Posts by Sunada Takagi

Work is a Mess (book extract)

Reprinted with permission from Michael Carroll from his book, “Awake at Work: 35 Practical Buddhist Principles for Discovering Clarity and Balance in the Midst of Work’s Chaos.”

Many of us come to work with the hope that we can control our jobs. We want to be the capable authors of our work, not helpless victims of unplanned circumstance. We want to feel on top of our game and in command of the details, and we want work to stay in place so that we don’t need to worry.

Yet work will not stay in place, despite all our efforts. Financial reports and spreadsheets bring the appearance of order. Routines and schedules seem reliable. Our computer systems and management abilities offer a certain kind of predictability. But what we set out wanting to do at work is never what we end up with. Work, by its nature, is unpredictable and messy, chaotic and surprising.

Such chaos can affect us very directly and very personally. We go to work expecting one thing, and we get quite another. We may accept a new job with all its promise and challenge. Then when we get there, we find out that the manager who hired us is leaving for an opportunity elsewhere. We are left with a new boss and a different challenge altogether. Or maybe we have launched a new and promising product line — say a game to teach children how to name countries around the world — only to discover that the packaging instructions on the one hundred thousand units are in French and we thought we had ordered English. Perhaps we have convinced our boss to invest in a new project; we build a team and create momentum. Then we find out midstream that the budget is cut and we must fire our newly hired staff. Such untidiness can seem to put our routines, financial security, sense of accomplishment, and much more in question.

This kind of predictable unpredictability happens every day to thousands of us. And yet we somehow end up relating to these very common circumstances as threats and disasters, losing our sense of confidence and creative challenge. Typically, we treat work’s surprises is merely mistakes, missteps, or blunders that should have been otherwise, events that we should have prevented. We so much want our world to run smoothly — no uncertainties, no surprises, no uncomfortable conflicts. We want to be on top of our game, not striking out for dropping the ball. If work’s messy surprises are not just mistakes or liabilities or weaknesses, what are they? And how can we better respond to them?

The reality is that there is no solution to work’s inherent chaos and messiness. Work by its very nature will always be uncertain. The good news is that work’s messiness and uncertainty need not be distressing. They may, in fact, be just what we were looking for.

In the ancient Chinese text The Art of War, the renowned strategist-general Sun Tzu gives the following instruction:

When in battle,
Use the orthodox to engage,
Use the extraordinary to attain victory.

While our workplace may not be a battlefield, Sun Tzu is explaining to his warrior leaders that they should come to battle with the “orthodox” strategies in place. This means that they will have studied a wide range of tactics and disciplines. They will have devised plans ahead of time — anticipating the enemy’s maneuvers and predisposition. Soldiers will have been trained in combat and weaponry, officers drilled in battlefield tactics, weapons positioned, and offenses fortified. It is from this, the orthodox, that they will engage battle.

But victory, Sun Tzu points out, does not come from such preparations. Victory is obtained from the “extraordinary.” Here Sun Tzu is revealing to warrior leaders a powerful reality of war: it is unpredictable and chaotic — and it is in this untidiness that the warrior general finds victory. A change in weather, and error on the battle-plan map, a weapon that discharges prematurely — all unanticipated yet inevitable — are what the warrior general remains constantly alert for and ready to exploit to his or her advantage. According to Sun Tzu, it is the infinite unshapable variations of war that offer the strategist the levers for victory.

How the warrior leader remains ever alert for the extraordinary is of the utmost importance to Sun Tzu. We cannot sit at the edge of our seats waiting to pounce on surprises like a cat on a mouse. Being greedy for success or victory is not the point. Rather, Sun Tzu stresses throughout The Art of War that the warrior leader must possess victory in the very fiber of his or her being from the very start, before the battle even begins. Sun Tzu teaches that the warrior leader must be relaxed and open to the present moment at all times. The more at ease the warrior is with the situation at hand, the more open and powerful and fearless he or she becomes as a leader. Sun Tzu’s instruction on engaging the extraordinary is to first “know oneself” and, through that knowing, to work directly with conflict, appreciate the immediate moment, and let natural intelligence arise. In short, be awake!

Sun Tzu’s use of the orthodox and the extraordinary can be applied to our experience at work. We use routines such as our business plans, financial forecasts, staff meetings, and monthly reports to engage our work. We train ourselves with MBAs and CPAs — the orthodox. But according to Sun Tzu, we will never succeed at work if we rely exclusively on such things. Only by remaining alert and open to the extraordinary events — the untidy and unpredictable — and engaging them directly and openly can we truly succeed.

