Tao of the Zentropist

September 12, 2012

KAYAKING AND THE NATURE OF LIFE

“I am haunted by waters.

Norman Maclean, A River Runs Through It and Other Stories

There is something that is truly sublime about paddling a traditional style kayak, in which the paddler sits inside of a cockpit (typically enclosed by a spray skirt to prevent water from entering) and practically “wears” the craft, attuned to every nuance of movement and the thrumming of water passing mere inches beneath one’s backside. Not to denigrate the sit-on-top designs, which have made kayaking more accessible and user-friendly to the masses, but the experience is simply not the same. And for those who have known the challenges and simple joy and freedom of paddling, whether at sea, running whitewater, or even navigating placid lakes and inlets, there are lessons, both overt and more subtle, to be applied to one’s life.

THE FIRST LESSON: BALANCE REQUIRES FOCUS

Kayaks, by design, are not particularly stable craft. Like a canoe, they can tip and roll very easily if the paddler misses a stroke, or fails to paddle brace, or is hit by unexpected wave action and does not react in time. This lack of inherent stability, however, allows kayaks to be highly responsive to the paddler’s input, and can allow course corrections and adjustments with reasonable efficiency.

In order to remain upright, particularly when running a fast-moving river or operating in a surf zone or in heavy wave action in the open sea, the paddler must maintain balance and this requires focus. It is easy in our modern world to lose focus; with so many obligations as well as distractions competing for our attention, following a path can be difficult. More so if that path is not clearly marked or is filled with obstacles which challenge easy passage. Without balance, we lose our center, and without command of our center, we are prone to loss of control.

We cannot control everything that happens, but if we maintain balance, we can quickly recover and avoid the worst outcomes.

THE SECOND LESSON: UNDERSTAND THE RHYTHM

The more time that one spends immersed in nature, the more one understands that everything has a natural rhythm. Things are as they are, and all things interact with each other in fairly predictable ways if you understand the dynamics of the relationship and the context of the environment. There are predators and prey. There are symbiotic and parasitic relationships. For sailors, no wind can be a curse, but too much wind can be a nightmare. Water is the essence of life, yet it can sculpt landscapes and kill with no compunction if present in sufficient volume, force or even based on its temperature.

Piloting a kayak forces the paddler to fall into a rhythm, and this rhythm will naturally mirror the given environment. The double bladed paddle requires some degree of ambidexterity, alternating strokes on either side of the boat or requiring the paddler to perform a brace by placing the flat of the blade on the water’s surface and leaning into it (which may feel counter-intuitive at first) to avoid rolling over.

The nature of the kayak is to become unified with the particular rhythm of the water upon which one is traveling.

THE THIRD LESSON: LEARN TO READ THE CURRENTS & EDDIES

Both whitewater kayaking and sea kayaking require knowledge of water’s behavior, and an appreciation and respect for what nature can unleash with little or no warning. Whitewater, while exhilarating and majestic, can also be terrifying and deadly, as the power of a tremendous volume of water, coupled with obstructions which can snag, pin and trap the boat and paddler in deadly circumstances, is not to be trifled with. Paddlers running rapids must quickly learn how to gauge safer routes of passage, and must respond to the feedback of the river instantaneously if not to be overturned.

At sea, even close to shore, the paddler can experience both wave action and currents which may thwart forward progress, force the paddler severely off course, or threaten the stability of the boat. Being able to track on a particular course requires skill and constant effort, and understanding when and how to expend energy efficiently.

Navigation is essential to a successful journey. Even if the destination changes en route.

THE FOURTH LESSON: BE PREPARED FOR SELF-RESCUE

Arguably, what many people find most intimidating about traditional style kayaks is the experience of being confined in a fairly tight cockpit, which can present challenges should the boat overturn. The traditional response to overturning in such a craft is to perform an “Eskimo roll” in which one snaps the hips and twists the body, using the paddle for leverage, in order to return to the water’s surface from a fully submerged position.

