We at Lion’s Roar are partnering with our friend, author Lodro Rinzler, to bring you weekly selections from Shambhala Publications’ Under 35 Project, which collects writings from younger practitioners. This week, Brandon Rennels describes how he put the skills he learned in the corporate world to use promoting mindfulness.
Integrating Head & Heart
A year ago I was sitting at a cafe in Ann Arbor, enjoying breakfast with a beloved professor from university. When I was in school he taught a course entitled Psychology of Consciousness, which was one my first introductions to mindfulness practice. Peace Is Every Step, by Thich Nhat Hanh, happened to be required reading, and after I finished the course I wondered why this material wasn’t taught in every classroom.
That day, I had gone to the professor seeking guidance. For a few years I had been working internationally in the business world as a management consultant. During this time I developed a skill set for turning high-level strategy into tactical recommendations, and for the cultural sensitivity necessary to bring messages to diverse audiences. While I enjoyed the problem-solving nature of my work, I felt I should be serving a different clientele; it was people, not just corporations, I wanted to help grow. I had been maintaining my spiritual practice and also knew there was a growing interest in mindfulness in major U.S. institutions, especially in the field of education.
I knew I wanted to make a change but I didn’t know where to start.
My professor stated that there seemed to be a growing number of educators and researchers interested in creating mindfulness programs. While there was no shortage of enthusiasm, perhaps they could use support in managing the various threads of actually implementing these new models of learning. He asked: Instead of abandoning my business training, could I somehow integrate head and heart by leveraging my consulting skills to support the realms of mindfulness and education?
I had no idea. But it seemed like the right question to ask. As with all great teachers, he merely pointed the way… and I took it upon myself to forge ahead into the unknown.
Leap of Faith
A few months later I decided to take a leap of faith by embarking on a six-month leave of absence from my corporate post. I had two stated intentions: 1) immerse myself in mindfulness practice, and 2) learn how I might support its growth in the US. My first stop was a weeklong retreat at Deer Park monastery in California. I figured it would be an opportunity for immersion. Little did I know what else was in store.
On encouragement from a friend, towards the end of the retreat I worked up the courage to ask a monastic if I may be of service. I explained my background and that I could offer my support as a volunteer for the next few months, thinking they may have a side-project that could use some admin help. Much to my surprise, his eyes opened wide: “Ah ha! The universe is aligning!” He told me there were a couple of education initiatives, including the Wake Up Tour, a series of mindfulness workshops at colleges and high schools, that were searching for support from someone with a business/organizational skill set. Now it was my eyes that opened wide.
Entering the River
The next month, a week before the Wake Up tour, I arrived at Blue Cliff monastery in New York. The monastics and I were unsure how I was going to help, but in that not-knowing was a freedom to respond appropriately to whatever situation arose.
A majority of the work had already been completed by the time I arrived, and we were in the final stages of preparation for the tour. Entering any project mid-stream can feel overwhelming; ideally, you are there from the beginning. In most cases, however, you don’t have that luxury. More importantly, it just isn’t necessary. Asking questions, listening deeply, and being patient are all it takes to be able to contribute.
My intention going in was to try and be “ridiculously helpful.” I began by asking one of the main organizers: “Is there anything you need help with?” When his to-do list was shorter, I went to the other organizers and asked them the same question. Then I began asking a different question: “This looks like it could use help; do you want me to work on it?” Over time, this evolved into: “I went ahead and took care of this. Let me know what you think.”
This approach created conditions for me to take on operational items such as supporting the website and managing the email list, as well as strategic areas such as overseeing social media presence and helping to allocate the advertising budget. My responsibilities grew organically, and were nurtured in a supportive and collegiate environment with the backdrop of a serene monastery. Not a bad way to work!
A week later the team at Blue Cliff set out on the road to begin the tour.
Smiling at Stress
Our first events were in Boston, where we convened as an entire group. The day before the Harvard University event we had a number of decisions to make, and the full community of fifteen-plus monastic and lay friends gathered around a large wooden table. I had become more familiar with the working styles of the group and was looking forward to an unfiltered view of how a four-fold community (monks, nuns, lay men, lay women) makes decisions.
