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The Practice of Mindful Relationships

These are powerful practices for leaders, and really for anyone intent on creating great cultures.

The real miracle is not to walk on water but to walk right here on Earth

Thich Nhat Hanh

Many years ago, when I was a director at Tassajara, Zen Mountain Center I was lucky enough to spend a few weeks with Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh. Each morning I knocked on his cabin door to accompany him on a walk across the valley where he would teach a class for the 60 winter residents. This walk was a few hundred yards but took about 10 minutes. Thich Nhat Hanh had a way of walking slowly, very slowly. Each step felt intentional and conscious. Though I often teach that mindfulness doesn’t have to mean slowing down, there was something potent about doing so, and walking at this pace felt as though each step really mattered. I sometimes felt as though this was the real teaching, before I ever sat down for the morning class.

Thich Nhat Hanh talks about the miracle and practice of mindfulness – the miracle of remembering that we are here – alive and conscious, with endless opportunity to learn, heal, and grow. He describes mindfulness as the practice of seeing the miraculous within what we usually experience as ordinary. In one of his essays, he describes the “7 miracles of mindfulness” with a particular focus on the practice of relationship, of shifting the way in which we see and relate to others. As leaders, whether leading a company, a team or leading our lives, these “miracles” are accessible practices that we can apply to our many important relationships.

1. The first miracle is that of our presence and our attention. This is simply the ability to appreciate being here, alive; to remember how ordinary and extraordinary it is to see the sky, a flower, a tear, or a smile – in our homes and at work.

2. The second miracle is to notice that we have a relationship with everything around us. It’s an awareness of connection and relatedness – the miracle of being separate and not being separate at the same time.

3. The third miracle is nourishment, both of and by, others. Imagine asking your partner, or your child, parent, or best friend: Who are you? Who are you that shares this air, this time on earth with me? Why aren’t you a dewdrop, a butterfly, or a bird? I know you are here. We are here. In a work situation, this practice might involve deep listening with an abiding curiosity.

4. The fourth miracle involves honoring our intention of healing, of reducing the suffering of others in our lives. In the workplace and at home, this involves leading with compassion. (In some workplaces the word compassion can be challenging; in these situations, I like to reframe compassion as “building inner strength.”)

5. The fifth miracle involves looking more deeply, beyond our habits, patterns, and often somewhat narrow or protective way of looking at the world. It’s about noticing that you are really present in this moment!

6. The sixth miracle is cultivating understanding. This is the foundation of trust and love. The more we understand others the more we recognize our similarities, which makes it easier to express kindness and caring.

7. Last, we have the miracle of transformation. This is about being aware of Change and how dynamic everything is. Through the practice of mindfulness, we can aim to transform our own pain and the pain of the world.

All of these “miracles” are in fact practices – they offer ways to remember to appreciate the miracle of being alive.

In the world of work, practices that fall into the category of mindfulness and emotional intelligence may be seen as “soft.” Sure, they may be soft in the sense that they are difficult to measure but they are certainly not easy, nor are they without significant impact and consequence.

These are powerful practices for leaders, and really for anyone intent on creating great cultures. As Peter Drucker famously stated: 

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” 

I believe this is true, not only at work but in our families and personal lives as well – it’s all about relationship – and about caring, loving and appreciating the miracle of being here, right now.

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