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The Sage Commander Print
Shambhala Sun | January 2001

The Sage Commander

We are all leaders in our own way. We all face conflict and chaos in our lives. But the wise leader seeks victory beyond aggression. An essay by The Denma Translation Group, authors of a new translation of The Art of War.

The Sun Tzu, the ancient Chinese text known in the West as The Art of War, shows us how to conquer without aggression. It teaches “taking whole,” by which an enemy is overcome without being destroyed. For over two millennia this text has been studied in East Asia. Now its tradition has the possibility of taking authentic root in the West. Anyone seeking to work skillfully with conflict can benefit from its insights.

      The Sun Tzu speaks to conflict from a place we call victory. Victory implies the attainment of one’s objective. But true victory is much more than that. Taking the view of the whole, it encompasses the views of both its enemies and allies. It looks beyond immediate loss and gain, going to the root of all contention. It is utterly flexible. Victory is more a way of being than a final goal. It is the ground on which we can most effectively participate in conflict.

      Victory lies beyond the dichotomy of war and peace. War is sometimes necessary, but it devastates much that is good. Perfect peace is not possible in human society. The issue, therefore, is neither how to avoid conflict nor better arm ourselves, but how to engage it in a way that is sane, kindly and effective. Sometimes this may require the use of force, but the highest skill lies in “subduing the other’s military without battle.”

      These ideas do not belong solely to the Sun Tzu or any other proprietary group. They are basic human knowledge. Yet the Sun Tzu sets them out with unusual directness. It demands that we understand the structures of contention and master all its relevant factors, from organization, supply and the psychology and forms of conflict, to configurations of seasons and terrain. It urges us to penetrate the surface tangle of phenomena so that their truer patterns become visible.

      We must also develop a thorough knowledge of ourselves, the habits of our thought, the passions, dislikes or blindnesses that influence our perception and judgment. This discipline means sustaining an openness of mind, leaving a space for our natural intelligence to arise. Through such processes we begin to relinquish the acquisitiveness of small victories and come to take the perspective of the whole.

      The epitome of this practice is the general, the central figure of the Sun Tzu. This general is a sage commander, someone who goes beyond the conceptualizing activity that constitutes good planning, effective strategy or even wisdom. Seeing the whole, the sage commander creates endless forms from within it. This ability arises from human capacities to see, hear and know the world that are common to everyone.

      The general is the sage commander who wields power in the midst of contention and conflict. He is a remarkable example of human skill and wisdom. He speaks with authority and is effective and resourceful, in tune with larger patterns. He commands the battlefield. The general personifies an idealized wisdom, making what might otherwise seem distant and unreachable relevant to our everyday life. Upon closer examination, we can see some element in each of his qualities and actions that reflects our own experience in situations of conflict. Just like the sayings in the text that change our way of thinking with a few words, the image of the sage commander can reshape our actions during times of great challenge. This shows us taking whole, how to conquer without fighting.


For the Sun Tzu, the key to skillful action is in knowing those things that make up the environment and then arranging them so that their power becomes available. It is not necessary to change the nature of things in order to come to victory.

      The sage commander starts with himself. Thus his first question is not what to do but how to be. Simply being oneself brings about a power often lost in the rush to be something else. A rock is just a rock, and a tree just a tree. But the text tells us that:

As for the nature of trees and rocks—
      When still, they are at rest.
      When agitated, they move.
      When square, they stop.
      When round, they go.
Thus the shih [force] of one skilled at setting people to battle is like rolling round rocks from a mountain one thousand jen high. (Chapter 5)

The torrent these things become as they roll down the mountain side is unstoppable.

      Because the sage commander has settled into being who he is, he is no longer constantly comparing himself to others. He is not embarrassed, and doesn’t need to pretend to be more than he is. There is no gap between his words and his action. Thus he acts from his own ground of strength.

      The sage commander is genuine because he appreciates himself as he is. This gives rise to gentleness, where he can allow things to be as they are, rather than forcing them to be a certain way. This kindness is not based on the logic of ethics, nor do his actions necessarily conform to conventional standards of behavior.

      Knowing how to be means that the sage commander doesn’t hover above the ground or perch upon his seat but sits like a mountain, of the nature of the earth. Being who he is, he is a compass point by which others can obtain their bearings, so that they too can relax into who they are. Simply by being who he is, holding his seat, he has already accomplished much of his goal.

      Since his activity radiates a quality of completeness, his actions display a deep conviction. This engenders trust, so others believe in what he does and says. Thus he leads the people and ensures the welfare of the state.

      When the sage commander leads the troops into battle, they must follow without hesitation. He works hard to earn this loyalty by knowing and caring for his soldiers. With natural inquisitiveness about how people function, the sage commander connects to his troops in an intimate and personal way.

And so one skilled at employing the military takes them by the hand
      as if leading a single person.
They cannot hold back. (Chapter 11)

Every circumstance is an opportunity for the sage commander to cultivate this relationship, and every exchange can deepen his connection with his troops.

      Loyalty is above all based on appreciation. It develops when people appreciate what they are involved in, and when appreciation is expressed for them. The sage commander earns the loyalty of the troops by first genuinely expressing loyalty to them in even the smallest gestures. He doesn’t miss the opportunity to win someone’s trust, and never gives up on anyone. In this way, he creates a unified entity where before there were many individuals, and gains a military that follows him through extreme conditions and conflict.

He looks upon the troops as his children.
Thus they can venture into deep river valleys with him.
He looks upon the troops as his beloved sons.
Thus they can die with him. (Chapter 10)

      His natural inquisitiveness manifests as respect for the intelligence of his troops. Even negativity is not an obstacle, since he responds to the intelligence expressed within it. Thus mutual respect strengthens the bond between the sage commander and his troops.

      The bonds forged by intimate contact and mutual respect provide the ground for hard training and difficult tasks. Constant socialization and reinforcement of values are necessary to build cohesiveness. But it is through this kind of effort that these bonds can develop into fierce loyalty.

