Provision #720: Zen Matters

Laser Provision

Zen is the Buddhist practice of meditation and dialogue as a path to enlightenment. For centuries, if not for millennia, Zen was hardly known outside of China, Japan, and other East Asian countries. Now, however, it is an increasingly common word and practice for leaders and people around the globe. What does Zen have to do with leadership? It provides an awakening and a presence of mind that eliminates grasping, striving, and demanding energy. It reduces reactivity and raises proactivity. It lowers blood pressure and increases attention. It does all this by eliminating enemy images along with the attacks, worries, and defensiveness those images engender. In light of the killing of Osama bin Laden, this Provision encourages calm in the midst of the storm. Read on.

LifeTrek Provision


The most controversial set of Provisions I have written in the past 13 years were published in the weeks following September 11, 2001. The attacks in America by Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda could not be ignored. I, like so many others, was attempting to understand what had happened, what led to the attacks, and how best to respond.

My reflections provoked a huge outpouring of reader replies; some were appreciative while others were deeply troubled. More people unsubscribed from Provisions in response to those editions than at any time before or since. The outpouring was so great and so disconcerting that I printed the replies and focused my Provisions on them and on related topics for the rest of that year.

At the risk of provoking that reaction again, I thought I would share with you the four frameworks that led to my reflections at the time:

  1. There are no evil people.
  2. Evil acts are tragic expressions of unmet needs.
  3. Understanding those needs makes evil acts less likely.
  4. Violating those needs makes evil acts more likely.

In the frenzy of those days, with the drumbeats of war and retaliation in the air, those frameworks generated reflections that many people did not appreciate. From the tone of a few replies, you would have thought that I was defending evil acts, such as what happened on September 11, 2001. Nothing could be further from the truth, of course, but my unwillingness to label people as evil and my attempts to understand the unmet needs that led to those evil acts were hard words to hear when people were suffering, hurting, and angry.

Fast forward ten years and the name Osama bin Laden has again been making front page news, with screaming headlines, in every major news and social media outlet around the world. In the hours after the news broke, Twitter was lighting up with more than 3,440 tweets per second, the highest sustained rate ever recorded. Newspaper headlines in New York were typical of those around the world; they ranged from “Osama bin Laden Dead” (New York Post), to “Bin Laden Killed by U.S. Forces in Pakistan, Obama says, Declaring Justice has been Done” (The New York Times), to “Rot in Hell” (New York Daily News).

After chasing bin Laden for more than 10 years, spending more than $1 trillion USD, and launching two major wars to catch this guy and dismantle his organization, it is understandable that the people who suffered most at his hands would relish the moment with vitriol and celebration. As the week went on, however, the celebrations tamped down and people again began to reflect on the meaning of what had happened.

I welcome that reflective space and spirit. Such is the stuff that makes for great Provisions as well as transformational leadership. Turning the whole world into shoot-em-up video games, with saintly good guys and demonic bad guys, is a dangerous proposition. Is that the kind of world in which we want to live? Is that how we best secure “liberty and justice for all”? Is that a true understanding of how life works at its best? I think not.

This truth was brought home to me on Monday, May 2, the day after the announcement about the killing of bin Laden, when my friend and colleague, Erika Jackson, posted the following scripture on her Facebook page: “Do not rejoice when your enemies fall, and do not let your heart be glad when they stumble.” (Proverbs 24:17)

Wow. That post stopped me in my tracks. What did the author of Proverbs, writing some 3,000 years ago, know about the things that make for peace or even just make us human? In an age before arms-length, remote-controlled weaponry, when enemies often stood face to face in battle, what wisdom was captured in that simple saying? Might it have something to do humility, solidarity, awareness, and responsibility? Might it be the recognition that all life is precious? That enemies are still human beings? That violence against enemies, let alone humiliating them with contempt, spawns more violence? I think so.

The book of Proverbs stands in the wisdom tradition of three monotheistic faiths: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. It expresses truths that stem from direct experience rather than from traditional creeds or teachings. There is nothing sectarian about Proverbs or about wisdom. They represent pathways that are open and available to all, encouraging an action-learning approach to what makes life more wonderful.

This same action-learning approach is what undergirds the equally ancient Eastern tradition of Zen. Zen, which means meditation and dialogue on life, harkens back to the Buddha • some 2,500 years ago • and has had a major influence in Chinese, Japanese, and other East Asian cultures for at least the last 1,500 years. Through quietly observing and meditating on life, and through dialoguing about its meaning, Zen holds that people will eventually achieve enlightenment.

And what is enlightenment? It is the awareness of one’s profound connection to and oneness with all of life. It is not just understanding that all sentient beings are made from the same fabric and are part of the same transcendent wisdom; it is appreciating the fullness of that connection as a matter of direct experience. It is the complete elimination of enemy images in favor of seeing the true “Buddha nature” in every person and, indeed, in all of life.

Alan Watts, in his easy-to-read book What Is Zen?, puts it this way: “Zen is simply the sensation and the clear understanding that, to put it in Zen terms, there are ‘ten thousand formations; one suchness.” Or you might say, ‘The ten thousand things that are everything are of one suchness.’ That is to say that there is behind the multiplicity of events and creatures in this universe simply one energy • and it appears as you, and everything is it. The practice of Zen is to understand that one energy so as to ‘feel it in your bones.'”

