Stacey Lawson is a powerful business-woman and an ardent spiritual seeker. You may recognize her name from the weekly Conscious Living column she authors for The Huffington Post.
Stacey is also co-founder of the Center for Entrepreneurship & Technology (CET) at U.C. Berkeley, where she teaches entrepreneurship and new venture creation to young people with an
emphasis on conscious business practices and social responsibility. She is a member of the International Advisory Board and Visiting Foreign Faculty of TRP School of Business, SRM University in Chennai, India.
Entrepreneur, teacher, speaker and writer, Stacey is dedicated to furthering the principles of social enterprise, sustainability, awakened leadership and personal mastery within our business, media and political institutions. We recently sat down with her to reflect on the power of love, compassion and wholeness in business. She shared her vision of creating conscious and enlightened organizations where people are encouraged to fully engage, recognizing work as a part of their awakening process and a path to self-realization.
What path led you to the work you’re doing today?
There have been two initially parallel and now more intersecting paths that have been predominant in my life. The first is my spiritual path. From the time when I was very young, I was interested in Eastern and Western philosophy, mysticism and the great masters of various faiths. I believe all faiths have a common core truth, and I have been pursuing and developing this in my own meditations, through reading and through studying with different teachers.
Up till a few years ago, I always kept this part of my life very private—it was a “meditation cushion” experience—and it wasn’t clear to me how it intersected with my experience in the material world.
On the business side, I started my career in the technical field, and at age twenty-four went to Harvard Business School. As part of my study I developed a business plan that I got very excited about and I started a company at age twenty-five. A few years later, I sold it to a large public company, where I became a senior vice president and ran a quite large division.
By age twenty-eight, I was at the very top of the business ladder, a 100,000-mile-a-year flyer, running an organization of over 1,200 people, and burning the candle at both ends—often feeling tired, overwhelmed and overworked. While I could achieve wonderful states of peace and clarity during my meditation practice, that wasn’t how I operated within the business domain. Something in my model wasn’t working.
The compartments I’d built were spirituality and personal development on the one hand, and work on the other, and neither of the two seemed to provide me with happiness and peace of mind in all aspects of my life. It became very clear that this needed to be looked at.
After several more years of my career, I decided to take some time off and step outside the corporate realm to do a little soul-searching. I took a sabbatical, traveled to India, and committed to start integrating those seemingly separate parts of life. I decided to refocus my business activities around social venture and started the exploration of consciousness in business: how do we stay awake and bring our whole self into the process of creating companies and being in the marketplace?
So, what brought me here was my need to integrate the personal self with the work self. I discovered that instead of creating a polarity there, we can approach work as an integral part of our awakening process and, seeing it as such, bring more consciousness into that sphere.
The tag line of Networking Times is “Moving the Heart of Business®.”How do we conduct business consistent with our growing awareness of our interconnectedness? What would that look like?
It’s a very big question. Khalil Gibran wrote, “Work is love made visible.” The work we do is part of how we serve in the world, at an individual level, as a group or organization, and at the societal or collective level.
Business has become one of the most powerful institutions on our planet. Recently, in the wake of numerous corporate scandals, the mortgage industry meltdown, global warming and so forth, there’s been an increasing concern about social justice and environmental sustainability, and a public outcry for broader corporate and social responsibility.
But evolving business doesn’t necessarily happen from the top down. It happens from the inside out. Conscious organizations begin with conscious individuals and conscious leaders. Every person has an opportunity to become a conscious businessperson, to be a beacon of light within any organization, and to call others into that place.
My work is to provide individuals with tools and models and ways to bring forward their consciousness in business, and also to shape the values and behaviors that result from that in teams and organizations, so that this can be truly reflected in the experience we have at work.
When introducing the notion of conscious business, I like to take a look at a common term we use in our modern world: work/life balance. Whether we are networkers or corporate employees or leaders of any kind, this is a predicament we all grapple with: we are looking for some sort of equilibrium between how much time we spend working versus all the other things we do in life.
