10 Simple Life Lessons from the Bamboo

bambooi2The forests that surround our village here in Nara, Japan are filled with beautiful bamboo. The practical, aesthetic, and spiritual significance of bamboo is deeply embedded in Japanese culture. The particular part of Nara where we live is famous for myriad bamboo products, such as tea whisks, tea utensils, knitting needles, and so on. The symbolism of the bamboo plant runs deep and offers practical lessons for life and for work. Below I list ten ways in which the bamboo offers up for us practical lessons. Nature is always speaking to us and providing lessons. We only need to improve our ability to hear with our eyes and see with our ears to appreciate her lessons.

(1) Remember: What looks weak is strong
bambooThe body of  even the largest type of  bamboo is not large compared to the other much larger trees in the forest. But the plants endure cold winters and extremely hot summers and are sometimes the only “trees” left standing in the aftermath of a storm. Remember the words of a great Jedi Master: “Size matters not. Look at me. Judge me by my size do you?” We must be careful not to underestimate others or ourselves based only on old notions of what is weak and what is strong. You do not have to be big and imposing to be strong. You may not be from the biggest company or the product of the most famous school, but like the bamboo, stand tall, believe in your own strengths, and know that you are as strong as you need to be. Remember too that there is strength in the light, in openness and transparency. There is strength in kindness, compassion, and cooperation.

(2) Bend but don’t break.
One of the most impressive things about the bamboo is how it sways with the breeze. This gentle swaying movement is a symbol of humility. The foundation of the bamboo is solid, yet it moves and sways harmoniously with the wind, never fighting against it. In time, even the strongest wind tires itself out, but the bamboo remains standing tall and still. A bend-but-don’t-break or go-with-the-natural-flow attitude is one of the secrets for success whether we’re talking about bamboo trees, answering tough questions in a Q&A session, or just dealing with the everyday vagaries of life.

(3) Be strongly rooted yet flexible
The bamboo is remarkable for its incredible flexibility. This flexibility is made possible in part due to the bamboo’s complex root structure which is said to make the ground around a bamboo forest very stable. Roots are important, yet in an increasingly mobile world many individuals and families do not take the time or effort to establish roots in their own communities. The challenge, then, for many of us is to remain the mobile, flexible, international travelers and busy professionals that we are while at the same time making the effort and taking the time to become involved and deeply rooted in the local community right outside our door.

(4) Slow down your busy mind
We have far more information available than ever before and most of us live at a very fast pace. Even if most of our work life is on-line, life itself can seem quite hectic, and at times chaotic. Often it is difficult to see the signal through all the noise. In this kind of environment, it seems all the more important to take the time to slow down, to calm your busy mind so that you may see things more clearly.

(5) Be always ready
As the great Aikido master Kensho Furuya says in Kodo: Ancient Ways, “The warrior, like bamboo, is ever ready for action.” In presentation or other professional activities too, through training and practice we can develop in our own way a state of being ever ready. Through study and practice we can at least do our best to be ready for any situation.

(6) Find wisdom in emptiness
It is said that in order to learn, the first step is to empty ourselves of our preconceived notions. One can not fill a cup which is already full. The hollow insides of the bamboo reminds us that we are often too full of ourselves and our own conclusions; we have no space for anything else. In order to receive knowledge and wisdom from both nature and people, we have to be open to that which is new and different. When you empty your mind of your prejudices and pride and fear, you become open to the possibilities.

(7) Smile, laugh, & play
The Kanji (Chinese character) for smile or laugh is 笑う. At the top of this character are two small symbols for bamboo (竹 or take). It is said that bamboo has a strong association with laughter, perhaps because of the sound that the bamboo leaves make on a windy day. If you use your imagination I guess it does sound a bit like the forest laughing; it is a soothing sound. Bamboo itself also has a connection with playfulness as it has been used for generations in traditional Japanese kite making and in arts and crafts such as traditional doll making. We have known intuitively for generations of the importance of smiling, laughing, and playing, now modern science shows evidence that these elements play a real and important role in one’s mental and physical health as well.


Above. This is the bamboo forest behind our home in Nara. I took this short clip from the back of our house on New Year’s eve. Note the soothing sound of the bamboo as it sways in the strong wind.

(8) Commit yourself to growth & renewal
Bamboo are among the fastest-growing plants in the world. It does not matter who you are — or where you are — today, you have amazing potential for growth. We usually speak of Kaizen or continuous improvement that is more steady and incremental, where big leaps and bounds are not necessary. Yet even with a commitment to continuous learning and improvement, our growth — like the growth of the bamboo — can be quite remarkable when we look back at what or where we used to be. You may at times become discouraged and feel that you are not improving at all. Do not be discouraged by what you perceive as your lack of growth or improvement. If you have not given up, then you are growing, you just may not see it until much later. How fast or how slow is not our main concern, only that we’re moving forward.

(9) Express usefulness through simplicity
MatchaAikido master Kensho Furuya says that “The bamboo in its simplicity expresses its usefulness. Man should do the same.” Indeed, we spend a lot of our time trying to show how smart we are, perhaps to convince others — and ourselves — that we are worthy of their attention and praise. Often we complicate the simple to impress and we fail to simplify the complex out of fear that others may know what we know. Life and work are complicated enough without our interjecting the superfluous. If we could lose our fear, perhaps we could be more creative and find simpler solutions to even complex problems that ultimately provide the greatest usefulness for our audiences, customers, patients, or students.