Working with Chaos

The ground of battle, and indeed all of life, is unpredictable, full of chaos and uncertainty. From an ordinary perspective, chaos is the disorder between the last discernible order and the future order that has not yet come. It is a dangerous and uncertain time, when things that seem solid and fixed fall apart.

      Chaos is indeed a great challenge for the general. If he himself is chaotic, his ability to command the situation is seriously undermined.

He is chaotic and unable to bring order. (Chapter 10)

And the outcome of his own confusion is a confused and ineffective military:

The general is weak and not strict.
His training and leadership are not clear.
The officers and troops are inconstant.
The formations of the military are jumbled.
This is called “chaos.” (Chapter 10)

      The sage commander, however, always takes the bigger view. While in the midst of confusion, he sees how chaos forms its own particular order. Though the course of a hurricane along the coast is unpredictable, it is part of a weather pattern that is intelligible.

Chaos is born from order.
Cowardice is born from bravery.
Weakness is born from strength. (Chapter 5)

Chaos and order are two aspects of the same thing. Together they constitute the totality of our experience, the good and bad, the confusion and clarity—how it is all interconnected and constantly shifting. From the smaller perspective we experience these as opposed. But in order to take whole, the sage commander must work with this totality. He resides in the fundamental orderliness of the chaos, and thus for him:

The fight is chaotic yet one is not subject to chaos. (Chapter 5)

      While chaos is generally a difficult and uncomfortable time, it is also dynamic, a time of great openness and creativity. The sage commander develops an appreciation for its potent quality. Since he holds no fixed position, chaos is not a threat. He is not undermined by uncertainty. Rather than giving in to the impulse to control chaos when it arises, the sage commander rests in the chaos, and allows it to resolve itself.

      This trust resembles conventional patience, in that the sage commander refrains from action. Yet rather than an act of forbearance, it is a matter of letting things happen in their own time. It is a withdrawing from the smaller skirmishes to allow a greater victory to ripen.

When it has rained upstream, the stream’s flow intensifies.
Stop fording. Wait for it to calm. (Chapter 9)

      Chaos then becomes a powerful time for the sage commander to take effective action. He can use it as an ally, particularly against a highly solidified position. Chaos can undermine that situation, unraveling it rather than forcing a confrontation. Trying to overpower solidity by building up greater solidity merely triggers the cycle of escalation.

      Since the sage commander appreciates and accommodates chaos, he sees more clearly what is taking place within it. Thus he knows how shih (forces) will develop and can catch the moment when one small gesture will be more decisive than a tremendous effort applied at the wrong time or place.

Being prepared and awaiting the unprepared is victory. (Chapter 3)

      Allowing a chaotic situation to develop demands courage, for it often means that in the short term things will get worse rather than better. There is always the chance that something of value will be harmed. But in the interplay of chaos and order, things don’t always resolve themselves in a linear manner, so they must be allowed to run their course. Achieving a fundamental, long-term solution is more important than resolving immediate irritation and discomfort. So he allows the situation to develop, and, with patience, finds the right moment to make the critical impact.

      Faced with chaos or conflict, the sage commander looks first to the largest reference point. No matter what ground he has been given, he always thinks bigger. Loosening his gaze on the immediate and short term, suspending his habitual view, he looks to the space around things. This allows lesser objectives to change and develop naturally. These smaller goals are often woven closely together and in competition with one another. Yet even as they shift position and change shape, they can still support the larger goal. He is careful not to fixate on a particular way they might manifest and thereby avoids insignificant skirmishes.

      The best illustration of this is in how he works with problems. A problem usually arises when one holds to a view that has become too small and inflexible. Addressing a problem as it is presented often reinforces the fixation that initially gave rise to it. The sage commander focuses on the bigger perspective that holds the key to both the problem and the solution. There he can catch the possibilities that are hidden from others and attain the victory they cannot see.

In seeing victory, not going beyond what everyone knows is not skilled.
Victory in battle that all-under-heaven calls skilled is not skilled. (Chapter 4)


According to the Sun Tzu, victory arises only in the moment.

These are the victories of the military lineage.
They cannot be transmitted in advance. (Chapter 1)

How then does the sage commander find victory? Once again, this comes back to knowing—first himself and then the other—as the source of all skillful action. Relying on his own genuineness, he creates the ground for victory in his actions and environment, but most importantly, in his mind.

      The sage commander is beyond the sway and manipulation of others. His preparation, then, is not so much focused on the accumulation of strength as on taking a position outside the reach of attack. His perspective prepares the ground of no defeat. Thus he steps outside the possibility of attack altogether, remaining beyond grasp. If he cannot be found, the enemy has nothing to fight against.

Of old, those skilled at defense hid below the nine earths and moved
       above the nine heavens.
Thus they could preserve themselves and be all-victorious. (Chapter 4)

      The sage commander moves beyond defeat by being victorious over his own aggression. He neither ignores nor indulges in it. Aggression gives the enemy something to fight against. This mires the general in battle. The sage commander responds to aggression by creating space, which relaxes the situation and, paradoxically, brings it more under his control. It’s like controlling a bull by giving him a very large pasture.

      Residing in victory, the sage commander creates both the ground for the enemy defeat to arise and the openness to catch it when it does. In this way he is victorious before the battle is fought.

      The sage commander forms the ground and brings others around to his victorious perspective. He forms himself as well as the environment, and thus narrows the enemy options. He offers them the choices he wants them to have, and leads them where he wants them to go. The sage commander attains victory when the enemy can see no other alternative and chooses what he has offered. It is all-victorious when they see that option as best for them, and have no idea that they were directed there.