Coming from the corporate world, I was accustomed to a top-down, fast-paced, heavily structured decision-making progress. The monastic community operates bottom-up, in a very organic and non-hierarchical way. The meeting opened with three sounds of the bell, and we spoke one at a time. One of the primary discussion items was whether or not we were going to visit Occupy Boston. Many questions were raised: how political is the event? Could we go just as spectators? What kind of message would we be sending? There were divergent viewpoints, and at times you could feel tension. We eventually reached a full consensus, and the meeting was closed by explicitly requesting all participants to accept the outcome and let go of anything said or unsaid. The tension slowly evaporated. While it was a lengthy process, shortening it would inevitably result in some people not being heard. By giving everyone space to express themselves, regardless of outcome, there was no resentment and everyone felt respected. I was reminded of a passage in Peace is Every Step, where Thich Nhat Hanh wrote that it is a dangerous situation when a family cannot smile at each other when seated around the dinner table. We were free from danger here.
The following day we made our way to Cambridge, where we had prepared to host over one hundred young adults for a day of mindfulness at Harvard. I volunteered to staff the registration desk, where each attendee would be asked a series of questions that were entered into an Excel file. It was a chance for me to practice my efficiency skills in a potentially stressful environment, as most people would be arriving hurriedly just a few minutes before or after the start time. I felt it was important for this process to go smoothly, knowing this was the first impression most people would have of the Sangha.
Sitting at the desk that morning, I found myself simultaneously wondering how fast I could process each person’s info and how many people I could get to smile. While I had my verbal script and keyboard strokes down to a science, I protected the space to provide a genuinely warm welcome with the same sense of calm-amidst-stress I had experienced that previous day.
When attendees showed up late, many were quick to apologize but I countered with “you’re actually right on time.” They would suddenly pause and a look of quizzical amusement would blossom, oftentimes concluding with a smile. I would smile back, knowing they were on their way.
Results in Harmony
As the tour progressed I gained more responsibility, and eventually some of the monastics started lovingly (I think) introducing me as “the manager.” While they were mostly joking (I think), in this structure I was perhaps as close to a lay manager as one could get.
A fundamental skill of being a good manager is knowing when to delegate tasks to others. Having faced this situation in the past, I was familiar with the trade-offs. Do the task yourself and it will likely get done faster and with more accuracy. Give the task to others and while it may take longer (and they may not want to do it), you will be teaching someone. What was unique about this situation, however, was the underlying objective. In the corporate world, the priority is productivity; here, the priority was harmony. Ideally you have both, but oftentimes you need to choose which is more important: getting it done or making everyone happy. For the first time in my life, it was clear that harmony was the way.
Near the end of the tour we aspired to send out a “feedback survey” for participants to share their thoughts following the workshops. There were multiple purposes here: for the participants, to provide an outlet to reflect on their experiences and encourage them to keep up their practice; for us, a chance to learn what went well and how we could improve for the next tour. Timing was important; if the survey was sent out too late, response rate would likely be low and the experience would no longer be fresh in their minds.
We decided to administer the survey using two online tools with which the monastics didn’t have much experience. I spent time training one of the tech-savvy nuns in how to create the survey, send it out, track responses, etc. Two weeks later, the surveys hadn’t yet been sent and I was becoming slightly anxious. I sat with this anxiety, and it passed with the understanding of how busy our lives can be. I emailed the sister asking if she needed help, which I would be genuinely happy to provide.
The next day I awoke to find all the surveys had been sent out, along with a friendly reply back thanking me for my encouragement. I smiled.
Looking back at that afternoon with my professor in Ann Arbor, I couldn’t have imaged a more direct manifestation of my desire to integrate head and heart. I learned many lessons from this experience… above all, to trust. Trusting in myself and my abilities, trusting in others and their capacity to support, and trusting in the universe to light the way.