Kobe Bryant: Spiritual Grounding in Sports

Kobe_Bryant_8Kobe Bryant, the basketball star who died earlier this week in a helicopter crash, practiced meditation regularly for years.  He revealed the power of meditation for him in a 2015 interview with Oprah, stating, “It’s like having an anchor.  If I don’t do it, I feel like I’m constantly chasing the day.”

Bryant, inspired by Michael Jordan, learned meditation in order to improve his game from sports psychologist George Mumford.  Meditation helped Bryant focus and get “in the flow” and perform better.

After his retirement, Bryant toured Asia in 2016 with two purposes, to experience a meditation retreat and to inspire youth in sports.  His Asia tour reinforced the importance of meditation in his life and in his service to the next generation.

Kobe Bryant was not the only professional athlete to discover the power of meditation.  In addition to Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan, basketball star Lebron James, baseball shortstop Derek Jeter, beach volleyball duo Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh, and the Seattle Seahawks, to name but a few, have attributed their ability to get “in the flow” and enhance their performance to meditation.

Furthermore, a 2017 study by University of Miami psychology professor Amishi Jha demonstrated that one doesn’t need to perform at the level of professional athlete or long-time meditator in order to reap the benefits of meditation in sports.  Her study showed that even four weeks of meditation could improve the mental state of college football players.

Kobe Bryant and many others have experienced the power of meditation, and serve as examples for the rest of us who desire to lead spiritually grounded lives.  In addition, numerous studies show the beneficial effects of meditation on one’s life and work, not only in sports but also in other arenas.

Yet such studies raise further questions: Is the purpose of meditation to increase success in life and work? Should meditation be pursued for utilitarian ends?  Does using meditation to achieve one’s personal goals corrupt an ancient spiritual practice?

Overwhelming evidence supports the value of meditation.  At the same time, the further questions are important.  In next month’s blog, I will explore these further questions.

Light in the Darkness

At this darkest time of the year, both Jews and Christians celebrate holidays of light. Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights, commemorates one of God’s miracles: the long–burning oil that allowed the Jews to rededicate their holy temple in victory over foreign oppressors. Hanukkah celebrates the light of religious freedom after dark oppression.

Christmas also celebrates the triumph of light over darkness: God’s entering the world in Jesus, and the light of Christ overcoming the darkness in the world.  Both religions exhort the faithful to remember that the night is darkest just before the dawn, that we must not lose hope but that we must trust the God who has the power to deliver from even the darkest night.

Great spiritual teachers throughout the millennia have taught that any spiritual journey consists of ups and downs, and that sojourners on the spiritual path can experience a personal dark night of the soul. If the faithful persevere, they will discover that the personal dark night, like the historical darkness commemorated by Christianity and Judaism, is darkest just before the dawn, and the breakthrough to the other side is worth the walk through the darkness.

In institutions and societies, as in personal lives, the deepest darkness comes just before the dawn. If an institution or society perseveres, it can experience the great power and light that come with breaking through to the dawn.

At this time of bitter political divisions in the U.S. and around the world, of rising racism, terrorism, and scapegoating of minorities, of environmental degradation, and of wars and genocide, it’s easy to wonder where the light is.

One guide for me in this time of darkness is St. John of the Cross. John describes the personal dark night as a time of necessary self-emptying, not of our choosing. We fill ourselves with knowledge and accomplishments and loves and allow these to define us. Yet growth involves emptying. Constance Fitzgerald summarizes John’s understanding of the process of emptying:

“Only when one becomes aware of the illusory and limiting character of this fullness in the face of the breakdown of what/whom we have staked our lives on, the limitations of our life project and relationships, the irruption of our unclaimed memories, and the shattering of our dreams and meanings, can the depths of hunger and thirst that exist in the human person, the infinite capacity, really be experienced.”

John claims that this deep hunger and thirst, this infinite capacity for love, cannot be fulfilled by our human loves and accomplishments, but only by the transcendent.

Constance Fitzgerald extends John’s work to the societal level.  In this time of societal impasse, when it seems that our human attempts to figure out solutions to our overwhelming problems only run us into brick walls and tempt us to cynicism and despair, John, Fitzgerald claims, offers a way forward.  Fitzgerald claims that “paradoxically, a situation of no potential is loaded with potential, and impasse become the place for the reconstitution of the intuitive self.”