This maneuver can be tricky and requires patience and practice to learn. Sometimes it is simply easier, or perhaps more expedient, to “eject” from the kayak by pulling the spray skirt and swimming free, although there is danger in being separated from the boat for an extended period of time. And it is not necessarily an easy matter to climb back into a kayak once one has “gone for a swim,” particularly if kayaking solo. For this reason, having at least one other party that can be relied upon is always preferable to “going it alone.” There are times when this is not possible, but companionship on a journey can make all the difference.

Life invariably throws surprises at us. Our ability to “self rescue” and adapt to changing circumstances, or to come to the assistance of another, is vital to our ability to persevere.

THE FIFTH LESSON: RESPECT WHAT’S BELOW THE SURFACE

Unlike most other watercraft, kayaks sit low in the water, with very little separating the paddler from the water itself. In some manner, this forges a “connection” with the very medium in which one travels which is arguably unrivaled, and incredibly intimate. It is an easy thing to stretch out one’s fingers and touch the surface of the water, or to plunge one’s hand or arm into the depths as one contemplates the hidden mysteries below.

In life, much is hidden and perhaps even unknowable to us. We must operate with the faith that our efforts are not in vain, and our expenditure of time and energy is bringing us closer to a destination that will resonate with the very core of our being. That which is unseen does not by definition, not exist. It is merely our perception, or lack thereof, that informs our observations and beliefs.

Water is as elemental as the mountains, and it is water which can often alter the shape and character of those topographical monuments. Something to ponder from the seat of a kayak…

November 16, 2010

The Art of Formlessness

Mastering the Art of Formlessness is as valuable in the business world as it is the practice of martial arts. The ability to assume different forms as circumstances dictate, if only momentarily, can be invaluable in dealing not only with business competitors, but even rivals, supervisors and co-workers.

Depending both on one’s interpretation of “formlessness” and its actual application, this practice may be construed as an expression of deceptiveness, although in reality, it argues for the ability to not be wedded to a single definition by outside parties, and to display such traits as adaptability and resourcefulness in order to provide a range of useful attributes. Fans of Bruce Lee may recall his admonition to, “Be like water,” which was not an analogy original to him. However, his point to remain malleable and fluid, traits that water in its liquid form clearly exhibits, speak to its nature.

CHANGING YOUR STATE OF BEING WITHOUT BETRAYING YOUR NATURE

So how exactly does the pursuit of formlessness translate into everyday life?

Ultimately, it emphasizes the importance of not adhering to a rigid definition or state of being, which is a hallmark of remaining adaptable to changing circumstances. While change has been a constant since time immemorial, the speed of change which confronts many of us on a daily basis only seems to accelerate, and the consequences of not adapting to such change only seem to grow more severe over time, rather than less so. However, given the all too natural resistance to change which seems to be evident in most people, such a process of “re-invention” or even evolution is often only undertaken under the gravest of circumstances, and seldom willingly. In other words, the default setting for most people is to be “reactive” rather than “proactive.”

This I believe is a fundamental mistake, and one that can cause missed opportunities, if not complete paralysis in our modern working world. Water again is an appropriate metaphor in understanding the practical application of this strategy. Regardless of the form (i.e. state) that it assumes in a given moment – liquid, solid or gas – water’s core properties remain the same. However, by its very malleable nature, water adapts to its environment and short of consumption and evaporation, it essentially endures.

ERODE OBSTACLES INDIRECTLY – ONLY APPLY DIRECT FORCE WHEN CIRCUMSTANCES FAVOR

It is readily observable that water, given sufficient time, can erode and otherwise degrade the hardest stone or metals. Yet liquid water, to the touch, can feel quite soft and by definition is supple and pliant, which belies its power to act on other substances.

When dealing with people on a personal level or within a business context, it may be advantageous not to confront them directly or attempt to bend them to your will or influence a favorable decision from your own point of view via a direct approach, but rather to employ more indirect tactics such as flattery or via compromise on less important issues.  Alternatively, you might re-direct their attention to other matters in order to make the person feel more secure, powerful, and ultimately more favorably disposed to agree to the primary result that you are seeking.

