Here we are in a country where more than a quarter of a million people have died of coronavirus. Lines of cars snake for blocks leading up to food banks, with more hungry people than in the depression. A brooding President refuses to accept his loss in the election and begin a critical transition, and instead fires up millions of his base with fabrications of his imagination, as he twitter-fires leaders who knew the truth, told the truth, and whose job had been to keep us safe. Amidst this mess, here comes Thanksgiving, a time when we normally gather together to express our thanks – but wait, no gathering together beyond our bubbles this year, and can we manage to tap into the beauty of gratitude in such an ugly time?
As leaders, this question matters not only personally, but in what we radiate to those around us. How do we make sense of this time or, better yet, how do we make use of this time in its wild contrast – giving thanks and facing suffering – to guide, inspire, or support? How do we help those in our families, communities or workplaces who look to us for leadership? The key lies in being able to squarely face suffering even as we embody the habit of thankfulness. The science of resonance and practices of Zen leadership guide us in both.
We know from research at the HeartMath Institute and the work of Joe Dispenza, that positive emotions such as thankfulness, gratitude, love and generosity, not only feel good on the inside but create stronger coherence in how we resonate, and increase the strength of the field we radiate around us. They literally shift our heart into a healthier functioning; little wonder that such positive emotions correlate more strongly with a long, healthy life than do health foods and dietary supplements.
Building the habit of thankfulness is best done daily, not as a once-a-year event. While noticing beauty, goodness and things that we can be thankful for is second nature to some of us, the more skeptical and curmudgeonly among us may grouse that it’s whitewashing reality and setting ourselves up for disappointment. If approached halfheartedly, with deep sorrow covered by a thin veneer of feel-good, the positive effects of positive emotions may well get wiped out by deeper waves of negativity. But if approached sincerely as in deeply appreciating one beautiful aspect of a person, one blessed one moment in the day, and pausing to let that feeling permeate all the way through, the nervous system is being trained to tune its perceptive filters toward noticing this again. Given the feedback loops in our neural wiring, we set up a virtuous cycle that builds an embodied habit of positivity, which resonates with greater coherence in us and radiates to others. That’s a fact worth leveraging.
So what, then, do we so with the suffering? As Gordon Greene Roshi writes in his exploration of this question, Facing Suffering, for the most part, “We don’t know how to suffer. We know how to avoid suffering.” We change the subject, act out, self-medicate, get overwhelmed, or attempt to solve or fix the suffering, but we don’t squarely face it. The answer lies in being able to face suffering physically, not with our thoughts, but with our entire body. As Greene writes, “When you use your breath, your posture, your senses, a more muscular form of caring emerges, one that has strength and sensitivity in extreme conditions and one that helps prevent burn-out.”
This physical use of breath, posture and senses is critical fuel for Zen training and Zen leadership. Breath is key because it crosses the divide between conscious and unconscious mind. Breath functions even when we’re not thinking about it (i.e., unconsciously) and when we do become conscious of breath, we can change its pace or how it moves in our body. So, breath can function as something of an ambassador between conscious and unconscious aspects of our being and can regulate other vibrations in our body, such as heart rate and brainwaves. Posture is so important because it regulates breath. With good posture, breath can feel as if it drops all the way through our body, like a plumb line to the earth. Finally, senses are key because they give us present-moment energy to resonate with, keeping us attuned to the people or conditions were facing.
Putting these elements together, we can squarely face suffering by letting it drop through our entire being. A practice that has supported me in facing suffering is to open the senses – especially listening – and stay present with the physical sensations in the body, as deep, slow exhales guide the inner discomfort downward, back to the earth. In particular, I’ve learned not to let it rise into my head, which will attempt to fix and figure things out. Rather, it’s better to open the senses and let breath drop down through the body, enabling a state of grounded connectedness in which suffering can run its course. The truth is, the effects of embracing suffering with our sincerity and sensitivity are never as bad as the consequences of avoiding it. We’re more free on the inside and more useful on the outside.
All the sooner we can return to feelings of gratitude, joy and thanks. Indeed, as we learn to metabolize suffering through our bodies, we develop the fearlessness of never having to avoid again. We’ll find that some of the moments we’re most thankful for will be those where suffering is transformed into grace, learning and profound human connection.