by Becca Krantz

A lot of my life (and CORE’s life as well) has been a search for a better integration of inner and outer change. There are an increasing number of leadership and organizational development programs that focus on this integration. In April of this year, 4 of us from the CORE network attended one of them, the Institute for Zen Leadership at the Chozen-Ji Betsuin International Zen Dojo in Spring Green, WI. I had been hearing about this program for several years, and two other CORE colleagues, Julie Andersen and Mary Michaud, attended in 2018. I was excited to experience it firsthand, though I was apprehensive as well. I’d done a lot of meditation, but I’d never done Zazen, and I’d heard stories, including from Julie and Mary, that made it sound pretty hardcore.

Veronica Figueroa, Romilia Schleuter, Kerry Schumann and I arrived at the 4-day “Zen Leader 1” training on a Thursday night, along with about 10 others from around the country. We were greeted at the dojo (place of practice) by Ginny Whitelaw, the “Roshi,” or master teacher, who was leading the course. Ginny began her Zen training under Tanouye Roshi and Hosokawa Roshi, and continued under Greene Roshi who is the head priest of the Spring Green dojo.

Whitelaw Roshi’s bio describes her as “A biophysicist by training [who] combines a rich scientific background with senior leadership experience at NASA, and more than 20 years developing global leaders.” It mentions a number of other accomplishments including authoring 4 books, and concludes with the information that she has a 5th degree black belt in Aikido. The bio neglects to mention Ginny’s warmth, humility, and humor, which made me and my companions feel instantly at ease in the unfamiliar space.

Whitelaw Roshi demonstrating the power of the hara with a speaker as a “subwoofer”.

Each day’s activities began at 6:00 a.m. with sitting meditation (given that we were staying a short drive from the dojo, this meant getting up around 5 – early for me!). The Zazen style of meditation was indeed more intense than any I’ve experienced, with the expectation that you continue to sit still even if you are in pain. Scott, the “jiki” or meditation leader, literally yelled “Don’t move!” if people moved!

While this was quite challenging and understandably really didn’t work for some people, I was surprised to find it personally helpful. It seemed to me that it required my mind to stay anchored in my body more fully than other kinds of meditation, and transcending the mind/body duality has long been an aspiration of mine. I also found that it required me to sort out the difference between my actual pain, and my fear of pain. It was also an opportunity to practice something I’ve learned before, which is that when I can let go and relax into and with pain, it often eases.

At one point our regular morning “go-round” turned into an impromptu bitch session about the sitting meditation. I got to witness the awareness this intense practice brought to others as well – realizations about people’s reactivity to authority, their relationship to their own anger, and many other things. I am fascinated by how emotionally uncomfortable most of us were with this degree of discipline in the face of physical discomfort.

I have some questions about whether going deep into Zen or any Buddhist path makes sense for me as a European-heritage American Jew; questions about cultural misappropriation, and about abandoning my own ancestral lineage, and the like. If I do continue to explore it, I’m not sure I’m quite ready for a “sesshin,” the considerably more intense Zen meditation retreat. But my regular 20 minutes of meditation at home in the mornings have been strongly influenced by Zazen since the training, and I continue to find benefit from it.  As I am learning from Tada Hozumi, another teacher influenced by pre-colonial Japanese traditions, white identity and colonialism involve fairly extreme dissociation between mind and body, and there is something profoundly healing about bringing the attention into the “hara,” the lower abdomen (which has other names in many other cultures).

But I digress. Back to the training. Each day of Zen Leader 1 included three delicious meals prepared by “tenzo” (Zen cooking master) Patricia Greene who lives on site, and a full morning and evening of physical, mental, and emotional training. The physical training included stretching/yoga and tai chi-like movements, some with vocalization. The afternoons included some training but also some time for rest, and a bodywork session for each participant on one of the days. This leadership development school views bodywork in the structural integration (Rolfing) tradition to be an integral part of the process, because it helps us to release stuck areas in the body. After the first half of us received our bodywork, I amused myself by seeing if I could use my somatics training to tell who had had their bodywork session that day just by how they looked. I could! It was quite clear from the relaxation in the face, and sometimes postural changes.

We’d been invited to come to the training with a leadership challenge in mind, and throughout the course we had many opportunities, working individually, in pairs, and in small groups, to apply what we were learning directly to our own lives. We’d also completed our “FEBI” assessments before the workshop. The “Focus Energy Balance Indicator” is a personality inventory, which Whitelaw co-created. It is kind of like a Myers-Briggs or True Colors self-assessment, and it provides a score for each of four energy patterns, “Visionary,” “Collaborator,” “Organizer,” and “Driver.” Unlike other such tools, the FEBI offers ways to physically evoke the capacities you (or your team) are weaker in when you need them. We received coaching on our results, and practice in applying the framework to our own and others’ leadership challenges.

Although we are all coming from different religious and cultural backgrounds, and bring different leadership challenges to the experience, everyone in our group got an enormous amount out of the Zen Leader training. Veronica says the retreat allowed her time to reflect on the past two years, which have been very stressful:

I was using work to numb the rest of my life, not looking at what I need to look at in my personal life. I came up with a strategy and a plan for a more healthy balance, and found a way to really own the things that are impacting me, and do something about it. To stop blaming my situation, and look at what control I do have…. It was eye-opening.

Kerry’s experience clarified her commitment to bringing humanity into politics. Romilia is continuing to struggle with her leadership challenge, but has a renewed appreciation of her morning practice time. We all agreed, also, that the lessons we learned will take ongoing practice and support in order to fully embody the changes.

Mary, who took Zen Leader 1 last year, opted to continue by attending Zen Leader 2, and will complete the sequence with Zen Leader 3 this fall. I asked her how the training has impacted her. She says:

I’ve gained more discipline and clarity around my goals, both for the work I do in the world, how I relate to others, and for how I would like to ‘show up’ for these…. I have entered into client relationships, had exchanges with neighbors, reached out to long-time friends, often feeling as though I am standing in a new space, capable of offering more of what the situation requests than perhaps I was able to do before. I think it’s the sensing. I am a little bit better able to sense what’s needed, and while developing this further is no simple task, the idea is straightforward enough to return to repeatedly throughout the day.

As I’m writing these reflections, I’m realizing that the integration of inner and outer change is deeply intertwined with integrating other dualities as well, like left brain/right brain, mind/body, and self/other: We must learn to bring our whole selves to our change work; and, an idea or urge towards change is only a first step; we must practice the change until we embody it in our shape, our actions, and our relationships.

Ginny taught us that one of the reasons Zen philosophy and practice are so powerful for leadership is that they can help us resolve these kinds of dualities and act from a place of deeper connection, less ego, and a bigger picture. On Friday August 10th at CORE’s Circle of Transformational Practice at the Downtown Public Library, 9:30-11:30 am, Veronica, Romilia, Kerry and I will be sharing one of the tools from the training for working more effectively with seemingly competing or dualistic forces. Please join us!