Timeless Wisdom

Into the Mystery

Cultivating Not Knowing and Creativity as Acts of Leadership 

By John Tarrant

I live north of the Golden Gate Bridge in the hills of the wine country, and as I write, the year is turning. I feel my heart turning too, and opening with the apricot blossoms as they begin to come out. Last week there were floods, an atmospheric river passed over us, and also a sudden cold with rare, wondered at, snow. And in the midst of the cold front the birds came back all at once, as if they had tickets with a date on them—the geese who nest here on the roof of the sheep shed, wood peckers in pairs, little golden finches. I sometimes write haiku as a kind of journal, or notation about reality, to praise the moment. Here’s one:

Apricot blossoms again,

The geese are back, calling out

and a bit sodden.

Days of sunlight and showers—in Japanese legend that’s when foxes have their weddings. How I see it, is that our lives are made up of such haiku moments—the light reflecting on the wet street, the satisfyingly lonely sound of a train, laugher down at the corner, the squeak of a child’s sneakers in a corridor, the heavy, intimate, foggy feeling of sitting by a hospital bed. At night, I sit and meditate, and I watch the moon light on the wet flagstones while the calls of the great horned owls go through me. Meditation at such times just means which means that I’m present, showing up for the taste of life, and the owl calls are just present, and I too am an owl call.

These little fragments of the world hold our whole world, all of history and the future is in them. We often pass over such moments on the way to our intended purposes, but life is actually made up of moments. They are why we came here and were born. The old Zen people thought that the totality of things is actually a dragon composed of all of us and of everything there is. These moments, then, are the scales of the dragon. They are always happening. When I really look at a moment there is a light in it, and that is a hint that it is part of the dragon.

When I notice how it is to live, to be here, where I am at this moment, just here, then I’m happy without thinking about how long I’ll be happy, or reasons I’m happy or comparing this happiness with other moments. Then I’m not thinking what I always think, I’m not being who I always am.

As a leader in a community, it seems important not to think what I always think, or be who I always think I am or get in the way of the good things that happen naturally. I’ve been thinking about how leadership is not about acquiring things, or even admiration; it’s about holding the vision, serving people and encouraging them—praising the good things that they do. Leadership is also encouraging people to live fully, to feel the joy of life.

In every area, whether meditation, or surgery, or business school, or leadership, or being a parent, people practice to improve their skill. The ultimate purpose of practice is to know who you really are in this world. That is the gift and the question we pass along. The whole of the journey is practice.

Since it’s a practice, it also has to include sorrow, and failures, and the slow, hard struggles, and impossible problems. The whole of the path has its own nobility. When we include the difficult bits, joy appears there too. This means that as a leader feel the connections with life and the people I work with, and I have practice of feeling the joy of life myself. Then everyone in the community feels their own joy for their own reasons.

The Daodejing says, in Stephen Mitchell’s translation:

When the master governs, people

are hardly aware that she exists.

When the work is done

The people say. “Amazing:

We did it, all by ourselves.”

When I get out of the way, the world achieves things I wanted, and it often does this without consulting me. Life has its own reasons and pathways, and opens gates I wasn’t looking for. I don’t know where they lead but I find myself walking these paths without fear, discovering things I wasn’t looking for. The world doesn’t consult me, but it has gifts for me anyway. Here’s my next haiku:

The daffodils are talking to each other

about sunlight and colors.


John Tarrant is the author of Bring me the Rhinoceros & Other Zen Koans that will Save Your Life and The Light Inside the Dark: Zen, Soul & The Spiritual Life. He is a Zen Roshi with a PhD in Psychology who, after 15 years of teaching koans in the classical Japanese way, developed new ways to teach people with no experience of Zen or even of meditation. He teaches meditation as a creative path.

Join us at the Garrison Institute April 19-21, 2019 for a retreat with John, “Into the Mystery: Cultivating Not Knowing and Creativity as Acts of Leadership.”

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