When I found out that there was a Zen Institute of Leadership, I immediately knew that I had to talk to the founder and find out more about the organization and its approach to life and leadership.
I was thrilled but also a bit nervous to talk to Dr. Ginny Whitelaw over Zoom. My slightly apprehensive feeling was due to my Zen conception of the stern overlooking master with a stick who would not hesitate to discipline the ones who lack or falter in terms of discipline. Dr. Whitelaw to whom I shall respectfully refer to as Ginny from now on, looked like the embodiment of Zen: she has that stern focused no-nonsense look about her but the moment she spoke, I was immediately put at ease because she oozed warmth, sympathy, passion, and kindness in a measured and controlled fashion emanating from the other side of the Zoom screen.
It is not only in terms of Eastern and Western upbringing, outlook, and experience that she is the perfect combination and embodiment of Zen, but this is also reflected in her own educational and professional formation.
Ginny started off with the dream of exploring outer space. As a child, she wished to become an astronaut, so her parents cleared the kitchen broom closet and used a vacuum cleaner to recreate the environment of a capsule floating in outer space. Space flight to her represented a potential way of bringing peace on Earth and of uniting everyone for a common and universal purpose. In fact, she ended up landing an executive position at NASA for over a decade before she decided to fully explore and dedicate herself to the inner space via Zen Buddhism.
She is no stranger to philosophy either as she has studied it but, more importantly, she has always been curious about life and its purpose and meaning. In addition, she holds a doctorate in biophysics, and she is a Zen Master. Moreover, apart from having a 5th-degree black belt in Aikido, she also has psychology under her belt as she has studied the nervous system and neuroscience in graduate school, and it must certainly help to have a husband who is a psychologist.
All things considered, the interview was very pleasant and went extremely well as we were from the get-go in perfect alignment regarding values and philosophical outlook. The difference lies in the details on how we approach it and the different paths we have taken – her focus is more on the physical aspects, the body, while I tend to put more emphasis on the mind; notwithstanding, the end result is the same: a holistic quest and aim for uncovering and finding one’s true essence as well as reaching a sense of peace and bliss that vibrates through every fiber of one’s being.
I will not attempt to explain Zen, a feat that is deemed not only fallible and impossible but also futile and pointless as well as beyond the point. Put simply, Zen is both a view on life as well as a manual on how to live it. When Ginny talks about energy that needs to be balanced and to flow harmoniously, an inner sense of movement in lieu of stagnation that is reigned by chaos and rigidity in body and mind, I feel comforted by the fact that she is not merely uttering buzz words or providing empty jargon but that she intuitively as well as scientifically is aware of the connotations and the meanings and the implications of those processes.
But science - hand in hand with the Western conception and understanding of the body and of personhood - is severely restrained and limited. Trying to understand human motivation by using logical concepts will lead us nowhere in particular except have us do pirouettes while we anxiously and desperately are trying to chase our own tail. Zen inherently knows about the limitations of both language and rational thinking and this has been its most startling and astounding asset. Our thinking can only get us so far; we need to tap into a world beyond it to fully grasp and experience the world.
This can perhaps be best expressed and understood by the practice of koans. They are riddles that do not have logical answers and I sometimes doubt they have any answer at all. To solve this riddle or at least to come close to a possible solution, we need to put aside the brain, rationality, and language and instead delve into pure intuition and insight.
As Ginny herself puts it, during Zen practice and training, we start off with mountains being mountains, then we reach a point when we see them no more as mountains, while finally, we return to our first understanding of mountains being mountains but this second time around, we see and perceive them through significantly different eyes with a transformed and transcended point of view and outlook.
Language is an immensely useful tool; it has given us science, literature, civilization, culture as well as philosophy and religion but it has its inherent limitations and imperfections. Science can explain many things and it is most useful in understanding processes in and of the world, but at the same time, it cannot touch and reach everything and this is why no one has ever succeeded in the Holy Grail of science: the Theory of Everything.
In addition, our bodies, our “meat suits” according to Ginny, are imperfect in and of themselves; yet it is through this living and breathing device that cosmic energy can flow and which helps us connect and adapt to eternal flow if we manage to set and tune it wisely and mindfully. Put differently, the body is an instrument, which is often out of tune and we need to tune it to resonate with life; we need to free it up from stuck trauma so that it can synchronize with the natural rhythm of life and with the flow of energy.
How can we do this and what does it all have to do with leadership? Although there is a difference in our respective methodology, Ginny’s and mine, I use a mindful existential version of psychoanalysis, while she uses Zen meditation and physical training and activities, it is all about connecting with your true self.
The true self is not the same as the ego, which is a term that is used in both approaches but with slightly different connotations. Generally speaking, in psychoanalysis we want to fortify the ego, which is sandwiched between forces that often seem out of its grasp and control (unconscious processes of the id and the superego), whereas, in Zen, we want to see through its sham and disguise and “battle with the ego armed to the teeth” (it is not surprising that Zen and martial arts are natural allies in that respect) and steal its apparent show and arrogant glamour or more positively to notice that it is merely a mask and often an impostor but not the true authentic self or being. The ego is, according to Ginny, stealing our identity and making us think that we know who we are, but we need to see through it instead of being spun around by it.
This has everything to do with living one’s life and gaining ownership regarding the direction our life will be taking from this moment on. Once we feel connected to powerful energies flowing through and within us, we can gain a sense of peace and a feeling of well-being and happiness. In its activated sense, this is what Zen monks mean when they claim to have their feet half a foot above the ground throughout the whole day.
