2500 years later: what can Buddha teach us about Personal and Organisational Development? The answer lays at the heart of it!

Note: I am talking here about the history and philosophy of the man generally known as “Buddha”. I am not talking about the religion “Buddhism” which is a separate thing.

I recently completed another reading of Stephen Batchelor’s great little book: Buddhism without beliefs after also reading After Buddhism by the same author.

Why the interest? Well, for someone interested in History, Philosophy, Adult Development and Leadership, Buddha is an intriguing personality. Stephen Batchelor is a scholar who, with others, has investigated the earliest writings. He does a great job teasing apart the man and his philosophy from the religion that was subsequently built upon his ideas.

Relevance to Adult Development (and hence Leadership)

The written canon describing the insight the Buddha is said to have had after his journeys and prolonged meditation bears striking resemblance to the philosophical framework around Constructive Developmental Psychology and Subject Object theory. I find that fascinating because these are, in my view, core foundations for personal development and hence effective organisations.

Below I will touch on what I consider to be the relevance for personal and organisational development.

Historically, the core of Buddhist thought revolves around the The Four Noble Truths – a description of Buddha’s insight. These are generally expressed as follows however this translation and implied moralistic-theistic interpretation is called into question by Batchelor. His re-translation appears below.

The Four Noble Truths as normally expressed:

  1. We crave and cling to things that are actually impermanent
  2. Our attachment to both greed and aversion causes an endless cycle of suffering
  3. We can realise that our attachment is the root cause of suffering
  4. We can be released by following the eightfold path to enlightenment

Batchelor starts by taking exception to the word “Truth”. He, and others, argue that the correct translation is “Task” (he is a Sanskrit scholar). He also argues that the translations of many other terms associated with the Four Noble Truths have been loaded with moralistic layers as it morphed from a philosophy into a religion.

Without going into linguistic and historic details, his re-translation and interpretation of Buddha’s insights thus become:

The Four Tasks

  1. Embrace life
  2. Let go of what arises
  3. See it ceasing
  4. Act!

If that is indeed what Buddha proposed 2500 years ago it sits remarkably well with the task before us in developing organisations fit for the modern world. Organisational development is rooted in personal development. Buddha’s proposal is strongly supported by contemporary neuroscience.

1. Embrace life

Life brings both joy and sorrow. Much suffering stems from a rejection of current reality – wishing and hoping for it to stay just as it is or for it to be other than it is. Task 1 is to simply recognise that we tend to do that and to practice accepting the moment to moment state of our existence. Some people interpret that to mean not acting in the world, a kind of fatalistic inertia. I do not hold to that view. I think we can act fiercely from our creative impulse. We are, after all, part of the ebb and flow of existence. Everything moves and changes and that includes each of us. Let’s fully engage with that – while keeping the other tasks in mind.

Neuroscience and physics show us there is deeper layer below the idea of embracing life. The idea is that we are actually the authors of our experience of life. It is therefore even more impermanent than it seems because that which we are “embracing” can be changed by the way we think about it. I do not mean we are dreaming up the events of our lives. I mean that to a very real extent the internal experience of those events is constructed by one’s self. I discuss the science in detail in the Key ideas behind our work.

Kim (not her real name) was a subject matter expert within her organisation. For years she was the go-to person in her field. It was a source of meaning, security and fulfilment in her life that had been with her for so long it had become a core element of her identity. Recently, however, some difficulties emerged. For a start she was feeling overwhelmed by the sheer number of demands on her time. And, to make it even more challenging Jamie had just joined the organisation having graduated with advanced expertise in Kim’s field. Unconsciously, competition was driving Kim to do more to maintain her “go-to person” status. Under the influence of these challenges Kim began to act out in ways that resulted in her coming for “coaching”.

From a brain perspective Kim’s identity and behaviour was habitually wired because of the strong reward flowing from being the “go-to person”. As it turned out she also had unconscious fears about what would happen if she was no longer in that position. When her environment changed (Jamie starting) her habitual pattern made it very hard to adapt to the new situation because her behaviour was being unconsciously driven by the habit. Kim was unaware of the hidden assumptions driving her unconscious fears so she had no way to adapt. She doubled down on what she had always done but that behaviour was maladapted in the new environment and causing problems. What was helping her before was harming her now.

From the perspective of Task 1 Kim was certainly not  “embracing life” as it now presented itself. Rather, she worked harder to maintain her life as it had been. Of course, anyone in a similar situation would find it almost impossible to simply change and adapt due to the human brain processes mentioned in the previous paragraph. Talking about it was Kim’s start on the journey towards embracing a new reality and eventually a new way of being.

The point of Buddhist philosophy is to make another thought process habitual – to cultivate the perspective that life is ever changing and commonly out of our control. When presented with changed circumstances we can behave in the way we always have (as Kim was doing) or we can notice what is now present, then stop and work out how to adapt to the new reality. Letting go of the idea of permanence and training one’s brain for impermanence is the key idea behind “embracing life”. Beyond merely agreeing with this philosophical approach it takes work to wire it. Mindfulness practices are a key part of this – habitually paying attention to “what is”.

2. Let go of what arises

Task 1 points out that life ebbs and flows. It is impermanent. What arises will also fall away. As mentioned above, being creative and generative while enjoying that process is a good thing and in keeping with embracing the ever changing flow of life. However, suffering can arise from a determination to hang onto the “good” bits and get rid of the “bad” bits, or sometimes vice-versa! This can become a kind of pathology in people and organisations. If we stop to reflect we can notice that we are capable of letting things go. Sometimes it takes a bit of time. Learning to be with the reality of impermanence and to practice “letting go” is a useful skill. Even a rock will be worn away by the stream, eventually.

