A Fresh Cup of Tea and Business Decision-making
Updated: Sep 13
One of the most well-known teachers and writers on Zen Buddhism was Shunryu Suzuki. He wrote an excellent book called Zen Mind, Beginners Mind. In there, he says, “In Japan, we have the phrase shoshin (初心), which means “beginner’s mind.” The goal of practice is always to keep our beginner’s mind… This [means] an empty mind and a ready mind. If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything; it is open to everything. In the beginner’s mind, there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind, there are few.” This philosophy has been invaluable to me in business, in management and in life.
After 35 years in business, while I often feel I have ‘seen it all’ often more than once, I know how important it is not to act as though my interpretation is ‘fact.’ All is often not what it seems, and it’s easy to fit the evidence to the theory rather than noticing factors that might suggest ‘things are different this time.’
A beginner's mind is often helpful. It encourages us to raise questions that, to the expert, might seem too obvious to ask. Surprisingly, when I have challenged C.E.O. while mentoring them, often they will give a rationale for a process or policy based on circumstances of many years ago, circumstances that have long since changed. When immersed in a situation, it is often difficult to get a real sense of perspective because one is too busy ‘fighting fires’ or too emotionally invested in past decisions.
Regular practice of mindful meditation helps me to detach from thoughts and decisions. It helps me take a helicopter view of a situation, free from ego, and observe what reality seems without attachment to a particular interpretation. A profound benefit of mindful meditation has been to allow me to appreciate and experience that ‘thoughts are just thoughts, they are not facts.’ It opens many possibilities and allows one to respond thoughtfully rather than react. Our reactions are usually primed by our past not by our current situation.
When we are stressed or depressed, we often allow ourselves to become wedded to our thoughts, immersed in them, as if they were reality itself as opposed to just one of many interpretations of it. By focusing on the present, with a beginner’s mind, we can choose our strategy, whether business or personal, free from past prejudices.
There is a story of a University professor who visits a Japanese Zen master. The professor says he wants to learn about Zen but is full of his own knowledge and opinions. The master pours tea into his cup and does not stop despite it beginning to overflow. “What are you doing? It is overfull. No more will go in!” shouts the Professor. The master replies, “Like this cup, you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”