Know Yourself, Forget Yourself: The Paradoxical Path to Increasing Effectiveness, Awakening Joy, and Discovering Your Life's Purposeby Marc Lesser
We all yearn for clear-cut answers to life’s problems, yet we rarely get them. Formulas fail and contradictions mount. In Know Yourself, Forget Yourself, executive coach and mindfulness teacher Marc Lesser shows that understanding and embracing the points where life feels most confusing, most contradictory can lead us to more satisfaction and joy.
Lesser provides clear guidance and simple practices for embracing five central paradoxes in life and navigating them to increase our effectiveness and happiness. Influenced by the revolutionary mindfulness and emotional intelligence trainings he helped develop at Google, Know Yourself, Forget Yourself is a profound book about cultivating the emotional skills to understand the right path through difficulties and challenges.
“Cognitive dissonance has never felt so pure and poetic. Full of wise irony and simple truths, this book is a treasure for the ages.”
Chip Conley, founder of Joie de Vivre Hotels and author of Emotional Equations
“An illuminating and insightful book.”
Sharon Salzberg, author of Real Happiness
“Marc Lesser shows us a path through the contradictions within us....A wonderful and profound book.”
Van Jones, president of Rebuild the Dream
“After a lifetime of Zen study, Marc Lesser has distilled the life lessons of Buddhist practice into sane, eminently useful, result-oriented procedures that will cut through confusion, anxiety, and self-defeating behaviors....I can’t recommend this book highly enough.”
Peter Coyote (Hosho Jishi), actor, writer, and Zen priest
“In our work together at Google, I have seen firsthand Marc’s extraordinary melding of Zen teacher and business leader, a combination that some people might consider a contradiction. Now in this extraordinary book, Marc shows us not only that contradictions are everywhere, but that embracing them can actually make us happier!”
Chade-Meng Tan, Google’s Jolly Good Fellow and bestselling author of Search Inside Yourself
“Know Yourself, Forget Yourself is a treasure trove of applied wisdom.”
Joan Halifax, founding abbot of Upaya Zen Center
“Marc Lesser’s life experiences as a Zen student and priest, CEO, small business owner, consultant, and executive coach give him a unique perspective on how to enhance your life by increasing your gifts to everyone you engage with.”
Ben Cohen, cofounder of Ben & Jerry’s
“Marc Lesser has given us a leadership bible that, if practiced, will tap into the power of our own inner awareness and gently nudge us to transform ourselves, our relationships at work and home, and in the process, our country and world. This book is a gem.”
— Congressman Tim Ryan, Thirteenth District in Ohio, author of A Mindful Nation
Praise for the author’s Less:
“Loaded with practical, applicable insights and suggestions to simplify work and daily existence.” Peter Coyote, actor and author
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Know Yourself, Forget Yourself
Five Truths to Transform Your Work, Relationships, and Everyday Life
By Marc Lesser
New World LibraryCopyright © 2013 Marc Lesser
All rights reserved.
FROM PARADOX TO INSIGHT
Can't say what I'm doing here,
But I hope to see much clearer
After living in the material world.
— George Harrison, "Living in the Material World"
I was recently sitting in the office of a senior executive of a major corporation in the San Francisco Bay Area. We were meeting for the first time. His manager had told me that he was a high-performing leader who was now underperforming. During our conversation the executive shared with me his disappointment about work. "What happened?" he pondered. He had begun this job with such excitement and enthusiasm, such belief in his ability to do a great job and achieve lofty goals. Now he felt discouraged and exhausted. Then he shared with me that he had a similar feeling in his marriage and family life.
He said, "How did I get so busy and yet manage to feel so uninspired? Why does my life feel stale? Why do I have a gnawing sense of defeat much of the time? To the world I seem dynamic and productive, but internally I am either churning or numb. What happened to the enthusiasm and excitement I had for life when I was young, just setting out in my career and marriage? When did my life get so out of balance?"
His eyes looked pained, and his shoulders were slightly hunched. Behind him, I noticed a nearly life-size wooden cutout of a rhinoceros. How odd, I thought. What was this large creature doing lurking in the office of this senior executive? "What is that?" I asked.
