In January 2018, I assumed the role of Executive Director of the Windham & Windsor Housing Trust, a non-profit organization that has provided housing opportunity and advocacy to residents in Southeastern, Vermont for over 30 years. Our programs include real estate development, rental management, supportive services, homeownership education, down-payment assistance and home repair loans. Each year, the Housing Trust serves over 2,000 people and stewards over $20 million dollars in community assets.
I came to this position after being mentored by the founding Executive Director for 4 years. She did a wonderful job in preparing me for many aspects of this role, but we never spoke about the inner challenges of leadership and how digging deeper into my spiritual practice could help me find my footing as I stepped up to the biggest professional challenge of my life. This wasn’t particularly disappointing because I’ve come to realize that support comes from different people and in unexpected ways. In my case, I found what I needed in a cookbook.
No Recipe, written by Zen Priest Edward Espe Brown promises that, “while cooking, you are getting cooked through and through. You appear to yourself as someone you’ve never met before: your sincerity and wholeheartedness are a work in progress, beautiful to behold! And the food’s not bad as well.” Brown, a student of the renowned Zen master Shunryu Suzuki Roshi and the first head cook at the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, shares spiritual teachings while describing how to feel your way in dark with only a handful of ingredients and your aesthetic taste to guide you in creating something nourishing and beautiful.
For The Biome’s co-founder, Barbi Schulick gave me this book after she learned how much I like to cook and I quickly noticed how Brown’s stories resonated with my work life as well. I was excited to lead this amazing organization and contribute something meaningful to the community, but I was in the early stages of not knowing, of being a beginner all over again and it seemed every day brought fresh feelings of overwhelm and doubt. Some days I felt truly in the dark.
I found comfort and instruction in Brown’s chapter on Cooking with Passion, where he describes how emotions arise when one is fully present and that it isn’t necessary to always calm yourself down so you don’t feel anything volatile. Rather, he suggests that you bring those passionate emotions to the kitchen and invite them to cook with you. “If I were to cook only when I feel loving, kind and benevolent, I would have starved long ago,” he states. Remembering this simple concept helped me stay present with the range of feelings that arose in my first year.
Brown also talks about using your consciousness to allow the ingredients to realize their true potential and I made the connection to the Housing Trust’s vision: that all people in Southeastern Vermont have a home they can afford. These homes are safe, are environmentally and economically sustainable, and enhance our neighborhoods, building a community that is diverse, vibrant, and respectful – a place where all residents feel a sense of well-being, belonging and connection. This is the meal that I am responsible for preparing and my ingredients are teamwork, public policy, philanthropic support, community partnerships and the people who benefit from our work as they are often the best guides to developing new ideas. Brown writes that you “quickly find that giving out directives only goes so far - the ingredients simply do not obey - but that asking for direction moves the meal forward.” This felt like an invitation to cultivate relentless curiosity and use the not knowing place as a way to deepen my understanding of how to lead my team toward this inspiring vision. But staying present in the dark is not always the easiest task.
Daily meditation helps and it’s been one of the best ways to expand my leadership capacity. It soothes my nervous system, helps to slow down my reaction time and enables me to focus more deeply. I listen more, ask a lot of questions and have a deeper level of trust in possible outcomes, even when I don’t know what they are yet. Meditation also helps me recognize when the chatter in my mind is based in fear and allows the tiniest pause between these thoughts and a reactive response. It allows me to choose how to behave and act with intention.
I had to draw on these strengths early on in my first year. A major challenge arose after we secured all of the required funding and permits to construct a new 5-story energy efficient building in downtown Brattleboro. We were able to move forward on testing soils and preparing the site, but construction was at a standstill. If we didn’t resolve the issue within a week, the cost of the delay would add up quickly. Worst still, if we couldn’t find a solution, our entire project would be in jeopardy. The thought of it was terrifying and tensions were high, but I was able to stay focused on the singular most important task which was to fully understanding the risks associated with each available option. The fear was ever present, but so were my intentions. In a short period of time, I talked to colleagues, funders, our consultant, community members and our attorney. The best solution eventually emerged and the issue was resolved without significant delays.
This experience cooked me through and through, but as Brown suggests, I couldn’t wait until my strong emotions subsided to get to the business at hand. The risk of starving was real! I was so grateful for my meditation practice which created the conditions for focus and courage to emerge. By slowing down and cultivating consciousness every day, it’s easier to connect with these natural qualities in a pressured situation and move forward with purpose. The best part is that we are a few steps closer to our vision. In just a few months, construction will be complete and we will welcome people to their new energy efficient homes. Some of the new residents will be young people renting their first apartment and being supported by Youth Services, our partner organization. Others may be seniors or young professionals.
Together, we will work to create a new community in the heart of downtown Brattleboro - a place where all residents feel a sense of well-being, belonging and connection.
WRITTEN BY ELIZABETH BRIDGEWATER