Listening To Your Clear, Quiet Voice

I think of myself as having been asleep for most of my childhood. In high school my goal was to get good grades, while learning as little as possible. I was successful at both these goals. While at college, I developed a passion for learning and became particularly interested in studying psychology and Eastern and Western mysticism. I took every class that Rutgers had to offer in this realm — classes in religion, psychology, philosophy, and literature. I also began reading books about Zen and humanistic psychology by Alan Watts, Carl Jung, Abraham Maslow, and others. The more I studied the more I realized that I wanted not just to read about spirituality — I wanted to practice it.

I had heard from a friend about a program in San Francisco called the Humanist Institute. It was a small community that offered classes in meditation, dream work, and the study and practice of Eastern and Western mysticism. The institute had a small, full-time program, and a group sat meditation each morning and evening. I took a one-year leave of absence from Rutgers and headed west.

I was 22 when I first arrived in San Francisco. I supported myself by doing part-time office work in downtown businesses. Every day I took the bus from my apartment in Haight-Ashbury to and from work. Every morning and every afternoon the bus would pass by the corner of Page and Laguna streets, where there was a large red brick building. I had been told that this building was the Zen Center headquarters, which I had heard of through reading the Tassajara Bread Book. I was drawn by the book’s emphasis on bringing attention to the inner life and the quality of one’s being through the simple activity of baking bread.

One day I decided to get off the bus. I walked into the building on Page Street, the Zen Center headquarters. I was struck by how clean, quiet, orderly, and comfortable everything felt. There was a wonderful smell, probably a blend of incense and bread baking. Several people were working in the office. They were not particularly friendly, nor were they unfriendly, but they gave me lots of space to look around and ask questions. The artwork on the walls was amazing, a combination of ancient and modern Buddhist images that were alive, turbulent, and calm, all at the same time. I could feel the intention and values of bridging the inner life and outward actions. I immediately felt that I had stepped onto a path that was vitally important for me. I lived at the San Francisco Zen Center for 10 years (before going to business school…).

Much of my current daily business life revolves around listening to what is not obvious: How are my current clients doing? What is being said, and what is being left out? Are there ways I can better serve individuals, teams, and organizations? Is this the right time to experiment with some new product categories or to pursue some new ways of connecting with clients? Of course I am regularly evaluating all the “hard” information — financial reports, trends, and ratios — but I see this information as a lens helping me see more clearly what cannot be quantified, what doesn’t fit into any neat package.

By watching and listening carefully, the most obvious decisions can emerge, ones that just might keep the business on the right course, signal a time to make a subtle shift, or point out the need for a radical change. Our clear, quite voice can be our best friend and greatest teacher.

Zen practice often speaks of our having a “monkey mind,” a mind that is noisy and jumps from thought to thought, yelling our plans and worries in a loud voice. This monkey mind, I think, is an important and valuable teacher. And we each have a “wide mind,” a mind that is calm and quiet, that looks at everything from a composed, open perspective. This wide mind speaks with a voice so quiet it can be difficult to hear. Our explanations for why we make certain choices are the stories we tell ourselves, while underneath the noise and the stories the important decisions are made.

Related:
Work (and Life) as a Sacred Activity
14 Lessons from a Zen Monastery Kitchen
5 Practices for Reducing Distractions

35 comments

Vanessa S.
Vanessa S6 years ago

Very interesting. Thank you for posting.

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Rose N.
Past Member 6 years ago

Thank you for posting.

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heather g.
heather g6 years ago

It is so rare that I experience silence because I live in a small town where every second person drives noisy and large polluting vehicles. Although I wasn't brought up with snow, when it does cover the ground for 6-8 days a year I enjoy the apparent cleanliness and the snow quietens the traffic. During the evenings I'm able to snatch some quiet. Unfortunately, passers by seem to shout loudly when they talk to each other when walking past - could they all be hard of hearing? The explanation for any strange behaviour is that "There's something in the water" on BC's west coast.

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Sowohti Urda
Sowohti Urda6 years ago

Did you check smokey's books?

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Leanne B.
Leanne B6 years ago

Thank you

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Norma Johnson
Norma J6 years ago

the inner voice is always right

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Peggy Van Wunnik
Peggy Van Wunnik6 years ago

Julie W: the hymn you're remembering is "Dear Lord and Father of Mankind," with the stanza being:
Breathe through the heats of our desire
Thy coolness and Thy balm;
Let sense be dumb, let flesh retire;
Speak through the earthquake, wind, and fire,
O still, small voice of calm!

Another stanza refers to "Drop thy still dews of quietness til all our strivings cease..." - we can't be striving and quiet at the same time, can we? In this noisy jangling world it is so important to find opportunities for silence and calm.

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Jane H.
Jane H6 years ago

I thought I was quite unusual because I loved silence and solitude so much.....until I read Thomas Merton, Now , it is probably the most important part of my life!!

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Susan N.
Susan N6 years ago

Once a week, I take off the day and spend in silence.

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Robert B.
Robert B6 years ago

There's nothing like an hour or two of quiet.

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