A Zen Story About Dealing With Our Demons

In a discussion thread at Naked Capitalism I found this Zen teaching story about dealing with a troubling hallucination (below). It shows how perceptive and practical Zen discipline strives to be. The master sees the ghost for what it is (a figment of the learner’s imagination), and he thinks of an experimental way the learner can discover for himself where the ghost comes from. Telling the man the truth would contradict his experience and lead to denial. Enabling his own discovery of the truth resolves the problem.

The challenge of teaching lies in having just such ideas again and again, in ever-changing circumstances, for people seeking answers to problems that cannot be resolved because they are sustained by the perception of the seeker himself. Objective answers reinforce the belief behind problem. Insisting on the truth of what one says leads to unresolvable debates–secondary rationalizations employed to win arguments that only obfuscate reality.

Even more challenging is that most of us don’t know what we are looking for when we ask for answers to our problems, as the learners in Zen stories never fail to express in their surprise at what they discover.

Mastery develops when the teacher can be relied upon to enable an effective learning experience for the learner. Even greater ability is demonstrated when he has given up wanting to teach altogether, and begins to respond without purpose as the situation demands.

The larger historical issues addressed in the Naked Capitalism post are beyond individual actors to influence. Change comes through collective experience, to which we can be but witnesses. But to witness is not passive. Collectively, awareness can move mountains.

The Subjugation of a Ghost

“A young wife fell sick and was about to die. “I love you so much,” she told her husband, “I do not want to leave you. Do not go from me to any other woman. If you do, I will return as a ghost and cause you endless trouble.”

Soon the wife passed away. The husband respected her last wish for the first three months, but then he met another woman and fell in love with her. They became engaged to be married.

Immediately after the engagement a ghost appeared every night to the man, blaming him for not keeping his promise. The ghost was clever too. She told him exactly what had transpired between himself and his new sweetheart. Whenever he gave his fiancee a present, the ghost would describe it in detail. She would even repeat conversations, and it so annoyed the man that he could not sleep. Someone advised him to take his problem to a Zen master who lived close to the village. At length, in despair, the poor man went to him for help.

“Your former wife became a ghost and knows everything you do,” commented the master. “Whatever you do or say, whatever you give your beloved, she knows. She must be a very wise ghost. Really you should admire such a ghost. The next time she appears, bargain with her. Tell her that she knows so much you can hide nothing from her, and that if she will answer you one question, you promise to break your engagement and remain single.”

“What is the question I must ask her?” inquired the man.

The master replied: “Take a large handful of soy beans and ask her exactly how many beans you hold in your hand. If she cannot tell you, you will know that she is only a figment of your imagination and will trouble you no longer.”

The next night, when the ghost appeared the man flattered her and told her that she knew everything.

“Indeed,” replied the ghost, “and I know you went to see that Zen master today.”

“And since you know so much,” demanded the man, “tell me how many beans I hold in this hand!”

There was no longer any ghost to answer the question.”

Change, Trauma and Business

Last week I started taking a three-year professional development programme in Somatic Experiencing, a trauma treatment process based on the work of Peter Levine. Though I am not a therapist, my coaching work in change processes brings me into situations regularly in which trauma plays a role, and I had become aware of the need to inform myself better about what I was looking at and how I could support dealing with it productively.

According to Levine, many of the problems people face in their daily lives are expressions not so much of psychological imbalances as of neurological stuck states. When we are confronted with highly emotional situations, our bodies will either go into fight or flight mode to cope. Both reflexes, if successful, help our nervous system to shake off adrenalin and cortisol and so to regulate itself into a renewed state of balance and health. When these reflexes are blocked, for example because the emotion is too sudden or intense or it is not possible to fight or flee, the nervous system will freeze, locking in the emotional charge and with it a state of shock for which the nervous system will try to find compensating patterns that end up as dysfunctions. The focus of trauma therapy is to bring the frozen state of the nervous system back into a “pendalating” process of moving between trauma and resources, so that it can once again regulate itself and integrate the experience now that it could not cope with earlier.