A talented employee recruited by a competitor becomes an opportunity to promote new talent from within — and have a friend within the “competitor’s camp.” The economy slumps, our profitability is down — but so is our competitor’s, who now is ripe for acquisition. Accusations of unfair work practices provide an opportunity to refresh policies top to bottom. A lack of new product ideas becomes just the chance to reach down into the lower ranks and listen to the unheard potential innovators. The conflicts and difficulties at work hold the possibility of success if we are open enough to engage with them without resentment or fear.

If we were to adapt Sun Tzu for the workplace, we might translate his three-lined instruction a bit differently:

When at work,
Use established routines to pursue objectives,
Use messiness and surprises to innovate and succeed.

“Work is a mess” encourages us to first recognize that we can never have a completely neat relationship with our livelihood. Treating work’s messiness as if it were a mistake or liability only creates further unnecessary distress and resentment. By developing the attitude that work is a mess, we can learn to relax and be curious about the surprises and interruptions. By engaging the messiness of work directly — appreciating both the advantages and disadvantages — we become fully equipped to engage such events in all their variations. We have the ingenuity, good humor, and curiosity to adapt and innovate — to be victorious, no matter what the circumstances.


Michael Carroll is the founding director of Awake at Work Associates (www.awakeatwork.net), a consulting group that works with organizations and individuals to help them rediscover balance and well-being while pursuing professional success. For over two decades Carroll worked in major corporations such as Shearson Lehman Brothers, Paine Webber, Simon & Schuster, and the Walt Disney Company. He is also a longtime student of Buddhism and an authorized teacher in the lineage of the Tibetan meditation master Chögyam Trungpa.

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“Awake at Work” by Michael Carroll

Awake at Work: 35 Practical Buddhist Principles for Discovering Clarity and Balance in the Midst of Work’s Chaos, by Michael Carroll. (Shambhala Publications, 2004. Paperback, $14.00).

At one point or another, those of us who feel inspired to pursue a spiritual path end up having to come to terms with an annoying fact of life: we have to earn a living. Our demanding and bothersome jobs feel like such an intrusion and leave so little time for meditation or study — seemingly more worthy pursuits than managing project deadlines or dealing with coworkers with attitudes.

In his book Awake at Work, Michael Carroll turns that kind of thinking on its head. The central idea he puts forth is that our jobs can be the very core of our spiritual lives — that treading the spiritual path means engaging fully with everything our lives present to us, especially our jobs.

This book is a collection of 35 pithy slogans that invite us to seek our own natural wisdom and poise as we engage with the demands of our work. The slogans are inspired by a classic Tibetan Buddhist work called The Root Text of the Seven Points of Training the Mind. Because Carroll’s writing style is so lively and engaging, one might be tempted to just sit and read the book from cover to cover. But to do so would be to miss its true value. Each slogan/chapter is intended to be used as a point of contemplation, and to help us to reflect on our attitudes and behaviors, moment to moment, as we encounter them throughout our day. Being awake at work is not a one-shot deal, the author reminds us, but rather is a continual process of learning how to engage skillfully with our work. This book is intended to provide the tools to help us with this learning process.

Part One introduces the four primary slogans or fundamental attitudes needed to engage with this practice. The first of these is “Balance the two efforts.” By its very nature, work requires us to focus on the future, to strive toward goals, to plan ahead. But to be awake at work requires that we also stop, “let go” and notice what is happening here and now. This letting go, Carroll says, allows space for something else to emerge:

In letting go we are not adding anything to our “to do” lists. We are simply balancing the effort to get somewhere with that of being where we are completely, opening ourselves up to a much larger work perspective. Eventually this shift becomes quite routine, allowing us to reconnect with our natural intelligence — an immediate and extraordinary spontaneity and confidence — at will. By letting go over and over again, we reenliven our sense of well-being and become aware of an openness at work that does not need to be managed or arranged. We gradually discover a composure that has been with us our whole lives but has somehow gone unnoticed.

Subsequent parts address other attitudes and habitual behaviors that often come into play at work. For example, “Step beyond the silence of fear” exhorts us to take note of fear, denial and other such negative attitudes that can lurk behind our actions and unspoken words. “Welcome the tyrant” deals with an issue that everyone will immediately identify with — dealing with that ornery, offensive, or otherwise highly unpleasant person with whom you have to work. (Perhaps that person is your boss!)