Eliminating enemy images and recognizing our oneness with all of life is hard to do, especially in the face of attacks and criticisms. The more vicious the attacks, like those of September 11, the more difficult it is to do. How could we be of one piece with such people? How could we feel that in our bones? But even in everyday encounters, when someone says or does something that irritates or worries us, it takes work to set aside our aggressive feelings and anxious reactions in favor of more holistic and empathetic understandings.

Meditation (zazen) and dialogue with a teacher (sanzen) are the primary Zen pathways for such setting aside. The classic form of meditation, sitting Zen, is an individual practice that uses poses and breathwork to clear the mind of all attachment and distraction. I have never been good at that, but I know people who engage regularly in hours of sitting meditation. From shorter daily rituals to extended retreats, not to mention those monks who devote their entire lives to the practice, people experience renewal through such clearing of the mind.

There are many other forms of meditation, including group practices, walking meditations, chanting, and story meditations called Koans. The point of all these practices is to awaken consciousness and understanding as to the true nature of life, which is bound together in a common energy of love, rather than to stay distracted and confused by its apparent brokenness, limitations, and antagonisms.

Meditation does this in part because of its physiological effects. As Herbert Benson documented, even short periods of meditation can break the adrenaline rush and performance momentum of our busy-busy lives, replacing them with a sense of calm, ease, relaxation, and centeredness. We become less aware of our thoughts about the past and future as we become more aware of what we are doing in the present moment: sitting, breathing, walking, standing, or whatever that may be.

Such shifts in awareness are an essential part of great leadership. It is not possible for leaders to make wise decisions, to inspire collective efficacy, or to think outside the box if we are feeling urgency, frenzy, envy, or hostility. These ways of being must be set aside and meditation is an effective way of doing that.

So is reading Provisions and other forms of dialogue on the meaning and measure of life. Provisions goes out to more than 15,000 people on a weekly basis. In any given week, 750•1,250 people open and read the email. Most of those people are repeat readers: they make it a weekly practice to start their week with Provisions and I occasionally hear from them as to how much these reflections challenge and support them on the trek of life.

That’s a bit removed from sanzen, or dialogue with a teacher, but it is not unrelated. I know it helps me to write them. Stepping back to think about the meaning and measure of life so as to see its common ground of being is an important practice for us all.

By now I hope you can see the connections between my reflections on the killing of Osama bin Laden, the saying from Proverbs, and the practice of Zen. They all point to the same larger truth: “ten thousand formations, one suchness.” that is the key for moving on and setting aside.

I also hope you can see the connections between Zen and leadership, because Zen has as much to do with leadership as does Jesus. Leaders who do not step back to calm our minds and who do not reflect on and dialogue about events in ways that connect us positively with people will not only be less effective as leaders, sowing seeds of discontent and dissension by what we say and do, we will also push ourselves to an early grave.

Zen matters to leadership. Whether or not we call it Zen, the practice of meditation along with life-giving dialogue are essential works for us all.

Coaching Inquiries: What quiet, reflective practices are part of your everyday lives? How could you make those practices even more rich and fulfilling? Who do you know who exemplifies meditation and spiritual dialogue? How could you get close to and share the journey more fully with them?

To reply to this Provision, use our Feedback Form. To talk with us about coaching or consulting services for yourself or your organization, Email Us or use our Contact Form to arrange a complimentary conversation.

LifeTrek Readers’ Forum (selected feedback from the past week)

Editor’s Note: The LifeTrek Readers’ Forum contains selections from the comments and materials sent in each week by the readers of LifeTrek Provisions. They do not necessarily reflect the perspective of LifeTrek Coaching International. To submit your comment, use our Feedback Form or Email Bob.


Congratulations on your daughter’s wedding in Costa Rica! I will send on the beautiful wedding poems to my friend.


Happy Easter and congratulations! It was moving to read about the wonderful wedding of your daughter and son-in law. The poems radiated such beautiful heart energy and it reminded me of my mentor, who always said that “life is not about experiences but about “in-speriences.” Live life fully! Thank you so much for sharing. I look forward to reading your weekly inspirations!


I came across your poem “Passion” while searching the internet for an inspirational message. A professional group that I belong to is holding a conference in Lansing, Michigan and I have been asked to provide an inspirational message during the opening ceremonies. Can you believe, our International theme for this year is “Purpose & Passion”! Your poem is truly inspirational and parallels our theme wonderfully. I am writing to ask your permission to read the poem as part of our program. (Ed. Note: Permission granted! Thanks.) 


May you be filled with goodness, peace, and joy.

Bob Tschannen-Moran, MCC, BCC

President, LifeTrek Coaching Internationalwww.LifeTrekCoaching.com
CEO & Co-Founder, Center for School Transformationwww.SchoolTransformation.com
Immediate Past President, International Association of Coachingwww.CertifiedCoach.org
Author, Evocative Coaching: Transforming Schools One Conversation at a TimeOnline Retailers

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