Levine has worked with war veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome successfully with the method, and its applications range from integrating physical shocks from accidents to pre- and post-natal problems, to adult psychological issues. For example, one Vietnam veteran, who was the lone survivor of a bombing raid on troops having a barbeque on the last day before evacuation, would freeze in panic at a barbeque at a friend’s place when a Cessna flew overhead. Good friends would help him to become aware that he was here and safe, and not in the war situation. In treatment, Levine found that the freezing response, with all its associations, could be brought into pendalating movement, so that the nervous system could integrate the experience and develop alternative responses in the present.

What I experience in change processes is that business initiatives are often massive triggers for trauma states in the people we are working with. To improve a plant competitively, or even save it through restructuring from demise, means to redefine the the roles and responsibilities, the structures and processes in which the people working there earn their living and feed their families. Like the soldier, whose freeze response and panic were triggered by the Cessna, so the sense of loss of a boy whose parents split nastily when he was eight and cost him his home can be triggered in the engineer he has become when the department he has worked and been at home in for the last ten years is dissolved in conflict and he must find his place in the new organization.

Even more critically, new roles and responsibilities require new behaviours and self-understanding from people to fulfil them. Old style managers often show a shocking contempt for needs and the fears of the people involved in the change, and so add new traumas to those which people bring with them to work, threatening them with exactly the things their systems are not able to cope with in the tragic belief that they will get productive results that way. (Watching managers in authoritarian mode, I often can’t help but see the trauma in their own lives that they are playing out in their behaviours.)

But even socially competent leaders, who involve their people in understanding and defining the change, are often overwhelmed by the drama which change can push up to the surface of the organisation. New and useful behaviours cannot be learned by nervous systems in freeze states. The dramas which ensue in the dysfunctional struggle to cope can cost a company its existence.

Today, being a great leader or consultant for innovation will increasingly involve understanding what we trigger in the nervous systems of the people we do business with, and knowing how to respond to the reactions that we get. Understanding how to help someone come out of a stuck state is often rewarded not only with deep thankfulness, but frees up the resources of the person to successfully do fulfilling, creative work. Thinking is embodied, so that the route to good thinking often is achieved by good work on physiology.

The professional development programme I am in will teach us how to work with trauma with individual clients. What I suspect I will do over the course of the three years is to translate the principles and process into work with groups and systems for business.

I will report periodically.

Peter Kruse: Transforming Organizations into Social Brains

Though it is useful to benchmark and so strive to match best practices in organizational strategies, learning from others through imitation can also restrict us to the limits inherent in the strategies we copy.  What often prevents students from becoming masters in their own right is the nagging feeling that there is always someone else who will be better at dealing with the unknown beyond the limits of our experience than ourselves.  In business innovation processes, this is expressed in risk avoidance behaviors which take genuinely new insights and impulses to radical innovation and reduce them to safer line extensions to existing products or business models within the boundaries of the existing organization.  For businesses, which depend increasingly on pattern-breaking innovation to succeed, these innovation dynamics can become dangerous.  If we imitate what others do, we get only what others get, and if everyone benchmarks each other, we get a homogenous world, poor in innovation and fighting over market share in a zero-sum game of diminishing returns.


Peter Kruse (part 1 of 7 video), one of Germany’s leading figures in trend analysis and organizational development, has coined the term “Next Practice” to describe a way out of the best practice trap.  Originally a researcher and professor of neurophysiology and experimental psychology, Kruse inherited the family business, and started to think about ways he could apply his insights from his scientific research into the brain to the challenges of restructuring a business and making it competitive in the context of the ever increasing complexity of the knowledge economy.


As a researcher, Kruse had come to understand the brain as nature’s most successful solution for mastering complexity.  His own solution to the challenges his company presented him with was to view his company as a social brain and to see if he could translate the functional characteristics of the brain into operational principles for organizations, to copy not a particular solution of a brain to a particular problem, but rather to imitate the meta-competence of the brain to innovate when faced with something new.


