Cool Zen

May 8, 2012 § 1 Comment

Steve McQueen was not the greatest actor of his generation- but he was the coolest.    Although he starred in many movies that projected this aura of coolness, his role in the movie “Bullitt” is iconic.  If you watch that movie today though, you will notice something unusual.  The movie is nearly devoid of some of the contemporary markers of action flicks.   The McQueen character, Detective Frank Bullitt, does not shoot very many people- only one in fact – and does not blow things up- if you don’t count the gas station that erupts as the bad guys’ car plows into it at the conclusion of the famous car chase scene.

McQueen’s character embodied coolness differently.  He was a man of few words and unhurried movement.  He remained fully present in each situation, in each moment of the movie.  Never distracted, never lost in emotion.   Always ready.  He was strong and he did what needed to be done.  Frank Bullitt was a very cool character.

But what does all this have to do with Zen and the Tao?

Many people see Zen as too passive, as a set of ideas that don’t fit the “real world.”   For them the robed monk with shaven head who resides in a mountain monastery is what Zen is about.   All well and good in theory, they say, but hardly a way to navigate the hectic and relentless path of “real life.”

But I see Zen also in Frank Bullitt and, more meaningfully, in the very best of the businesspersons and lawyers, the teachers, coaches, counselors, and others, whom I’ve known over the years.   Whether they were consciously aware of it or not, these exceptional people embodied the ideas of Zen and the Tao.  Seeking to be fully present in each moment, open to whatever comes, rock strong, possessing a rooted sense of self, these men and women devoted themselves to the tasks at hand with all their will.

To embrace the ideas of Zen and the Tao does not require us to retreat from the world at all.  We do not become passive.  Instead, we operate at the fullest range of our capacities.  To be strong, centered, and present is not just to be Zen.   It is what “being cool” means.

Leaving No Trace

April 11, 2012 § 1 Comment

Usually when we do something that we see as significant, we attach a sense of accomplishment or pride to what we have done.  So we close a financially advantageous deal, or we complete a marathon, and we think of this as a great accomplishment.  But in thinking this way, we freight our actions with the traces of these thoughts and feelings.

You may say, how would it be possible not to feel a sense of accomplishment in such moments, and isn’t feeling this positive way about yourself a good thing?  The difficulty here is that once you start to attach these feelings and judgments to your actions, you complicate matters.  Sure, when you feel a sense of accomplishment in finishing the marathon, you feel good about yourself- I did an amazing thing, good for me.  But what if you had brought all your will and effort to bear and still you had been unable to finish, or what if things more urgent arose and you were unable to participate at all?  What then would you think of your non-accomplishment, your “failure” to complete the marathon?

Leaving no trace means keeping it simple.  When you are done with an action, you are done.   In Zen, burning yourself completely in a given action, whether it is meditation or closing a deal, means not just being in the present moment continuously, controlling yourself, seeking to be the force of nature that is a centered human.  You must also burn yourself to ashes, leaving no trace of yourself. When you are truly centered in action, you have no need to attach some thought or judgment to your action, or to your performance.  You will feel the centeredness and that will be enough, that will be all there is.


April 9, 2012 § Leave a comment

In Zen we say that the soft overcomes the hard.  “Hard” conventionally connotes strength, as “soft” connotes weakness.  So how then does the hard overcome the soft?  In the physical world the effects of water provide the best example of the soft overcoming the hard, as the river carves a canyon through the rock.  But in human affairs it is also true that strength is misunderstood and the soft overcomes the hard.

A famous actor once remarked that as he prepared to play a “tough guy” he recalled some advice given to him years before.  His teacher had told him- remember, the most powerful person in a room is likely to be the one who says, and moves, the least.  Talking in a loud voice, stomping around, are often symptoms of anxiety and weakness.

Each of us has been in the presence of someone who feels like a force of nature, so powerful that his leadership emerges organically and not bureaucratically.  Such a person usually gets his way but not out of hierarchical authority, or brute intimidation, but rather out of the strong and sure sense of self that permeates him.  He is willfulness, embodied.  A person who brings this kind of strength and willfulness to the negotiating session may not get everything that he desires but he will get what there is to get.

How then do I obtain such strength?  It is simple and it is difficult.   Such strength can only come from within you, no one can give it to you.  It must be earned, moment-to-moment.  If you can be aware, alive, unflinching, and fully present in each moment, you will possess this strength.  You will be the “boss” of your space and moment.  Whatever you do from that place of centeredness will be the correct action.  This does not mean that others will simply fall into line.  Such strength, while it will influence others, is not to be measured by the response of those around you.   Possessing this posture of centeredness is strength, period.   Nothing more is needed.

Thus, strength is not what we suppose.  It is both simpler in its nature and more difficult in its maintenance than we imagine.  It has nothing to do with how loud we are or how much our voice dominates the conversation.  Yes, a strong person sometimes raises her voice and demands her way.  But she does so consciously, even calmly.  She is like a force of nature.  She is strength embodied- moment by moment.

A Force of Nature

April 6, 2012 § 4 Comments

Almost all of us feel a gap between the life we would aspire to live and the reality of our lives.  Sometimes we define that gap in material terms- I have too little money, I should have been the CEO, and so on.  Sometimes we define the gap in terms of personal qualities- I do not work hard enough, I am too often weak and afraid.  We often ascribe our difficulties to external contexts and actors- the economy is in meltdown, my boss rewards suck-ups and not the real producers, and on and on.  In one way or another, for one reason or another, the life we experience seems to fall short of our imaginings and our ambitions.

Everything about this way of thinking and feeling is wrong.    Our life is not a product of anything and certainly not determined by our context or the actions of others.  There is no gap between the life we dream of and the life that we live.  There can be no such gap because there is no other life than the one we live.  Dreams and imaginings about alternative lives are simply fantasies.  We cannot possibly know what any other path would look like.  We should let go the very aspirations that we create and then hold up to judge ourselves.

We should seek instead to live a life that is ours.  We should experience that life in the only way that life can be experienced, that is, moment to moment.  We should not look back, nor look forward.  When we live this way, there can be no gap between our imagined life and our life as lived.

Such a life is not easy or assured.  In fact, it is achieved only by a ceaseless struggle, moment to moment.  But it is a life free of despair and regret.  And if you live in this way, as much as you can, you become the most powerful person you can be.  You become like the storm that is coming ashore, even as I write these words in a small coffee shop on the Florida coast.  Natural and strong, moving across the water, overcoming or swirling around the objects in its way, and passing on.   A force of nature.

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