One skilled at moving the enemy
      Forms and the enemy must follow,
      Offers and the enemy must take.
(Chapter 5)

      The text suggests various ways in which the sage commander may shape the ground. The ultimate is creating preponderance or shih, which is simultaneously the configuration of forces and the power inherent within them. The sage commander forms the ground to bring about favorable shih. He doesn’t change the nature of things, only their circumstances. Thus he gains their power. As the sage commander shapes the ground to create advantage, he waits for the node to arise and then swiftly acts. This is the critical moment when preponderance can be applied and victory assured.

A victorious military is like weighing a
   hundredweight against a grain.
A defeated military is like weighing a grain
   against a hundredweight.
One who weighs victory sets the people to
   battle like releasing amassed water into a
   gorge one thousand jen deep. (Chapter 4)

      In this complex and essentially uncontrollable world, the ultimate outcome of present actions is not predictable. The enemy of today may be a friend tomorrow. The sage commander seeks a victory that is ongoing. Taking whole allows him to preserve the possibilities—to keep every option open.

      Taking whole means conquering the enemy in a way that keeps as much intact as possible—both your own resources and those of the enemy. Such a victory leaves something available to build upon, for both you and your former foe. Destruction leaves nothing, and its aftermath diverts valuable energy from the larger victory.

      Taking whole starts with defeating the enemy’s strategy, both large and small. Strategy is the means by which all actions are coordinated and all resources allocated. The enemy’s strategy makes their actions coherent and focused. Defeating it unravels their cohesion and dissolves their alliances. Thus the sage commander renders the physical destruction of their forces unnecessary. He accomplishes this through the skillful use of forming and transforming the ground of battle. This is as much a matter of mind as it is of the physical conditions of warfare.

And so the superior military cuts down strategy.
Its inferior cuts down alliances.
Its inferior cuts down the military.
The worst attacks walled cities. (Chapter 3)

      Swiftness rules when it comes to taking whole. It allows the sage commander’s military to seize the moment when advantage arises. The sage commander’s patience allows him to await that moment. When it comes, he can act with lightning swiftness. All in all, he gets to the heart of the matter as quickly as possible. He is not slowed by relating to what the enemy chooses to show, but sees the purpose behind their actions, making quick work of a conflict that could otherwise be destructive for all.

      The most profound method the sage commander employs to attain victory is the extraordinary and the orthodox. He engages the enemy with what they expect. This is the orthodox, that which is familiar and understandable, what the enemy can easily see. It confirms their projections. However, the sage commander conquers the enemy with what they never imagine. This is the extraordinary. It is not any particular action but simply what the enemy does not expect.

      To do so, he works with the enemy’s perception of the world. If the enemy believes the sage commander’s position to be protected, they will not attack; it does not matter if it is undefended in fact. More than anything, the sage commander must understand his enemy’s processes of thought. Whatever the nature of someone’s thinking, strong or weak, it forms a pattern. As such, it systematically includes and excludes. These are both its strengths and limitations. If the sage commander can discern the enemy’s patterns, he knows what is orthodox within it. Then, in response, the extraordinary is apparent to him:

One skilled at giving rise to the extraordinary—
      As boundless as heaven and earth,
      As inexhaustible as the Yellow River and
         the ocean. (Chapter 5)

      The patterns of his enemy’s thought are obvious to the sage commander, the way a road map indicates where the next highway exit leads or a facial expression reveals so much about someone’s intention. Part of this comes from familiarity with the world. However, it is less a matter of specific information than of his understanding of basic human existence. All these are still the orthodox. But he himself always thinks bigger, seeing beyond them into something the enemy cannot conceive. This doesn’t require special equipment or techniques. It works with the ordinary things of the world and has a quality of everyday magic.

      The all-victorious sage commander doesn’t attain victory by bringing the enemy over to his side. Instead he creates the existence of a larger view that includes both sides. It is the ground from which all interests arise. But there is no promise of victory, no formula or guideline that will ultimately ensure that victory comes about. Nor is there is an absolute measure of victory. The sage commander can only refer back to his ground of basic genuineness.

      Taking whole is victory over aggression. It arises in the unique moment of each circumstance. It preserves the possibilities. Victory is ongoing, a way of being rather than a final goal. It means embracing all aspects of the world. Trying to reject parts of it perpetuates the struggle, in oneself and in the world. Victory over war is victory over this aggression, a victory that includes the enemy and thus renders further conflict unnecessary.

From The Art of War: A New Translation. ©2001 The Denma Translation Group. Used with permission of Shambhala Publications.

The Denma Translation Group is led by James Gimian and Kidder Smith, director of the Asian Studies Program at Bowdoin College. The members all received training in a contemplative discipline created by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche called the Dorje Kasung, which draws on the practices of Tibetan Buddhism, the Shambhala vision of enlightened society, and some Western military forms. The primary author of this essay is James Gimian. It is adapted from The Art of War: A New Translation, available in January from Shambhala Publications.

 The Sage Commander, The Denma Translation Group, Shambhala Sun, January 2001.

Changing How We Work Together Print

Changing How We Work Together 

A discussion led by

Peter Senge and Margaret Wheatley talk about how we can create meaning, joy, and even spiritual fulfillment in the way we work together.  

Melvin McLeod (Editor, The Shambhala Sun): Dr. Senge, you talk to managers about the importance of “disciplines” and “personal mastery.” You describe organizations as “communities of practice.” There seems to be a strong element of spiritual practice in your approach.

Peter Senge: Increasingly, we’re directly incorporating into our work different practices that have been around for a long time, such as various types of meditation. It started with the work on dialogue. We found that dialogue often involved silence, and so maybe we needed to actually cultivate the capacity to sit in silence. And guess what? That started to look a lot like traditional forms of meditation or contemplation.

So we’ve become more and more out front about this, although it’s always been there. Though we had been doing the work described in The Fifth Discipline for ten or fifteen years before the book was published, we hadn’t used the word “discipline.” It was only in the writing of the book that it finally hit me that what we were talking about was discipline, in the very same spirit in which the word has been used in the creative arts or in spiritual traditions for thousands of years. That people might have a potential or a talent, but they can’t cultivate it without discipline.