Direct confrontation, whether it is verbal or physical, is ultimately predicated on being stronger, or in a position of real or perceived greater advantage than the other party. It’s really that simple. So if direct force is to be applied in order to seek a favorable resolution, you must be confident in the ability of the force that you can muster to overwhelm the opponent’s counter in a specific moment in time.

Otherwise, your use of force is likely to result in failure.

POUR INTO THE WEAKNESS WHILE EVADING THE OPPONENT’S STRENGTH

It is important to understand that “strength” is a relative term and that attributes which in one context might be considered favorable or classified as assets, can in another context become liabilities and vulnerabilities which can be exploited.

For example, if you are dealing with an individual with a rampant ego, challenging that person’s ego directly may be a non-starter or detrimental to obtaining the results that you are seeking. Such people may be threatened by ideas or work output which challenges their own preconceptions or potentially exposes poor decisions which they have made. The art in dealing with someone of this temperament is to appeal to their ego and vanity and present your ideas or work in such a way as to enable them to assume partial or even full credit for the work or idea, or to otherwise point out benefits that they can realize by supporting your vision. In doing so, you avoid challenging their authority or knowledge directly, and do not cause them to “lose face” with others, which is often of paramount concern for such individuals.

From one point of view, such behavior might seem manipulative, but human interaction is often based on people seeking to obtain a specific result, which may or may not coincide with the direct interests of the other party. When interests align, securing such cooperation is easy, but in situations where they do not, diplomacy and tact, perhaps tempered with some subterfuge, are often the means utilized to obtain what is desired.

NEVER ABANDON YOUR PRINCIPLES, BUT APPLY MISDIRECTION WHEN NECESSARY

As human beings, we make choices in life, and among these are whether we stand for certain principles or not, and whether we believe in situational ethics or not. Truthfully, in my interactions in both business and personal affairs, I’ve noticed that there is a segment of the population which believes solely in expediency and will change their stances on issues to suit their immediate needs. For people of this ilk, “truth” is highly elastic and integrity is a nice concept to pay lip service to, but is absent when the rubber meets the road.

In assuming formlessness, an individual can still remain true to core principles and closely held beliefs. Those who dissemble and spin the truth are fraudulent, not “formless.” Water, even if existing in a solid or gaseous state, returns to its liquid form when environmental conditions change. It does not become something else.

Your principles, and how firmly you hold to them, will in large part determine your destiny. You can temporarily assume a posture of formlessness by not clinging to a narrowly defined model of attributes and behavior without betraying the core of who you are.

This is the Art of Formlessness…

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.”

January 24, 2010

Harnessing the Inner Demon: Taking Stock and Letting Go

Fundamentally, every human being is driven by an inner demon, and in some cases, more than one. Now I realize that certain literalists of a religious bent will interpret this statement as belief in actual demonic possession, which is not the contention that I’m making (I’ll leave that subject to others for now). Rather, based on my three plus decades of life, I’ve observed that people are complex yet imperfect organisms and in terms of actions, attitude and predilections, will behave in ways that reflect the internal struggle that exists within us all.

Finding a means to positively harness the darker or more negative sides of our emotions, which we must first acknowledge to begin with, is an important step in the individual’s psychological and personal evolution. Rather than live in denial as to the existence of these emotions, we must learn to channel and ultimately rise above them as we navigate our way through life.

THE TWO WOLVES DEFINED

There is an American Indian allegory, often credited to the Cherokee Nation, which directly addresses this struggle that I’m referring to. While there are some subtle variations among the retellings, the theme never changes as recounted here:

An old Cherokee is teaching his grandson about life. “A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy.

“It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.” He continued, “The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.”

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?”

