Taming the monkey brain – The Zen Leadership Program

By Lia Moran  


There were 10 of us.  More than half were healthcare professionals, and rest of us were business leaders and consultants.  All of us came together to the Spring Green Dojo, located in a beautiful wooded valley in Southwestern Wisconsin for a Zen leadership program led by Dr. Ginny Whitelaw. I was excited to meet the other participants – kindred souls going on similar journeys to understand ourselves better as leaders, as members of a hopeful community. There was a path ahead of us – a path of being transported from the dark of early cold mornings to the fading light of evenings, a path of the daily stretching of the mind, body and heart, a path of learning how to focus and balance our energies.  


As someone who works in the company of great leaders and visionaries, it was always interesting to me to see how leaders poured their all into shaping their future.  So to walk side by side with other participants who were working to understand themselves better, was going to be great way to spend three days.  It was going to be a great experience though not without its challenges. The biggest challenge for me was to sit in silent meditation. It has been years since I sat in seiza*. As I eased into sitting on the floor with a pile of cushions between my thighs, the voice that only comes when I choose to sit still, instantly let itself be heard –  “the monkey brain”  – asking why do we (making the foul assumption that she and I are one)  have to sit in silence?  Can we not open a book and read instead?  Why not walk in the dark and enjoy the caress of the cold wind on our cheeks?  There was an itch in my ear (literally and figuratively) and as I slowly moved my hand to scratch it away, Scott’s voice tore into the silence “Do not move!” His authority as the jiki** immediately brought my hand down. I decided to do nothing but breathe, what else was there to do?  Then I remembered “isn’t that what I was suppose be doing, be mindful of my breathing?”  I smiled.  And it got easier, the monkey brain was still there but her voice was not as insistent anymore.  


The rest of the days were spent in healthy portions, learning about the body for leadership, energy management, Sword and Sound training, one-on-one coaching.  And the food was fresh, abundant, and well thought out, matching the nourishment needed to re-fill the energies being spent.

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My days and nights were bookended by sitting in silence in the company of others. Most of the time our breathing aligned, a gift given and shared by a hopeful community.  


* Seiza is the Japanese term for one of the traditional ways of sitting. To sit in seiza, one must kneel on the floor, with legs folded underneath the thighs, while resting the buttocks on the heels

** Jiki is a person who serves to maintain the order in a dojo.