Fitzgerald believes that the insoluble crises we face are signs of transition in societal development and in the evolution of humanity.  These crises provide an invitation for us as a society to empty ourselves of rationally constructed answers that no longer work.  The crises invite us to humble ourselves and seek deeper wisdom, wisdom that emerges from letting go, from our collective intuition, from prayer.  In the words of II Chronicles 7:14, “If my people humble themselves and pray and seek my face. . .”

Fitzgerald challenges us to bring our societal impasse to prayer.  It is only through letting go and seeking God’s perspective and God’s way forward, she claims, that society will be freed, healed, and brought to paradoxical new vision.  Only in this way can we be set free for selfless action.  “Death is involved here – a dying in order to see how to be and to act on behalf of God in the world.”  Dying leads to new life.  Out of the darkness comes light.

Relinquishing our need to control is not easy, yet nurturing a more contemplative response to life can help to heal us in many ways. In his book, Anam Cara, Irish poet and priest, John O’Donohue, poignantly reminds us that the state of perception most hospitable to the mysteries of the soul is not one of stark control, but rather, of reverence:

“The light of modern consciousness is not gentle or reverent; it lacks graciousness in the presence of mystery; it wants to unriddle and control the unknown. Modern consciousness is similar to the harsh and brilliant white light of a hospital operating theatre. This neon light is too direct and clear to befriend the shadowed world of the soul. It is not hospitable to what is reserved and hidden…. Before electricity, people used candlelight at night. This is ideal light to befriend the darkness, it gently opens up caverns in the darkness and prompts the imagination into activity. The candle allows the darkness to keep its secrets. There is shadow and colour within every candle flame. Candlelight perception is the most respectful and appropriate form of light with which to approach the inner world. It does not force our tormented transparency upon the mystery. The glimpse is sufficient. Candlelight perception has the finesse and reverence appropriate to the mystery and autonomy of soul.”

In this season of darkness, let us respond to the invitation to let go of our egos and preconceived notions, and seek the deeper wisdom that emerges when we become empty.  And may our society humble itself, recognizing the limits of human understanding and effort, and seek a way forward guided by the emergent divine.

(This blog is a further development of a December 2016 blog.)

The Power of Giving Thanks

We all know what a difference giving thanks can make in our personal lives. Can giving thanks also make a difference in the workplace?

Giving thanks is a powerful fuel for energy, creativity, and engagement in the workplace.  How can an attitude of gratitude be fostered throughout an organization, so that thanking one another becomes an organization’s modus operandi and the power of gratitude can be harnessed for employees’ welfare and for organizational impact?

Tom Grant, former CEO of LabOne, a laboratory in Kansas City that analyzed specimens for the medical profession, knows the answers to these questions.

In his role as CEO, Tom naturally drew out people’s gifts, recognizing the strong people skills possessed by some and the strong technical skills possessed by others. The teams he created showcased that diversity of gifts.  While he clearly values business acumen and has been extremely successful financially, Tom focused first and foremost on personal relationships, regarding his people as the company’s strongest assets.  Even when LabOne grew to three thousand employees, employees at all levels commented on how comfortable they felt with Tom, how much they felt he valued them, and how approachable he was.

Tom pioneered practices of gratitude at LabOne.  Aware that much of the work done by frontline workers opening lab specimens was repetitive and tedious, for example, Tom looked for ways to recognize careful, accurate, efficient work.  “One of the biggest mistakes you can make, I think, is to give only a global award based on company earnings.  That’s hard for the person opening a specimen to relate to.”  Tom worked with the leadership team to institute monthly awards and bonuses for frontline workers, noticing and appreciating their careful work.

Over time, Tom and others worked to create a culture of gratitude.  They sowed seeds of gratitude throughout the company.  For example, in addition to the awards for frontline employees, the company gave generous bonuses to reward superior work at the management level.  The leadership team also expressed appreciation to managers by offering gifts such as a week at Tom’s vacation home in the Cayman Islands or a week in the company’s New York City apartment.

