The central concept of zen is mindfulness – becoming intentionally aware of yourself in the present. Focus on the current moment by eliminating distractions and embracing solitude and stillness. The future and the past are outside of your control.
By clearing our mind of worries and regrets about the future and the past we begin to pay attention to the present. We cease to be on automatic pilot. When we pay attention we begin to understand the true essence of who we are – our values, desires, and beliefs. From that understanding we can influence the present to steer us toward a desired future, always knowing that we cannot control the future and we must continually adjust the present.
Focusing on the present is difficult. If you are dong two things at once – surfing the internet while talking on the phone, cooking dinner while watching television – you aren’t being mindful. Multitasking, as we’ll learn later, simply doesn’t work. And the inability to focus and be mindful is one reason why.
Meditation is at the core of zen, and the term “zen” actually comes from that practice. Embracing solitude and stillness helps you become mindful, aware of yourself, of your breathing, of the thoughts flying through your head. By actively engaging with the present through meditation you become more calm and relaxed. Eventually you will be able to find the present even in a noisy room. Imagine being calm flying through O’Hare the day before Thanksgiving. It can happen.
Beginning to meditate is difficult. Sitting alone and still in a quiet place allows us to experience all of the thoughts that keep us company throughout the day. We become aware of our breath. And at least initially we become bored. In today’s hectic world we are not conditioned to be exist without an exhorbitant amount of external stimulation, be it email, the phone, or Real Housewives of Orange County. Letting all of that go, even for five minutes, can be unsettling.
Koans are stories or riddles with no clear logical answer – or any specific right answer for that matter. They can drive us nuts, especially Westerners. But by focusing on such riddles we become more aware of ourselves and the sometimes counterintuitive aspects of our environment. Remember when I mentioned that lean is often counterintuitive? Now you are beginning to sense the nexus.
Although zen creates focus in the present, it does not preclude having goals for the future. There is nothing wrong with goals as long as they reflect the truth that we have discovered inside ourselves. Most self-help books try to change who we are. Zen wants us to discover who we are, then use that as a platform for growth.
Striving toward simplicity in all aspects of our lives helps make it easier to experience and understand the present – to be mindful. Simplicity creates balance. Simplicity creates the ability to appreciate what Tanveer Naseer calls the “white spaces” – open spots on our calendar and in our lives. We will spend a lot of time exploring how simplicity can be applied to leadership – both organizational and personal.
Zen is humanistic, compassionate, and communal – while at the same time focused within ourselves. We exist in the present with our friends, relatives, coworkers, and fellow citizens. By not needing to feed an ego or acquire more material goods we can better help others without comparing ourselves to them. This mindset became very evident during the earthquake in Japan in early 2011. There was no looting. It simply didn’t exist. Contrast that to similar situations in other parts of the world.