Often when I walk into a company or organization as a coach or consultant, I am struck by the feeling that everyone working there is attempting to change an environment that they, in the sinking pit of their stomachs, believe is solid, immovable, and permanent. I see people working harder — they work more hours, and with more intensity, but also with more frustration. In order to change a toxic environment, we have to change how we perceive the situation and how we work. This is not easy, of course, especially when the predominant culture is rooted in fear and responds to it with frantic nonstop busyness.
Harry Roberts, trained as a Yurok shaman, was my welding teacher at Zen Center’s Green Gulch Farm, and he was one of the first people in my life to introduce me to this concept of accomplishing more by doing less as it relates to work. As a young Zen student, I was charged with the daunting task of farming by using horses instead of tractors, and I struggled to learn the vital skill of repairing old horse equipment.
Harry taught me that the secret to welding is to see and understand that the natural state of metal is actually liquid. What we call metal is in fact liquid that has become solid. By applying heat to metal, we soften it, returning it to its original condition, and we can then shape the metal with very little effort. Attempting to shape metal when it is too cool and solid requires tremendous effort and doesn’t accomplish very much.
As Harry shared this “secret” of welding with me, he let out a hearty laugh and said that this is also the secret to living fully as a human being: we as human beings, our world, and the nature of time all appear to be solid. Our perception and belief in this solid world lead us to act in ways that are much like attempting to shape metal while it is still solid and completely hard. At the time this was a very radical thought to me, and I too laughed heartily.
Our minds and bodies are considerably more fluid than we assume; everything in our world is less permanent than we conveniently and conventionally imagine. This was an “aha” moment for me, a lasting gift from Harry Roberts, still one of the greatest teachers I have studied with. I have been digesting and applying this lesson for much of my life. That lesson is this: if the metal doesn’t bend, don’t hammer harder — apply more heat. Particularly concerning ourselves, our beliefs, and our relationships, everything is malleable. Once we understand and embody the fluid nature of our world, we reduce our fear and dramatically increase our ability to accomplish more with less effort.
Where do we find this heat? Much like the process of applying heat to metal, retreats, meditation, and mindfulness practices act to soften ideas, views, and emotions that have become hardened. Using them, we can stop reliving the past and thereby loosen the solid quality of our fear of what might be.