The company’s employees, from senior leadership to frontline workers, felt respected and valued in the culture the leadership team created.  VP Troy Hartman commented, “We had a very special relationship, no question about it.”

This culture of gratitude spilled over into giving back to others.  Seeing their work as gift, grateful for all they had, employees wanted to give to others.  The company sponsored opportunities for giving to charities each month, focusing on eyeglasses one month, winter coats another month, and Hurricane Katrina relief or animal shelters in other months.  The response from employees, many of whom themselves had relatively little, was phenomenal.

Because of the positive atmosphere that resulted from valuing one another and recognizing one another’s gifts, recruiting new employees became easy.  Employees referred their friends and relatives to LabOne, and whenever a job opening was advertised, qualified applicants flocked to the company.  Clients, too, left LabOne after a visit wanting to work there.  In VP Troy Hartman’s experience: “Many times I’ve walked a client out of the building and the person has said, ‘What a great culture you have here.  Do you have any job openings?’”

LabOne discovered a well-kept business secret: the power of appreciation for employee engagement and business productivity.

This article is drawn from The Soul of a Leader: Finding Your Path to Success and Fulfillment. Used with permission of the publisher.

(An earlier version of this post appeared in the November 2011 Executive Soul blog.)

All the Saints

All Saints Day, November 1, the day when all the saints who don’t have their own Feast Days are celebrated, has me reflecting on other saints.  Who are the saints who have not yet been recognized as such?  Who are saints who have had a particular impact on my life?

Three saints who spring to mind immediately for me as ones who have had an impact on my life are Sr. Rose Mary Dougherty, Desmond Tutu, and my cousin Gary, none of whom have been officially recognized.  While none of them are perfect, all of them have provided me with glimpses of God.  All of them have taught me about soulful leadership.

Sr. Rose Mary Dougherty served on the staff of the Spiritual Guidance Program at the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation when I participated in the program in the mid-eighties.  Wise, witty, and funny, she lived and loved well.  Extremely insightful, she pierced through illusion quickly and had the habit of regularly raising the penetrating question that punctured any self-importance or self-righteousness I was carrying.  When she died recently, I felt a sharp sense of loss.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu, leader of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa in the mid-nineties, suffered under apartheid.  Then, through prayer, he learned the power of forgiveness to transform suffering into compassion.  Through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, he helped South Africa avert a bloodbath and find its way into the future.

My cousin Gary had a rough start in life.  As he grew, I watched him turn to God and discover God’s healing power.  He wanted to pass on the compassion he had received, first by serving as a pastor and then by working with at-risk youth and young adults, training them with the skills they needed to find employment and succeed in life.

I experienced all three of these saints as not only giving deeply from their hearts, but also as having a light touch.  Laughing easily, helping others feel at home, and being down-to-earth are gifts shared by all three.  Saintliness does not preclude lightheartedness, indeed lightheartedness is often one sign of the Spirit’s work in a person.

Who are the saints who have had an impact on your life?  Whether recognized officially as saints or not yet recognized as saints, in whom do you see God? Who has been a spiritual leader for you? Who has invited you to follow a path of deeper engagement with Holy Mystery? If you’re like me, the unsung saints may be just as important, if not more so, than the official ones.  This All Saints Day, honor the saints who have inspired you and helped you along the way.

(This is a further development of the October 2017 blog.)

 

 

 

Music at Work

Lately I have been enjoying the soulful and poetic music of Carrie Newcomer.  Soon to be the recipient of Shalem Institute’s Contemplative Voices Award, this talented singer and poet writes beautifully about looking within, following the compass of one’s heart, learning to surrender, and other contemplative ways of living in this world. I’ve found that listening to her music helps me to feel more spiritually grounded in my work and day-to-day life.

Rarely do I listen to music while working (or, as in this case, interspersed with working) and I felt moved to ask, “Does music improve creativity at work?” While I have loved music for as long as I can remember, I have separated listening to music from my work. My musings led me to further experimentation and to Dr. Anneli B. Haake’s research concerning music at work.