The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”

THE SHADOW MAN – YIN AND YANG FROM ANOTHER PERSPECTIVE

Joseph M. Marshall III, a multi-talented Lakota writer, educator, historian and craftsman whose works I’ve come to admire, speaks of his people’s concept of the nagi wica, or the Shadow Man in his book, Walking with Grandfather. As he explains it:

“The shadow being lives within each of us. He or she is the one that pushes back when someone pushes us. It is, as the label implies, the dark side of each of us. Its strengths are anger, recklessness, and impulsiveness, and most of its existence (in most cases) is spent waiting to emerge. Adversity most often pulls the shadow being from its dormancy, where it is held in abeyance by the absence of conflict… When it does emerge, its only limitation is the character of our overall being and the values and morals that we live by.”

In other words, the nagi wica is but a reflection of the face that we present to the world, and what is contained within is simply the hidden aspect of our complete, integrated being. We may attempt to suppress it, but in times of stress, it will sure surely emerge and if we are not careful, overwhelm us.

ENERGY SEEKS THE PATH OF LEAST RESISTANCE

In Buddhist traditions, we are taught that “good” and “bad” are value judgments fundamentally arising from desire, which is the cause of human suffering. Taoism acknowledges that in everything there is balance; as there is night, there must be day; for an object to be hard, another must be soft, and so on. The way in which energy manifests itself, or is utilized, is determined in part by intent, as within it can be found the aspects of light/dark, positive/negative, good/evil or any other dichotomy the human mind seeks to explain through language. Yet as the allegory of the Two Wolves illustrates, energy ultimately takes the path of least resistance. How we cultivate it, or generate it, in turn will influence how it is applied, consciously or subconsciously.

It is because of this natural law, as it were, that we must consciously make a choice as to how we conduct ourselves and put energy to productive use. We can look at a situation, assess it as unfavorable, and immediately fall into a pessimistic mindset, which tends to cloud judgment and further feed into the current morass, or we can acknowledge that “this too shall pass” and there is opportunity to find new solutions, or set another course to our intended destination.

What we cannot do is ignore it, for energy is unforgiving in this respect and does not dissipate simply because we wish it to do so.

MAKING THE INNER DEMON’S ACQUAINTANCE

So what to do when confronting our inner demon? First and foremost, we must seek to understand it. For some, it may be the insecurity of having grown up with little in the way of financial resources, which often motivates these individuals to seek out financial success utilizing what talents they have. For others, it may be wrestling with low self-esteem or being too self-critical and finding a larger purpose which bolsters confidence in one’s self. Still others are consumed by jealousy and envy, and rather than explore why these emotions might exist and how to let them go while using their energy for positive means, choose to wallow in a cycle which is ultimately self-destructive.

It is important to acknowledge that sometimes, these inner demons take the form of addiction (whether to substances or certain behavioral patterns), or are the result of chemical imbalances, physical ailments or deformities, or other serious psychological and medical conditions which require appropriate professional attention and care.

Rather than allow the inner demon to subsume the “angel of our better nature,” we must strive to accommodate this voice from the wilderness without yielding to it. We may not have full control of the card hand that we are dealt in life, but how we play these cards is completely within our purview and must never be forgotten.

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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May 4, 2009

Finding Center

In the traditional Asian martial arts, there is often quite a bit of emphasis on “finding one’s center” and learning to move from the center, which the Chinese refer to as the dan tien. As esoteric as this may seem upon first impression, it actually makes a great deal of sense once properly understood, and the lessons are as applicable in business as in the practice of martial arts. In fact, “finding center” shares a great deal in common with the Hedgehog Concept advanced by Jim Collins in his deservedly well-regarded business book, “Good to Great.”

One key theme that emerges from the work of Mr. Collins is the “Hedgehog Concept,” which in turn is credited to the work of Isaiah Berlin in his book “The Hedgehog and the Fox.” When traced back to antiquity, this stems from a Greek parable which posits that the world is divided into “hedgehogs,” or people that define the world through a single defining idea, and “foxes,” or people that view the world through multiple experiences. In other words, hedgehogs know one thing very well while foxes know many things, but not necessarily in any real depth.

