The Displaced Nation

A home for international creatives

Channeling business guru Peter Senge for lessons on spiritual travel

The Displaced Nation has dedicated most of its January posts to the kind of heart-opening, life-changing pilgrimages that enlighten and renew the spirit.

We’ve gathered tips from expat and travel experts on where to go and steps to take.

We’ve spoken with a former expat in India and a woman who dreams of making acupuncture available to one and all in the Midwest.

We’ve talked about our own (admittedly rather limited) experiences with uncovering spiritual wisdom:

And we recruited some guest bloggers for their insights:

Yet as eye opening as all of this discussion has been, my sense is, we haven’t quite reached the sublime and heavenly heights that this blessed topic deserves.

Maybe we shouldn’t be too hard on ourselves. After all, the quest for higher truths entails pondering the imponderable.

Still, I think we’ve forgotten something rather basic: namely, the need for a mentor, guru, safe, wise person, sensei, or elder — someone who has reached an advanced state of spiritual enlightenment so can tell us when we’re veering off course while offering an overarching framework for why, in heaven’s name, we’re doing this.

Today I’m “recruiting” leading business expert Peter Senge to play this role for The Displaced Nation — a service for which he will be awarded a place in our Displaced Hall of Fame.

Though he’s never lived overseas for an extended period, Senge leads a displaced life within the United States by somehow managing to be, at one and the same time, an MIT management guru and an avid disciple of Zen Buddhism (as well as other Eastern religions such as Taoism).

Through his writings, teachings, and lectures on the human face of business and sustainabilty, Senge essentially promotes the idea that Eastern religion has a great deal to offer the West.

Channeling Senge on behalf of The Displaced Nation, I have devised the following Zen mondō — or question-and-answer exchange with the master — for our illumination. NOTE: Senge promises to keep the kōan (riddles) — eg, what is the sound of one hand clap — to a minimum. (Was that applause I heard?)


Master, isn’t an expat or international traveler already on a kind of spiritual quest?
Meh. In my experience, a spiritual quest isn’t meant to be a retreat from one’s native country. It’s also not a vacation. The attainment of enlightenment entails hard work — you have to chop wood and carry some water. Seriously,  you have to study, and make sure that your study is in line with your meditation practice, or whatever method you use to connect body and mind. And then you need to have a reason for it all: how you are trying to be of use to the world. My own “working-zen” is institutions: how business works, how schools work, how government works, how collectively we do our work, and how the world can move away from the model of relentless growth towards something more sustainable. What’s yours?

Master, is the quest for spiritual enlightenment something I can do on my own?
Strange question to pose to a teacher! But I’ll refrain from giving you a boot to the head as I can relate to your struggle. In fact, it didn’t dawn on me how much I needed a teacher until after I finished my book The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization, which became a bestseller and earned me the title of “management guru.” My ego was out of control, and I asked my friends to refer me to a therapist. But then I met this man in China around 1996 and started to realize that meditating isn’t enough. He taught me that I have to be more disciplined in my study and practice, and in linking them to service. “Study, practice, serve” has become my mantra.

Master, will I need to travel to China and India?
Look around you. With the gorilla gone, will there be any hope for man? The Western model is basically bankrupt. We’ve failed to give attention to the human side of economic development. We’ve also lost touch with indigenous knowledge and wisdom. By contrast, the intellectual sophistication of the philosophical traditions of China and India are extraordinary. The next stage of human development — focusing on sustainability — will be 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.

Of course it may not be necessary to travel all the way to these countries, especially if you’re lucky enough, as I was, to grow up in California. Many of my friends were Japanese and I was always interested in Asian cultures. I made my first visit to Tassajara Zen Mountain Center just before I went at Stanford. I knew immediately that meditation was very important and did continue to meditate afterwards.

That said, since turning 40, I’ve been thinking about spending the second half of my life in China and India. I may actually go and do that with my wife once our kids are in college.

Master, once I pursue this recommended course, do you think I’ll find the answers of what I want to do in life?
Ah, the inescapable question! I advise you to think about what’s really needed in the world, then work back to what your own role might be. It requires a continuous process of reflection. My own decision-making process has never been oriented externally, even when I was young. I almost always knew what I wanted to do and almost never knew how. It was always this process of deciding the next thing I want to do — and then doors would open!

Master, do you believe in Zen leaps?
Back in the 1980s, I was meditating 2-3 times a week. One day, all of a sudden, clear as a bell, three things popped into my head:

  1. The idea that learning organization is a big fact.
  2. The work I was doing with several others was original and would make a contribution.
  3. I had to write a book now so that as the fact cycle developed, that would be one of the first books to become a point of reference.

It happened in an instant. I was very clear and I decided to write a book. It’s how the process works: continuous reflection informed by what’s important to you and informed by your sense of where the world is at and what’s needed. If you leap under those conditions, the net will appear.

Master, do you have any final words of advice for us?
Don’t be afraid of suffering even though it’s not easy. Sadness is sadness, fear is fear, and anxiety is anxiety. Don’t kid yourself. But recognize that it is very important developmentally and will really assist you in having a rich life with rich relationships. You’ll be able to open your heart to others, and offer your compassion. Oh — and one more:

Once you’ve gotten the meaning, you can forget the words.

Readers, so much mondo mumbo jumbo, or are you at last glimpsing the road to nirvana?

[Sources for Senge’s non-humorous remarks: Prasad Kaipa’s interview with Peter Senge for DailyGood; Jessie Scanlon’s interview with Senge for Businessweek about his latest work: The Necessary Revolution.]

STAY TUNED for one more post in this vein exploring the ideas of Lyn Fuchs, who has written a book about spirituality and travel.

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, with seasonal recipes, book giveaways and other extras. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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