Zen at Work Manifesto
When I started practicing Zen almost 30 years ago, my mind was a mess: I seemed to be on mental overdrive constantly, my feelings were all over the map, and I lacked a strong center from which to meet the world the way I wanted to meet it: with creativity, kindness and humor.
Even back then, in a world far less saturated with media and information, I found it difficult to focus wholeheartedly on what I was doing, and this led to confusion, diminished energy and weakened creativity. My work and relationships suffered dearly.
Being so out of touch with myself, I realized, made everything more difficult. Little problems became big problems; simple challenges that I could solve in seconds if only I trusted my instincts became long struggles of “analysis anxiety”.
What the Buddha called “the second arrow” — all the commentary, doubts and judgements that I would layer on top of the circumstances of my life — overwhelmed my simple, direct engagement with those circumstances.
I simply could not get out of my own way.
When I co-founded my first tech startup in 2000 I had been practicing meditation regularly for ten years, and I had found a great deal of peace and centeredness in my life. I was able to cultivate an equanimity through the practice of Presence that served me on the rollercoaster ride of funding pitches, product pivots, and team-building.
Over the course of my professional life, with much time spent in startups, a general sense of chaos and uncertainty has prevailed because my teams were innovating technologies and business models, integrating new ideas and market signals every day. Work in these environments can be thrilling and heady but can also be mentally overwhelming, physically exhausting, and emotionally disruptive.
By the time I founded my second startup in 2014, the world had accelerated even more, and the stressors for executives, founders and early stage teams had grown even more powerful. Distractions have multiplied immeasurably with social media, while our natural tendencies of fear, confusion, desire and aversion find fertile ground in the high-stakes, high-reward worlds of entrepreneurship and corporate leadership.
Yet, we all have a desperate desire to live and work wholeheartedly amidst this world-historical epidemic of stress and information-overload.
Through long years of confusion and searching, I eventually realized some important things about myself that revolutionized my work in the world:
The first is that my inner experience operates according to its own unique flow composed of my beliefs, past experience, knowledge, ideas and feeling-memories. While outer conditions constantly add new elements to this flow, it is the “backlog” of experience that mostly calls the shots (this is what Buddhists call “karma”).
The second thing is that it is futile to try to address the inner experience by changing my outer conditions (money can’t buy you love and a faster car won’t make you happier). We receive persistent social reinforcement of the false view that success is determined by external metrics. But if we want to feel better and function more wholesomely, we have to look inward and touch the inner life.
The third thing I realized is that while my inner states are not dependent on outer conditions, they are intimately connected, and this connection works both ways. I can create outer conditions that support my inner work (i.e. making time and space to sit in silence, dance and play); and this inner work in turn creates the conditions for thriving in my outer work. When inner and outer support and feed each other — and don’t deplete or compete with each other — then natural flow and abundance follow.
These are the simple, fundamental insights that I believe can help anyone revolutionize their work in the world, no matter what that work may be.
As I write this in 2018, there is a growing awareness among business leaders, perhaps especially high tech leaders in Silicon Valley and beyond, that Mindfulness practices developed millennia ago by wisdom traditions such as Zen offer a direct amelioration of the unhealthy mental environment we find ourselves in.
I’d like to offer my experience as testimony to the power of these practices, and that they can help immeasurably with individual and collective wellness. Having carried my practice through the specific challenges of startup life over the last 18 years, I have seen how valuable they can be for my cohort on the front lines of corporate leadership and tech innovation.
Without a practice of presence, our natural tendencies toward neuroticism, attended by unhealthy relationships to the past (aka depression) and the future (anxiety) will continue to work their influence in our lives and manifest in the fruits of our labors, our products, companies and relationships.
In my view, the Mindfulness movement (such as it is) in the business community is not about anything as limited as “productivity” or “efficiency”. It is about a return to Presence that aligns Mind, Heart and Body in wholeness.
A distracted mind is just the tip of an iceberg that extends downward below the surface of consciousness, to our heart alliances and our soul identifications. Healing the “mind split” caused by distraction and “overwhelm” begins the process of unification that opens up the capacities of clarity and creativity.
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Having co-founded two startups and worked in early stage tech companies for the last 18 years, I have distilled my experience into a specialized offering called The Zen Startup. I would love to share my learnings and practice with you and your teams. See more about my offerings.