“All great wisdom traditions of the world agree on one thing,” the renowned scholar, Joseph Campbell, said in an interview some years ago on The Power of Myth. “And that is: everything’s a mess and all is well.” We’ve certainly experienced our share of messiness in the past year, from a still-untamed pandemic, to the racial inequities it has highlighted, from the violence of conspiracy theorists acting on their false reality, to the mass extinction of species due to real changes on our planet, we are living and leading in a time of profound mess. How can one be optimistic in a time like this without sounding like a Pollyanna? While we know that optimism is a crucial aspect of leadership that resonates with others, what is the ground for legitimate optimism in a time like this?
It’s not a smiley face offering flimsy reassurance. It’s not the veneer of cheer over the rot of worry. It’s not denial of the mess. Rather, true grounds for optimism arise through clear-eyed acceptance of what-is, direct experience of our oneness with all that is, and co-creation of what can be. This true, in-the-bones optimism is sturdy enough to hold up in turbulent times, sustaining the energy of leaders and presenting itself as opportunities. While some would say such optimism is an inherent or inherited state, or the fruit of privilege, my experience in Zen Leadership would say it’s available to anyone committed to uncovering the wholeness of who they are. It is available to you.
We’ve long recognized a connection between optimism and successful leadership or, for that matter, a successful life. Martin Seligman, the founder of the Positive Psychology movement, found optimism central to those who could manifest their gifts either for personal gratification (i.e., a good life) or in service of something bigger (a meaningful life). In research by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and colleagues into the high-performing flow state and the leadership qualities likely to engender it, positivity and self-transcendence emerge as key traits. Likewise optimism emerges as a key component to emotional intelligence, resilience and well-being, creative problem solving, leadership charisma and presence. Positive emotions are known to bring coherence to the vibrations of heart and head, strengthening the electromagnetic field we radiate, as well as strengthening our intentions. Optimism is central to the “can-do” attitude of a leader. As Winston Churchill put it, “A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.”
The flip from being stuck in difficulties to sensing the opportunities they present, one could argue, is the very beginning of leadership. It’s the crucial pivot at which our actions begin to carve a direction that others can follow. Until we reach that point, we’re not going anywhere, so it can hardly be said that we’re leading. Stuck in what Kevin Cashman called coping mode, we’re in denial, anger or indignation about what is going on. This negativity creates inner tension and resistance that siphons off our energy and dampens our ability to resonate with the energy around us, much less co-create with it.
The zero point between the negativity of coping and the positivity of co-creating is always the same and is always: acceptance. Acceptance does not mean we like what’s going on or that we’re not going to do something about it. But it does mean we’ve let go of our blinding opinions to see things clearly as they are. By taking in things as they are, we allow present moment energy to work on us, to literally change us, by which our actions become better tuned to the reality they flow into. Starting from a deep and honest sense of what is going on, our actions can co-create with it.
Yet what is that allows us to accept that “everything’s a mess” without getting our opinions and emotions all fired up? It is the second part to genuine optimism, the part that can see through the mess to something bigger, something all embracing, something in which “all is well.” While this expansive experience may arise in a chance moment of grace, it can be more deliberately cultivated in meditation and contemplative practices. The Sanskrit term for it is Samadhi in which we see through the illusion of separateness to the wholeness of who we are and the oneness in which we participate. Psychiatrist Dan Siegel calls it “dissolving the illusion of separateness, the top-down constraints of a personal identity.” Otto Scharmer at MIT likens it to “breaking through a membrane in which I lose myself and yet am even more myself.” Little wonder that decades of research into the effects of meditation, such as that of neuroscientist, Richard Davidson, show a clear connection to more positive emotional states.
This direct experience of being whole lies at the heart of Zen Leadership. It enables an unconsciously-held tension, an existential fear, to release and relax. You might imagine if you regard yourself as a leaf, autumn is a pretty frightening time of year. But if you experience yourself as the whole tree, the whole forest, the whole picture, you can relax into autumn as just another season. So, who we think we are has everything to do with the bigness we can relax into and lead from. In that bigness, we can sense clearly, without anxiety, how the ceaseless dance of cause and effect plays on and on, with each part changing according to its nature. If we look broadly enough—from the development of a zygote to a full-grown human being, or historically from hunter-gatherers to information-agers, or in an evolutionary sense from the simplest atom to a complex brain—we see the messy fits and starts of advancing consciousness. And here we are, in a particularly potent time in human history, with a particular pair of hands and feet with which to dance along. This is a ground for optimism worth standing on: feeling into our whole nature, resonating with the people and situations of our particular life, we can use anything, including a mess, to live, love and lead well.
*originally appeared in forbes.com, February 2, 2021