The Freedom to Be Mischievous

“To give your sheep or cow
a large spacious meadow
is the way to control him.”
Zen Master Shunryu Suzuki

Do you ever have those times where the same message keeps coming back to you in a million different forms, until finally you decide it is time to pay attention?

Over the past few months, all my signs have been pointing to Suzuki Roshi’s quote.

A discussion with a client about what it means to be a boss – giving employees the space to bring their talents to bear – and how to create an executive search around that management approach.

“I like to give my employees lots of room to succeed,” my client told me. “I don’t believe in trying to control every little thing. I hire talented people and let them go.”

Watching a friend parent her 10 year old daughter, and reflecting on the large meadow I created when raising Lizzie. And one rule in particular I wish I could recall the origin of, as I would like to thank that person.

Here is that rule: You can do whatever you want to your body, as long as it’s not permanent. Hair color and clothes = temporary. Tattoo = permanent.

We therefore celebrated green hair and baggy skater clothes and a Mohawk, among other iterations of Lizzie’s “becoming.” A large spacious meadow that blossomed into the madly creative and yet brilliantly focused being that is now my adult daughter.

Most recently, I have watched as a tightly controlled internet discussion group began to unravel, as posts were moderated to the point of censorship. As the group’s founder tried to exact a tighter and tighter grip upon the proceedings, the group took more and more power unto itself.

Even the masters-level online course we taught for Duquesne University, where we left it up to the students to determine both how to encourage and how to grade their online discussion. And where, as a result, they sometimes posted as many as 10 times the number of posts as other similar classes.

As I reflect on why Suzuki Roshi’s quote keeps circling back, in virtually every situation I encounter, I reflect that there is more to the quote.

“The best way to control people is to encourage them to be mischievous… To give your sheep or cow a large spacious meadow is the way to control him.”

And finally, as I read the full context, I am smiling as I realize – I have been so focused on providing that space, on encouraging the mischief in others.

Wake up, Hildy! This is about your own mischief, your own fences, your own encouragement!

This week, then, that will be my challenge.

Can I open the gates and encourage that freedom – that sense of mischief – in me?

And what will you do to create that same spacious, mischief-filled meadow for you?


For perhaps the best introduction to Zen, and for appreciating the sweet humor of Shunryu Suzuki, some great references:
Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind
Crooked Cucumber: The Life and Zen Teachings of Shunryu Suzuki

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