The man smiled for the first time during our meeting. "Oh, that was from an event that we held about fifteen years ago. Since there was no place to store it and I didn't want it thrown out, this rhino has been living in my office ever since."
"That image reminds me of a story," I told him. "It's an old Zen story that goes like this: A teacher says to his attendant, 'Bring me my fan, the rhinoceros horn fan.' Apparently, the teacher had a special fan that either had a painting of a rhinoceros or perhaps was made with some sliver of rhinoceros horn. The attendant responds, 'I'm afraid your rhinoceros horn fan is broken.'"
I stopped and asked the executive, "What do you think the teacher said?"
The man shrugged. He didn't know.
I told him, "The teacher stated sternly, 'Then bring me the rhinoceros!'"
We both chuckled. It's a silly, preposterous story that makes about as much apparent sense as the rhinoceros in this executive's office.
I asked the executive to look at his rhinoceros. I asked him to remember what he felt like, bringing it into his office many years ago. It must have been lighthearted, risky, surprising. "Yes," he acknowledged and smiled. "I was new to my job, excited and nervous."
"Let's see if we can bring back some of that surprise, that energy, into your work and life right now," I responded. "Some of that rhinoceros energy!"
The Zen story is about surprise and creative energy. The teacher is saying to his attendant, Wake up! Don't take your life for granted. Don't take anything for granted. Think, consider, and live outside of your habitual ways. I explained this to the executive and told him, "Your whole life is right here, right now! So let's begin by having you pay attention to the simple and obvious parts of your life that you may be overlooking. Let's talk about what is working that brings you joy as well as what you avoid, what annoys and angers you. Just as the teacher used what was directly in front of him, let's work with what is right in front of you."
In my role as an executive coach, I help people become more effective, to lead a more effective life. I help them see how they contribute to their own lack of effectiveness and then help them develop the skills and strategies to remove these obstacles. This may sound simple, but nothing is simple when you are growing and developing as a leader and as a person, moving beyond the assumptions and habits that were previously successful but are no longer adequate, or when you are stuck, unsure what to do, at a dead end, or despairing. My role is to unlock what resides within leaders and/or to help them develop new ways of seeing or new competencies. I often describe my work as helping clients to see openings and possibilities that they may not be aware of. At times these openings appear obvious. Other times they are more subtle. Then, once these openings are named, I help people to step forward, exploring and saying yes to this potential.
Clients come to me because they, or the people around them, are experiencing what I call creative gaps — gaps between where people are and where they need or want to be. In other words, they have an opportunity for growth. At times, this gap is experienced as painful; sometimes there's an emotional breakdown or some troubling or disabling imbalance in their life. Typically, the difficulty is presented as work related — the people are in transition and need to increase leadership skills, team-building skills, or communication skills. Or they know (or have been told by a mentor, colleague, supervisor, boss, or their board) that they have an opportunity for improvement in their job, or they are struggling, or both. They acknowledge that they can, and need to be, more effective in their current position.
My role as an effectiveness coach is to shift their immediate work issues, but paradoxically, to do this I must address, and shift, the person's entire way of looking at themselves and the world. Simply put, my goal is to help them wake up — to their work, to themselves, to appreciation and curiosity; to life itself.
The Usefulness of Paradox
To thrive in our lives, and be happy and effective, we must be in balance; on a very real level, our personal life, work life, and spiritual life are not at all separate. But how do we achieve balance? More importantly, how do we keep our balance when life seems designed to knock us off balance? One answer is to become as adept as a tightrope walker. A tightrope walker can feel when he or she slips out of balance and adjust, stepping more quickly or not at all, bending a little to the left, now to the right. As an audience, we see the acrobat losing balance and know that the person will fall if it goes uncorrected. Indeed, that's the entertainment. We marvel at how the tightrope walker shifts in and out of balance constantly and continually, moving back and forth across the wire while performing tricks that only increase the difficulty. How, we wonder, does the person do it?
Acrobats achieve this skill through practice, by understanding and honing their kinetic sense of inner balance. They come to know their internal gyroscope so well that they can feel every wobble and instinctively correct it. They also learn to balance their inner and outer awareness while never losing focus on the present moment: as performers, they must remember their audience and the show itself even as they adjust for every shift in their environment and in their physical position on the wire. They need to be absolutely in-the-moment about themselves and also hold in mind the next trick, the show's progress.
