How did it get so late so soon?It’s night before it’s afternoon.
December is here before it’s June.
My goodness how the
time has flewn.
How did it get so late so soon?

–Dr. Seuss

Both Einstein and Dōgen (the 13th century founder of Zen in Japan) believed that our typical conception of time as a linear past, present, and future, is fiction. Whether you experience this view or not, in both our professional and personal lives, it’s important to make the effort to manage our time effectively, to be able to let it go, to find ways to live outside of “clock time”, outside of our tendencies to abide or be driven by the conventional perception of time.

This is an aspect of the second practice – Do the Work – from my new book, Seven Practices of a Mindful Leader: Lessons From Google and a Zen Monastery Kitchen. (The first practice – Love the Work – involves connecting with our longing to find real freedom, so that we may cultivate and open our awareness to what is, in an effort to support and help others.)

An important part of the second practice of Doing the Work is creating the space to step back from a felt sense or need to do and to accomplish thereby making time for meditation practice, for writing and retreat – time to feel the sunlight, or look into the eyes of those we love. Doing the work involves living fully within the bounds of time while also being able to let it go, bringing spaciousness into the realm of accomplishment and getting things done.

Below, you’ll find an excerpt from Chapter 2 of Seven Practices of a Mindful Leader on how meditation can be described as both doing, and non-doing; a way of cultivating living within the realm of time, as well as accessing a more spacious way of being in the world.

Meditation: Taking the Backward Step That Turns Your Light Inward

Several years ago, I co-led a 1-day Search Inside Yourself program for Google’s doctors and health care providers. My co-teacher was a Google employee whom I had trained as a Search Inside Yourself teacher. After introducing the topics of mindfulness and emotional intelligence, my co-teacher described the process of meditation as bringing attention to the breath, noticing distraction, and then returning attention to the breath. Then he used the metaphor that “meditation is much like going to the gym.” Each time you bring your attention back to your breath, you are improving your ability to focus, like strengthening a muscle as you repeat this process again and again.

I thanked my co-teacher and said that while I agreed with this metaphor, it is also true that “meditation is nothing like going to the gym.” My co-teacher was a bit surprised. He smiled, looked at me, and said enthusiastically to the participants, “Well, that’s why we have two teachers!” Fortunately, we had a really good, trusting relationship, as I had been mentoring him for the past year, and he was not put off by my contradiction. I clarified that going to the gym implies that you are meditating to get a result and that you expect a step-by-step improvement. This can be useful, and encouraging, and it can also be a hindrance to the real power and benefits of meditation practice.

Another approach to meditation is to completely let go of all reasons and rationales for meditating, giving up any ideas or hopes of improving or getting anything. Instead, as you meditate, see what it is like to just be quiet, still, and alive, just appreciating your experience, seeing yourself and accepting yourself as you truly are.

Here is what Dōgen, founder of Zen in Japan in the 13th century, had to say about meditation practice:

“The sitting practice I speak of is not learning meditation. It is simply the gate of repose and bliss, the practice/realization of totally culminated enlightenment. It is the manifestation of ultimate reality. Traps and snares can never reach it. Once its heart is grasped, you are like a dragon gaining the water, like a tiger taking to the mountains.

You should therefore cease from practice based on intellectual understanding, pursuing words and following after speech, and learn the backward step that turns your light inwardly.”

I love Dōgen’s poetic description of meditation, and his deep sense of knowing, speaking from the depth of his own experience. He is saying that, in meditation, there is nothing to gain or achieve; just this act of stopping, breathing, and letting go of everything breaks down and transcends our ideas of what practice is and what realization or self-actualization are. In the Zen tradition, “take the backward step” refers to a deep sense of letting go and is the opposite of trying to gain something. It is a much-revered instruction for meditation practice, as is “it is simply the gate of repose and bliss.” Of course, this might not be your (and it is not my) day-to-day experience of meditation. But why not? What gets in the way? Dōgen’s words are meant, I believe, to be aspirational and practical: They shift our assumptions regarding both meditation practice and our lives.