(10) Unleash your power to spring back
Bamboo is a symbol of good luck and one of the symbols of the New Year celebrations in Japan. The important image of snow-covered bamboo represents the ability to spring back after experiencing adversity. In winter the heavy snow bends the bamboo back and back until one day the snow becomes too heavy, begins to fall, and the bamboo snaps back up tall again, brushing aside all the snow. The bamboo endured the heavy burden of the snow, but in the end it had to power to spring back as if to say “I will not be defeated.”

snow-bamboo
Above. The bamboo bends in winter when the snowfall is heavy, but springs back when the snow has melted.

These are just ten lessons from the bamboo; one could easily come up with dozens more. These are not things that we do not all ready know, of course. Yet like many a good sensei, the bamboo simply reminds us of what we already know but may have forgotten. Then it is up to us to put these lessons (or reminders) of resilience into daily use through persistence and practice. You do not need to be perfect. You need only to be resilient. This is the greatest lesson from the bamboo.

Below I shared some of the lessons learned from the bamboo in this 12-minute TEDxTokyo talk which was recorded (and streamed) live from Tokyo on May 21, 2011. You can see the slides I used in this talk below on Slideshare.net. These slides were made in Photoshop and Keynote and exported as a PDF file for Slideshare.

Be Like Bamboo (TEDxTokyo 2011 slides)

from Presentation Zen

Ichi-go ichi-e & the need to be here now

Tea_houseAllow me to share a simple idea from the art of tea or Sadou, “the way of tea.” You may think that the traditional art of Sadou (茶道) is a strange place to glean lessons that can be applied to various aspects of our daily lives, but the simple practical lessons from the Zen arts run deep and wide. Ichi-go ichi-e (一期一会) is a concept connected to the way of tea; it expresses the ideal of the way of tea. Roughly translated the phrase means “one time, one meeting” or “one encounter; one opportunity.” In the way of tea we should respect the host and the others in the garden and the tea room and honor the moment as if it were a once-in-a-lifetime gathering. That is, we should cherish every meeting for it will never happen again. Ichi-go ichi-e is a reminder that each tea ceremony is unique even though the elements are familiar.

This moment will never happen again
Ichi-go ichi-e is an expression that reminds me to slowdown and appreciate each “meeting,” especially with my children. So this is why the rate of posts to presentation zen have slowed (and the rate of baby pics to facebook have increased). I have more books in the works and I’ll be sharing as much content as I can more regularly on many topics related to presentations, creativity, education, and so on. Although I am less productive, I thank you for your support and for all your emails and comments over the years. It means a lot. I’ll do my best to get more useful information published on the presentation zen website in a speedier fashion.

Image
Above: My little girl and little boy playing upstairs in my office at home in Nara.

About three years ago, the rate of new blog posts to presentation zen declined. It was not for a lack of ideas; I have folders full of ideas and samples that I would like to share. However, three years ago this April something extraordinary happened (well, extraordinary for my wife and me at least): our first child, a girl, was born in Osaka. And last February, our second child, a boy, was born in the same hospital. It’s a cliché to say, but children change everything. Immediately upon holding my girl for the first time some 36 months ago, I felt as if I had somehow fundamentally changed. This study suggests that perhaps my brain was even changing: “A father sprouts supplemental neurons in his brain and experiences hormonal changes after the birth of a child.”

While my passion for work and keen interest in self-development and teaching and helping others with presentations, etc. did not decline in the least, I found that more and more things — everything, really — took a back seat to the simple concept of just being with my daughter (and now son as well). I still get frustrated sometimes because I do want to work more, but I also do not want to be away from family. One important thing my children have taught me is to appreciate each moment, even the seemingly inconsequential ones.

Ichigo_ichie.057
This slide above with a 16:9 aspect ratio features a photo from this week that tells a story. I was having my morning breakfast while trying to get through some email at home while my then 23-month old daughter, who I already fed, bathed and dressed, was playing nearby. While I was trying to get some work in and enjoy a cup of coffee, my daughter suddenly climbs up into my lap and takes my toast. Do’h! I could look at it as a kind of workus interruptus, but I have learned to just go with the flow and enjoy these moments. Of course, this explains why my email-answering skills have suffered. And yet, c’est la vie.

Forever but never again
This idea of ichi-go ichi-e reminded me of a line from a famous jazz ballad from 1949 called “Again” (Mark Murphy’s Stolen Moments version is my favorite; here are the lyrics). There is nothing “Zen” about the lyrics or their origins, of course, but there is one line from the song that has stayed with me since I bought the Mark Murphy album when I was 16: “We’ll have this moment forever, but never again.” I didn’t understand that line when I was in high school, but it stuck with me. Now those simple eight words are almost a kind of mantra for me; and the meaning is clear and illuminating.

Bondibeach_slide.001

Above: The slide above looks a bit sappy perhaps out of context, something like a Hallmark card (I took the photo a few years ago at Bondi Beach just 20 minutes from downtown Sydney). But the point I am making when I speak in front of this visual is about appreciating the moment of whatever it is you’re engaged in—a concert, a speech, a lesson…or a walk with a friend. And of course, spending time with your children. This is the moment, there are no other moments.

(By the way, the subtitle for the movie “Forrest Gump” in Japanese is ichi-go ichi-e. I suppose this is because the Forrest Gump character appreciated every moment and every chance encounter without a thought of being anywhere except where he was at that moment. See the movie poster in Japanese.)