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Discovering Zen

Zen is not some kind of excitement, but concentration on our usual everyday routine.

– Shunryu Suzuki

In many respects, my discovery of Zen paralleled my discovery of Lean. For the first decade or so after college, I threw myself headlong into my career and the rewards that came from it—long hours, good pay, and fun toys. It seemed like a pretty good life and I looked forward to where it was headed. I was able to have a fairly good work-life balance that allowed me to take a couple long vacations a year and maintain a solid network of friends and family.

Then life took a couple of unexpected turns. Both happened while I was attempting to turn around the large molding operation in Utah. First, I met and eventually married my lovely wife. Second, the sideline activities resulting from my exploration of Lean, including overseeing websites and being on the boards of industry associations, began to grow. The result was that most of my free time disappeared.

The loss of free time crept up on me almost imperceptibly, and only became evident after moving back to California when a family member began to have significant, often unpredictable, medical issues that I had to manage. My free time no longer existed, and my stress level shot up. Soon, I was dangerously close to cracking—emotionally, physically, and mentally. Very few people realized how close I was to hanging it all up, flying to an empty beach on Samoa, and just living incognito for a while.

Then, one Thursday afternoon, I did crack, but I didn’t buy a one-way ticket to Samoa. Instead, I flew myself to my favorite beach in Hawaii that very evening. I spent the next three days by myself. Each day, I would wake up and go to the pool, turn on the laptop and catch up on emails and projects. When the laptop battery died, I’d take it back inside and head to the beach for a couple hours while it charged. I repeated this process throughout the day, until it was time for a caipirinha or glass of Malbec at sunset, followed by more work back in my room until midnight or so.

I returned to the mainland refreshed, caught up, and feeling centered, so after a few months, I did it again. And again, and again. My wife was very supportive, since she could see the positive impact. (There was one interesting dynamic: all of her female friends began asking what was wrong with our marriage, while all of my male friends wanted to know my secret for getting away with such audacity. Vive la différence!) The impact was noticeable to others besides my wife too. The owners of the company I was running at the time also fully supported my last-minute excursions, and would sometimes even send an email to my staff admonishing them to leave me alone for a few days. I discovered this after probing into why my work-related email volume dropped off suddenly when I escaped.

The Simple LeaderAfter a few such trips, I began to realize that the key reason they worked, why they de-stressed and rebalanced my psyche, was not that I got caught up on my tasks, rather that I got away from them. For a few days, I was in control again, I was close to nature, I was living simply. The beach has always been special to me (my wife was born in Hawaii and we were married there), and I found that a couple hours spent sitting alone on a beach had a tremendous rebalancing effect. The time gave me solitude and quietude. And yes, heightened productivity. On the plane over, I would make a prioritized list of projects I wanted to accomplish, and I would nail them once my mind was cleared.

Back home, I soon discovered that I could achieve a similar “mini-escape” of solitude and quietude on my commute. Fortunately, my commute was much different than what most people would expect in California. Instead of ten lanes of bumper-tobumper traffic, I drove up the gorgeous Pacific Coast Highway a few miles, then inland on a winding road past avocado and lemon orchards, and finally through several of the vineyards that dot this very unpopulated part of the state. Many days I would see just one or two cars.

Most of the time, I would drive with the radio off, alone with my thoughts. I contemplated problems, but more importantly, I planned my entire day as I was driving. On the drive home in the afternoon, I reflected on the day’s events. Over time, I turned the commute into a form of meditation practice (including a period of giving thanks, which does wonders to create a positive frame of mind for the day). Interestingly, I am now unable to listen to books on CD or podcasts in the car because my mind immediately tunes them out and creates silence. My subconscious recognizes the healing power of quietude.

During this time, as I learned how to clear my mind from distractions, I also learned it was okay to give up some control over my circumstances. The unpredictable chaos of the medical situation made it impossible to plan more than a couple days in advance, a direct affront to my engineering-driven mindset. For years I fought to create control, often by micromanaging and creating backup plan after backup plan.

I learned that I simply could not control every possible outcome of every problem, no matter how hard I tried. So, I came up with a new mindset: Don’t think so much about tomorrow, let alone waste tremendous amounts of time on layers of contingency plans. Live in the moment. Make decisions based on what is best now, and if something goes south, then and only then do something about it.

Just before the stress situation peaked and I began my Hawaiian escapes, my wife and I had been thinking about moving to a new house. Our existing house was more than large enough— it had a unique and pleasant design and was located right on California’s Central Coast, with views of the ocean to boot. Why move? Because that’s what people did, at least before the housing bust. The bigger the better, right? We found a beautiful Asian-inspired house surrounded by vineyards that was exactly our style, except that it was twice as large and more than twice the price of the home we had. We set a maximum limit, placed an offer and countered a couple times, but then we realized we had set the limit for a reason. We ended up losing it.

To tell the truth, we were more relieved than disappointed, especially now, looking back and realizing that we would have bought and leveraged ourselves at the peak of the market. I still shudder to think about how different our lives would have been if we had ended up underwater, owing more money than our home was worth and staring at a huge mortgage payment. I honestly consider our fortune one of the cases of divine intervention in my life. It really feels that way.

Losing the house didn’t just create a feeling of relief, it also prompted us to question our motives. Why did we need something larger? We didn’t. In fact, perhaps we should have been looking for something smaller. That realization was transformative, and launched our ongoing effort to get rid of excess “stuff ” in our lives. We went through the house, throwing out extra, expiring (or expired!) food in the pantry, books we’d never read again, clothes we hadn’t worn since the ‘90s. Once we started, the feeling of liberation, of simplicity, was infectious.

This is how I gained a better awareness of being present in the moment, as well as an awareness of simplicity and minimalism—the core concepts of Zen.