The underlying assumption is that when we’re working, we’re not living. When going to work, we go on automatic pilot and we stop thinking about what’s really important and meaningful to us. And we just hunker down and get the job done, but somehow it doesn’t really contribute to our lives in the same way as do the things we truly enjoy. When I leave the office, my life starts again, or when I turn off the computer and walk out of my den into my child’s room, then I come fully alive.
There’s something troubling about the way we polarize life and work, how we treat work as what we have to do to survive or make money.
I had the good fortune to be on the board with the late Anita Roddick, founder of The Body Shop. She used to say, “People just want to be alive at work.” We want to have that same sense of thrill and joy, excitement and enthusiasm that we have in other parts of our life.
As a species, humans are unique in that we are self-aware. We have the ability to reflect on what feels important, what makes us happy and unhappy, what inspires us and what brings meaning and joy in our lives. Conscious business is about bringing those qualities into business, about being fully alive at work.
How do we foster that in ourselves and others?
We need to resist the tendency to lose our inner guidance or shut down the fullness of our perception as we walk into the office or turn on our computer in the morning. If you look up the definition of conscious, you’ll find it is “to be aware of one’s inner and outer world; to be mentally perceptive, awake and mindful.”
I think of conscious business as that call to stay alert and pay attention to our values; to be mindful of what we need to live a happy life; and to cultivate the inner experience of that at work. We don’t always have control over the outer condition, but we do have control over how we bring ourselves to that condition, staying tuned into our deeper intuition, our deeper knowing, our deeper values, and operating from that place so that we can always stay in alignment and be conscious of that which is most important to us as we do the work.
We could call it the meditation or the tantra of work, using it all for our own awakening, and bringing a condition of alertness and awareness to the process such that, no matter what the experience, we are in it for the realization of some higher good, for ourselves and for the whole.
This can be a tall order at times, yet it’s the path we’re all on.
I don’t think any of us has 100 percent succeeded, nor do I think anyone is ever left out. Life is an awakening process, regardless of whether we know it or whether we’re bringing our conscious attention to it.
There’s a cool Zen Buddhist parable Fred Kofman writes about in his book Conscious Business.
A samurai goes to visit a monk in his little hermitage, and is wanting—demanding, even—that the monk teach him the meaning of life. He says, “Monk, I want you to teach me about heaven and hell.” And the monk sits there silently and doesn’t respond.
The samurai starts to get red-faced and angry. He’s used to people responding to him immediately. He yells again, “Monk! Teach me about heaven and hell.” Again, the monk sits silently.
The samurai is so arrogant and so angered, that he pulls his sword to take the monk’s life. And just as he’s ready to strike the blow, the monk says, “That’s hell.” The samurai, realizing his arrogance and the fact that he was so quick to judge and draw his sword, drops to his knees and says, “Please forgive me. You’re my master. Will you please teach me?” And the monk says, “That’s heaven.”
We always have the choice to determine whether we will be in heaven or hell. If we see work as our teacher, knowing that we’re there to serve and to engage in the learning process, we have the opportunity to be in relative heaven—rather than experiencing it as our hell. We can move into that place of surrender, where we’re still giving fully of ourselves, engaged but detached, with mindfulness.
Monday morning doesn’t have to be hell, if we hold it in a consciousness that we can gift no matter where we are. We don’t need to change jobs, necessarily; we can change our own inner position.
Are there any practical tips or anchors, things people can do during the day to help them stay in this place of wholeness?
There’s a myriad different techniques, and each person needs to figure out what resonates most with him or her. I often encourage people to develop a daily personal practice: from simply watching their breath or doing breathing exercises, to keeping a journal, where you sit down in the morning and write, stream of consciousness, two or three pages to empty all the stuff from the previous day, the night, the dream plane, and create a clean slate to clear all the noise for a focused entry into the day. It’s also helpful to start the day with meditation and maybe even, if the environment allows, to set aside five minutes at various intervals every couple of hours throughout the day, to just sit, re-center, breathe, clear the mind, relax for a moment.
