Business Zen

I’m not long back from an wonderful Zen retreat. A challenging experience with 5.15am starts, intense exchanges with the teacher and hours of meditation a day. Not exactly a holiday but having had deep personal insights and a stress-relieving complete break from my phone, e-mail and social media well worth doing!

It occurs to me that much of Zen would be useful for business so here are my thoughts on the connection, and what business can learn from Zen in particular. By way of disclaimer I’d like to say that I’m certainly no expert on Zen but have been meditating and running a business for a few years.

The Benefits of Mindfulness

At the heart of Zen is awareness of the present moment – right here, right now. The benefits of mindfulness are well established: to summarise a lot of research – it makes you smarter, happier, nicer and healthier. This is scientifically established with people from the NHS to the US Military agreeing. While formal Zen style sitting meditation aiming at radical enlightenment is hard to imagine in the boardroom, I have brought basic mindfulness to the corporate world many times and it always well received and has a positive effect. In any event, paying attention is important for any work. “Wake up!” Zen teachers are fond of saying.

Comfort with Paradox

Modern business can learn a lot from the comfort with paradox Zen holds. Many of today’s business challenges are not solvable with a simplistic “either/or” approach. Or maybe they are 🙂


Too much business is a polite affair where the real business issues are carefully avoided through collusion and politics, and many relationships have little authenticity as a result. Zen, especially the Rinzai school, on the other hand, does not shy away from challenge, confrontation or a direct facing of the truth. Get real!


It is sometimes said that Zen is the the only religion with a sense of humour, it is certainly a large part of the practice and many in Zen training have the insight that the universe is deeply humorous at a basic level. They “get the joke”. Business on the other-hand can be a dry affair and suffers, missing the creativity, connection, insight and humanity that humour brings.

Ethics and Wider Concern

It is time for both business efficacy and the global good that business regained an ethical foundation and sense of concern “beyond ego” and petty self concern. Zen training is a non nonsense way to realise at a deep level why “conscious business” makes sense. Grow out.

Form and Freedom

Zen is a strict and seemingly rigid “container” complete with classical Japanese forms, etiquette and rules which must be followed exactly. It is also fundamentally about freedom, creativity and possibility. One is within the other – “form is emptiness and emptiness is form to quote a Zen sutra”. I wonder what this interrelationship would look like if applied to businesses which tend to be either rigid (most) or a free-for-all mess (some nee media and creative businesses for example).

Ritual and Aesthetics

Zen is an internal discipline yet is highly concerned with outer ritual and aesthetics. The external makes a difference to the internal. How many business places are beautiful and well ordered? How many have meaningful rituals for employees? There is a cost when these things are ignored.

Emotions, embodiment and Practice

The “Mondo Zen” form I have been practicing in particular takes an integral approach to development working with the body and emotions. This is very close to the leadership work that I do with businesses. Being smart is not enough. Zen is also concerned with practice over mere theory. How is your business embodied? How emotionally intelligent is it? What practices does your business have?


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