The Hedgehog Concept boils down to the need for a company (or arguably, an individual) to define itself by what it can be the best at. This forced examination of strengths and weaknesses, which requires an honest assessment of not only one’s own capabilities but the competition and operating environment, is arrived at by envisioning three circles and finding the intersection where all three overlap:

  1. What you can be the best in the world at. For some individuals and companies, this is potentially a painful realization. You may or may not be currently on the right path, because as case studies have found, being “competent” or even “good” in the face of global completion is not sustainable. Your product or service must be world class, or at the very least perceived by your customers as being so, if you are to thrive and become “great.”
  2. What drives your economic engine. At the end of the day, a business must earn more money than it spends. It’s as simple as that. Without profits, you cannot survive, and profits are arrived at by maximizing revenues and containing costs. Understanding how to do this, and arriving at a business model that is sustainable and scalable, and aligned with your product(s) / service(s), is one of the greatest challenges that you can face.
  3. What you are deeply passionate about. If an individual (or business) does not truly enjoy the work that it performs, no matter how much it attempts to fake it or muster false enthusiasm, this eventually comes out in the work. False passion cannot be manufactured indefinitely; it must be an outgrowth out of genuine enjoyment and satisfaction in engaging in the process of Mastery, and to be the best in the world at something, you must walk the Path of Mastery.

If you take the time to diagram the approach above, you will discover that in creating the three overlapping circles, you are in effect “centering” by finding the point where these all come together. And make no mistake, this exercise is not an easy one in practice, as simple as it is in theory, because we live in a world of illusion.

Many traditions hold that what we perceive as “reality” is simply illusion, and that the physical world is subject to varying interpretations and perceptions based on the frame of reference of the individual / organization. As individuals we both consciously and subconsciously create illusions, either because of a desire to portray ourselves in a favorable light (yielding to the ego), or because we filter the information that our senses deliver and interpret it based on biases or assumptions that we may not even be aware of.

Not only must we contend with self-manufactured illusions, but we must also deal with the illusions cast forth by others, which all feed upon each other and perpetuate uncertainty, unclear intent and lead us astray from our chosen path. This can be the root cause of a great deal of unhappiness, misunderstanding and suffering.

Even without delving into the spiritual aspect, or discounting it entirely, finding one’s center has both a physical and psychological dimension. In the physical expression of many martial arts and other physical endeavors, one seeks to create a grounded connection with the earth, often manifested in the manner in which weight is distributed and the body’s center of gravity is rooted. While some pundits have observed that the successful use of force is the imposition of one’s will on another, I would argue that an alternative explanation is the imposition of one’s center on another. Since two objects cannot occupy the same physical space, the object whose center is most rooted and connected with the universal energy at the moment the paths intersect is the one that will prevail. Perhaps this interpretation seems rather metaphysical and/or mystical to some, but physics seems to bear this out.

Psychologically, finding one’s center implies achieving balance, and “balance” is often an adjective used to express how a healthy psyche is described in layman’s terms. We all instinctively understand that when something, or someone, is unbalanced that there is danger of a loss of control, often with unfortunate consequences.

The inescapable conclusion is that our success as individuals (no matter how we personally define “success”) and in turn, the success of organizations, is dependent upon the ability to “find center” and maintain this no matter what obstacles appear in the path. In a world of illusion and obfuscation, deliberate and consequential, being rooted in one’s center is the only way to live one’s purpose and find contentment. It’s a challenge to be sure, but it is part of the journey that we all must undertake…

April 30, 2009

5 Critical Factors for Building Meaningful Business Relationships

Business relationships, like personal and romantic ones, are fundamental to our lives, whether we are freelancers or employees (I especially urge the latter group to understand that in this day and age, unless they belong to a union or have an employment contract, they have little more security or assurances than the former category). While all of these relationships share some commonalities, and all require constant nurturing, a key differentiator is “financial consideration,” a.k.a. “money.”