What makes the brain so successful in dealing with novelty and complexity lies in abilities emerging from its three key functional characteristics: connectivity, arousal and valuation (through pattern formation, or intuition).  Through its neural network (video part 2), the brain communicates with itself in potentially infinitely complex patterns, matching and mirroring the complexity of the world it experiences as it interacts with it through perceptual input and attempts to cope with the stimuli it receives.  Arousal—through e.g. need, interest and emotion—creates activity in the network, causing it to form and reform network connections in response.  Valuation lies in the ability of the brain to recognize patterns in its own neural activity that lie beyond its (very limited) capacity for rational analysis, and that are in some way useful for survival or success.


Transposed to the modern external world, we have connectivity through the Web on a hardware level of cables, EM-waves and processors, and through social media on the relationship level.  Arousal, from sex to cars to politics, to terrorism, animates the network to become active, use existing connections that are beneficial, and create new connections it might need.  Two of the brain’s three functional characteristics are present in our collective external reality, and are already strongly developed enough to have begun to function autonomously to create effects which are greater than the sum of their parts.


The challenge in developing an externalized neural strategy lies in the brain’s third functional characteristic of “valuation.”  Where the brain learns pattern recognition from the beginning of life, and is masterful in having the preconscious intuitions that are useful for survival (as Malcolm Gladwell shows us in Blink), collective intuition is still in its infancy.  Valuation, however, is where the big added value of a neural strategy lies, something Google was quick to discover and operationalize through search algorithms based on usage popularity and interconnectedness, and which social networks have taken to the next level with social evaluation (here Kruse–part 3, in which he sees absolute limits to the possibility of achieving collective valuation through the social net).


As a scientist, Kruse set himself the goal of making collective intuition measurable, and developed his “Nextpertiser” as a tool of the consultancy that emerged from his initial family business to help clients gain access to collective valuation data.  The results of the analysis of the complex and freehand input that respondents enter into the tool is a three-dimensional values matrix, through which the attitudes and behavioral strategies of potentially very large groups of people are visualized and clustered to generate significant patterns.  Interpretation of the patterns makes them available for policy, strategy and action on a collective level in a way analogous to how the brain uses pattern recognition to steer individual action.  The demonstration in the (German) Web2.0 presentation, e.g. focuses on the collective response to social media, and shows a deep societal division between “digital visitors” and “digital natives,” which cuts across all age demographics, showing that even the group of digital natives up to the age of 30 are split down the middle by these values clusters.  Action on marketing, education, research and development, government policy and any other area on which the transition to  Web2.0 and the creative economy (everything!) impinges, can draw great benefit from seeing this pattern and taking this values split into account when developing actions to take.


Some general implications?


Organizations that do not develop connectivity, arousal (or engagement) and collective valuation facility will have a poor chance of survival in the competition with organizations that do.  That includes the organizational approach to strategy, leadership and communication, whose main task will be to enable neural facility (or at the very least not stand in its way!)


Success in the neural world will depend strongly on social empathy and an ability to work with social resonance phenomena, that steer and focus attention and energy through the net (Kruse—part 4).


Effective leadership will operate at the level of “values” (not religious or moral, but as the behavioral strategies people, groups and systems use to master complexity).  One might say that this is another piece of the puzzle showing us that politics in the form of representative democracy will need to be redefined to reflect the ability and demand of citizens to participate more directly in the policy and decision making process (Kruse—part 5).  Another implication is that shareholder capitalism, operating as it does in a vacuum of purpose and values, will have little to stand on in the emerging neural society, and that alternatives to current economic beliefs are needed to keep pace with the infrastructure, dynamics and real-life consequences of a world connected in realtime (here I find myself returning again to Umair Haque and the Capitalist Manifesto for a vision of what it might be).


To round things off, here is the rest of the Kruse interview—part 6, and part 7 (on Obama and the failed great man theory of leadership, net neutrality, and communications quality control on twitter and strengthening the limbic system of the net!).


For German speakers there are links to his presentation on Web2.0 at the Re:publica 2010 conference, a short interview excerpt on how people respond to complexity (a plea for intuition in business!), an explanation of how his “Nextpertizer” tool for measuring “collective intuition” works, and a wonderfully pithy snippet of his testimony before the German Enquete Commission on the implications of Web2.0 and social media for systems of power for the development of Net Policy.