Mindfulness at Work: The Goose is Out

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There’s a Zen koan that goes like this:

“If a man puts a gosling in the bottle and feeds it until it is full-grown, how can the man get the goose out without killing it or breaking the bottle?”

Apparently this riddle has been driving Zen monks crazy for the past several hundred years. Now, the thing about koans is this: they’re not supposed to be easy. Wikipedia describes koans as a Zen-practice “to provoke ‘the great doubt’, and test a student’s progress in Zen practice.” The point is to sit with the sheer illogic of the situation, tearing at it with the logical part of your mind the way a dog gnaws on a bone, until finally — pow — your mind surrenders further attempts at “analysis” and makes a leap into “pure consciousness”. Interestingly, teachers do not, necessarily, expect students to present a straight-forward answer when asked about a kōan. Consider, for example, Osho’s account of the response a great Zen master, Nansen, gave to his student, Riko, when presented with the goose koan:

After hearing the riddle, Nansen gave a great clap with his hands and shouted, “Riko!”

“Yes, Master,” said the official with a start.

“See,” said Nansen, “The goose is out!”

So what in the world are we supposed to make of all this koan mumbo jumbo, and how does it relate to our personal and business lives? I don’t know about you, but when I first heard the goose koan, I thought: Why in the world would anyone raise a goose inside of a bottle in the first place? That is so completely inhumane! Not to mention, how do you clean out the bird droppings? In subsequent attempts to make sense of this riddle, I considered several “highly feasible” solutions, namely:

The bottle has a very big mouth, large enough for the goose to escape when needed.

Growing up in the low-nutrition and low-exercise environment of a bottle, the goose would be veeeeery thin–easily lean enough to slip out of the bottle neck

The bottle can somehow be dissolved (by acid, say), rather than broken.

We put the goose in the freezer and send him into a cryogenic state, then break the bottle, remove the bird, and put him into a new bottle

Or, as Neo might say in the Matrix, “”There is no bottle; there is no goose”

Given time, I’m confident I could come up with a list of at least 20 other ways to “cheat” that bird out of its confinement. This, however, rather defeats the purpose. The true value of the koan lies in the metaphor it represents.

From a Buddhist perspective, the goose symbolizes your consciousness… your free spirit… your ultimate reality, while the bottle represents your mind. This koan suggests that your consciousness is trapped inside the mental structures of your logical, analytical mind. If you want to experience the ultimate freedom of pure consciousness and liberation, you need to interrupt the process of asking rational questions and generating logical solutions. When you can stop and just “be”, without all the mental narration, only then will “the goose be out”.

Needless to say, achieving such “mindfulness” requires a good deal of time and effort. The first step is implementing a regular centering technique that works for you — be it meditation or whatever — one that you can practice regularly and often. Sounds like a lot of work, huh? But here’s the pay-off: organizations around the world are already reaping the benefits of creating a more “mindful” workplace. Imagine what your organization would be like if you came into work everyday and people were:

Listening to each other with full attention, in a very present way

Minimizing judgment, competition and control

Accessing their inner creativity and intuition on a regular basis

Wouldn’t that be incredible? Well, it’s happening. In organizations where leaders are actively centering themselves and modeling mindful behaviors, all sorts of amazing things arise. Employees begin to connect deeply with the meaning of their work. Retention skyrockets. Innovation flows freely. People experience far more engagement. Employees feel willing and able to bring 100% of themselves to the workplace.

Isn’t it time we considered turning the attention away from the external challenges in our lives and work and, instead, place more focus on what we can do internally, to create a positive, energize work environment? Let the goose out! ————————————–

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