Every Now and Zen

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Humor is incongruity in action. The universe is incongruous. Humor is therefore the best expression of the truth underlying the universe. It is, in its very essence, the heart of Zen. (Stanley Bing, Throwing the Elephant)

It is not easy to successfully maintain a gimmick through 200 pages. But Stanley Bing does it. Despite moments when his Buddha-speak becomes grating, overall Throwing the Elephant is cleverly written and provides some interesting perspectives to entertain the brain while you eat lunch hunched over your keyboard.

The elephant is wild – driven by appetites and moods. And according the Wikipedia as well as being the largest living land mammal, a healthy elephant has no natural predators.

The elephant is your boss. And as the book’s Forward states: “You can’t choose your boss.”

To “throw the elephant” is not to get rid of or toss away your boss. To “throw the elephant” is to successfully manage your boss’ expectations and demands. As described in the title of his book, “throwing the elephant” is the “art of managing up.”

It is also a matter of managing your expectations and perceptions. What do you expect of a boss? How do you see your boss? Are your expectations and perceptions realistic?

Our modern lore is filled with stories of successful uprisings against the elephants. From Norma Rae to Erin Brockovich to Matewan to Flash of Genius, as Americans we are fed a psychic diet that our belief in truth and justice will lead us to triumph over our elephants. These stories are tall tales. There might have been a real Crystal Lee Sutton and Robert Kearns but their lives have been greatly licensed poetically. You cannot win a battle with an elephant. It is larger, heavier, and stronger. It will crush you without remorse.

The promise of Stanley’s book is a change in attitude will bring balance and peace to your work life. You will not battle and win against the elephant but you will discipline and train the elephant.

To quote the Dali Lama:

There are many different ways of presenting the discussion of the mind, but, in general, the mind itself is something that is mere clarity and awareness. When we speak of disturbing attitudes such as anger and attachment, we have to see how they are able to affect and pollute the mind; what, in fact, is their nature? This, then, is the discussion of the cause of suffering.

The first step is to realize you will always lose to the elephant. Acceptance of this realization is the first step to ending your suffering at work. Stanley provides you with “three or four” more steps and a “Nine Fold Path.”

The tediousness of the Buddha-speak on the Path is broken up by smartly chosen quotes from elephants, those that serve them, and pop culture. When you have reached the end and are ready for your first toss, Stanley makes a fine distinction between “lifting” and “throwing” the elephant:

There is a big difference between throwing a weightless object and lifting it. All objects to be lifted have weight. If you are lifting you have failed. For while throwing an elephant is of course insane and impossible, lifting one can give you an injury requiring immediate attention.

He makes sense. There is even a physical difference as well as a mental difference between lifting and throwing an object. Just picture the differences in body stances of a weight lifter and a hammer thrower. With the former, the goal is to get under the object. The latter, the goal is to use the momentum of the object’s own weight to carry it through the air. The latter is the state of mind that must be even more perfectly achieved in order to throw a weight as heavy as an elephant’s.

One response

  1. Clara

    Awesome, the Dalai Lama is one of my favorites too when dealing with things where you may feel like you have to “force” your way through, or as Stanley points out, trying to “lift the elephant.”

    On an aside, I’m reading Eat, Pray, Love and it is interesting to see the main character try to force her way while in India through a very long 180 verse chant. This is her biggest obstacle. But it is only when she stops trying to muscle through it that it is no longer difficult for her. I can relate to this!

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