The Potent Pause: How Organizations and Individuals Learn from Change

By David R. Glaser

Abstract: A “potent pause” provides an opportunity for learning. It can occur in action research, for the organization, and, in meditation, for the organizational consultant. This article explains the analogies between action research and meditation and why turning toward experiences and problems, rather than away from them, can teach us about them and ourselves and reduce the pain and difficulties that they might cause. It defines the ancient aspects of meditation: mindfulness, equanimity, insight, and purification, and relates them to the levels of understanding that consultants help clients to go through in trying to learn profound truths about their organizations. Finally, it describes the benefits of choiceless awareness rather than planning and the implications for individual consultants and organizations.

Many OD consultants have explored Eastern wisdom and learned how to meditate. Some of us have found such exploration to be a great source of calmness, concentration, peace, comfort, and relief from stress. We may also have found that meditation can provide insight, wisdom, and a refinement of consciousness. This article proposes that there is a strong parallel between many forms of meditation and the core technology of the OD profession: action research. Both produce opportunities for learning in what can be called the “potent pause.”

The Potent Pause

For organizations, the potent pause is action research. Based on the seminal work of Kurt Lewin (1946) and refined by countless organization development consultants since the 1940s, action research is a powerful set of intervention techniques designed to assist leaders and members to learn about their organizations and to change them in planned and participative ways. The ultimate goals of action research are extremely ambitious; they include improving the levels of productivity, creativity, learning, and empowerment; adjusting the balance of authority and responsibility; raising morale; and facilitating a strong commitment on the part of all employees to the organization and its objectives. Obviously, these goals are not always fully met, but they serve as valuable ideals and guide the activities of consultants.

Action research requires clients to make fundamental shifts in their approaches to data and in their relationships to their work on a temporary basis. Rather than engaging with their work directly, as they do every day, we ask them to set aside a period of time and to step back from their experience in order to learn about its process. We help them to create a shift from content to contour; we help them to concentrate on the shape of the work—the “how” rather than the “what.” Making this shift is often difficult because the organizational culture’s task orientation is so pervasive. This is the reason that consultants say, “If you want to understand water, don’t ask a fish!” Because the fish and most organizational members take their environments for granted, they do not have much understanding of them. But once the shift is made, new perspectives and new behaviors can emerge. The pausing and reflecting that are part of action research help to catalyze insights that can guide planned change.

For individuals, the potent pause is meditation, a variety of practices that have been used for centuries to shed light on the mysteries of life. The ultimate goals of meditation, like those of action research, are extremely ambitious; they include a greater capacity for wisdom and compassion and an ability to be calm and happy regardless of the circumstances in which we find ourselves. As with action research, these goals are often only partially met, but they guide our efforts as meditators.

Meditation is analogous to action research in a variety of ways:

  • A shift in focus from content to contour or process;
  • An emphasis on using life experiences to generate insight and to create learning;
  • The dynamic tension between being a participant in and being an observer of the system;
  • The strategic use of ambiguity, paradox, and confusion;
  • The importance of calibrating learning to the readiness level of the learner; and
  • The importance of maintaining a calm presence in the midst of change.

THE ORIGINS OF MEDITATION

In prehistoric times life was very simple and very mysterious. Human beings had no explanation for forest fires, eclipses, and a host of other natural, painful events. Meditation evolved to help people cope with their ignorance. When all else failed, one could always sit very still or beat a drum to attain a calm, meditative state and, in turn, achieve insight that could lead to survival, as well as greater ease in a difficult world. The meditative disciplines that are available to us today have developed over many centuries

Like action research, meditation is based on a fundamental shift in the way we relate to our experience. Rather than focusing on our goals and working to achieve them, as we do in many domains of our lives, in meditation we work at understanding our experience. We watch what happens in our minds and our bodies and we try not to judge ourselves, especially if what we find is unpleasant. This requires a significant shift in our attitudes toward the inevitable difficulties of life. The First Noble Truth of the Buddha tells us that life is painful and unsatisfying by its very nature, because it is always changing (His Holiness the Dalai Lama, 1998). Because we have minds, bodies, and relationships with others, we will have occasional difficulties and pain. Our usual response is to tighten up and turn away from our troubles. In meditation, however, we try to open up and turn toward them so that they can teach us about themselves and about ourselves. The remarkable result of our inquiry is the spontaneous release of the very feelings that are so burdensome. A simple formula explains the process:

Suffering = Pain x Resistance

Pain is the natural result of having a mind and a body and living in a changing world. There are many forms of resistance, such as avoidance, rejection, and distraction. Some subtle, insidious forms of resistance are stress-related illness, addictions, and materialism. In the Western world, we tend to view the unpleasant experiences of life as challenges to be overcome, hidden, or actively ignored, lest they be seen as evidence of our inadequacy. These forms of resistance magnify our pain (including physical and emotional pain), thus creating unnecessary suffering.

Meditation is a way of reducing or eliminating suffering by reducing our resistance to pain. As the mystic Thomas Merton said, “I didn’t become a monk so I could suffer more than other people—I became a monk so I could suffer more effectively.”