Collectively these chapters help us to realize that life holds no guarantees and that our tenuous ways of grasping for security, control, and approval are pointless. By working with these slogans, we are encouraged to remain open to the moment as each circumstance unfolds — free of preconceived notions and judgments — and to trust in our innate resourcefulness and authenticity in handling the infinite variety of challenges our work presents to us.

Each and every chapter struck me as highly insightful and indicative of the depth of the author’s personal thinking and reflections on the subject. Carroll spent over 20 years simultaneously working in executive positions in corporate America while also being a devoted Buddhist practitioner — and he is now an authorized teacher in the lineage of the Tibetan master Chögyam Trungpa. This unique perspective gives him a kind of wisdom and clarity that comes only from years of direct personal experience spanning both worlds.

If you are new to meditation or Buddhism, don’t feel deterred from this book. There are appendices with complete instructions on getting started with mindfulness meditation as well as a thorough set of instructions on how to engage with contemplating the slogans. If you are a long-term practitioner, then you will be able to jump right in. There is plenty of depth and breadth to the material to suit readers of all experience levels.

Taking a broader perspective, what I most appreciated about this book is its larger message. Many of us who feel a strong yearning to devote more time and energy to our spiritual lives fall into the trap of dividing our lives in two: our spiritual side (meditating, studying, going on retreats) and our non-spiritual (work, household chores, endless to-do lists). Some of us may even dream of leaving behind our jobs and constant busyness to go off and live in a monastery or retreat center, as Carroll relates he himself did. But when the inevitable pressures of our “non-spiritual” side take over, we throw up our hands and decide that “being spiritual” will have to come at another time and place, not now.

With this book, Carroll shows us the fallacy this thinking. Our spiritual side is not something we can separate out from the rest of our lives. As he puts it, he learned that, “the daily grind, the successes and failures, hard work and stress, all gradually unfolded as a profound teaching … Scrubbing the floor, writing an e-mail, leading the country, feeding the hungry child, are all noble steps we take on our path to becoming completely who we are where we are.” This book shows us in very practical terms how to start taking those steps right now.

You can also read an extract from this book, “Work is a Mess.”

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Miles Davis: “Do not fear mistakes. There are none.”

Miles Davis

Many years ago when I was in college, I performed a solo piano recital. Even though I prepared for months, on the day of the recital I was a nervous wreck. I still had several passages that I hadn’t been able to master, and that was just enough to shake up my confidence. I was all too familiar with every spot in those pieces that could trip me up. I remember taking a deep breath and walking out on stage with a smile plastered on my face, but behind it I was carrying a huge sense of dread.

To make a long story short, the recital worked out fine. I got a big round of applause, and lots of congratulatory hugs from my teacher and friends. But the sad thing is I missed the whole thing. I was so busy worrying about not making mistakes that I never really heard my own music-making or took in the experience. I was fortunate that the recital was recorded, so I was able to listen to my performance afterward. All those supposedly obvious and horribly embarrassing mistakes I thought I had made — in the whole scheme of things they were negligible. Most people probably didn’t even notice.

This was the beginning of my learning about the nature of fear. I tend to be a pessimist, so it’s much too easy for me to see all the ways that something can go wrong. And when I climb aboard the train of those thoughts, my view of reality can get very skewed. In fact, my negativity probably ended up to some degree becoming the proverbial self-fulfilling prophecy. Even though nothing disastrous happened, I also didn’t play anywhere near my best. I was so worried and self-absorbed that there wasn’t room for all the grand and beautiful moods and emotions that the music called for. And above all, I wasn’t there to share the experience with my audience.

In the years since, I’ve taken up meditation and have reflected often on the nature of mistakes and fear — not only in music, but more broadly as part of life. Too often we go about thinking that mistakes are bad things that we must avoid. But what are mistakes? It’s true that things often don’t go as we intended — an unfortunate fact of life — but does that make them “wrong”? Despite all my mistakes, wasn’t it ultimately my humanness (wrong notes and all) coming through the music that my listeners appreciated? Aren’t “mistakes” often opportunities in disguise?

And what about fear? Of course fear is essential for prompting us to act when we’re in danger. But was my life in danger when I walked on stage for my piano recital? What was I afraid of? And by allowing myself to be guided by fear, didn’t I limit my ability to see all the other possibilities in the situation?

Over the years, I have come to understand mindfulness as much more than slowing down to appreciate the beauty in life. I think of it as living life to its fullest — and learning to move beyond my fears, judgments, and stories that keep me from seeing and experiencing things as they really are. It’s when we’re able to be present with our experience — even when it’s scary as hell — with a calm, steady mind, that we get past our self-created fog and move out to a place of freedom and possibilities.