It is like experiencing a natural and constant high but without using drugs, chemicals, or other types of stimulants. It is the feeling of being both free as well as in control of one’s life to the humble extent that we do indeed and in fact have control over those aspects. It is breaking free from the bonds of earth and gravity and breaking free psychologically from the prison of self. It is finding one’s calling and living it from fleeting moment to moment. It is about figuring out the most personal and satisfactory dance moves while the music of the spheres is resonating through us so long as we are blessed with the breath of life.
At one point through my own exploration of psychoanalysis, there was a moment where I gained this momentary awareness and experience of bliss and I was immediately reminded of Zen Buddhism. It came to me as not too surprising that such a link had already been explored and established to a degree with the work of Erich Fromm and his book Zen Buddhism and Psychoanalysis.
It comes then as little surprise that a person who feels satisfaction, meaning, and purpose will be not only a more effective leader but will also feel healthier and also have a sound and healthy effect on their surroundings and their fellow beings. Ginny explained to me the approach they take at her institute and it is a manner of switching to the appropriate leadership style of the given situation.
For this purpose, Ginny engages in what is called FEBI during which they test and determine the personal characteristics of each individual joining the program. The result is not only a clearer understanding of the psychological underpinnings and preferences of the individual but also the best way of guiding and managing their progress. As this is not merely a psychological measure but also provides the groundwork for physical and spiritual path and guidance, it will address the person as a whole.
As such, it is holistic and mindful in nature. The goal of this type of training is to provide a different sense of the self in which we are able to see the whole picture and not just mere fragments or distortions of the self. We cannot get rid of the ego, but we can use it as a tool in service of the whole picture. We must keep in mind that the ego has a job to do, that is, to keep us safe and alive but its perception of life and death is immensely distorted and its point of view and method of judging things and events as either thumbs up or thumbs down are limited, naïve and inherently selfish in nature.
In fact, the ego is generally a narrative device, a piece of fiction that merely exists in reference to other parts of one’s being but it tries to freeze-frame our lives and hold us hostage with experiences and stories from the past. But instead of just reacting to the ego and letting it keep us in the confines of what it deems as innocuous comfort zones, we ought to step up and step out and face the world inside and outside of us. We can gain control of this rudderless ship and not just react but guide the light and energy to serve the world. During the messy and confusing time as we are grasping for light and understanding, it is often good to work with a master, whether it is in Zen and through psychoanalysis.
Here, we may disagree slightly. She believes that a master is indispensable for such growth and mindset; I have a more solitary self-made lone wolf approach and think that in some cases it can be done without actual guidance and presence of a master. Yet I do not doubt that the presence of living - and more often nonliving - masters are essential for learning about oneself and for getting set on one’s unique path. Nothing valuable can be achieved in isolation but like the Buddha himself, we must do the work ourselves to achieve insight and to alight the true eternal and ineffable spark within us.
We must be guided not by our tiny and puny ego who thinks it has all the answers (when it clearly does not) but by real and genuine wisdom. And the caveat is that this light and wisdom will not reveal itself nor open up to us unless we are ready for it to occur. Zen is not for everyone but rather for people who are stable; they will have doubts about life and existence but they want to know more and gain knowledge and are willing to work hard.
As mentioned earlier, the end result, whether we embark upon the path of Zen or psychoanalysis is essentially the same. Whether we use inspection, reflection, or meditation, it provides and supplies us with a better way to be and breathe in the world. Our life is then filled with resonance and purpose. We vibrate with ourselves and the world around us and as a system, we interact with the energy and field in our environment. It is not something that can be solved in the head; it is not a purpose or mission statement nor repetitive thinking and behavior. It is about what truly resonates within us, what calls us; a call for action, and a call for transformation, for becoming and for being.
How we resonate with the world is our choice. As Ginny says, we must breathe anyway, so why not get it right and breathe more slowly and more deeply. Why not be a little more grounded and centered and more caring and connected? But resonating with the world means accepting its struggles and its fair share of suffering. We are not immune to that and pain and suffering come as part of the deal with life. And yet, it is suffering that can teach us the most valuable and most life-changing lessons in life. As one of her Zen teachers once told her, there are two great teachers in life, suffering, and meditation, but he prefers the latter when given a choice.
A true leader is someone who acts on behalf of themselves as well as others. A good leader is a person that knows when to focus but is flexible enough to adapt to circumstances and reframe their viewpoints and actions. There are times and situations when we need a narrow focus and other times, where we need to expand our view and look at the big picture. The framework and training that Ginny proposes are learning to use and harness these different styles although we may have certain personal preferences for one or the other. Most importantly, we would learn to reframe and flip from coping with life and surviving to use the energy around us and effectively working with paradoxes and ambiguities.
The leader and the conscious and mindful person would be able to connect the inner with the outer world and work with their fears and self-limiting beliefs. They would bring the future into the present, and this will go beyond being successful but more about realizing and fulfilling one’s purpose in life. And that is also where healing resides as sickness and disease occur when life becomes lopsided, that is, when the energy becomes stuck and there is an overall lack of wellness and balance in one’s life.
For more detailed information, you can check out Ginny Whitelaw’s recently published book Resonate: Zen and the Way of Making a Difference as well as visit the website Embodied Facilitator and you can watch the entire interview on YouTube
If you prefer to listen to the interview, here is the link to my podcast: Arash's World Podcast