Buddhism and Leadership: Coping with illness and when things are taken away!
My novel ‘The Buddhist CEO’ will be published on December 13th 2022. The journey to this moment, where I am about to realise a personal dream of publishing a book, has come about in unexpected fashion. A central teaching of Buddhism is that everything is impermanent and these last two years have brought this truth home to me.
In 2019 I was entering my seventh year in charge as the CEO of a fantastic not for profit organisation in Scotland called Scarf. I was proud to be their CEO and despite the pressures of the job I was very happy in it.
Then one morning in November 2019 I remember waking up and getting out of bed and being shocked at how dizzy I felt. It was a strange feeling that I had never experienced before. I was quite shocked but I presumed it must be some kind of virus that would eventually pass. Over the next few weeks I got progressively more dizzy each day. Eventually I felt so dizzy it was difficult to walk in a straight line.
Other strange symptoms started to appear. I felt really fatigued, my left shoulder became almost unbearably sore, many parts of my body felt numb and itchy, I had brain fog and found it difficult to concentrate and remember things. I feared the worst and thought possibly I had a terminal illness. For the first time in my life I was genuinely worried about my health and the future.
I worked on for about six weeks before it became obvious I had to take some time off. I had to admit I was not functioning anywhere near my usual self.
The next six months involved me seeing many doctors, MRI scans and lumber punctures, to try and get to the bottom of what was wrong with me. I have now learned that the symptoms I describe above are common to many neurological conditions. Getting the right diagnosis takes time and skill.
Eventually I was diagnosed with Functional Neurological Disorder, FND for short. What is this I wondered? Although I had never heard of FND, it is the second most common neurological condition to be diagnosed in the western world. It is not well understood but functional brain scans show that the brains of people with FND send incorrect signals to the body, hence why I feel dizzy etc. There is no cure as such but some people do recover but if you have it for several years your chance of a full recovery diminish. I am now in that category. However, I have improved to the point where I can enjoy life again at a fairly high level. Although I am still unable to work.
How did Buddhism help? It teaches that there is no fixed self. A concept that runs contrary to western thought. Buddhism teaches that there is a peace that can be discovered if we live
our life in the now. What does that mean? It means that much of our dissatisfaction is caused by not being in the now. We are often thinking about the future or the past. What will I have for tea tonight? Why did I say that earlier today in that meeting? Rather than being fully present to our life right now.
This gave me great comfort in my darkest days. I tried not to get too far ahead of myself. It would have been easy to fall into despair. I was determined for this not to happen. I focused on the now. Enjoyed the little things in life. When I drank tea I tried to be fully present to drinking tea. When I made the families evening meal, after sleeping for three hours in the afternoon due to fatigue, I was fully present to the task. These simple tasks brought great moments of contentment despite how I felt.
It was clear that after almost two years of illness, despite having improved, I was not going to be able to be a CEO again. Acceptance is another great teaching of Buddhism and I resolved to accept that I was going to leave a job that I had enjoyed and where I felt I had made some real impact as a leader. Sounds like it was easy but it was not.
It was interesting to note what I missed most about work and reflect upon this. How many times had I joked about wouldn't it be great to not have to work. Well here I was finding myself in a position not having to work, but the overarching feeling I had, almost immediately, was I really miss work! What I missed the most surprised me. I missed interacting with my colleagues and the daily office banter that I had taken for granted all those years. I can't tell you how much I missed that. I also missed the problem solving. As you will know running a company is seldom easy and every day a challenge arises that you and your colleagues have to solve. I missed those challenges and the thrill of overcoming problems and finding solutions.
Buddhism, and the way of looking at life it taught me, helped greatly. So did the organisation I worked for. A truly great company called Scarf. A not for profit organisation delivering much needed services to people struggling to heat their homes and a range of other projects supporting the efficient use of energy in the home and business. They stood side by side with me through thick and thin and are still with me now. Although I am unable to work as such I can still contribute. I am now on the Scarf board and love still being involved.
I determined that this illness will not define me. I like to think I have embraced my illness and I am not fighting against it but rather working with it. Despite never wanting FND or wishing it upon anyone it has taught me to relax more, live more peacefully and caused me to reinvigorate my Buddhist practice. What could I do next I wondered? Hence where the writing of the book came in. I have tried to enjoy every moment of writing the book. It has brought deep pleasure. At times it has been comical. Due to my memory issues I have on occasion gone to the book thinking I will be writing chapter six today, only to find I have already written it! Despite these difficulties and the process being very slow a times I got to the end and produced my manuscript.
So never give up. Even when the chips are down there is always something to be enjoyed and learned. The adventure never stops, We just have to find ways to adapt. A Zen Buddhist hero of mine Koho Zenji once wrote:
"This fleeting body reveals the light"