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Excerpt from an Interview with Peter Senge
[ for full interview, see Three Circles: Business, Technology, Spirituality ]



Prasad Kaipa


Peter: Peter Senge
Prasad: Prasad Kaipa

Path of Reflection

Peter: … I’ve always thought of only two questions that have mattered to me personally. One is what is really needed in the world and the second is what’s really important to me and how these two intersect. It’s always been a reflective process -- spiraling around these two poles. At a certain point, clarity arrives. I think in this process where you are looking inward you also are looking outward, but at a larger scale. I think I haven’t really been a particularly good practitioner of what Buckminster Fuller used to advocate, “Start with Universe then work your way back”. But I think I kept working on it.

So I always think of the world probably in the next couple of decades, I might work from being Universe centric. I suspect there are some limitations in being Earth centric. But nonetheless, it has always [been] how I have been oriented. I have never been interested in jobs, or institutions but what’s really needed in the world and things just crystallized for me.

Preparing and Practicing Being Present

Prasad: When did you come alive in your own life and get to know yourself better [that’s relates to the practice of being present]?

Peter: I had a chance to facilitate a Leadership & Mastery (L&M) workshop through ‘Innovation Associates’. It was a really good time for me. I was probably just about 30 years old. …

I vividly remember one particular exercise known as the ‘choice exercise’ that Robert (Fritz) introduced and we participated and that got etched in my mind. One of those choices – “being an observer”- just made me think and ponder for a while. It just crystallized in my mind as a choice from that time on. It became an interesting observer process.

After so many years, I don’t really think about it, but I really observe myself when I talk. There is this Peter who is talking and one who is observing. It is kind of a binocular vision. You have to be in yourself talking, and also have that awareness of standing to the side of yourself. I think part of it is not being attached to your self. We all started to kind of disassociate ourselves from our mind strategies -- like if I do this, this will happen as opposed to just being present and saying whatever happens is fine. It is about really supporting our intentions and supporting people who are there.

I learned during that time that whenever I get really confused or sad or discouraged, I would just make the choice to be of service to other people and forget about everything else. So I kind of developed this trust that it was all coming back to paying attention to what was going on and be clear about my choice to be of service, and I think it takes care of itself.

Prasad: So let me see whether I heard you right. You are aware of a special moment 20+ years ago when you chose to become an observer of your own process. While doing an exercise with Robert [Fritz] and Charlie [Kiefer], you came to this awareness that you could be a participant and an unattached observer as well. Is that right?

Peter: Yes.

Prasad: Then you continued to practice this state of being an observer and consciously choosing to serve and paying attention to what is emerging in the moment. So it is not about preparing with a clear intention, but practicing it repeatedly as well.

Peter: One of the interesting questions that I experimented with is different kinds of preparation. I asked myself: what types of preparations are helpful and what types really get in your way of being present when I am in front of people. I have experimented, several times, in the last 3-4 yrs with PowerPoint slides. I can’t really say they have ever been helpful.

So, I just go without any preparation for the group with an open mind. First I do whatever I can to understand the group. I always memorize everybody’s name so when I see them I don’t have to look at their name tags and I have some sense of connection with them as individuals. I try to understand as much as I can about what is the nature of these people, what they interested in, what are they concerned about…

Sometimes, if I feel really disconnected, I’ll even stop early on and ask them what is important to them and what do they really want to talk about. So that kind of preparation always seems to be helpful. Sometimes, I will really plan things out - it’s very situational. One time, I did a presentation for Environmental Designs for builders and product designers. They wanted me to address questions on design of an enterprise. I actually went through preparation for several days and I even took detailed notes on my thoughts though I did not refer to them later.

It’s very situational - the content preparation part. Preparing to connect with people is pretty common.

Study, Practice and Serve:

Prasad: So do you feel that now your awareness is increasing? Are you meditating lots more often these days?