You know, organizations are embodiments of the human desire to affiliate and be together, and that desire brings us face to face with complex, multiple dimensions of our existence. I often say that leadership is deeply personal and inherently collective. That’s a paradox that effective leaders have to embrace. It does depend on them. It does depend on their convictions, their clarity, their personal commitment to their own cultivation. And on the other hand, it doesn’t depend on them. It’s an inherently collective phenomenon.

You might say that organizations are one way for us to practice what it means to live as a collective being, not just as an individual being. That’s tough, but I think that’s what the discipline of working together is ultimately about. There are issues and difficulties that only manifest when we put ourselves in a situation where we’re vulnerable to being in a collective.

Margaret Wheatley: I love this paradox that Peter expresses. When I was working at Gampo Abbey, a Buddhist monastery, on their organizational processes, the principle we came up with was that everything we learned on the meditation cushion, we could take into the practice of organizing together. So much of what comes out of dialogue is actually a fairly weak imitation of skills that we learn in meditation—being aware, listening, letting go, not taking things as they appear. It was very fruitful to notice that all the characteristics of a good meditator can be brought into the collective experience of trying to run an organization.

Melvin McLeod: If I can summarize the view that both of you seem to present in your writings, it’s that change is the fundamental reality, that organizations suffer because they solidify the situation, that they can achieve harmony if they work successfully with openness and uncertainty, and that there’s a path of discipline and practice by which they can do that. It sounds like the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths, just applied to organizations instead of individuals.

Margaret Wheatley: Well, you’re not the only one who’s noticed this [laughter]. I think that both Peter and I have both found there’s great depth in understanding life from a Buddhist perspective.

Speaking for myself, my awareness of change and uncertainty came through my studies in biology, and just from growing older. That awareness of the continuous change called life led me to very ancient spiritual traditions, because our present Western mindset has forgotten that life is change. Instead, it promises us relief from uncertainty and the ability to control everything. It’s like a 300-year-old case of mistaken identity: we actually thought that we could take over life and remake it according to our own needs.

Once I looked past the Western cultural tradition, it was a great comfort and teaching to understand that most other cultures—not only Buddhism but all indigenous cultures—have well understood that life is a process of continuous change. Life does not organize according to our demands. There are great elemental forces of both creation and disruption we need to understand so we can work with them.

When we encounter change, we have to be able to understand our own habitual patterns and be willing to move into a different way of being. One of the dilemmas that hits us in organizations is that we might be quite willing to change, to deal with chaos and uncertainty as part of life, but there are very few organizational beliefs to support us. I don’t find a lot of organizations where people at the senior level are comfortable with uncertainty. This is where the old Western mindset still comes in. We still want the people who lead us to save us from uncertainty. It’s not only the leaders themselves who have to change, but also our idea of what we want leaders for.

Peter Senge: One of the questions that has become central to my thinking is this: “Is it meaningful at this point to consider whether there is such a thing as collective cultivation?” I use the term “cultivation” in this context to mean deep development, becoming a human being. So, can a body of people working together—even the word “organization” can limit us a little, because it’s starting to sound like a thing—be committed as a collective to this cultivation?

My understanding of Buddhism points to three aspects of cultivation: a commitment to meditation practice, a commitment to study, and of course, a commitment to service, to dedicating your life to something beyond yourself. It’s a very evocative question to ask what these three dimensions of cultivation would look like in a collective situation. It’s not the same thing as saying, “Everybody meditate,” because meditation is just one of three dimensions of personal cultivation. As I say, this has become a very meaningful question in the last year.

Melvin McLeod: Isn’t there also an effectiveness argument here? In Buddhism, it’s said that you can be skillful only when you have wisdom, which is seeing the truth that nothing is solid or permanent. Isn’t that also true for the organization, that its intelligence or skill comes from seeing change, and if it sees the world as fixed and unchanging it won’t be effective or successful?

Peter Senge: The only problem I have with your question is the word “seeing.” You don’t get to prajna, wisdom, just because you want it. Again, cultivation is essential. Similarly, it’s not enough for organizations to want to be able to change. It’s not enough to just read the right books and adopt a new belief system that says, okay, everything is changing. The real question is, when all is said and done, can you really operate that way?

So it’s not simply a matter of good intentions. As it would be in any discipline-based religion or artistic field, it’s a matter of hard work and knowing how to do it. Do you have the tools? Do you have the methods? Do you have teachers or mentors? All the things that help a person along any developmental path.

Margaret Wheatley: It’s a very big leap for organizations to move from the realization that they have to cope with change, to the understanding that if you’re going to be in a continuously changing environment, then all of the ways in which you have learned to manage have to be examined. Do they give you the awareness and information and mindfulness that allows you to stay in the dance? Because as Peter said, organizations still don’t have the tools, the analytic methods, that actually support people in this process of continuous change. As much as we say we want to change our organizations to make them more adaptive, we’re still not noticing the things that would make us graceful dancers.

Peter Senge: I think this is a non-trivial point we’re making, and I’ll tell you why. It cuts against an awful lot of our approach in the West to learning and change. We have a tendency to think if we read it, we can do it. If we’ve got the idea, we’ve learned it. On another level, we know that’s all nonsense: nobody learns to play the violin by picking it up and saying “By golly, I’m going to be a violinist.” But we think people learn to manage change by going off to the two- or three-day seminar or reading a book. We’re talking about real, 180-degree change—instead of trying to control everything, we’re learning to align our intentions with emerging realities. This is a profound shift in our way of being. You’re not going to be able to do that just by having the idea in your head that it’s something that you ought to do.

Margaret Wheatley: One of the important aspects of this practice is time—time to reflect, time to meditate. And time is something that has just disappeared.

Melvin McLeod: We’ve talked about the aspect of personal practice and the overall environment of change in which companies must operate. Let’s turn to the nature of the organization itself.

