Know Yourself, Forget Yourself – A Talk with Marc Lesser
There is a famous Zen dialogue from ancient China about a monk and a teacher. The monk arrives at the monastery and says to the teacher, “I’ve arrived. Please give me your teaching.”
The teacher says, “Have you eaten your breakfast?”
The monk responds, “Yes, I have.”
The teacher says, “Wash your bowl.”
The monk understood. What could be more obvious?
In Know Yourself, Forget Yourself, executive coach and mindfulness teacher Marc Lesser shows that understanding and embracing the points where life feels most confusing and contradictory can lead us to more satisfaction and joy.
Lesser provides clear guidance and simple practices for embracing five central paradoxes in life and navigating them to increase our effectiveness and happiness. Influenced by the revolutionary mindfulness and emotional intelligence trainings he helped develop at Google, Know Yourself, Forget Yourself is a profound book about cultivating the emotional skills to understand the right path through difficulties and challenges.
Even with his hectic schedule, I was lucky to get a few questions answer by Marc about a the ways that we can better attain a work life balance.
What was your motivation for writing about practical ways to work with paradox?
Nearly everything about being a human involves paradox. One of my favorite quotes is, “If it’s not paradoxical, it’s not true!” I just did a Google search to see who said this, and what came up was…..Marc Lesser. How paradoxical! A paradox is something that appears impossible, but may, in fact be true. Isn’t everything in our lives like this? Especially things that really matter – like time, consciousness, birth and death, war and peace, how we came to be doing whatever we do, our most important relationships – anything we can say about these topics appears impossible. I began to notice that a few core paradoxes were also core practices in my work and in my life outside of work. I noticed that more and more these paradoxes were becoming fundamental and important truths. I began writing initially to better understand how to work with these paradoxes – in the work that I do with my clients, who are leaders in business and non-profits companies, as well as in my own life.
The expression “know yourself, forget yourself” sounds familiar. Where does it come from?
Yes, thank you Dogen, the 13th century founder of Zen Buddhism in Japan, who famously said – To study the Way is to study the self; to study the self is to forget the self; to forget the self is to awaken with everything and everyone. I first encountered this statement when I was in my 20’s and have been working with it ever since.
Is there a way to practice – self-knowing and self-forgetting?
Yes, self-awareness practice and mindfulness practice are practices for both self-knowing and self-forgetting. Think of an athlete – a superior tennis play works diligently on all aspects of self-knowing – details of hitting a ball under multiple conditions, state of mind, strategy. Then when playing a match, these awareness practices have all been embodied and the focus is completely on being present, aware, with little or no focus on self. Self-awareness practices and mindfulness practice are ways to train ourselves to be more present, alive, skillful in our work lives and in all our relationships.
How can I fight for change and accept what is at the same time?
This is a core truth, a core paradox of being human – accepting ourselves completely and making an effort to become more aware and to help others. If we just accept what is, we can be lulled into indifference. If we are always fighting for change, without accepting ourselves and our situation, we can become both nearsighted and stressed. We can make an effort to practice and build our ability in both acceptance and in making changes, skillfully. Help! My life is stressful. Too much to do and not enough time.
What guidance can you offer to get off of this treadmill?
Many people are stressed and in search of an elusive sense of balance. Know Yourself, Forget Yourself presents another approach that addresses underlying issues and is more effective than conventional approaches. Instead of looking outside yourself for balance, find ways to take care of yourself, to take care of your mind. I notice that people looking for balance often try to add more things to an already overflowing life. Our cups are already too full. We don’t need to add more; instead we can change the way we see, broaden our perspective and not get caught by mistaken ideas about balance. And not be narrowed, and stressed, by mistaken beliefs about ourselves.
How can I be confident and question everything at the same time?
Confidence comes from knowing yourself – from accurate emotional awareness, deep listening to yourself and to others. The more confident you become the more you can engage with important questions. The practice of “not knowing” can be a powerful way to develop more confidence.
About Marc Marc Lesser, the CEO and cofounder of the nonprofit Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute, lived at the San Francisco Zen Center for ten years and is the former director of the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center. He lives in Mill Valley, CA. His website is www.marclesser.net.