HOW MEDITATION WORKS

According to ancient meditation practices, we pay attention to our experiences in special ways, explained by the following formula:

Mindfulness + Equanimity = Insight and Purification

Mindfulness is a precise, continuous, and focused awareness, which we try to maintain as we meditate. The object of our attention can be any aspect of our ordinary experience, including our breath or what we feel, think, see, or hear. Equanimity is a profound permission to feel exactly what we feel, without any interest in having it change in any way.

When we apply mindfulness and equanimity to our experiences, we generate insights about life that help us to feel happy and calm regardless of circumstances. For example, we may experience deep insights about the ways that we turn our pain into suffering or about the constantly changing nature of all phenomena or about the inadequacy of our language to describe the delicacy of our experiences. We may discover that what we call “feelings” are actually combinations of thoughts and sensations in the body. This precision helps us to be more aware and more alive.

Purification is the spontaneous release of limiting forces from the past.

Mindfulness and equanimity reinforce one another as we develop greater concentration and acceptance of what is. The more we can accept our experience as we meditate, the more aware we can be. And the more aware we are of our experience, the easier it is to accept. As our practice deepens, we see that our capacity for becoming more conscious and more appreciative of the realities of life seems to be unlimited.

LEVELS OF UNDERSTANDING

When we are helping organizational leaders to discover paradigms that are completely new to them, to cope with radical changes in their markets, or to respond appropriately to unforeseen data from within their organizations, we must help them first to be comfortable with their confusion. Engaging with complicated, unfamiliar problems may cause even very smart people to flounder for awhile. In fact, there are several levels of understanding all human beings may go through when trying to learn a profound truth:

Level 1: I think I may have read it, but I have no recollection of it.

Level 2: I remember hearing about it, but only vaguely.

Level 3: I remember the words, but it doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.

Level 4: I can explain it clearly, but I’ve never experienced it.

Level 5: I see how it works in my own organization. Now I know it.

Because this is an additive learning process, we must assure our clients that the work is more productive than it may seem, that feeling confused is to be expected, and that significant change takes time. This iterative process of individual learning makes it possible for leaders to champion organizational change. It is analogous to the aspects of meditation described above.

“THINKING, THINKING,” RATHER THAN COMPULSIVE PLANNING

Often we find ourselves planning for the future in ways that feel like being on “automatic pilot.” We may be driving or washing dishes and, rather than enjoying the moment, our minds are busy planning. There may not be a particularly important issue to decide about; we just plan because planning is familiar. Our planning often turns into worrying: “What if I get lost or have a flat tire?” This kind of unconscious mental activity keeps the mind whirling, wasting precious energy and interfering with our enjoyment of the moment. So how can we re-ground ourselves in the present moment? When we find our minds spinning like this, we can simply say, “Thinking, thinking” and free ourselves from this familiar trap. We can take a potent pause, a moment of quiet reflection, renewal, and rest. If we slow down our unintentional mental activity enough, we receive a wonderful reward: Wisdom arises unbidden when the mind is no longer driven to find answers. The answers we need will find their way to us

IMPLICATIONS FOR ORGANIZATIONS

In retreat centers throughout the world, a bell is rung to signal the beginning and ending of the meditation period. The bell is used because it automatically creates mindfulness; as the sound fades, people’s minds remain focused on the diminishing sound. Their attention is then concentrated and ready for meditation. Nothing else matters for  for the next period of time. They all know why they are there, and they’re ready to work.

What can organizations do to send such a signal? Most people would agree that smooth, efficient work carried out by people who are “in the loop,” clear about their objectives, and committed to fulfilling the mission are important goals. Eliminating obstacles to these goals takes time, energy, and attention that could be focused on the work itself. A clear signal (like the bell) is required to help people to focus on process issues.

IMPLICATIONS FOR CONSULTANTS

If you understand action research and have had good results with your clients using it, then (whether you know it or not) you understand a lot about meditation and can experiment by sitting quietly, gathering some data, and feeding it back to yourself.

SUMMARY

Action research represents a potent pause for organizations. It enables them to become smarter, more productive, and happier places for their members to work. Like any other important skill, it requires time, effort, patience, and persistence to bring about the profound benefits of planned organizational change.

Meditation also requires time, effort, patience, and persistence. It represents a potent pause for individuals in their efforts to become more insightful, more clear about their values, and more efficient and happy in their lives, regardless of their particular circumstances.

About the Author

David R. Glaser is a partner in Vogel/Glaser & Associates, Inc., an organization development consulting firm located in Columbia, Maryland. Since 1982, Mr. Glaser has consulted with a variety of organizations that are planning and implementing change efforts that challenge leaders and members to learn, innovate, and collaborate with mutual respect. He specializes in teamwork interventions and executive coaching. He is a co-author of Renewing Organizations in a Time of Change, published in Volume 2 of The 1995 Annual. Mr.Glaser is an active member of the OD Network and is a professional member of the NTL Institute. He has practiced meditation for twenty-three years.

The Pfeiffer Library Volume 3, 3rd Edition. Copyright © 2003 John Wiley & Sons, Inc.