Zen Leadership and Putting the “Happy” in Happy New Year

Ginny WhitelawArticle, Integral Post, Lifestyle, Worldviews Leave a Comment

Welcome to the New Year! In the Chinese system, we’re entering the Year of the Rooster and, my, doesn’t it already feel like a wake-up call? We’re waking up to a new President unlike any we’ve seen, whose campaign exposed and widened the divides in these not-very United States. We’re waking up to protests across the country, to widespread disillusionment and distrust in the institutions we thought would govern our democracy, police our cities, or protect our planet. We’re waking up to the insulating effects of the echo chambers we’ve been living in, and how they’ve sealed out the voices of our neighbors.

But I am hopeful that, especially among this Integral community, we’re also waking up to listen, to engage and figure out how we can serve the people and needs of this wild time. As Robb Smith messaged the day after Trump was elected, if we want to re-build an inclusive culture, “we have to get out of the echo chamber and start engaging” with people of values very different from our own; find out what’s motivating them, understand the fundamental needs they’re trying to meet. Otto Sharmer wrote a couple days later about our role in closing the three great divides that “made” Trump: namely the gap between those with and without economic means, with and without political clout, and with and without openness of mind, heart and will to co-create in this time, i.e., to presence the future. As problematic as the economic and political gaps are, it is this 3rd gap, what he called a “spiritual/cultural gap” that Sharmer particularly faults for “ripping our communities apart.” He writes:

“…the closing of the mind, heart, and will, keeps amplifying prejudice, hate, and fear because it’s supercharged by business (it’s a billion dollar media industry) and technology… Our social media is designed to systemically spread and amplify fake news and negativity, it’s not designed around an intention to build community and generative cross-boundary dialogue.”Otto Sharmer

We know from neuroscience that a negative stimulus grabs our attention about 3 times more than does a positive one, which has evolutionary advantage, when you think about it. So little wonder that when you’re in the business of grabbing attention – whether you’re Facebook, Fox News or Trump – you go negative. We can’t expect that to change soon. But we can expect an even more powerful countervailing force to serve us as we commit ourselves to the work of healing these divides and co-creating the future. And what is that force?

Well, it’s what Ken Wilber has always talked about, no less than the vector of evolution, of life itself: we grow UP. And these bodies of ours come with automatic registers of when we’re moving in the “right” direction, aligned with this evolutionary Way: we feel better. We experience more of the flow and harmony that characterizes well-being. The curiosity of the open mind simply feels better than does the prejudice of the closed mind. The compassion of an open heart feels healthier than does the hate of a closed heart. The courage of a will wide-open feels more empowering than does a will shut down in fear. Granted, indignation and letting someone have a piece of your mind can feel pretty good in the moment. But if you could scan your body in such moments, you’d find tension and constriction everywhere, for example, making your face red, your voice high, or your gestures wild. We talk about settling down from such episodes, because something in us recognizes its spun-up instability. That said, not everyone wants to settle down, experience well-being or be happy, but anyone who’s serious about the “Happy” in “Happy New Year” wants to find ways to stay open or open further. If they can.

Which is where the physical technologies of Zen training can be particularly helpful to leaders or anyone committed to doing this opening-up work. Sharmer speaks of opening three centers in his cycle of co-creating in the present: head, heart and will. In Zen training, we have inherited (and in some cases, developed) techniques to open these centers in the human body (where “will” would be associated with the hara or lower abdomen). At one level, opening involves physical relaxation, where we drop our self-protecting tension and literally open up from inside out, as if we could extend in all directions. This relaxation also drops us into the hara, providing a counter-balancing centeredness to our extension, a gravitas to our actions, and a deep-seated pump for regulating our breathing in the most stable, refreshing way. I demonstrate this centered extension in the Integral Life Practice (ILP) module on the 1st flip of Zen Leadership, as this orientation is the start of real leadership. When we’re closed down, coping with forces raining down upon us, we’re not going anywhere, so how can we be leading? But when we open up, center and extend ourselves, we can start to make something happen.

A second level of opening involves honing our sensitivity and empathy, so we can register what is going on. This we might call training the heart (though it involves all of our senses and body as well), as it develops a sense of one-withness or compassion, and such relational qualities often register a felt sense in the heart area. Compassion can sometimes have a mushy connotation – the sort of thing that makes leaders too soft. But the kind of compassion we develop in Zen training is not mushy or sentimental: it’s being rigorously sensitive enough that we start to notice (i.e., quit ignoring) our intrinsic connectedness.

This feeds a third level of opening in the mind itself, which we can associate with curiosity and the head, but also involves the entire body. Dan Siegel offers a useful definition of mind as a “process that directs the flow of energy and information” through the physical scaffolding of the body-brain system. In the Neurobiology of We, Siegel explains how this mind and body-brain system is also continually shaped by and shaping relationships – evidencing again the all-quadrant view of what it is to be human. So when this mind opens, as it is prone to do in meditation, when we soften the boundaries of “I” enough to become “we” – or even see through the ego altogether – insight arises from a broader connectedness. Our decisions become more richly informed; our actions more naturally attuned. And if we think of mind as a process directing the flow of energy and information, our mind can function freely through us, not just in us, co-creating in the world. Negativity may attract attention. But opening makes us bigger and, ultimately, whole.

Openness is the way we listen, reach out, engage, get curious, connect, and create beauty and value in the world. And opening your own breath and body and applying it through more opened-up leadership is an excellent way to do that. The ILP module is a great place to start. You can also register to join me live in a free webinar on the first “flip” of Zen Leadership Jan 30 at 12 noon ET, or the full immersion experience of a Zen Leader program. Or perhaps you have your own practice for opening and working out the stuck points, and these words simply remind you of what you already know: that such work is critical now. Here’s to the happiness you can create in this New Year. Together let’s help this country and this world close its great divides and open to its greatness.

Ginny Whitelaw

About Ginny Whitelaw

Dr. Ginny Whitelaw is both a leadership expert and roshi (Zen master) in the Chozen-ji line of Rinzai Zen. She is the author of The Zen Leader, and founder of the Institute for Zen Leadership. She is also the President of Focus Leadership, and has taught and coached in global leadership programs for nearly 20 years. Formerly deputy manager for integrating NASA’s Space Station Program, she has a PhD in biophysics as well as a fifth degree black belt in Aikido.

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