During our day, tension builds up, especially if things aren’t quite going the way we want or the day is taking a different turn than we expected. If we can learn to be mindful of this, we can choose to return to our core, turn within and ask ourselves, “What are the values I want to bring forward? What is my intention for this day?”
In the Eastern tradition, there’s a term in Sanskrit called sankalpa, which means a focused thought or intention. The yogis knew that since our external experience is a direct reflection of our inner landscape, there’s really nothing outside of our own consciousness. Our consciousness creates the environment, and our perception and experience of it.
If we actually had the ability to stay with one thought without it being drowned out by the constant chatter of the mind, we could manifest things quite easily. The problem is, we’re not able to stay with that sankalpa or one-pointedness of mind. That’s why we write down your intentions so we can return to them.
Work is not about willfully “efforting” things into place; it is about staying connected to our intention, so that it stays active in our energy field and it comes out in our words and our behaviors.
Along that line, I encourage people to keep a manifestation journal, where you write down the things that show up in your life. We often forget to do that part. By acknowledging things as they happen, we increase our trust, our confidence in the process.
There is a Buddhist practice called Tonglen, which means “giving and receiving.” Entering a meditative space, you breathe in other people’s fears and sorrows, then breathe out love and peace to them. We always try to get rid of our fears and issues, but there’s a time for simply being compassionate and holding what is: “It’s 2 p.m. and I’m stressed right now.” “We’re halfway through our day, and I feel overwhelmed.”
Just take a moment and breathe in, thinking, “Gosh, probably everyone in our office or many people on this call are actually experiencing the same thing right now.” Then breathe out peace and relaxation.
As soon as we acknowledge and embrace whatever it is we want to push away, it actually dissolves.
We all are flawed. There’s no one of us who can actually claim perfection. The total embracing and allowing and acceptance of that, and the simultaneous recognition that we are all divine beings, that we are completely one in the essence of the light, however you think of it, the creative force, God’s spirit, will help. There’s no need to actually resist the flaw of the cloaks we wear.
That’s the power of love: embracing what is.
To recognize the beauty of that diversity and the simultaneous truth of the unity, and totally be in gratitude for how it manifests in each one of us, that is love. What could be more loving than to accept everyone’s diversity, no matter how challenged we feel in the moment? To find the spaciousness that allows that to be and then move from that place of love because it is far more informed, far more intelligent than when we react to others in resistance.
A few years ago, American Express participated in the Stanford Forgiveness Project. As part of this program, they took a number of their sales professionals through forgiveness training. Then they had a control group of professionals who were equal in performance prior to the study. They wanted to see what impact this work has.
The program participants worked on emotional mastery, forgiveness, clearing out the emotional body and developing a deeper inner connection or resonance with self and other. At the end of the study, the researchers found that in the group that went through the training, the results in overall sales had increased by 18 percent. Stress fell 25 percent and employee morale, or what they call positive employee feelings, had gone up 20 percent. The ultimate eye-opener was that the forgiveness-trained salespeople then went on to outsell their peers by 60 percent.
Everyone’s a salesperson. Whether you work in a big or small company, your own consulting firm or your home-based business, we’re always putting our offerings out there, sharing with people how we can provide value. This means anyone can benefit from investing in emotional tools, developing emotional mastery of how we relate to one another, recognizing that no one is an island and that we need to engage in authentic communication, develop a sense of accountability and deliver on our commitments.
Business leaders are starting to understand that fostering this kind of awareness has a direct effect on performance and on the bottom line—in the Forgiveness Project case, a 60-percent sales improvement over the folks who did not take the training.
I believe we are going to see more and more companies who embrace the whole person and encourage people not to leave their heart and their intuition in the parking lot in the morning but to truly show up. We’ll start to see conscious leaders, who resonate with that capacity to hold love and the higher values, migrate to those companies, and we’ll see them pulling away from the pack, because they will clearly outperform the old ways.
When business starts paving the way, we can accelerate our planetary evolution. Consciousness is not dual: the material world is our playground, it is the substance of our awakening. If we can bring conscious alertness and spiritual intention and selfless service into the material world, then we are truly able to live the fullness that is our birthright.