Don’t kid yourself — money does change everything, and failure to acknowledge and respect this fact can lead to disastrous results. Disputes over money can destroy friendships and marriages, so it is certainly understandable that in any form of business relationship, sensitivity towards one’s economic future, earning ability, cash flow or the continued viability of a venture is very high.

There are 5 critical factors that can go a long way in helping to identify, form and cultivate over time business relationships which have real value and substance for the involved parties. This goes beyond mere “networking,” which when awkwardly approached is transparently insincere and self-serving. Ultimately, if you wish to be successful, you need to invest very real time and energy into the process of building these business relationships, and you must honestly care about the outcome.

So here are the Zentropist’s 5 Critical Factors for Building Meaningful Business Relationships:

  1. Open Communication
  2. Trust
  3. Synergy
  4. Aligned Ethics & Values
  5. Reciprocity

Let’s briefly comment upon each of these.

Open Communication. I strongly believe that inability or failure to clearly communicate what each party wants out of a business alliance or partnership up front, or during the course of the relationship, is a leading cause for dissatisfaction and dissolution. It is vitally important to set expectations early, and to be frank and forthcoming about what the parties each bring to the table, and how they might positively influence each other. It is understood that businesses exist to earn money, and to be profitable they must earn more than they spend, so there is no shame in couching discussions in potential return on investment (ROI) or “How can we each make money by working together in some capacity?” But with that being said, remember that businesses, much like nation states, don’t have “friends” but rather have “interests,” and where these are in agreement and not mutually exclusive, opportunity exists to work together as allies.

Trust. Trust is essential to any form of relationship and in my opinion, is generally earned over time. Trust can take a long time to build, yet can be destroyed in an instant. Fundamentally, however, I do not believe that you can have a meaningful business relationship with a person or entity that you simply do not trust. At best, you may have some form of “understanding” or “relationship of convenience,” but such constructs are fleeting. You must be open to the notion of allowing another party to earn your trust, but not so giving as to be taken by the charlatans that will abuse this generosity of spirit. To paraphrase Ronald Reagan, “Be willing to trust, but verify.”

Synergy. This is a term that often pops up in discussions of strategic partnerships. Rather than being a trite expression, it actually has very real meaning, predicated on the very definition of the word (the Greek syn-ergos, or “working together”). Situations in which two or more entities mutually cooperate in order to facilitate an advantageous outcome can be described as “synergistic.” Synergy can be derived from offering services which complement each other; from shared methodologies or approaches; from offering solutions which address different aspects of the value chain, etc. At the end of the day, every business should be looking at initiatives and deals in one of two ways: is this something that allows us to make more money, or to save money? As a product or service provider, part of your sales process is to convince the prospective customer that your offering addresses this need. In a business partnership, you not only must analyze this from the prospective of the working relationship with the partner, but if mutually closing a prospect together, how your joint offering will be perceived by the would-be buyer.

Aligned Ethics and Values. It is my contention that a business cannot successfully maintain a relationship with another that does not fundamentally value the same things or view the world from a similar ethical construct. Like oil and water, inconsistencies in theory and especially in practice simply do not mix. During the course of my professional career, I have been involved with entities that, diplomatically speaking, had a far more loose definition of what is ethical and right behavior. Whether that is organizations that value the sale more than the honest fulfillment of the agreement (and devote their energies and resources accordingly), or those that believe in delivering only to the level of the client’s sophistication (“good enough” versus doing your best for each and every client), I’ve witnessed it all. Far too many people and organizations pay lip service to ethics or claim to embrace certain values, and then betray this in their actions. If a prospective or existing business partner does not “walk the talk” in this regard, I believe it is incumbent to disengage. If they are willing to cheat or short change a customer, or to misrepresent themselves or their capabilities and accomplishments, there is little reason to believe they will be (or have been) straight with you. Trust matters.