Dr. Haake has discovered in her research that, despite much public opinion to the contrary, self-selected music improves work performance. One of her studies demonstrated how music helped employees enhance their concentration by “reducing both internal and external distractions (blocking out unwanted sounds, signaling to colleagues not to disturb, preventing daydreaming, and helping to block unwelcome thoughts).”

Not only does music enhance concentration, it also contributes to relaxation at work, Dr. Haake found. Through channeling stress and negative emotions, through reminding listeners of time and space outside of work, and through creating space for reflection, music calmed workers. Employees reported how relaxation helped them provide better customer service and work more effectively on their teams.

Of particular interest to me, Dr. Haake’s research established the value of listening to music not only for simple tasks, but also for complex tasks. While earlier studies had confirmed music’s ability to help workers more effectively perform routine tasks, Dr. Haake’s latest studies also demonstrated that music could enhance concentration and creativity in complex tasks. Self-selected music does indeed improve creativity at work.

Dr. Haake adds a few caveats to her findings about the value of listening to music at work. Above all, music must be self-selected. When management pipes in music or a co-worker’s music blares, employees report irritation and distraction. Furthermore, listening to music at work is not for everyone, and even those who listen to music with some tasks prefer a quiet atmosphere at other times. Music at work must be self-directed.

A new discovery for me (how could I be so far behind the times?), music at work will now add another dimension to my work environment. I will experiment with when to listen and what to listen to. No longer does music need to be separated from my work. I have discovered a powerful new tool for groundedness, reflection, and courageous creativity.

(If you are interested in learning more about the Contemplative Voices Award event honoring Carrie Newcomer, please see the Shalem website for more information).

(This blog is a further development of an April 2012 blog.)

 

Soulful Leadership in Education (Launch Day for New Book)

The colonists of Maryland and Virginia negotiated a treaty in 1774 with the Indians of the Six Nations, and then invited the tribal elders to send their boys to the College of William and Mary.  The elders declined that offer, stating:

We know that you highly esteem the kind of learning taught in those Colleges, and that the Maintenance of our young Men, while with you, would be very expensive to you.  We are convinced that you mean to do us Good by your Proposal; and we thank you heartily.  But you who are wise must know that different Nations have different Conceptions of things and you will therefore not take it amiss if our ideas of this kind of Education happen not to be the same as yours.  We have had some Experience of it.  Several of our young People were formerly brought up at the Colleges of the Northern Provinces: they were instructed in all your Sciences; but, when they came back to us, they were bad Runners, ignorant of every means of living in the woods. . . nether fit for Hunters, Warriors, nor Counsellors, they were totally good for nothing.

We are, however, not the less oblig’d by your kind offer, tho’ we decline accepting it; and, to show our grateful Sense of it, if the Gentlemen of Virginia will send us a Dozen of their Sons, we will take Care of their Education, instruct them in all we know, and make Men of them.

This clash of cultures raises many questions:  What is education?  Who decides what is a good education?  What is the purpose of education?  What does soulful leadership look like in education?

Like the gentlemen of Maryland and Virginia, we live and move and have our being in a set of assumptions about the superiority of the dominant culture’s kind of education.  For centuries, the dominant culture in the West has fostered a “neck up” model of education.  In recent years, contemplative educators have challenged higher education’s dominant culture.  They have invited those in higher education to see with fresh eyes, to reflect upon their own cultural entrenchment and to consider an alternative view of education, with very different assumptions.

Contemplative educators ask: How do we educate the whole person?  How can head and heart be integrated?  How can we explore meaning and purpose in education?

From introducing a simple nonsectarian breathing meditation practice or inviting reflective reading or compassionate presence to using advanced techniques of meditation in teaching comparative mysticism, the possibilities for contemplative practices relevant to course content are endless.

Empirical studies validate these practices, demonstrating that learning is enhanced by the integration of appropriate contemplative practices in the classroom. For example, the Association for Contemplative Mind in Higher Education (www.acmhe.org) provides resources on its website to help faculty choose contemplative practices to introduce to their students and to undergird the use of these practices with studies demonstrating their effectiveness.