Peter Senge: Organizations arise because people are working together. Organizations are living phenomena in a very real sense and they were appreciated in that spirit for a very long time. It was only a couple of hundred years ago that our view of organizations—and particularly business organizations—really began to change.

This goes back to the roots of Western science, to people like Kepler, Newton and Descartes who conceived of the cosmos as like a giant clockwork. When we started to harness the power of machines in the early years of the industrial era, gradually we started to see more and more of life as machine-like. In fact, the “machine age” is what many people have dubbed the industrial era, because of how powerful the image of the machine has been in our lives. It leads us to see everything, including ourselves, as nothing but an elaborate set of mechanisms. This way of thinking has developed insidiously over a few hundred years, to the point where we no longer realize how captive we are to it.

Of course, this view includes seeing our organizations as machines. A company, in this sense, is literally a machine for making money. You have inputs, whether they’re material resources, energy resources or human resources, and out the other end comes money. If money doesn’t come out, the machine is no good and you throw it away or try to fix it. You fix it by getting new leaders, who can drive change or control things better. In the machine-age world, “to manage” literally means “to control.”

On the other hand, look at the literal meaning of the word “company.” It does not mean a machine, it means a group of people, and we still preserve that usage when we speak of “a company of men.” The word “company” derives from the sharing of bread, from the French word compagner. It’s the same root as the word “companion.” In Swedish, the oldest word for company means “nourishment for life” and the oldest symbol for company in Chinese means “life’s work.” So we have these much older ideas of what a company is all about: a group of people creating something together, and consequently being a kind of living force.

Melvin McLeod: If we view the organization in that way, what does it mean to be a leader?

Margaret Wheatley: The leader is one who is able to work with and evoke the very powerful and positive aspects of human creativity. You don’t create these energies, but you do have to support them. You do have to have a sincere belief in the commitment and creativity of the people you’re working with.

We still feel very badly about each other. In my estimation, we’re quicker and quicker to take affront or to be affronted, to take umbrage, to feel insulted, to assume that other people are mal-intended, rather than well-intended. This is where we are as a culture. We’re very far from each other; we’re very far from believing in each other.

So I’ve been working with the idea that a leader is one who has more faith in people than they do in each other, or in themselves. The leader is one who courageously holds out opportunities for people to come back together, to be engaged in the meaningful work of the organization, whatever it is. The leader is one who relies on people’s creativity and their desire to do something meaningful.

So the first act of a great leader, I believe, is an act of faith. It’s believing that human nature is the blessing, not the problem. That’s one of the principles that I work with right now—that we are the blessing, not the problem. Then if you actually make that leap of faith, you go into these organizational processes that we’ve spent about ten years developing, and I feel good about a lot of them: calling the whole system together, finding ways for people to be in dialogue, noticing that people can be very committed to the work of the organization.

So I see the leader as the one who calls people together, who supports them with resources, who keeps the field clear so that they can do this work. The leader is the beacon of belief that we really are sufficient, that we really are talented enough to make this work. The leader displays that faith in people continuously.

Peter Senge: That’s lovely. It reminds me of Douglas MacGregor’s epochal book, The Human Side of Enterprise, in which he says that we have a fundamental choice as our starting point: Do we believe that people are good? Do we believe people truly want to work? Do we believe people want to contribute? If this is not our conviction, then everything we do from that point on must be a kind of manipulation, to get something out of people which they otherwise would not bring forth on their own.

I think Meg has hit on something very central. These first steps set the direction of the journey. For instance, take this into a particular area, like hierarchy. There is hierarchy based on a belief in original sin, that people are fundamentally flawed, or to use Meg’s phrase, that they are not sufficient. Then there are hierarchies based on the belief that people are sufficient.

There’s been a tendency in recent years to make hierarchy a kind of whipping boy, to blame everything on hierarchy. But hierarchy is a set of social relations that we invoke. We create hierarchy, and the real question is what’s going on in us in that creating. By and large, the hierarchies we have today, whether in schools or businesses, are hierarchies of obedience. Their fundamental modus operandi is obedience or compliance. But we do also have hierarchies of wisdom. We acknowledge elders and have for thousands of years. In this, we invoke a profoundly different type of hierarchy. There’s no obedience required whatsoever; it’s based on choice. If a person has lived longer or worked in a certain way to achieve something, we acknowledge that, and we say, I can learn from you. I’m more than happy to be your student.

Margaret Wheatley: This whole quest for obedience is another one of those things that takes us in the opposite direction from life. One of the fundamental characteristics of anything living is the freedom to choose. The organism chooses whether to notice something, then it chooses whether or not to be disturbed. If the organism chooses to be disturbed, it still retains the fundamental freedom to decide how it will respond. Obedience is not a natural life process.

Peter Senge: Living systems, by their nature, resist being obedient.

Margaret Wheatley: And Peter, the consequence of not honoring life’s intrinsic right to self-determination is that when we ask people to obey and they do obey, they become lifeless. They shut down. They disappear. They become automatons.

Peter Senge: You get the obedience but you lose the spirit.

Margaret Wheatley: You lose the life.

Melvin McLeod: In that light, perhaps one could argue that the most spiritually deadening influence in our society today is the structure of the organization and the workplace.

Margaret Wheatley: I wouldn’t say that. I would say that the greatest spiritual problems are these

McLeod: Yes, but isn’t their most powerful manifestation in the workplace, given we spend half our waking hours there?

Peter Senge: I’ll give you a way to say both. It’s like what I said before about hierarchy. It’s easy to blame hierarchy, it’s easy to blame the organization, but we have to remember that we are the ones creating all of these. We don’t have workplaces the way they are because of the laws of physics. They are nothing but the results of the habits of human behavior. And unless we start to realize that, we’ll keep trying to fix it “out there.” We’ll keep trying to fix the form of it. We’ll reorganize or try to find the right leader to follow, rather than realizing that we have the leaders we have and the organizations we have because we’ve asked for them and because we’re causing them.