Reciprocity. Business relationships, like other types, can be either symmetrical or asymmetrical. By this I mean that the balance of power and capabilities may be evenly distributed in a bi-lateral arrangement (i.e. “symmetrical”), or may be weighed in favor of one party (i.e. “asymmetrical”). In either case, the willingness to reciprocate is extremely important, although it takes on even more meaning when the more powerful entity treats the junior party with respect and consideration. It is not enough to ask, “What’s in it for me?” but rather, you must ask, “How can I bring value to this relationship and benefit the other party?” Because in doing so, you are essentially building “equity” in the relationship, and if the other party is honorable, trustworthy and committed, you will be directly or indirectly enriching your business either now or in the future. Hence the necessity of ensuring that the other four factors are present; if they are not, it is unlikely that good faith efforts will be reciprocated, and you cannot define the relationship as “meaningful.”

Black Rock Consulting is always willing to explore meaningful relationships with like-minded business owners. Give us a call or send us an email and let’s see where the rubber meets the road. It could be the start of a beautiful relationship…

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…

April 15, 2009

The Virtue of Stillness

For many of us in the modern world, we live in an age of information overload and frenetic activity. It seems that everything moves at breakneck speed, and failure to comply with this unwritten imperative spells potential disaster. Coupled with this cultural mandate which often values speed over substance is a noticeable reduction in attention spans and inability for many to focus and live in the moment.

Yet it is this moment which is most real to us. The past is behind us, an ever growing collection of once present moments which recede into memory. And the future is at once malleable and inescapable, in part perhaps influenced by our actions in this moment and those past, yet far too unknowable to simply conform to our will.

Amid the pressures of our lives, we must seek moments to engage in stillness. For it is in stillness, both actual and metaphorical, that we can most connect with ourselves and the universe, which are all intertwined. In being “still,” and allowing our senses to reach out and process with minimal filtering the pulsation of the energy around us, we are most “in tune” and plugged into a vast reservoir which can be tapped and utilized to our advantage. This concept of a universal energy is found in widely divergent cultures worldwide, although it is perhaps most famously associated with the concept of chi or ki in the martial arts. For some, such a notion is far too metaphysical, so let’s counter with a real world example of the application of such theory…

I have heard it said that having children allows parents to experience childhood once again, albeit from a different perspective. My toddler son, like his parents, happens to enjoy being out in nature. These days he is rather captivated by searching for the fast-moving lizards which can be found all around his grandparents’ property.  Although it is possible to potentially outrun these lizards, for the most part they react to movement, and a toddler has yet to master the art of stealth and stalking.

But a child can learn (within reason) to be still. I am teaching my son this lesson in several steps. He has learned that the lizards like to bask in the sun, and there are always certain spots, at certain times of the day, where lizards tend to congregate. He has learned that rather than rush towards a lizard, it is better to approach slowly. Eventually he will learn that the best option may be to lie in wait, embracing the stillness, and let the lizard come to him. By blending with his environment, and settling into the flow of energy in a specific locale, he can experience stillness and reap the reward (getting close to the lizard) that he seeks.

In my practice of the martial arts, I have experienced stillness in many forms. Within all branches of Wing Chun Kung Fu, for example, there is an exercise termed chi sao, which translates as “energy arms.” Although it is often misunderstood by outsiders, this form of “touch sensitivity” training is designed to hone the reflexes, specifically for close quarters fighting, in which visual information is processed too slowly to counter rapid attacks. Rather, one is trained to first understand what it feels like when energy is in equilibrium (i.e. the parties engaged in the chi sao training are balancing each other via the extension of the ban sao / tan sao combination in one arm and the fuk sao of the second arm). Everything must be “just right.” Excessive forward energy or force is just as detrimental as insufficient forward energy or force.  Imprecision in the structure and positioning of the arms triggers a lack of equilibrium which invites immediate attack.

Because the arms, in effect, serve as antennae, the Wing Chun practitioner must learn to “listen” to the opponent through his body, searching for the lack of equilibrium which signals vulnerability while mindful of his or her own “center.” To do this, the mind must be “still,” in a relaxed frame rather than one which wishes to impose a specific outcome. The same is true in sparring — watch any experienced fighter and there is a stillness and calm until the moment when explosive movement is called for.