This isn't easy. In order to find balance you must be open and responsive to imbalance. This is the paradox of the tightrope walker.
I have come to believe that embracing and responding to paradox — turning our assumptions upside down, expecting the unexpected, comfortably holding two opposing viewpoints at the same time, resolving conflicting requirements, and so on — is the key to waking up to ourselves and the present moment and discovering the right thing to do. Paradox is the doorway to insight, just as falling is necessary for learning how to balance on a tightrope. We all want more clarity, more ease, more connectedness, more possibilities, more compassion, more kindness. We want healthy relationships in order to thrive at our work and to be effective in all areas of our life. What is hard is knowing in any given situation what the appropriate action or response should be. We want the insight to know how to achieve all these things, but our vision and experience are limited.
There is an expression from the Zen tradition, "Don't be a board-carrying fellow." This refers to the image of a carpenter carrying a wide wooden board on his or her shoulder. The board blocks and limits vision, allowing the carpenter to see only one side of things. This expression is meant to caution us from thinking we see fully and clearly, when we see only partially. We are all board-carrying fellows. We usually just see the world from our ordinary, habitual viewpoint and neglect the mysterious, the profound, the obvious. If we don't know or acknowledge that our viewpoint is limited, we will find it virtually impossible to gain the insight that allows us to respond in new, more successful ways. To become aware of our limitations, to achieve the insights we crave, we need to wake up.
Accepting the power of paradox is one of life's ways of waking us up, shocking us into awareness, so we can find our balance again. Waking up can be cultivated, practiced, so that it becomes a way of life, so that it becomes our habitual approach to life. Then we may become as skillful as a tightrope walker, who lives on the edge of falling and yet (almost) always catches him- or herself in time.
Paradox means many things and can be worked with and utilized in our lives in many ways. Many Zen stories embody or are steeped in paradox, and I use them often in my work, as I do in this book. Yet paradox can also simply be a startling, peculiar, playful, or unexpected observation that challenges our habitual way of thinking. It is asking, "What is this rhinoceros doing in my office?" It is the late anthropologist Gregory Bateson observing that spaceship Earth is so well designed that we have no idea we are on one. Here we are, hurtling through space at a million miles per hour with no need for seat belts, plenty of room in coach, and excellent food. Imagine. Paradox is anytime you hear that whisper in your ear, "Wake up, the world is extraordinary. This life you take for granted isn't what you think!"
The Five Truths
Shunryu Suzuki, the founder of the San Francisco Zen Center, once proclaimed in a public talk, "The secret of Zen is just two words ... not always so." He and the audience laughed. He clarified that in Japanese, his native language, this expression can be stated in two words. How funny and appropriate that the statement itself exemplified his point. Whatever we think, life is not so simple ... and yet it is.
Speaking personally, I'm not happy or satisfied with the idea of paradox. I don't really want this book to be about paradox; I want this book to be about clarity. Who wants paradoxical relationships, or paradox in business? We all want confidence and assurance. Imagine a stockbroker or surgeon or soldier using the word paradox to describe his or her work. Paradox seems the opposite of clarity, the opposite of action, a nonanswer; for some, a shrug.
In my work life and personal life, I've come to realize that embracing what is obvious is not always so easy. Meanwhile, paradox can point to a radical clarity. My hope is that this book will help you see that with paradox comes a kind of clarity that is more accurate, more true, more clear than clear, than what we usually accept at face value. Life and death are a paradox; in our day-today lives, we are constantly torn between opposites and dualities, between competing desires and needs. There is no escaping the paradoxical nature of the world. If we accept this, and meet paradox head on, if we work with and penetrate these apparently unsolvable conundrums, the place we reach is insight.
This insight can express itself uniquely in any situation and yet embody universal truths. I have found it useful to distill this work into five core insights. These five insights present themselves as paradoxes, or seemingly conflicting statements, but nevertheless, they hold the keys to right action, effectiveness, and balance.