Having said that, I do think the growth in the number of large institutions over the last hundred years or so is a significant development. There have always been schools of many forms, but there weren’t school systems. There have always been companies, there have been various forms of commerce for thousands of years, but we didn’t have global corporations. This is a significant change in the human landscape. If we were to treat it literally as a living phenomenon, we could say that this new species of large institutions embodies and enacts this deep sensibility that Meg is talking about, or you might say, this “insensibility.”

These institutions now embody on a large scale this way of being that is so out of touch with who we are and the nature of living phenomena. So I do think it’s fair to say that one of the places that we might find a great degree of leverage in bringing about change is in this institutional milieu. But we have to be careful to realize we’re talking about schools and non-profit organizations, just as much as we’re talking about corporations. There’s no one set of culprits here. It’s all institutions.

Margaret Wheatley: I absolutely agree. What we really need to change are our fundamental organizing behaviors or habits. That’s why this time is different in many ways. This is a time when very large institutions now exert an unparalleled power over individual behavior. I do feel there are more and more people trying to act out of compassion, but we still don’t know we could choose a different way of organizing. So we get non-governmental organizations all over the world starting to manifest the same kind of institutional paralysis as the large governments that they grew up in response to. It’s the great challenge of our time to understand that the way we organize is increasing the problems we face.

Peter Senge: People come together in organizations for, in some sense, a noble purpose, but are finding ways to constrict or even destroy life in the process. And when we really probe deeply into that way of organizing, we’ll find ourselves. It’s where we’ll find our own fears and anxieties and beliefs played out. We won’t find somebody behind the curtain who’s causing it to happen.

The change must be both personal and institutional. It can’t be one or the other. It’s a little bit like Taoism, which basically works through the body. Taoists know that the self and the body are not the same and that distinguishing the two is a critical part of your cultivation. In a sense, we’re trying to be organizational Taoists. We’re saying we have this larger body we’ve created, called an institutional body. It could be a vehicle for cultivation, just as a physical body can be a body for cultivation, if we could start to see it that way.

Peter Senge, Ph.D., is a senior lecturer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and chairman of the Society for Organizational Learning. His best-selling book, The Fifth Discipline (1990), has been called one of the most important management books of the twentieth-century. He is also co-author of The Dance of Change (1999) and Schools that Learn (2000).

Margaret Wheatley, Ed.D., is the author of Leadership and the New Science and co-author of A Simpler Way. She is president of the Berkana Institute, a non-profit foundation supporting the discovery of new organizational forms, and a principal in Kellner-Rogers & Wheatley Inc., an international consulting firm.

Peter Senge and Margaret Wheatley on Changing How We Work Together, Melvin McLeod, Shambhala Sun, January 2001.

Slipping into something less comfortable Print

Slipping into Something Less Comfortable


“I screamed bloody murder and fell to the floor,
” says Barry Boyce. It would be weeks before I could walk again. I became a patient.”

Moving about in a vertical position, making decisions about where we’ll go next and what we’ll do—this is our orientation most of the time. But quite suddenly, our fortunes can be reversed, our planned progress aborted. We find ourselves horizontal, abruptly laid low by injury or illness, being moved about and talked about as we stare at the ceiling from a bed or a gurney. We are a patient in a hospital.

Not long ago I stepped in a hole in an old country barn. Instantly, I screamed bloody murder and fell to the floor. It would be weeks before I could walk again and months before I could walk properly without pain. Being in a cast with a severe ankle sprain is not such a big deal and time will certainly relegate it to the status of mere nuisance. But because the doctors thought I needed my ankle screwed together, for a few days I was a patient. It enabled me to see how vast the difference can be between the patient and the non-patient worlds. The myth of indomitable forward progress wears thin at the edges.

I’ve avoided the hospital far too much. As I pass it everyday on the way to work, I give little mind to the hundreds of patients in there and their families in all stages of pain and woe. When you go there, as a patient or not, you see that two very different but somehow strangely related things go on in the hospital: recovery and deterioration. The fear of the latter lurks in the air.

Recovery, the regaining of strength and life, returning afresh to what we did before, is an enormously affirming process. Of all the good words, healing is one of the best, and for me the recovery from even this minor injury has been encouraging, in the original sense of the word. It brings courage to know that the body repairs itself and that vigor returns.

But at some point, it doesn’t. You imagine the interruption in your forward progress will come about straightforwardly, but more than likely it will not. When you are a patient, you will be lying there looking up and your doctor will present you not with certainty, but with a theory. Medicine is the art of the discernible. The body does not provide a clear-cut diagnostic read-out.

More often than not, the theory will confuse you, presented as it will be in the arcana of medicine. It is your own body, your most intimate pal, but its parts and its functions have names and addresses that are complicated and foreign.

At times, doctors will come early in the morning and speak about you as much as to you, and present you with the best guesses that they can make. We have all known (or have been) people who have waded (and waited) through various hypotheses and possibilities—a roller coaster of hope and fear about which it will be: recovery or its opposite.

In such difficult conditions, often while under medication, patients are expected to carry on complicated logical conversations at early hours of the morning about the future course of their bodies and what may or may not be done. Opinions and platitudes are offered all around, but in the end it is the patient who must lie in the bed in a flimsy open-backed shirt and look at the ceiling and contemplate the unfolding uncertainty.

The thing about being a patient is indeed the patience. Patienthood is so disorienting and foreign at first because it involves surrender. It is a receding, a going back, rather than a going forward. It is allowing things rather than dictating them and that’s why it’s such an insult.

Precisely because it involves allowing experience to come to us, having to let the future unfold, holding still when we want to lurch forward and break, seeing very clearly our reflex and counter-reflex of expectation and disappointment, being a patient can be a powerful eye-opening experience.

