A man sitting and thinking in front of a bay

When my mother became ill and it appeared that she was not going to live much longer, she sold her home in Florida and came to live with me and my family in Northern California.

After many weeks of seeing a variety of doctors, we learned that she had developed a lung infection and did not have long to live. 

A specialist suggested a variety of emergency measures and surgeries that might extend her life. I asked the doctor, “If it was your mother, what would you do?” He responded, “I’d bring her home and make her comfortable.”  I spoke with my mother about her choices and told her what the doctor suggested. Hearing this news, my mother was both sad and relieved and made the decision to give herself over to the process of dying.

My wife and I gave my mother our bedroom, thinking that she would want to stay in a quiet space, away from the activity of our two young children. Instead, she gravitated to the center of activity, and we found that she wanted to stay on our living room couch. She became the center of attention, and my wife and children all took part in taking care of her.

One afternoon I prepared one of her favorite treats – a milkshake made with fresh fruit. When I brought it to her she had a puzzled, uncomfortable expression on her face. “What are you thinking?” she asked. “I’m trying to die, and you are bringing me milkshakes!” “It’s fine with me if you die, Mom,” I answered. “I just want you to die healthy.”

Issues of life and death, in our personal and business lives, can help to clarify, sharpen, and sometimes allow our thinking to become both more spacious and focused.

When we are able to get out of our own way, our thinking can bubble up from deep and mysterious places. Our thoughts may surprise us. We may think of things and respond to situations in ways that are new and imaginative.

Thinking is our internal speech.

Our minds are extremely skillful at this art. Observing and paying attention to our thinking is very important at work.

Our thinking can either allow our speech and our actions to be clear, or it can get in the way.

There are several ways to apply the practice of right thinking (the second of the Buddhist teachings of the 8-fold path) to your work (and your life). You might explore asking yourself these questions:

1. What am I sure of? 

Say you see that someone in your office is unhappy, and you think it may be related to something you have done or said, but you’re not sure – how can you know without asking?

As a CEO, I had agreements with my key managers that we wouldn’t make assumptions about how we were feeling in relation to one another.

If I noticed that a manager seemed unhappy or was short-tempered, I expressed what I was seeing and feeling, and inquired about what was happening. I’ve learned that making assumptions about others’ experiences and feelings is almost always counterproductive and can lead to a lack of fluid communication.

Are you sure that your new product idea serves a need? Are you sure that your strategy plays into the existing strengths of your team?

Asking these questions doesn’t mean constantly doubting yourself; rather it is a regular reminder to be clear about what you think, about the assumptions you are making. This question is a tool to help you pay attention.

In today’s rapidly changing work environment there is not much we can be sure of. Through practicing with this question we simultaneously sharpen our own consciousness and focus our awareness on changes in our environment.

In all businesses our leaders and workers change, technology constantly changes, our competition changes, and the needs of our customers change. In the midst of this constant change, aim to continuously ask yourself what you are sure of.

2. What am I really doing?

This question can clarify the purpose of your activity and help keep you focused and present.

What am I really doing with my life? What am I really doing in my work? What is really important to me? How does this activity connect to my larger purpose? What is at the heart of this strategy? What am I really doing today at work?

This can be a powerful practice, again with applications to your internal development and to the development of your work focus and performance.

This question and practice require that you keep coming back to the central question of your activity, your thinking, and your life.

3. Is this kind of thinking a habit?

Much of our thinking is the same old story, over and over. Notice the story. Notice the things you think over and over that may actually have little to do with the situation.

Habitual thinking can act as a drag in our lives and our work. This question helps you pay attention to your thinking. If the patterns of your thought tend to stay the same, with only the players and the situations changing, then you might be stuck in habitual thinking.

4. Is this thinking cultivating understanding?

Explore paying more attention to your thinking. Are your thoughts causing confusion and anxiety, or are they helping you to feel clearer, more loving, and more compassionate?

Through choices about your thinking, can you water the seeds of clarity and love rather than the seeds of anxiety? Can you water the seeds of creativity and energy instead of doubt and confusion?

Similarly, consider how well you understand your customers and your business.  

  • How do you think about meeting the needs of your customers?
  • Do you actually pay attention to your own thinking and give yourself and others the time to appreciate and examine your thoughts?

Our minds often want to attach names and labels to things.

 We tend to judge everything as good or bad, rich or poor, weak or strong, honest or dishonest, successful or unsuccessful.

In business, we are taught to quantify everything. When I was enrolled in the New York University MBA program I had a marketing class the thrust of which was that everything needs to be quantified – everything! 

Once I figured out that this was the basic assumption of this class, I had an easy time succeeding. I discovered that it was easy to quantify everything. It was quite useful, and at the same time, I was aware of the limitations of this approach.

Even in Zen practice, our minds want to quantify and judge:

How is my meditation practice?

Where do I stand in relation to others?

How am I doing following my breath?

And on, and on.

We are all in the same lot

As human beings – our bodies and minds are very fragile, we live in an unexplainable world in which most things are beyond our control, and we will all succumb to old age, sickness, and death.

Our ideas about good and bad are a flimsy way to try to make sense of the world, to have at least a sense of control.

A critical aim of mindfulness practice and of business practice is to develop a flexible mind, a mind that can hold a variety of views – completely accepting of who we are and our abilities while at the same time working to grow and change, feeling complete and comfortable with circumstances just as they are and simultaneously working to make improvements.

We can learn to hold what appears to be opposing traits: simultaneously being confident and open to change; being strong and being vulnerable; trusting ourselves and trusting others. We also learn to feel accepting and comfortable with our own incompleteness and lack of comfort. Instead of wanting things to be different, we understand that things are what they are. And, of course, we continue to strive for a deeper understanding of our lives, our business, and our practice.

Try this:

  • See if you can pay attention to your thinking at different times of your workday.
  • Notice how your thinking affects how you feel.
  • Notice how the way you feel and the way you look at things affects your thinking.
  • Get to know your thinking; become friends with it.
  • Notice how your thinking affects your energy and your work, and how your energy and your work influences your thinking.

What is there to learn from these observations?