Practicing Spontaneity in the Business World

-by Stuart Goodnick (with Rob Schmidt)

A friend and I were discussing the question of spiritual practice in the business world the other day. In particular, my friend was describing the difficulty he has experienced in dealing with the “hypocrisy” of certain business contexts and how those situations tend to dampen the arising of spontaneous action. In one example, he described a product interview he did with the editor-in-chief of a prestigious industry magazine. My friend was there with two of his senior managers who report directly to him. The editor could only seem to address his comments and give eye contact to the most senior person in the room. The “underlings” were treated as though they did not exist, even if they happened to be speaking. In other situations, this rude behavior might have demanded a strong response; in this case, although such impulses arose for my friend, he felt bound by the situation to “play the game.”

Situations like this come up all the time in the business world. A common scenario involves conversations with individuals of superior rank in the organization. Such power-possessing-beings often display a personal sense of ease in their commentaries on business issues, fellow employees, and the world in general. Those of us lower on the totem pole, however, tend to be acutely aware of the power differential and the potential impact of any comment we might make. The tendency is to withhold oneself and “play it safe.” Safety lies in agreement with the power figure. Despite any sense that a contrary view may be important, conflicting comments tend to remain unspoken. In short, business leaders hold court while those of lesser status hold the cups. For lower ranking members of the organization, it is very natural for such situations to engender an inner sense of hypocrisy, based upon a sense of complicity with the exercise of power that entails the denial of what arises from within. One of the great promises of spiritual work, the ability to act spontaneously in the moment, seems most distant at such times. How, then, can one reconcile the pursuit of spiritual practice with the hierarchical realities of the business world?

A first step to bridging the apparent gulf is simply to become aware of what is going on. What feelings arise when one chooses only the safe thing to say? What patterns of thoughts play out when one is confronted with an uncomfortable business encounter? What sensations arise in which parts of one’s body? The answers to these questions are not so much to be formulated in words and thoughts, but rather directly experienced in the silence of meditation. With practice we can learn to regard our thoughts, feelings, and sensations as objects of awareness with the same neutrality that we might hold for a leaf on a tree.

The practice of non-identification demonstrates, in the only concrete way possible, that I am not my thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations. We often take ourselves to be just that – a body that has certain feelings and thoughts that must react in prescribed ways when certain circumstances present themselves. But the practice of non-identification can help us realize that personal identity is not the sum of our thoughts, feelings and sensations.

Of course, to be able to maintain this perspective in the workplace is a challenge that requires assiduous cultivation. After all, in the business scenarios described above, the particular frustrations and powerlessness that one may feel are the mechanical products of a medley of influences that include the combination of thoughts and feelings one has about oneself, thoughts and feelings one has about the other participants, and the particular matrix of emotional valuations that intersect with one’s ideas about what is happening. To achieve and maintain spiritual spontaneity in such situations, we must first learn to see through our tangled (mis)perceptions to appreciate what is actually transpiring in the moment. And to accomplish this, we must learn to view with neutrality the thoughts, feelings and sensations that arise within ourselves.

Having established such a foundation, we can begin to explore what it means to be spontaneous in a spiritual sense. Ordinarily we consider spontaneity as rebellion against form; another way to view spontaneity is as a manifestation of something wildly unexpected. This perspective is natural for people whose primary focus of attention is upon social context, i.e., on things exterior to the self – as is primarily the case in most business contexts. But in a spiritual sense, spontaneity means acting from a place of complete inner freedom, acting from a place that is not identified with any particular ideas about the world or oneself. This perspective is experienced as an instinctive knowledge of what to do rather than as the product of an internal discursive process. Spontaneity entails being fully present in and responsive to the moment, and is accompanied by an inner sense of joy and freedom. There is no future nor past in spiritual spontaneity, there is simply Now.