The people who work in hospitals for the most part are acutely sensitive to what patients go through and will try to work with it. They see it regularly; they cannot help but be touched by it. The hospital itself, though, seems profoundly the opposite, cold and factory-like. It hardly fosters contemplation. As so many features of modern life, it has become an industry, and an industry is everything that being a patient is not: impatient and product-oriented.

The earliest hospitals arose from spiritual aspirations. The great Indian emperor Ashoka established some of the first known hospitals, after he became Buddhist. In medieval Europe, the monasteries cared for the sick and kept pharmacies and gardens of medicinal plants. One of the first hospitals in North America, the Hotel Dieu de St. Joseph in Montreal, was looked after by one of the oldest orders of Catholic nuns.
Perhaps we are slightly misguided today in making our health like we make our machines. The more industrial it becomes, the more it becomes someone else’s concern, at least until we become a consumer of that particular product. When our unending forward progress is interrupted, it is not the industry that will make our experience as a patient more rewarding and revealing. It is the hospitality.

Barry Campbell Boyce is a writer and teacher of writing. He is president of Victory Communication.

Slipping into something less comfortable, Barry Boyce, Shambhala Sun, January 2001.


Balance Like a Tree Print
Shambhala Sun | January 2001

Balance Like a Tree


“Balancing poses generate bravery and confidence, and help you get to know which way the wind blows in your mind.”

We weekend in a popular beach town that gets inundated by hordes of summer vacationers, and this year a whole gang of frat boys has rented the house next door. One mellow summer evening, I’ve only just begun Saluting the Setting Sun when way-too-loud dance music comes blasting over the hedge. I feel desperate, disappointed and distracted. In fact, my mind is so disturbed that I fall out of my tree pose. How can I balance on one leg with Gloria Gaynor screaming “I Will Survive”? I try to tie my mind to my breath, but I am resentful and I keep tipping over. This music is ruining my practice.

            Now I’m upside down and twisting. This is a challenging pose but when I see the blue cloudless sky, I feel vast and grounded. Twist to the other side. I look up and a big black rain cloud is flying my way. “Bummer,” I think, and start to tip over again, when CLICK, I get it. My mind is tipping my body over!

            Yoga practice gives us immediate feedback about our current mental climate, because when we get buffeted by our shifting mind currents, our body responds in kind and we literally lose our balance. On the other hand, trying to cling to or reject what arises will also be reflected in our physicality—we get tight and forget to breathe, or we disengage and collapse.

            So if we don’t let our mind bounce around, but we don’t make thoughts go away either, how do we find mental balance, and in turn physical balance? One approach is mindfulness meditation, which harmonizes body and mind through one-pointed concentration. Another is traditional hatha yoga, which calms the body as a means of stabilizing the mind. I invite you to explore both methods simultaneously with a wordless dancing dialogue between the two, in which our body teaches our mind and our mind teaches our body.

            As we start to recognize our mental patterns and relax their hold, we become better able to balance. That doesn’t mean you never tip over in tree pose, but that you relate to what happens differently. Have you noticed what trees do when the wind blows? The branches bend gracefully with a gentle breeze. In the throes of a storm, they will go to extremes of bending and twisting, then unwind like a pinwheel.

            When body and mind become more balanced, when rajas [Skt.: activity force] and tamas [inactivity force] equalize, we begin to experience sattva [purity], the third guna [fundamental quality]. Yoga students often tell me their friends think that they look different even though they haven’t physically changed that much.

            The second scripture of Patanjali’s Yogasutras says, “Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind.” Vice-abbot of Dai Bosatsu Zendo, Jiro Osho, says, “Mind is like the weather. It keeps changing and we can never get away from it.” Maybe we can be a cloud that floats in the sky and be the sky at the same time.

            As you do the following poses, notice how each one requires paying attention to more than one thing—body parts, breathing, energetic direction. The only way to do that is to stay mentally focused but not rigid, awake but relaxed. That’s how balancing poses, in addition to strengthening your arms, legs and back, generate bravery and confidence and help you get to know which way the wind blows in your mind.

Stay in each pose for 3-5 breaths.

1. Knee into Chest. Place your hands on your hips and feel that your pelvis is parallel to the floor and ceiling. Maintain that alignment as you exhale, and lift your left knee up toward your chest. Your standing leg is your base and must remain straight. Lower your left leg if it helps you keep your standing leg straight.

2. Tree Pose with Prayer Hands. Slowly begin to open your left leg out to the side. Go only as far as you can, keeping both hips pointing forward like headlights. Press your palms together. Deepen your breathing and feel your midline defined by the meeting of your foot and thigh, palms together, lungs moving together as you inhale, the breath at the tip of your nose. Look and really see what is in front of you.

3. Tree Blows in the Wind. Trace the midline of your body with your palms as you raise your arms overhead. Then separate your hands and let your left arm float down onto your left thigh. Keep your right arm reaching long. Slowly begin to bend to the left, like a tree blowing in the wind. You might fall over, but don’t worry. Trees fall over all the time. They provide the compost for the next tree to rise up. See if you can ride the wobbly feeling of this pose and if you fall, let that be the seed of your next tree pose.

4. Warrior. Inhale and come back up to vertical with both arms reaching straight up to the ceiling. Bring your left knee forward and bend your standing leg. Lengthen your left leg straight behind at the same time that you reach forward with your upper body. Try to feel equal energy out your feet and your fingers, your tailbone and the crown of your head. Feel your breath in your back.

5. Lunge with Arms Up. Bend your standing leg enough so that you can touch the floor with your fingers. Come down into a lunge and organize your alignment so your front knee is directly over your ankle, your back leg is straight and your fingers are in line with your toes. Then inhale and lift your torso and arms up. Feel your feet reaching down to the earth as your fingers reach up to the ceiling. Let your front ribs soften and fall back to your back ribs. Relax your face, jaw, and toes.


6. Straight Leg Lunge with Arms Down. Take a deep breath in and as you exhale, straighten your front leg and lower your arms down by your side. As you do this, feel like your spine grows taller. As you inhale, bend your front leg again and lift your arms back up. Repeat this 3 times.




