Posts Tagged ‘Zen’

Flexible Focus #62: Discipline your Thinking

by William Reed on July 21, 2011

Monkey Mind

One of the most delightful, and most confounding aspects of our mind is that it is undisciplined. The mind is so susceptible to distraction, so easily seduced by its surroundings, that this aspect of the mind is referred to in Zen as the monkey mind. While it is very much a part of our everyday experience, we rarely sit down to confront and discipline this creature of consciousness. Try sitting still for even 10 minutes without any purpose other than to sit, and you may come face to face with the monkey, who will try to distract, persuade, or plead with you to let it run free.

However, this freedom is an illusion, because the monkey is in fact bound and attached to anything and everything that comes along. One purpose of Zazen, or Zen meditation, is to discipline the mind so that you actually realize more by thinking less. This seems counter-intuitive when convention dictates that you have to think more to understand more, and do more to achieve more. However, you can set that concern aside by realizing that much of what we call thinking, is actually mental flotsam and jetsam, unoriginal and unproductive. It is worthwhile to spend some time each day freeing yourself from this by entering a deeper level of mindfulness.

The Roots of Zen

As you engage in the practice of Zen meditation, it is helpful to have a basic understanding of its roots. Many books have been written on the subject, but I particularly recommend starting with Zen Flesh Zen Bones: A Collection of Zen and Pre-Zen Writings, by Paul Reps and Nyogen Senzaki. This is a remarkable book and a perennial classic of Zen writings, including 101 parables of Chinese and Japanese Zen Masters over 5 centuries, the 13th century Gateless Gate collection of Zen Koans, the 12th century commentary on the Ten Ox Pictures depicting stages of awareness on the path to enlightenment, and a 4,000 year old teaching from India on Centering, which may be considered the roots of Zen meditation.

This was the book that got me started on Zen in my teenage years, and I still refer to it today as an ageless resource. On revisiting this book, I found such fresh inspiration in the Ten Ox Pictures that I reviewed the book in a six video series, adding my own commentary. These videos are posted on YouTube at:

Zen Flesh Zen Bones I

Ten Ox Pictures II-a (1~3)

Ten Ox Pictures II-b (4~5)

Ten Ox Pictures III-a (6~8)

Ten Ox Pictures III-b (9~10)

Zen Flesh Zen Bones Summary IV

Zen Flesh Zen Bones is available on Amazon.

The Practice of Zazen

Ultimately however, Zen is about practice. It is a place to be, not just to visit. It won’t do you much good if you dive into it, and then quit because you find it too difficult, or you give in to the monkey. Keep it simple, and practice in such a way that it easily becomes a part of your daily practice. Of course you will face hurdles, as people have over the centuries in reaching deeper levels of mindfulness.

An excellent invitation in how to practice Zazen is through Higanji’s Zazen Application, an iPhone App called Undo (雲堂, meaning Cloud Hall). The App is free and available in the iTunes Store, and explained on the Higan website at:

There is also a video in English showing a simple and sustainable way to integrate Zazen practice into your daily life at:

Zen is described as a direct transmission beyond words. It can be experienced, but not adequately described. At the very least, you will find that 20 to 30 minutes of daily practice can be wonderfully refreshing, and will clear your mind of mental cobwebs.

The Circle of Ensō

A symbol used to express the process of enlightenment is called the Ensō, or form of a circle. The circle is painted with a brush, is actually the form of a circle rather than a perfect geometrical circle, and is only somewhat connected at the end of the stroke. These elements of imperfection suggest openness and discovery, which is organic rather than idealistic.

The circle represents the universe, and this brings us full circle, for Mandala is the Sanskrit word for circle. Try drawing such circles yourself, on various surfaces, and using various materials. Even drawing the form of circle in the air with your finger can give you a sense for all that it includes.

The practice of Zazen is a discipline for mind and body, but one which joins them in a higher degree of freedom. As you develop deeper mindfulness, the monkey mind will become servant rather than master, and you will become the creator rather than the victim of circumstance.

Taking your organization through change requires the skills of a samurai knowing when to make changes, when to leave things as they are, and staying centered through the entire process. Do this in an ever-changing environment with moving targets!

Like a samurai you can use the principles of martial arts and Zen, combine them with complexity theory, and develop an approach to changing your organization.

The Samurai

The word “samurai” has interesting roots. It means, “to serve.” More specifically, it means to serve something or someone higher than oneself. The samurai looks at the broader picture and chooses specific actions accordingly. To aid in this they practiced many arts with some samurai being great poets and artists. They worked to understand the principles of life beyond fighting. This led to even-tempered decision-making. This approach is critical when making organizational changes, some of which may be enjoyable and others painful.

Martial Arts

Martial Arts can teach us something about technique when changing an organization. Methods vary with circumstances but evolve from solid principles. In Aikido there is a proverb that goes something like this, “When you come upon a rock; be water and flow around it. When the ground is shifting; be a tree and establish roots.” This knowing when to flex and when to hold your ground is critical. In World War II Henry Kaiser revolutionized shipbuilding by restructuring the manner in which Liberty ships were designed and assembled. He turned naval construction on its head. Once new methods (flexing) were established and integrated they were pushed to the limit (holding ground). The time to build a ship was reduced from 245 days to 45 days with some being completed in less than a week. Some of those construction methods are still in use today.


So how do you pick from all different ways to organize? What order should they be used in? There are so many methods and types of advice one can get overwhelmed. The key is establishing and keeping an eye on your goals and values and choosing the appropriate method.

Zen offers some good advice: Be immovable. Now, this doesn’t mean be stubborn. It also doesn’t mean being stuck. What it does mean is be imperturbable. Have all decisions reflect movement towards desired goals while keeping values in sight. For more on this see a previous blog, Change Management – Leadership: An Executive Map, Compass and Navigation Method.

Complexity Theory

Now you can take a tip from complexity theory on how best to organize: let the people do it themselves. With everyone understanding the goals and values do something very interesting: take the organization back-and-forth between equilibrium and disequilibrium. When things are moving well – let them be (equilibrium). When a change is needed shake things up by pointing to the challenges and let the team decide how best to organize or reorganize (disequilibrium).

Andy Grove used a two-step process at Intel.

  1. He instilled the belief that change is needed and left the organization alone so the stress would build.
  2. When the stress was high enough he would then lead people through “The Valley of Death” to achieve the next chip design. (Adapted from “Surfing the Edge of Chaos,” Richard Pascale, et. al.)

In the next blog we will look at some deadly misconceptions regarding technology and change and how to remedy the situation. If you are as interested as I in these topics send me an e-mail at or visit