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Hakuin Ekaku, “Three blind men crossing”

Say only three quarters

“When you speak to others,

say only three-quarters of it.

You should never give the remaining part.”

— Wumen Huikai

“Tell all the truth but tell it slant —

Success in circuit lies”

— Emily Dickinson

In traditional Sumi-e, Japanese ink painting, the artist works mostly in black and white. A painter provides just enough to create a vivid, specific moment, and then stops. Done well, forests, mountains, whole landscapes can be created in a few powerful strokes of the brush. Suddenly, two fish chase a fly in a shallow pond, rippling the surface.

Picture Rebeca Roca

There is no effort made to elaborate, colour or fill in missing details. Quite the opposite. The lived experience is what is shared, not the commentary.

Words like leadership, change, culture or diversity too often get in the way. What is the spoken and unspoken moment for a person? Just like Sumi-e invites you into the moment of a twig quivering in a summer breeze, power comes from lived experiences:

“I want to know if I’ll have a job by the end of the pandemic.”

“I’m trying to make this happen, but it feels like I’m in deep water and against the tide.”

“My team members are losing their spark.”

“Stakes are high, right now. I can’t afford to lose momentum in our productivity.”

“We’re stuck, but I don’t want to try something new while this crisis continues.”

I’m struck by the nobility of entering into shared experience. Whether you are an artist, a coach or a manager, it is messy, and there is no fixed plan. That is difficult, but potent.

I’m continually impressed with clients’ willingness to share direct experience, given the invitation to do so. We define sanity as stepping into reality as it is. There is integrity, and a new imagination of what is possible when we refuse to bend to a model, a pre-set solution. I’m delighted to find that there is new awareness possible in such moments.

Adhering to the lived experience is particularly important when we cannot change the difficulty we are facing. There will be some who strain backwards, to return to what was normal. In some cases, this will work. We have to contemplate, though, that the world has changed, and 2025 will still echo with the effects of the many crises we currently face. What can thrive now will become the seeds of the future, and not that which merely copes with, or continues our current imbalances. The lived experience is the only source that matters for new insight and action. We have to go past the known responses, and we have to start by naming what’s real.

Written by

I’m a teacher in the Diamond Sangha Zen tradition. I speak and write about learning and attention, and I coach and facilitate in private practice.

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