7. Downward Dog. Place your palms on the floor and step your front leg back into downward facing dog pose. See if you are using your arms evenly, but checking to see if each hand has the same amount of weight. Then do the check for your legs and feet. Let your head dangle as you reach your sitting bones up. Stay here for 5 breaths.


8. Downward Dog Split. On an inhale, lift your left leg up to the ceiling. Keep reaching toward the floor with the opposite heel.  Be mindful that you are not dipping one shoulder, but keeping them even. Use your arms strongly. Stay here for 3 breaths.

9. Replace your foot to the floor. Bend your knees slightly and walk your feet up to your hands. Roll up through your spine all the way back up to standing. Do the other side

Cyndi Lee is founder of the OM Yoga Center in New York and co-creator of Yoga in a Box, available at

    Balance Like a Tree, Cyndi Lee, Shambhala Sun, January 2001.

What is this thing called mind? Print

What is this thing called mind?


“As we meditate, we begin to learn about what the mind is. We gradually uncover the mind’s true nature — that it is essentially clear, knowing and unbiased.”

What is the nature of this thing we experience as the mind? According to the Buddhist understanding, we say that mind is clear, knowing and unbiased.

First, mind is unbiased. The mind is a relatively neutral situation through which we experience things; it takes on the form of whatever we project at it. When the mind is more settled, we find that qualities such as love, compassion and understanding arise. These are generally more in harmony with the basic nature of mind than the negative emotions are.

The mind is not physical, obviously; it does not have a form. Rather, it is translucent, and it can penetrate anything. There is nothing that impedes it. What does it mean that the mind can actually penetrate forms?

This means, for example, that if we get very angry, or if we feel very desirous, or if we feel a lot of arrogance and pride, then we feel as though we are becoming that emotion. If we are sitting in meditation and suddenly we have a thought that makes us very angry, it feels as though the anger is moving toward us, almost like a physical thing. Our mind becomes completely absorbed and heavy with that particular emotion.

So in a sense, the emotion changed the format of the mind. Because the mind has no inherent bias, it takes on the form of that emotion. And what happens over time is that the mind becomes laden and heavy with all these emotions and the other habitual patterns that we take on.

This is why it is so important and helpful to understand the basic nature of mind. We can be hopeful because we know that fundamentally the mind is not stupid and angry, not ignorant and confused. Sometimes we may feel that we are stupid or angry, but that is only because the mind has been conditioned. Traditionally, the mind is compared to a white cloth that has been soiled. But fundamentally it remains pure.

Second, the mind is knowing. It is intelligent. How is it that we are able to recognize the difference between a rock, a book and a pear? How do we know that we are outside, or that we are inside, and so on? It is because of the knowing aspect of mind, the intelligence of mind. It’s like the sunlight: when the sun comes out, its warmth penetrates everywhere. We can say this warmth is like the quality of knowing.

Generally we take the mind’s ability to know for granted. But it is very important in the process of meditation to really understand knowing as a basic quality of the mind.

When we have established a meditation practice, we tend to think about the mind and what it really is. What is the mind made of, fundamentally? Can we describe the mind? I often compare the mind to a wild horse. It is wild and unruly, but it has the potential of being tamed. And when it is trained, our mind can be of service to us, instead of throwing us around unpredictably. So we need to know what it is that we are taming.

As we meditate, we begin to learn about what the mind is. We gradually uncover the mind’s components—that it is essentially clear and knowing and unbiased. As we do, we are able to access these pure aspects of mind; we get more and more to the source. We might feel angry or stupid, but through the process of meditating we begin to see through the layers of the mind, and finally we might reach something that is closer to mind’s true nature.

Finally, the mind is clear. Clarity here means that there is very little distance between us and the objects we perceive. I like to use the analogy of swimming underwater with a mask. The first time I went scuba diving the water was very muddy, so I didn’t see much. But the second time I went it was very clear and I was struck by how everything was so brilliant and close. This is the quality of clarity I’m talking about. It surprises us because everything is much clearer than what we’re used to, and there’s a feeling that we’re not separated from our surroundings. We just feel right there. It’s immediate.

To put this understanding of the mind into practice, there are different techniques that are appropriate at particular times. With each stage of meditation there are obstacles we encounter, and there are also various antidotes, the methods for overcoming these obstacles.

As meditators, we really need to understand the path: we need to know the know the stages, the obstacles and the antidotes. We need to have some guidelines, because the mind is so vast that left to our own devices, our tendency is just to wander in thought. We come up with some idea, and for a while it seems a good idea, and then something else comes along. We go from thought to thought, idea to idea, emotion to emotion. So in order to traverse this landscape of concept and thoughts, we need guidelines.

When we’re meditating we might notice brief thoughts like, “I wonder if I fed the dog?” We can all recognize thoughts like that. But there are some thoughts and concepts that last years, or a lifetime, and that are much harder to notice. Attitudes, beliefs, political affiliations—these are concepts that we may not even know we have. Through our meditation practice, we have the opportunity to uncover these, layer by layer.

Mind you, the journey of meditation is not about overcoming concepts. That’s looking at it in a negative sense, as if we were naturally confused. Our view is that we are trying to develop the natural intelligence of the mind. At first we might think, “I need concepts in order to understand what is going on,” and at this point, that’s okay. As the great yogi Milarepa said, “Mistakes, mistakes, if it weren’t for the mistakes I wouldn’t be here.”

So we have to make mistakes. That’s not a problem. Our journey is just a deeper and deeper understanding of the nature of concept and the natural aspects of mind.

Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche is holder of the Shambhala and Buddhist lineages of his father, the late Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. In 1995 he was recognized as the incarnation of the great nineteenth-century Buddhist teacher Mipham Rinpoche

What is this thing called mind?, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, Shambhala Sun, November 2000.

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