Peter: [Over the] past 10 years or so I have become much more disciplined, I meditate every morning and evening. For about an hour in the morning and anything between 20 and 45 minutes in the evening, depending on how I feel. But surely an hour in the morning or even longer.

Prasad: So how are you able to manage all this with all your travel, book-writing etc?

Peter: … Something [has been] building for a long time. The seeds were planted long ago. I made my first visit to Tassajara Zen country monastery just before I was at Stanford. There was a lot of recognition there. I knew immediately that meditation was very important to me and did continue to meditate but didn’t see a need to be disciplined.

Then it came with the publication of ‘The Fifth Discipline.’ After 2-3 yrs after its publication, I could see the popularity, the attention, and that you are put on a pedestal. That’s when I clearly realized that I wasn’t quite ready for that. I would get stuck on things; my ego was not well enough in control and then I actually started looking for a teacher.

For about a year or two, I would ask people and they would refer me to this therapist or this person and that was kind of interesting. But nothing ever clicked until I met this man in China around 1996. Then I started to realize that I just have to start being more disciplined. I had read a lot of Eastern things but again in an undisciplined way, just random. But then I started studying things in a more rigorous way and of course they were connected to my field of practice. It’s just like how we all have a spiritual teacher. It’s a combination of study and practice-all in the context of our service. I think it’s kind of a common feature in varying degrees to all spiritual traditions that there are these three fundamental elements – study, practice and serve.

There is a study, … a body of knowledge that you are studying. But it is meaningless if it’s not in line with your practice. Whatever is your practice - your meditation practice, your cultivation practice… basically is that present state of your mind-body system. And then there is a reason for doing it all, which is your service - how you are trying to be of use to the world. That’s when I started becoming more disciplined.

Lessons from the East: Society, Spirituality and Science

Prasad: What did you see in China and India that you did not see in the West?

Peter: The intellectual sophistication of the philosophical traditions of China and India is extraordinary. There is no lack of intellect here in the West. But its service to a much richer concept of development is what is needed. The next stage of human development is certainly not industrialization, technology and all that but somehow this next stage is about bringing back the interior to be in balance to the exterior. I think that has to come from China or India and maybe to some degree from the indigenous peoples.

Another way I’d come to think of it, Prasad, is that we all know how old the Chinese and Indian cultures are, but they probably have a more direct connection to their indigenous knowledge. It’s quite clear to me as I understand Taoism. Lao Tzu always talked about the ancients going back to I-Ching. This is the first time you’re trying to see this deep indigenous knowledge starting to filter its way to major cities, to larger social institutions and the gradual shift to the modern Chinese ways in last 4000-5000 years. But there’s a kind of continuous trend [in the East], whereas in the West we don’t have that.

The indigenous peoples of the Europe are basically completely eliminated, whereas in the United States, we still have a strong indigenous population. But then everything else that has been developed [came] from the immigrants. People who came here had very little productive interaction with the indigenous population.

I had this conversation with a Japanese man whose name is Yasuhiko Genku Kimura based in Los Angeles, a Japanese Buddhist monk, who also is a very serious Chinese scholar. He has a brand new translation of the Tao. Most of his work is about business. He said his critical moment of awakening was when he was on a 2-3 year study in India, he said he just had this powerful realization, that individual enlightenment would not relieve the suffering of human being today. What is really needed is collective enlightenment.

I think the third pillar then, apart from science and spirituality is society. I think it is wonderful that the Dalai Lama and all these western scientists have had a lot of meetings and some very good material has come out of that. But I think if we don’t deal with society, don’t deal with institutions, don’t deal with economy and big businesses, then it could be counter-productive. There is a need for science that is more than the curiosity of the scientists but for the society.

I think science, spirituality and society will be the new nexus. It’s not the old individual spirituality any more. It is about collective awakening. And collective awakening is like … sitting-Zen / working-Zen. Working-Zen is institutions (how business works, how schools work, how government works) - how collectively we do our work.

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