Tao of the Zentropist

May 10, 2010

Embracing the Mysterious

While there may be many different views on what the purpose of life as we know it is, we do find that a commonly held view is that fundamentally, it’s a learning experience, in which our great challenge is to seek out both knowledge and wisdom and apply it to lead a “meaningful” existence. What’s interesting about that interpretation is that a lesson learned on this journey of discovery is that there are key differences between “knowledge” (In Greek, γνῶσις which in English is translated as Gnosis) and “wisdom” (Σοφíα to the Greeks, which has come down to us in English as Sophia), and being able to differentiate between the two is confirmation that said lesson has indeed been absorbed and translated into practice.

Perhaps one of the most eye-opening conclusions that we must draw, which for some can be a bitter pill to swallow, is the acceptance that there are things in this world that we can never know with any certainty; that there exists certain information or points of view which can only be personally experienced or accepted on faith, but are not readily provable through any empirical process of observation and experimentation.

THE MIDDLE PATH – COMMITMENT WITHOUT OVER-COMMITMENT

It is said in Ch’an (Zen) Buddhism that one must walk the “Middle Path,” which certainly lends itself to wide interpretation. While some might view such a philosophy as living life with emotional detachment, thus stripping away an important aspect of the material world and our senses, I personally do not view this approach in such cold and clinical terms.

To my mind, walking the Middle Path implies maintaining a sense of balance, an appreciation of the very Taoist notion of duality which exists in all things and a nod towards the concept that there is an important difference between commitment to a cause or belief, and an over-commitment which clouds one’s judgment and leaves one unable to respond appropriately to experiences or views which challenge our fundamental assumptions or preconceptions. In my own practice of Wing Chun Kung Fu, this principle is embodied in the physical expression of the art, in which practitioners must learn to be “interruptible” at all times. If we are not, we risk becoming extremely vulnerable because we cannot know for certain how an opponent will react to a given strike, series of strikes or other offensive (and even defensive) actions due to the fluidity of the situation.

This does not mean, of course, that one cannot hold firm to principles, for if there is any “truth” to be found in these principles, they are certainly worth preserving and building the framework of our lives around. What it does suggest is that being malleable, much like water, is an important concept to grasp; rigidity, while appropriate and desirable in certain situations, may be disadvantageous in another, and the ability to move between “states of being”  imparts us with the flexibility to adapt to ever-changing circumstances.

There are many paths to the summit of a mountain, and those paths may diverge and converge in ways which we cannot readily fathom. While the views from those paths may differ for those on them at any particular moment in time, if they all lead to the same destination, then ultimately the view will be the same for all that have successfully completed the journey.

SUCCESS AND PRESERVATION OF THE ADVENTUROUS SPIRIT

The entire notion of “success” is subject to not only individual interpretation, but also to societal and cultural ones as well.  For some, the accumulation of material wealth and possessions, or perhaps rank and titles, provides a means of “keeping score” and confirming the validity and efficacy of our efforts and daily struggles. It is all too easy for us to get caught up in the trappings of our perceived success, to chase elusive chimeras as a means to prove our worthiness not only to others, but ultimately to ourselves, yet perhaps miss a more important lesson. I have always subscribed to the belief that anything worth doing entails a certain amount of risk, and harboring an adventurous spirit is part and parcel to this creed. Screenwriting guru Robert McKee has observed that, “To live meaningfully is to be at perpetual risk,” and this is true not only of physical dangers and pitfalls but emotional, psychological and spiritual ones as well.

We should all embrace and encourage the thrill of discovery – it is a joy that we should welcome into our lives, for it enriches our souls. Likewise, we should hold firm to the notion that we all matter – every living thing, whether it walks on two legs or four, crawls, slithers or flies – for if we deny this premise, we destroy the very promise contained within us all.

Truth cannot be held hostage; it reveals itself in time. However, we cannot always control when that time will manifest itself, only take comfort in the knowledge that inexorably its season will come.

The journey through life is easy for no one; all sentient living things experience joys and sorrows. Perhaps some see a disproportionate share of one or both, but each leaves its mark on us, visible or hidden. We must draw courage from knowing that who we are is not defined by what we have (or don’t have) but by the voice that whispers to us in the dark. The voice that summons forth the goodness and light we are all capable of, or the dark, destructive urges that some choose to indulge in, whose currency is pain and suffering. We all hear this voice, although some choose to ignore it. And it is this voice which reminds us that our choices are not made for us by some outside agency, but ones that we freely make ourselves.

CONCLUSION: “IT’S A SUNNY DAY”

Personally speaking, one of the great blessings of my life has been my young son’s favorite utterance upon waking up to face the world, “It’s a sunny day.” What makes this remarkable in my book is that such an innocent, offhand remark can contain so much truth, especially when the day in question does not appear to be suffering a surfeit of apparent sunshine. Because fundamentally, what this speaks to is an attitude – a mindset that another day, no matter the weather or conditions that we face at the moment, is one full of the magic of possibilities, and that no matter how we regard how things are going for us at a given moment, we can rest assured that change will come. It is how we manage that change and incorporate both its overt and hidden lessons that define our success in our journey.

The winds of fortune can be fickle and changing, but even when struggling in the Doldrums, we are wise to remember that there will again come a “sunny day.”

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May 28, 2009

When You Meet a Swordsman…

In Thomas Cleary’s translation of several lesser known (at least in the West) Chinese classics compiled within the book “Thunder in the Sky” he references a Ch’an (Zen) Buddhist aphorism which deserves some attention:

“When you meet a swordsman, draw your sword: do not recite poetry to one who is not a poet.”