I think a master jazz improviser like Miles Davis is a great model for what mindful living looks like: confident and completely, fearlessly open to the present moment. That to me is the promise of mindfulness.

Sunada teaches Wildmind’s meditation courses by day, and continues to pursue her musical inspirations by night. She also runs her own business, Mindful Purpose Life Coaching, that helps people navigate the choppy waters of their own spiritual journeys.

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Lou Holtz: “Life is ten percent what happens to you and ninety percent how you respond to it.”

Lou Holtz is revered as one of the premier NCAA football coaches of our time. Among his many notable achievements, he led six college teams to championship games within two years of his taking the helm. In the case of the University of South Carolina, it was his leadership that engineered an amazing turnaround from the nation’s longest losing streak to a winning level unprecedented in the school’s 107-year history of competitive sports. In his “retirement,” he has translated his positive attitude and philosophy from football to the larger game of life, and is highly sought after as a motivational speaker who continues to inspire people well beyond the realm of sports.

When we hear stories of remarkable people like Holtz, it’s easy to fall back into thinking that they must have started out with some kind of “right stuff” that helped them to succeed. Ordinary people like us — we never had that stuff. But we’d be wrong. Holtz started from humble beginnings in West Virginia, a child of divorced parents. He even admits that he was never much of an athlete as a kid. In short, he was an ordinary person who started out stumbling along in life much like the rest of us.

The arc of Holtz’s life story reveals a simple, commonsense lesson that we can all apply in everything we encounter in our own lives. It’s all about attitude, focus, and being passionate about our aspirations. It’s about not letting our current circumstances, no matter how bleak, cloud our view of the possibilities ahead.

I have no idea what Holtz’s spiritual inclinations are — I doubt he’s a Buddhist or a meditator, but that’s purely a guess. But I can say that his message resonates strongly with that of the Buddha. So much of the pain and suffering we experience in our lives are not caused by what happens to us, but are self-inflicted by our unmindful responses to them. We can’t change the fact that we face disappointments and frustrations in life, but we can separate them from our attitudes and motivations. It’s when we let go of our doubts and self-defeating stories that new possibilities open up to us. And meditation can help us to train our minds to cultivate the more positive thoughts, views, and attitudes that shape the ninety percent of our lives.

So as we embark on a new year and cheer on our favorite teams, I hope that we can all take a lesson from Coach Holtz — and start taking steps toward a happy and successful 2007.

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Henry Melvill: “Ye cannot live for yourselves; a thousand fibres connect you with your fellow-men…”

“Ye cannot live for yourselves; a thousand fibres connect you with your fellow-men, and along those fibres, as along sympathetic threads, run your actions as causes, and return to you as effects.”

-Henry Melvill (1798–1871), influential British priest

Earlier this week, I watched an episode of NOVA, a public television series in the U.S. about current issues in science. The topic was climate change — and specifically how particulate pollution reduces the sun’s warming effects on the earth, and what this phenomenon implies about global warming.

One segment of the show in particular struck me quite deeply. According to one theory, the industrialized nations of Europe and North America threw enough pollutants into the atmosphere to change rainfall patterns in Africa. And this is thought to have been the direct trigger for the devastating Ethiopian famine of 1984-85, which killed over a million people. The fact that the collective activities of industrialized nations are causing global climate change is not new news, of course. But to see so graphically how my comfortable modern lifestyle may have directly contributed to the horrible deaths of over one million people gave me severe pause.

A basic tenet of Buddhism is that all of our actions have consequences, and that we need to live responsibly, as though our every thought, word, and deed has an effect somewhere, on something. Hearing this story brought this teaching home to me quite profoundly. When I turn the thermostat up in my house so I’m a bit more comfortable, or drive to the store because I don’t have the time to walk — these casual little actions I undertake as an individual have their consequences, some of which can ultimately be quite dire.

So what can I, one of six billion humans on this earth, do about all this? In my darker moods, it can feel overwhelming and hopeless, that nothing I do could make a difference. But there’s a fallacy in that thinking. If my irresponsible little actions multiplied by six billion people can cause global disaster, isn’t it also true that my positive little actions similarly multiplied could bring about the exact opposite? The point of this teaching is not to plunge us into despondency, but to rally us to action. I DO have an effect in this world, and my positive actions DO make a difference, no matter how small. I have renewed my commitment to living my life more mindfully and responsibly, and to make an effort to be a positive influence in this world.