The five truths we will explore in this book are
The skill, in every moment, to know ourselves fully and forget ourselves entirely
The trust to be confident in the face of doubt and to have the confidence to question everything
The discernment to know when to act to improve our lives and the world and when to accept life as it is, as events present themselves
The openness and capacity to embrace our emotions, our joys and pains, and find calm and composure in the midst of the demands of work and life, in the midst of difficulty and change
The wisdom to turn toward helping others and healing the world while simultaneously caring for and developing ourselves
These truths are meant to be practiced, not merely understood or studied. Through practice, we can learn to clarify and shift our habits so that we are more successful in our everyday lives. For instance, sometimes the way we protect ourselves brings us unnecessary pain and suffering; we react to our fear and anxiety in ways that cut off or compromise our experience of kindness and compassion. Often, I've found, the most effective solutions are counterintuitive: we must allow pain to feel less pain. We must let go of our desire in order to gain what we want. We must heal our spiritual problems to solve our work problems, or our family problems, or vice versa. We must accept that we are all things all at once in the only moment that counts, this one.
For instance, I am present, right here and now, and I am also reviewing the past and thinking about the future. I live in this moment, spacious, present, and curious. And I'm aware of this new moment, this sense of living on the edge of the wave of time. My life feels full and, when I look deeply, also empty. I laughed many times today, and I also cried, and the pain and release of tears made me feel full and happy. During the most recent winter holidays, the happiness of being with my family was wonderful and full of loss and sadness — knowing that not only would these moments not last, but that these lives would not last. I was both pained and proud to wave good-bye to my twenty-four-year-old daughter, as she drove away with a caring and sensitive young man at her side.
When someone asks about the status of my work life, I'm often tempted to answer that I'm on the verge of both tremendous success and tremendous failure. I can list all the things that are making this a good year: new skills I've learned and ways I've grown, the money I've earned, the projects I've completed, the positive impacts of my coaching and consulting work. I can also list all the errors I've made, the failed projects, the missed opportunities, and all the more and better things I have yet to achieve. Depending on my mood, I might prefer one list or the other, but both are valid and true; neither is the whole story.
We are all spiritual creatures masquerading as practical creatures. That is, when we are not practical creatures masquerading as spiritual creatures. I know that washing the dishes can be just washing the dishes. Sometimes they just need to get cleaned and put away, ready for the next meal. Washing the dishes can be incredibly tedious and boring. It can also be a sensual event, paying attention, noticing the feeling of warm water touching the hands, the hardness of the plates, the sharpness of the silverware. It can be a communal act, sharing the burden of household chores; even thinking to do them at all could be an expression of loving attention to those you live with. It can also be a spiritual act, just being present, giving yourself over to an activity with gentle enthusiasm and gratitude for your home and nourishment, or of letting go of self-concern and self-awareness. Just washing the dishes. Having no other thought or ulterior motive. Imagine, if this were the first time, your first experience in dishwashing, seeing a dish and water and hands come together. Or imagine, perhaps this will be the last time. Never again will you have this experience.
In any one moment, all of these things can exist, whether we are washing dishes, commuting to work, writing a check, giving a presentation, hiking in the woods, or making love. Typically, we choose how we want to experience something and that guides our actions. Then, when and if we experience difficulties or unhappiness, insight is whatever wakes us up so that we see the choice we've made. Insight is understanding that we have, in fact, made a choice (that we are board-carrying fellows), and thus we can choose differently and change our approach to the task or interaction. Insight is recognizing that we are imbalanced and then discerning how, specifically, we need to shift our perspective and actions to come back to balance. This is a never-ending process and challenge. Yet by following the five insight practices in this book, we can learn to walk this tightrope. We can learn to distinguish and balance our own self-interest, the interests of others, the interests of our companies and communities, and even the interests of our ecosystems and planet. This subtle, profound practice can't be made with the thinking mind alone. It involves thinking and feeling, action and acceptance, selfishness and compassion, right brain and left brain, head, heart, body, and soul.
Excerpted from Know Yourself, Forget Yourself by Marc Lesser. Copyright © 2013 Marc Lesser. Excerpted by permission of New World Library.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Marc Lesser is cofounder and CEO of SIYLI: Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute, a nonprofit company devoted to creating enlightened leaders worldwide. A Zen teacher and executive coach, Marc lives in Mill Valley, California.
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