This lesson is apropos in both one’s personal and professional dealings. The ability to quickly size people up, either as allies, adversaries, or something not quite either is a skill that under some circumstances can mean the difference between life and death. In business, it could carry serious financial and even legal implications when taking the measure of a prospective business partner, competitor, creditor or debtor, among others.

Those versed in theories of warfare both Eastern and Western have realized that war, when practiced shrewdly, is based on deception, and convincing the opponent of “truths” that are anything but; in concealing one’s strengths (and intentions) until the last possible moment; and to borrow a turn of phrase from Winston Churchill, surrounding one’s weakness(es) “with a bodyguard of illusion” which downplays or otherwise mitigates pragmatic evaluation of reality.

As with many others, the Zentropist feels strongly that parallels can be drawn between conduct in business and prosecution of warfare (which in itself is an extension of politics and statecraft, as Von Clausewitz observed), although rather than seeking the annihilation of one’s opponents / business rivals, it is better to subscribe to victory through superior performance in terms of products and services, marketing, and customer service and support (and for some businesses, pricing is certainly part of this matrix as well).  In “meeting a swordsman,” it is vital that one seeks to uncover the motivations and intentions that underlie the other entity’s behavior, to provide insight into character and likely reactions to circumstances that may present themselves.

This is especially important when evaluating strategic or business partnerships and alliances, since those that seek harmonious and mutually beneficial relations understand that a “win/win” scenario must be the end goal which the parties pursue, yet some individuals and companies simply cannot do anything but pay lip service to this notion. For some, business, as with other aspects of life, is a zero-sum game in which the advancement of one’s aims is automatically at the expense of another’s. Those that subscribe to such theory will tend to be highly deceptive and sometimes amoral agents that only serve themselves and cannot be relied upon to uphold their end of any deal. You must be prepared to deal with such treachery, and one of the best means to do so is to limit your interactions wherever possible to avoid those that would employ the ancient strategy of, “To hold a sword behind the smile.”

A final take-away from this lesson is that the Zentropist does not suggest that deception or obfuscation has no legitimate role in business or personal affairs, nor is it inherently “dishonorable” behavior. To a certain degree in this instance, the ends can justify the means, and it is certainly one thing to mislead a competitor or business rival, for example, and another to betray a business partner, vendor, supplier or affiliate, especially for one’s financial gain. Ultimately, in one form or another, we must all answer for our actions and those that can operate with clean conscience due to the rightness of their actions will always be better served than those that seek to rationalize their self-serving or otherwise malevolent behavior.

And we all would do well to remember that, when confronting a swordsman, our own blade must be fast and true and without hesitation, for the “fluent blade cuts cleanly…”

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April 22, 2009

What “The Need to Win” Reveals About Process

The modern world is a very competitive place. Many of us buy into the notion, consciously or not, that life is often a “zero sum” game in which our gain must come at someone else’s expense or loss. Perhaps this is true in some circumstances and not true in others. Certainly if this is the prism through which we view the world, we must be prepared to deal with the stress of competition and find a means of emotional detachment from the outcome, lest we “choke” or fall victim to our own nerves.

Chuang Tzu (Zhuangzi) was a Chinese philosopher who lived during the Warring States Period, in approximately the 4th Century BCE. His writings are Taoist in nature, taking the position that some things are simply unknowable or relative, and that perceptions are largely based on past experience.

Chuang Tzu addressed how the “need to win” could negatively influence an individual and the resulting effort to secure a favorable result in a passage entitled “The Need to Win.” The Thomas Merton Translation of this piece follows:

When an archer is shooting for nothing

He has all his skill.

If he shoots for a brass buckle

He is already nervous.

If he shoots for a prize of gold

He goes blind

Or sees two targets –

He is out of his mind!

His skill has not changed. But the prize

Divides him. He cares.

He thinks more of winning

Than of shooting –

And the need to win

Drains him of power.

It is ironic that the more deeply emotionally invested we become in an outcome, the more likely our performance will suffer for it and perhaps cause us to fail to achieve our objective. Hence the concept of “detachment,” or letting go of the emotional capital that we invest in obtaining the objective so that we can better focus on the process itself. This often seems counter-intuitive when we are counseled to “follow our passions” and we seek to translate this expression of energy into something more substantive. In effect, we must walk the razor’s edge between passion and dispassion. And it is oftentimes process which enables us to successfully pull off this feat.

Those that are high achievers in any field tend to be very process driven, whether they realize or acknowledge this fact, in part because having an effective process helps to ensure consistency and excellence once the individual is “dialed in.” Process helps to ensure that desired results are repeatable and not simply due to luck or a confluence of fortunate events. In some situations, process may help mitigate the impact of external factors that may be beyond our direct control.

However, process can be difficult to successfully implement if we allow emotions to cloud our judgment. This is not to say that instinct and “gut feelings” can never be trusted; truthfully, such inputs are a manifestation of our subconscious and awareness of our environment and can be vital in decision-making. The difficulty lies in reconciling such stimuli with a time proven process that focuses our full intent on the achievement of the objective.

Perhaps a key to the solution is disregarding this notion of “winning,” which is laced with powerful emotional baggage, and replacing it with a simple, matter-of-fact visualization of having obtained the result we are seeking. By de-coupling the euphoria and self-satisfaction that we associate with the concept of being the “winner,” and instead focusing on the effort necessary to reach this objective in a non-judgmental fashion, we actually increase the likelihood of finding ourselves standing at the pinnacle of success.

That’s something for the Zentropist within us all to remember…

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