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Thinking Out Loud

Zen Calvinism and the Art of Leadership

by Michael Jinkins | Apr 27, 2015

Zen Calvinism"Is there ever going to be a day of unalloyed joy in this job?" asked my friend as I walked into his office.

The day was supposed to be a day of celebration. That's how it had started. Champagne was purchased, the troops assembled. After a toast was made and a short speech commemorating the generous gifts that had put the organization over its goal for the capital campaign, everyone went back to their offices aglow. They had all played their parts, of course. The honor of the moment belonged most of all to the organization's president and the fund development staff, but everyone would benefit from the gifts the campaign accrued. And as everyone had done what they could to bring success, all basked in the satisfaction that comes from contributing to a successful venture.

Thirty minutes after the celebration ended, however, a smoldering dispute between two staff members blew up into a full-scale conflagration engulfing pretty nearly everyone else in the organization. Recriminations abounded, and a routine staff meeting later that afternoon turned into an apocalyptic nuclear event, the fallout from which seemed to threaten the very core of the organization's mission and the integrity of its leadership.

One might simply chalk it all up to another confirmation of Edwin Friedman's maxim: When things start going really well, watch out! Or one could sit amid the ashes of Calvinist confession aware that creation just keeps on falling. Or one could find in this situation a corollary to the First Noble Truth of Buddhist thought as restated by psychotherapist Mark Epstein: Life is persistently unsatisfactory.

All three interpretations of my friend's mixed day ring true. And all three remind us of a painful fact of life and leadership.

Nothing stays fixed.

You can read this statement in at least two ways, and the two are closely related: (1) Nothing stays nailed down. All things are in motion all of the time. All things are always changing, whether you notice it or not. (2) Nothing stays in good repair for long, especially when it comes to complex human associations. A triumph in personnel may be followed by a disaster in facilities, as every chief operating officer of every company knows. A joy in worship can yield, five minutes later, to a concern in pastoral care, as all pastors recognize.

We seem startled by the continuous movement, variability and shifting of life. Yet, we know that life's transitory character is one of its basic features.

I am reminded of this whenever we have the opportunity to drive to our home on Saint Simons Island, just off the coast of southern Georgia. Most of the time, when we drive there, our route takes us through the hills of Eastern Kentucky and Tennessee and across the mountains of North Carolina, places where change is noticeable mostly in the seasons, not in the tough, seeming permanence of the rocky terrain. But when we arrive at the coast, the mask of earthly permanence slips, and the world's true nature peeks through. From one visit to the next, sometimes from one day to the next, sandbars shift on the back of powerful tides, dunes move at the mercy of relentless Atlantic winds, new streams cut their way through the vast tidal marshes and new islands appear in the rivers emptying into the ocean. You can feel the earth quiver in its liminal state between solid and fluid right between your toes walking on the beach.

Do the mountains ever change? Of course they do, as do the plains and deserts, cornfields and forests, but mostly at a rate that we detect either through the cycle of the seasons or over centuries, even millennia. Coastal environs simply exegete the reality of contingency common to the whole earth, though disguised in most places.

We can fool ourselves into believing that the world, our world, is static, and so we can cling to the ways existence is arranged and all that we seem to hold firmly in it. We can imagine that our lives, our arrangements, our relationships, our accomplishments all stand immovable. But this is an illusion. The sands and tidal grasslands and coastal inlets and islands provide a clearer lesson of that which is ultimately universally true. The sands do shift. So does everything else. And the wise learn to adapt their footing wherever they stand.

These reflections are, of course, fundamental both to Calvinists and to Zen masters. From Calvinism, we learn to watch for the hand of God amid life's inevitable changes and to entrust our lives and all of life to the God whom we believe is trustworthy. From Zen, we learn to appreciate the impermanence of life, to accept it, and to locate ourselves within in it - and not in futile opposition to it.

There is a sense in which we are so preoccupied by the way things were and so distracted by the way things may be that we miss the wonder of the way things are.

The fact that nothing stays fixed, in the sense that everything changes, reminds us of our own impermanence, our mortality. The fact that nothing stays fixed, in the sense that nothing stays in good repair, reminds us that we are not omnipotent. There is a gift hidden within the awareness that we are mortal and that we are not all-powerful. We are human. We are not God. The past is not within our power and ultimately the future is beyond our control. Our regrets about the one and our anxieties about the other have the capacity to rob us of that which really is within our scope, dealing with the present with full-attentiveness, with courage, integrity, grace, justice and love.

This insight applies to leadership as well as to life.

Thich Nhat Hahn, in his book, The Miracle of Mindfulness (Boston: Beacon Press, 1999) speaks of the practice of washing the dishes "mindfully." Rather than dreading the chore as necessary toil, trudging through it wishing we were doing something else, or racing through it anticipating what we will finally get to do when we finish the chore, Hahn reflects on the mundane joy of doing this most mundane task fully engaged. We feel the warmth of the water, the slipperiness of the soap, the sponge as it cleans a dish, the hot rinse under the tap, and finally placing the plate on the drying rack. Each act is attended with minds awake to the moment until all of the job is done. The person who races through the job of washing the dishes, anticipating that when he is done he will reward himself for the toil with a nice cup of tea, is unlikely to fully attend to the "reward" of the tea any more than the "chore" of washing up.

Does this mean that we shouldn't plan for the future and evaluate how we have performed in the past? Of course not. What it means is this: When we set aside times and occasions to plan, we should plan. And we should bring to bear in those exercises all the tools of anticipation and capacities for analysis available to us. When we set aside times and occasions to evaluate, we should evaluate. And when we do, we should direct our full attention to this crucial work. In whatever we do, we should be mindful of that to which we have given ourselves. This is both a discipline of stewardship and a practice of the spirit.

Nothing stays fixed. In a single day we shall move from that task accomplished with satisfaction to a new challenge which requires our best attention. The "canvas" on which the leader practices his or her art is more like the sandy surface of the beach than it is the granite of a mountain canyon. When the next tide wipes much of it clean, we will start again.

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