Arthur Zajonc, a physicist and contemplative educator, believes that contemplative education rests on an “epistemology of love.” He enumerates the seven aspects of this epistemology: 1) respect, 2) gentleness, 3) intimacy, 4) vulnerability, 5) participation, 6) transformation, and 7) imaginative insight.  He argues that, while focusing on love is counter intuitive to the dominant epistemology, such an epistemology results in outstanding scholarship and teaching.  He cites Einstein, Goethe, and biologist Barbara McClintock as examples of those who practiced an epistemology of love.

Contemplative methods of education deserve to be explored and developed at all levels of education.  Like the gentleman of Maryland and Virginia in the eighteenth century, we need to move beyond our myopic view of education.  The dominant culture in education is not the only way. In the twenty-first century, it’s time to explore more holistic and effective approaches to education.

Excerpted from The Soul of Higher Education (Information Age Publishing, 2019).  Used with permission of the publisher.

If you are interested in reading more of The Soul of Higher Education, I invite you to consider buying it today, July 22, its launch day. If a number of people buy it on that same day, its visibility will increase on the major sites.

3 Leadership Lessons St. Francis Taught me from his Failures

Photo Credit: Virginia Hill via flickr

Last month, as I walked on pilgrimage in the footsteps of St. Francis of Assisi, I wrote about six leadership lessons I learned from his success. Like all of us, Francis scored some wins and some losses when it came to leadership.  And like all of us, Francis didn’t always know in advance what approach to leadership would prove effective.

Francis’ failures can prove just as instructive as his successes.  As I reflect on Francis’ life, three lessons in leadership effectiveness that I can learn from his failures stand out to me.

1.  Clarity of mission. When Francis returned home to Italy from his journey to Egypt in 1220, he found his brothers divided and in conflict.  Brother John had decided to organize the lepers the brothers were serving into a religious order and requested approval for the order from the Holy See. Brother Phillip had sought special protections from the Pope for the Poor Clares (defying Francis’ instructions not to seek favors in high places). Brothers Matthew and Gregory had imposed stricter fasting guidelines on the brothers, more appropriate for monks than for active friars. All of these measures had stirred up turmoil in the order and revealed a lack of clarity about the purpose of the life of the brothers.  Conflict-averse himself, Francis had avoided clarifying the mission of the order, either personally or in concert with his brothers.  Without clarity of mission, brothers had different understandings of what direction their lives and ministries should go.  As the order had grown and with Francis away, the situation had spiraled out of control.

Clarity of mission can help a group stay focused through the stresses of growth and the temporary absence of the leader.

2.  Preparation for leadership.  In 1217, Francis had sent several groups of brothers out in ministry beyond Italy, to Germany, Hungary, England, and the Holy Land.  While the impulse was one of generous service, the missions failed.   Lacking preparation, the brothers couldn’t speak the language of the country they visited, didn’t understand the culture, and didn’t know how to translate their mendicant ways into a new setting.  Furthermore, many of these brothers had recently joined the order themselves and had no experience of leadership in their home context.

Adequate preparation can help lessen the shock of a new environment.  And gradual introduction to leadership responsibilities in one’s own setting can prepare the way for greater responsibility in a new setting.

3.  Leadership succession. Francis decided to go off on mission himself when other brothers left on mission in 1217.  He only got as far as Florence, where Cardinal Hugolino dissuaded him and he returned to Assisi, convinced by Hugolino of the order’s need for his leadership at home.  But the urge to travel in ministry returned, and he left for Egypt in 1219.  Though Francis did appoint leaders to be in charge in his absence, he hadn’t carefully considered what was required to lead a religious order, much less groomed others to take on those responsibilities.  The result, combined with the lack of clarity in mission mentioned above, was disastrous.  This episode served as a precursor to what happened when Francis died, when the fault lines in the order revealed themselves and caused more serious division and an eventual split in the order.

Careful attention to raising up leaders can help a group through the difficulties of transition and keep a group moving together toward its goal when a leader is away for an extended absence or when the leader retires or dies.

St. Francis, not always knowing what he was doing, succeeded in a number of ways as a leader and also failed in a number of ways. Both his successes and his failures can prove instructive.  By reflecting on both his successes and his failures, leaders today can learn how to become more effective.

(An earlier version of this post appeared in the June 2015 Executive Soul blog.)