Abbot’s Journal Vol 61, August 20, 2007

by Norman Fischer | August 20, 2007 at 3:09 PM

Muir Beach

Event with Novo Nordisk executives, the first day of their “Lighthouse Program.” In which they take thirty top executives from around the world (including the CEO, Lars) on a secret leadership development program. They are told what to bring, and are given some gear appropriate to the occasion, in this case outdoor jackets and Northface backpacks, but not told where they will be going or what they will be doing. I spent the day with them out at the Noetic Sciences site near Petaluma teaching them zazen and walking meditation and talking to them about the relationship of classical Buddhist mindfulness practice to leadership. I used more or less the same thoughts I’d presented to the Metta Institute students, who are concerned with being better caregivers for the dying – because the issue is the same in the end, how to cultivate a deeper sense of presence with yourself and with others.

With mindfulness there are three points: First the difference between mindfulness and self-consciousness. Mindfulness is exactly not self-consciousness, it’s establishing a wide field of awareness (wider than “self” would allow) in which inner experiences and outer experiences (and there is no important difference between these) can both be contextualized into a larger sphere. When we can do this, through careful, subtle training in zazen and extending that to the whole of life, we can be quite aware of what goes on within us – more aware, with fewer constraints – without being limited by it; and we can connect more warmly with others through the recognition that our feelings are simply human feelings, what everyone feels, that they don’t belong exclusively to us.

Second, that Dogen’s meditation instruction “think not thinking” is a kind of thinking. An open, creative, intuitive sort of thinking, without goal or purpose, and therefore more likely to get us outside the pattern of our usual thought, more likely to be creative. (CEO Lars saw this point immediately – he said that he always got his best ideas and best solutions to problems when he was jogging or bicycling or trimming the hedges).

Third, that with mindfulness comes eventually connection to life’s deepest suffering, and deepest truths, and therefore profound sympathy with others, and compassion.

In the morning we did groups on “What have you learned about human life through your work as a leader – and what have you learned about yourself?” In the afternoon I went through the mindfulness sutra impressionistically, stressing the counter-intuitive importance of the body as a basis for awareness of vedana (as gut reactions, gut, usually unconscious, emotional conditioning), of states of mind, and ultimately, of human truths. Then I discussed compassion and taught them tonglen (I’d been told they’d be the next day working in a homeless shelter, and had been asked to stress compassion; after the homeless shelter they were to go off to the Cascades, where they would meet with Al Gore and talk about climate change). In groups we worked with “What’s your experience of compassion?”

I was impressed with these people. Easy-going, funny, informal, modest, easy together. It seems the Danes are a civilized bunch! Not like our own countrymen, cowboys, zealots, and maniacs. Lars seemed completely comfortable with the others, they seemed not to treat him with too much deference. Had I not known he was the CEO, everyone’s boss, I might not have guessed. Lisa, the corporate head of H.R., had been a student of religion in university, and took very much to what I was saying. Her opening remarks included a quotation from some business guru who’d worked with Novo Nordisk and said “leadership is simply being who you are only with more skill.” Something like that. Afterward, with K. away, I accepted their invitation to dinner at Benziger winery. In the underground wine cellar that the Benziger people had hollowed out of a mountainside. Long narrow table elegantly set with about half the table’s square footage devoted to wine goblets (four or five for each person): you looked down the table’s center and saw a forest of crystal. Steak for dinner. I ate and drank too much.


Norman Fischer