In apparent contrast, business contexts are very formal. They embody many explicit and implicit rules of conduct, both prescriptive (what one must do) and proscriptive (what one must never do). Moreover, the standards of behavior for business contexts include a very narrow range of permissible emotional expressions. For these reasons, most people accept that there exists little room for spontaneity in the business world. The principal exceptions are those rare rebels that seem to redefine the rules from time to time.

But spiritual spontaneity transcends any exterior standard of conduct, because spontaneity entails non-identification with one’s own thoughts, feelings and sensations. If practice has deepened to the point where one’s own thoughts and feelings can be seen with neutrality, then it is a relatively trivial step to view the standards of business conduct with neutrality. Thus, rather than being a deviation from, or a necessary rebellion against the formal constraints of a business context, spiritual spontaneity represents a deepening of one’s presence in the moment. The interior freedom that is the product of the practice of non-identification makes each moment fresh. This profound inner freedom feels so spacious that one’s previous obsessions with rules – both the urge to conform as well as the urge to rebel or reject rules of conduct – seem amusing in retrospect.

A good analogy for this kind of freedom can be seen in mastery in the arts. An artist spends years mastering a particular form, whether it be painting or playing a musical instrument. The greatest artists demonstrate an ability to express sublime feeling and depth of insight while still honoring the form. Tibetan tanka painting has an extremely well defined form and yet the masters are able to imbue their works with a radiance that clearly stands apart from those of less experienced artists. A classical musician playing a Bach solo for cello must also work within a well defined form. The music is the music after all. Yet we all are aware of how an accomplished soloist can transport an audience while playing each note exactly as it is written. In the same way, we can look at a business context as a form within which each of us is giving a performance. Spontaneity and freedom derive from the ability to bring to each moment of performance a depth and presence that transcends the form entirely.

The depth of presence produced by spiritual practice can also be considered as adding a special aspect or dimension of awareness to the experiences of daily life. Differing spiritual traditions describe this extra-mundane dimension of awareness in various ways. The Fourth Way tradition employs the representation of a cross. The horizontal line of the cross represents ordinary, mundane awareness, whereas the vertical line represents awareness that transcends ordinary human consciousness. The key point is that the extra-mundane dimension of awareness exists both inside and outside ordinary consciousness simultaneously, although the vast majority of the extra-mundane dimension is beyond the horizontal line of normalcy.

True spiritual spontaneity derives from the transcendent vertical line of awareness. This is the reason why the experience of spiritual spontaneity in a business context feels so spacious, and why one might feel amusement in recalling the sense of constriction or confinement imposed by the unspoken rules of conduct. When awareness is not confined to the horizontal dimension of business norms, there is no inner need to defy rules, or unwillingly impose them on oneself. Fear is banished by this sense of spacious freedom, because the expectations of others, and the potential consequences of defying those expectations – the real source of the “unspoken rules” of business conduct – no longer grip one’s consciousness. From the perspective of spiritual spontaneity, there is no inherent reason not to follow the rules, due to their irrelevance to the extra-mundane dimension where awareness resides – unless a cogent reason to do so arises, in which case the issue of resistance would be moot. In fact, a true “artist” of the business world might break rules frequently, but do so in such a way that no one noticed or cared, much as great artists or writers “play” with conventions of form to provide insights on the human condition. Just as a great artist or writer can touch the heart of the sourest curmudgeon, even a denizen of the business world whose consciousness is most mechanical can be touched by the magic of spiritual spontaneity – although she or he might not recognize what happened!

Spiritual practice is the key for the development of spontaneity in the business world. Ultimately, as with other aspects of spiritual practice, the development of spontaneity is a path by which we learn to become of service to the universe. We learn to become spontaneously honest and spontaneously generous. By developing spontaneity in business contexts, we demonstrate to ourselves and others that business relations – an aspect of experience that occupies an enormous share of the sum of human consciousness today – need not inescapably or fundamentally reduce to greed or fear. Instead, as Saint Francis might have put it if he had lived in the twenty-first century, where there is greed and fear, let us sow generosity and compassion.