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Duke Ellington: “I merely took the energy it takes to pout and wrote some blues”

We all have days when we feel like pouting – when we feel angry, irritable, upset, depressed, hurt, lonely, or any number of unpleasant feelings. And when we feel that way, it seems only natural to want to avoid our pain. So we come up with all sorts of ways to try and throw it off – we blame others for our misfortune; wish for a better job, more money, a different partner or what have you; and tell ourselves all sorts of “stories” of how it used to be or could be if only things were different. But really, these approaches aren’t helpful at all. We’re either making things worse by spreading our bad mood around, or at best shoving our problems under the proverbial rug and not really dealing with them.

Duke Ellington had a much better approach. He faced his pain squarely, right in the eyes, and got to understand his humanity so well that he could use it to touch other people’s hearts. This takes tremendous courage – to sit with our pain, really feel it, be with it, and open ourselves up to our inner softness and vulnerability. It’s a radical notion. To befriend our own pain sounds quite counterintuitive. But in fact, it can be the key to unlocking our capacity to connect with others through our shared experience of this fallible human life.

Even if we don’t have the talent of Duke Ellington, it’s still something that we all could do more of. Rather than spending all that energy avoiding our suffering, we could try to befriend it openly. It’s when we find the courage to let down our guard – those brick walls we build around our hearts to keep out the pain – that we find ourselves more able to open up to the beauty in life. It draws out our compassionate hearts, which can’t help but reach out to others and see the loveliness and lovable in midst of all the suffering in our world.

Meditation can help us to find our way into our compassionate hearts. Developing our capacity for mindfulness helps us to be more aware of our emotions and how we respond to them day by day. The Metta Bhavana, which is a practice for cultivating loving-kindness, helps us to nourish our hearts and allow our natural ability to love grow and flourish. The most constructive thing we can do for our messed up world out there is to work on our own worlds within ourselves.

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“Still Quiet Place: Mindfulness for Young Children,” by Dr. Amy Salzman

Still Quiet Place, Amy Salzman

If you’ve ever wondered how you could introduce the life skill of meditation to your children, here’s a delightful CD that will help you do just that. Still Quiet Place is a series of guided meditations for children (ages three or older) that gently leads them to find and appreciate the ‘treasure’ within themselves. With each track, Dr. Amy Saltzman helps children to explore a different aspect their inner world, including an awareness of their physical bodies and emotions, and begin to trust their own inner wisdom.

And it’s not all about stillness and quiet. One track, called “wilds”, begins with a driving drumbeat and asks, “Do you sometimes feel wild, or crazy, or silly? Like a volcano about to erupt or a hurricane twirling around?” Dr. Saltzman honors the whole child, including the giggly, high-energy side, and encourages young people to fully experience all of their emotions and inner world.

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For older children, there are a couple longer tracks on simple yoga poses and a full body scan. And there’s even something for parents, too. Dr. Saltzman says in her ‘adult intro’ that the greatest source of children’s stress is not school, peer pressure or over-scheduling, but parental stress. So the last track is for you, the grown-ups — a brief mindfulness meditation of about 13 minutes, to help you slow down and bring your awareness to the present moment.

Overall, this is a wonderful CD that can give your children a solid start toward becoming happier and healthier adults in the future.

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Helen Keller: “A happy life consists not in the absence, but in the mastery of hardships.”

It gives me pause to read these words from a woman who was profoundly deaf and blind from the age of two. If anyone could be said to have struggled with hardship, Helen Keller would be one of the tops. And yet, she was known for her unflagging optimism and tireless activism for racial and sexual equality at a time when such ideas were scorned and ridiculed. Where does such courage come from?

We all endure pain and hardship, some more than others. This is an unfortunate fact of life that nobody can change. What we CAN change, however, is the stories we tell ourselves. Too often, we prolong our pain by wishing for a future that cannot be, or by looking back nostalgically at a past we’ve lost. Or we get angry or depressed about a situation that’s gone beyond our control. The alternative path is to take steps toward changing our lives by seeing clearly what is here and now.

Meditation is a powerful tool that enables us to see ourselves and our world as they truly are. When we let go of our self-defeating “stories” and see things in their naked truth, we begin to see possibilities for changing our lives and moving forward again. We then have a choice: to move forward toward greater happiness, or to stay where we are in our pain.

We can all take a lesson from Helen Keller’s example. She faced seemingly insurmountable odds and yet continued to put one foot in front of the other, every day. And look where it took her. We, too, can change our lives for the better. Whether we take up that challenge is up to us.

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