt said ‘We have nothing to fear but fear itself”. The Zen Leaders core practice to build this awareness is sitting meditation. Sitting still with all our senses open, we cultivate a condition of complete relaxation and complete awareness, inside and out, all at the same time. Once we claim our power, we’re able to move into it and stand ‘on top’ of the fear. Emanating energy from ‘in here’ and transforming the situation, or problem ‘out there’.
This thread of awareness is a continuing theme through the training and practices of the Zen Leader. Flip 5 builds both self-awareness and understanding of others, taking us, ‘From the ability to Play to Your Strengths whilst Strengthening Your Play’, by utilising a psychometric assessment based on four patterns of energy that show up in our bodies. Awareness in our body gives us conscious access to more of its moving parts and the ability to use and flip us between the energy patterns of Driver, Organiser, Collaborator, and Visionary. That’s why mindfulness in the body is the foundation of training in any martial art or sport, as well as dance, yoga, music, physical therapy and many other forms. This awareness and ability to use physical movement to change our energy pattern allows us to field our best player, pulling up what we call for in the moment rather than a static habitual pattern in which we are stuck and doesn’t serve us. What may have been a winning combination in the pre-Covid19 world may no longer hold true in the Covid19 reality that we currently live.
As the Zen Leader develops using the tools and practices, the capability arises to explore the remaining five flips. These take the Zen Leader ‘From Controlling to Connecting’, ‘From Driving Results to Attracting the Future’, ‘From Its All About Me to I’m All About It’, ‘From Local Self to Whole Self’, and ‘From Delusion to Awakening’. Those who strive for control, and attempt to control their world, going from Controlling to Connecting find freedom, opening up vast new territory for having a broader, more sustainable impact in the world. Those who move ‘From Driving Results to Attracting the Future’ by living in the present, and learning the art of less is more, begin to connect more., and ‘From Its All About Me to I’m All About It’, takes the Zen Leader deep into the realms of how can I serve the situation. The final two flips the ‘Whole Self is Revealed’ widening our net beyond what the mind alone can conceive, and we move ‘From Delusion to Awakening’ discovering a place of stillness in which I and all things arise.
There are no short cuts to the bigness of the Zen Leader, and flipping your world into a new reality of limitless possibilities is only achieved with practice. The key to this practice is returning again and again and doing so with joy and enthusiasm.
Our desire for connection starts with mum.
It begins for us in her womb, gravity pulling us downwards until we drop earthbound.
Our breath rushing in to fill our tiny lungs, our umbilical tie severed.
We are Unattached yet attached now it’s the breast that we cling.
And so it begins, our journey of attachment.
We clutch, we grasp, we grip, we hoard, we collect, we acquire, we possess, we hang on to.
Like glue, we stick to our baggage, and with all its heaviness, we haul it through life.
Dragging it towards our death, the moment when we can finally wave our goodbye, the ultimate letting go.
Why wait until the dark shadow haunts us?
Dare we let go now, disengage, unattached, drop everything.
How few things can we possess,
How little can we cherish,
How light can we live,
We only lose to what we cling.
Put down our load, and stand straight,
Let gravity take our breath down to the depths of humanity,
Again and again, feel into the nonsensical nature of everything.
Then again bend down and pick up our load, stand straight and off we go.
The bag is light, and there is joy in every step.
Oh, we laugh so loud at everything that restrains us.
We desire to be limitless, boundless, infinite, vast, never-ending, no constraints.
We desire to be safe and sound, sure and secure, cherished, protected, impregnable.
And back and forwards it goes the fight between soul and ego, ego and soul,
Who will overcome who,
Will, we ever let go, let go of everything that we have collected, accumulated and brought into our lives,
No safe and sound, No sure and secure, No cherished, protected, impregnable,
Just open, vulnerable, exposed, stripped naked, nothing of you left, we finally disappearing,
Only to reappear, limitless beyond anything we have ever conceived, boundless beyond all our possibilities, a light so bright that it cannot help but touch the hearts of all those that pass on the way.