Experiencing stillness allows us to find our center. It is our center which “grounds us” and allows us to tap into not only our own internal energy, but the energy surrounding us. For those walking the Path of the Zentropist, this is an essential skill to cultivate.

So take a few minutes each day to experience stillness. Find a quiet place free of distraction. You can choose to stand or sit. Close your eyes. Focus on the breath. Be aware of each inhalation and exhalation. If you are trained in proper diaphragm breathing techniques (from Yoga, martial arts, etc.), put that breathing into practice. Inhale deeply through the nose. Allow your lungs to fill. Slowly exhale, forcing the air through the nostrils with the goal of equalizing the length of each inhalation and exhalation. As you settle into this rhythm, focus on the sounds around you. Next open your eyes, allowing your visual sense to return as you continue to breathe deliberately, which should also feed information via the sense of smell. Continue to remain attuned to the sounds in your environment, processing these auditory clues as well. Spend a few minutes in this state and notice the change in energy which you will experience. All in the practice of stillness.

It is in this deliberate stillness that we are most aware, and arguably, most alive…

April 10, 2009

Mastering the Art of Living

As John Lennon famously remarked, “Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.”

Perhaps now more than ever in recent memory, we need to concern ourselves with the “Art of Living,” which is as important (if not more so) than the “Art of Making a Living.”

Nothing in this world is permanent. There are both shadows and light. Periods of feasting and periods of famine. There is great Good in this world, and there is unmitigated and unrepentant Evil. It has always been this way. Certain theological beliefs and arguments aside, there is little reason to believe it will ever not be so.

The Zentropist walks the Path of Mastery, and it has been observed (quite accurately in my opinion) that this is a path with no end, a journey whose destination is always beyond the horizon. This teaches us that it is the journey that shapes us, as we face various obstacles, obstructions and challenges, and in overcoming such adversity, we learn things about ourselves that we otherwise would never have known.  Perhaps we do get knocked down, and there are times when we are convinced that we cannot possibly go on, but this is an illusion. We can go on, and there is always a way.

Rather than batter ourselves mercilessly against an unyielding foe, sometimes we must flow around it, or find the means to re-direct the opposing energy so as to realize our own goals. As my own Sifu likes to observe, “In a given moment force can only have one direction at a time.”

This is true in the application of martial arts to a particular situation and it is true on the larger playing field of life. While it is probably a natural human desire to want to compartmentalize life, to artificially construct firewalls between the various aspects of our existence, this too is an illusion. How we approach life is expressed in our actions and attitudes, and the good news is that we have the power to adapt and change. We may not be able to always control what befalls us, but how we react and adapt to such opportunities and challenges is paramount.

The pursuit of Mastery is really about the pursuit of Excellence. Many are afraid to pursue Excellence because of self-imposed limitations, or because they are not willing to invest the time necessary. Make no mistake. Mastery only comes through the dedicated and consistent application of work over time. And not just any work. Focused and detail-oriented work. The most difficult of all.

Even those blessed with natural abilities in a given endeavor must do the work. There are no shortcuts. There are no “quick fixes.” Sometimes the rewards are external, such as recognition among one’s peers or even the general public, and sometimes they are monetary. All too often, the rewards may be internal, or will only manifest externally over a far longer timeline.

All that we have in this world is time, yet ironically, it is not our place to know how much of it we have. How we invest that time is ultimately how we are measured, and something that we do have control over.

Heed the wisdom of the late writer James A. Michener, who said:

“The master in the art of living makes little distinction between his work and his play, his labor and his leisure, his mind and his body, his information and his recreation, his love and his religion. He hardly knows which is which. He simply pursues his vision of excellence at whatever he does, leaving others to decide whether he is working or playing. To him he’s always doing both.”

So master the time that you have been given. Pursue excellence in all aspects of your life. Master the Art of Living in all its various expressions. Unleash the Zentropist within…

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