A group of Tibetan monks labored for several weeks to create an intricate work of sand – a Mandala – at the Memorial Art Gallery. It was the occasion for many in the community to be exposed to the beliefs of Buddhism, and to examine their lives in light of those beliefs. As the team of monks worked and answered questions, observers were invited to consider a way of thinking and a way of being that often seemed in radical opposition to the norm of traditional Western thinking. Frank Staropoli is a businessman and executive coach who gives some of his own reflections on being exposed to this unique opportunity.
I’d heard that they begin each day’s work with chanting, so I’d gotten there in time to observe it. I saw three men, each appearing to be engrossed in a personal rhythm and channel, yet their chanting was utterly in synch. The chanting stopped after ten minutes. Now, I thought, they’ll get to work. The chanting resumed for another ten minutes. Then it stopped. Now, I thought…. Chanting again. And some bell ringing And again. It was about forty-five minutes after “work” began before I saw any work performed.
Then as I watched them, my mind buzzed with the common questions of a lay, Western businessman:
“Are they on schedule?’
“Have they made any mistakes?”
“Who’s in charge?”
“How do they operate as a team?”
“Do they ever have a `bad sand’ day?”
I decided to pose one of these mundane musings to the “boss” (the one who responded to questions as the other two worked):
“In our Western culture, workers receive feedback on how they’re working. Do you ever comment to them on what they’re doing or how they’re doing it?”
At first he looked puzzled, as if grappling with a foreign concept. Then his face broke into the slight, kind smile I’d seen before as he responded to other questions which illustrated the gap between how “we” think and how “they” think. His answer revealed the high level of confidence he had in their work, conveying a complete trust in them, and in the conviction that they were in harmony with their own internal “boss”.
I thought back to the chanting.
What would it be like, I wondered, if our leaders began the day by spending the time to quietly remember who they are and what they’re about, to prepare themselves by quieting their minds, connecting with their hearts? And then, what if they invited the rest of their team to do the same, together? I had to chuckle at the thought of proposing team chanting to an executive! What I witnessed that day, however, was the most effective, connected team I’ve ever seen.
As I learned later, mistakes are made. They are not an issue. The monks know when they’ve missed the mark. The same tubular instruments that are used to place the sand are used by the same monk to remove the sand. By sucking on it, they draw the sand back into the instrument, and move on. There is no finger-pointing, blaming, guilt, anxiety, or any undue attention. What would it be like, I wondered, if we treated our own mistakes and those of others in the same way? What if the responsible person simply recognized it, corrected it, “sucked it up”, and moved on?
The enduring image from this experience, and the lesson I hold most precious, is the look and the feel of the monks as they worked: They were totally present to what they were doing. There was a calm intensity, a total dedication, yet without even a hint of stress, strain, compulsion, or any other anxiety. What they were doing could not be labeled as toil or labor. Even the term “work” seems a misfit. At the same time, it was evident that I was not observing robots. These were vitally alive human beings with a full range of emotions, but they have learned in their practice to manage all of the anxiety that seems to ensnare me and those around me. They were in concert with an internal source of energy, meaning and power. This enabled them to remain focused, knowing who they were and what they were about at any moment in time.
What would it be like, I wondered, to live that way? I have tasted this in my own life, in brief periods, but I do not live there. It is a place I visit. I’m planning to retire there. But these gentle, incredibly strong men have helped me commit to making that a reality in the present. I am grateful.