There is a parable of a farmer who had worked his fields for many years. One day his horse ran away. Upon hearing the news his neighbours came to visit. “Such bad luck,” they said.

“Maybe,” the farmer replied. The next morning the horse returned, bringing with it three wild horses. “How wonderful!” the neighbours exclaimed.

“Maybe,” replied the old man. The following day his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown and broke his leg. The neighbours again came to offer their sympathy on his misfortune.

“Maybe,” answered the farmer. The day after, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army. Seeing the son’s leg was broken they passed him by. The neighbours congratulated the farmer on how well things had turned out.

“Maybe,” said the farmer.

What “arises” with respect to Task 2 is the emotion and bodily state associated with having (or avoiding) a thing or experience.

Kim was struggling to let go of her old life. She previously had status, security and meaning. Unconsciously she was desperately trying to keep those reward states despite her new life circumstances. Who could blame her for that? However, her inability to adapt was now causing a lot of pain in her life and threatening her career.

Where previously Kim’s brain generated a reward state of being it was now generating a threat state. Her attempt to maintain a past way of being was generating a deepening spiral of pain. To interrupt that pattern we worked together to uncover the hidden assumptions she was subject to which were driving her (now) maladapted actions. For that we used the Overcoming Immunity To Change® process and coaching. Implicit in this process is finding the awareness of the ways our intelligent human need for personal security is playing out and recognising that our behaviour is based on a hidden “story” we are telling ourselves. We can work to let go of that story and to author a new one. Kim came to see the way her hidden assumptions drove behaviours that were helpful in the old environment but were unhelpful in this new world. That “light bulb” moment was part of letting go of what was arising so she could move towards a more adaptive future. She became more able to let go of the high state of discomfort, realising she was the one generating that state. She thereby became less stressed and more able to plan a new approach.

Reward and threat arise within us in response to our perception and construction of experience. Typically, those states fade away as we react, respond, take action, watch or wait as appropriate.  We are constantly “letting go” of the states that arise. We can cultivate that practice and get faster and better at doing it.

3. See it ceasing

Task 3 is about learning to watch our emotions, our health, our successes and our failures arise then pass away – being mindful of the experience while not becoming the experience. As we saw in Task 2, whatever arises will cease. We might take steps to prolong the ceasing yet cease it will. People and organisations who are mindful of that ceasing do much better than those who simply do not notice until too late.

Together we devised some safe-to-fail experiments for Kim to implement. These small experiments in her work place were designed to test the extent to which her hidden assumptions were applicable in her new work context. In other words, we designed them for Kim to incrementally gain confidence that thinking and acting differently would not cause some kind of catastrophe. Kim kept a diary (“lab notes”) about the experiments and their outcomes. The very act of designing experiments, implementing them and measuring outcomes is one of “seeing it ceasing”. This is a conscious act of mindfulness, of “seeing” and reinforcing the habitual thought patterns associated with an acceptance that life is impermanent and we can adapt in response.

4. Act!

Those who have no awareness of the inevitable ceasing cannot take steps to manage that inevitability. They cannot act because they do not “see” the fact that the present will not always accurately predict the future.

In this way of being people have no “exit strategy” because they do not construct the idea that things will inevitably change. In other words they fail to plan for inevitable new situations. Neither have they an “entry strategy” because they fail to conceive of new opportunities arising. They have no plan to seize new opportunities as they present themselves simply because they have a mindset that does not notice the opportunities that do arise. This is a failure of leadership at the personal level that can impact terribly on an organisation and all those involved in it.

As discussed above, accepting the reality of the ebb and flow of life does not imply inactivity. Each individual is part of the process of life by virtue of their existence. According to Stephen Batchelor, what Buddha meant was to take action in the world while holding the other 3 tasks in mind. If one is able to do that one could live a less troubled and more dynamic, adapted life.

For what it is worth my life experience supports that view – and of course I am only qualified to speak for myself. What do you think? What is your experience? Mine is that the more I reflect on my experience through the lens of the four tasks and practice every day, the happier and more satisfied I am. I have so much more I can contribute as a result.

Kim continued the process of experimenting, journaling, reflecting and acting. As she did so she began to become more comfortable with the idea of expressing her creative impulse in response to her constantly changing experience of the world. She was taking action every day. The catastrophic outcomes that were at the core of her hidden assumptions did not eventuate. Instead, she found a new meaning in her work that was much more satisfying than being fixed on being the central person in the organisation. In short, her position was strengthened as her work colleagues began to consult her not just for her subject matter knowledge but for the growing wisdom derived from making the four tasks her central organising principle.

As Stephen Batchelor points out, the four tasks coalesce into one way of living. In Buddhist philosophy that is called “living the dharma” and is what Buddha was promoting in his travels. 2500 years ago Buddha had no fMRI machine, CT scan nor Trans Cranial Magnetic Stimulation. He simply used his mind to reflect on itself. I like to think of the dharma as a metaphor for the myriad brain processes that generate my ever-changing experience of life. Implicit in those four short phrases is a way to put all the brain science and psychology into a beneficial organising pattern and then to act accordingly.

The key idea of Curiosity Skilled The Cat is: organisations (a collection of people) do better when they foster the personal development of their people. That development takes the form of changing neural pathways within individuals. Buddhist philosophy is another frame that is completely in accord with contemporary neuroscience. They both have at their heart the idea that we construct experience and we have the capacity to author that experience differently. Being personally curious is the starting point for organisational development. That’s my story anyway. 😉


Recently, I was discussing a draft of this article over a Japanese meal with my old friend and colleague John Sautelle. John offered the idea that understanding and implementing the four tasks (ie. living the dharma) might be a way to accelerate the internal shifts that take place when we move that which we are “subject to” to “being object” in our mind. In other words, another way to think about the precepts of Constructive Developmental psychology. I will explore this idea in another article.


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