Nov 22 2017

Managing with No Mind, Part 2

Mind and “no mind” are two distinct but tightly interconnected forms of intelligence.  We need both to flourish and balance between them to stay present.

In Part 1, I described the practice of mindful management—the ability to lead with what’s often described as a “beginner’s mind.” This denotes a capacity to be present, to learn from those around us, and to remain receptive to whatever circumstances we encounter, much the way children do.  This sounds easy, but it’s actually quite hard, especially in complex environments like family encounters, social settings and the workplace.

The practice of mindful management emanates from three abilities of an open mind:

1. Stopping and Seeing Things Clearly  

This means understanding your current reality by looking closely at, and listening carefully to, what’s happening within and around you without judging it as either good or bad.  This is tough. Judging is an instinctive, protective act that nonetheless generates thoughts and emotions that often impede our taking the right actions for the right reasons. Even when we judge people and situations with which we are familiar, where we should know better, we tend to err on the side of negativity.

The Starbucks today wound up in my lap when the car in front of me stopped short, so my day will be bad.

She made a face while I was talking with her, so she mustn’t think I’m very bright, and I won’t waste my time with her again.

He didn’t return my email, so he’s blowing me off or doesn’t agree with my position or (fill in the blank).

These seem ridiculous when you write them down.  But as mental shorthand, these little mind scripts are cues we come to trust unquestioningly.  We should not.

The trouble with judging, beyond the fact that it blocks your receptivity to what’s actually happening in front of you, is that you’re not inside anyone else’s head.  You cannot really know what they’re thinking or why they’re thinking it.  So if you act on your perception, carried forward on the wave of emotion that flows from it and without having full context, you’re likely to miscalculate and precipitate exactly the situation you’d wish to avoid.

Instead of believing that the person who grimaced when you were speaking was thinking ill of you and, worse yet, accusing her of this, it might be helpful to learn whether some personal challenge is occupying her thoughts. Chances are just as good that she was thinking about leaving home without turning off the lights. 

It’s a good rule of thumb that most of us aren’t present most of the time.

2. Accepting the Complexity You Find and Acting Accordingly

This happens by thinking holistically and in a structured way about your situation; determining what you can and cannot control; and directly addressing the few elements you can control before they become problematic. 

Put slightly differently:

What is my situation and can I change it? If yes, then how, specifically? 

If not, then can I leave it? If yes, how would I do this?

If I can’t leave it, then can I accept it for what it is and stop worrying about it?

These are your only choices for resolving whatever situation you’re in:  Fix it; leave it; stay and stop complaining. In the course of a day, we don’t stand back often enough to survey our mental landscapes in this way.  Try it and see if it helps you gain some perspective.

If you’re unclear about what’s happening, do some reconnaissance and ask a few people you trust to give you some objective feedback.  Understand your options and make an informed choice. The alternative is to live with a constant, vague uneasiness and energy-sapping anxiety. Unable to pinpoint the source of your discomfort with your present circumstances, you spend much of your time obsessing about it, which leaves little space for you to be present for yourself or others.

3. Showing Empathy to Yourself and Others

Empathy comes from recognizing your own needs and wants and those of the person sitting across from you, understanding their commonality, and choosing to have this understanding be the animating force behind whatever actions you take.

I can relate to this person because I am this person.  I will do in this situation, for this person, what I would want done for me.

Presence requires this awareness.  But most of the time, when we engage with others, we don’t bring this awareness. Our interactions are more like minds dueling for dominance rather than human beings trying to relate to one another. And while our egos might enjoy this, we pay a price for mental jousting.  Cleverness and wisdom are not the same thing.  Any scars we inflict on others will cause pain for ourselves later on. Wounded egos take a long time to heal.  So in addition to being altruistic, empathy is also self-protective.

These mindful management practices tap into two levels of knowing. There’s what we commonly think of as our minds—the experience, training, values, perceptions, memories, and accumulated worldly intelligence we bring to every situation.  But there’s also what’s often called “no mind”—a far deeper level of knowing based on the instinctive connections we’re born with and learn to ignore unless we’re under extreme conditions that force us into presence. 

The parent called to the bedside of an injured child is absolutely present in his compassion for his child, connecting at the most basic human level to another human being who is, of course, an actual extension of himself.   The child knows this and is comforted by it. As doctors and nurses crowd around the bed, the other form of knowing—the rational, analytical type—kicks in, and the parent starts asking the probing questions to ensure his child can be brought out of danger and returned to health.

Both forms of knowledge are valuable. In fact, we need both to function. 

Mindful management demands that we recognize and cultivate both intelligences, balance them, and learn when to lead with one form of knowing, one form of mind, versus another.