((For a follow up on the recent “emotion” blogs, return to The Power of Breath post for more on coherence and self-regulation over emotions run amuck.))

Life is full of contradictions. For example, one of the longest-standing companies in the world today was founded by a philandering fellow, a war-monger whose early life displayed little promise of spiritual development. An encounter with a cannonball gave him a chance to reconsider his values, and this man came to recognize his wholeness and the power of his spirit, after which he literally threw himself to the world in service to others.

A sage philosopher from the Greek era perhaps stimulated this young man’s thinking when he wrote that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” Socrates words have perhaps led many of us towards introspection, or led the modern-day executive to require the rank and file to undergo a 360 degree assessment, Myers-Briggs testing, or my favorite tool, the Enneagram. The aim of each of these tools is self-knowledge.

Mark Twain aptly quipped, “The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.” The search for self- knowledge is the journey of our lives, whether we know it or not.

The Journey Towards Self-Knowledge

Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuit order, knew instinctively that each of us has an inner quest to know ourselves and that this self-knowledge unleashes our potential for a life well lived. He also recognized that we forget this often, and therefore he established protocols for the men in his company to regularly remind themselves through a systematic daily practice.

The fundamental elements of what eventually came to be known as the Spiritual Exercises were very much a part of each new member of the company’s thirty-day immersion program. The intent of the immersion and the regular adaptation of the Exercises was simply to provide each “manager” a path to greater “potential” in their chosen work.

Discernment and Choice

Ignatius considered the influences that lead us to make decisions “spirits,” and these could be good or bad depending on their result. For example, contentment can be a negative “spirit” if it keeps us stuck in our journey, and loss can be positive if it encourages us to serve others. The Spiritual Exercises emphasize the ability to discern between the positive and negative and to make the choice that leads to the greater good.

The tools of this search for self-knowledge are meditation and contemplation. Meditation, as I’ve explored before, is a way of quieting the mind and allowing the deeper truths of our existence to surface. Through meditation we find peace in the knowledge that in the present moment we are whole and in communion with the world around us. Contemplation, in the Spiritual Exercises, is about exploring our emotional responses through imagination. Through contemplation, we achieve a deeper understanding of our true desires.

Self-Knowledge Unleashes Vision and Growth

Imagine these principles at work in your company, instilled in each and every worker, providing an understanding that propels them to function heroically, both within the organization and also in service to their family, community, and Creator. We are too often so busy creating cubicles that we silo the very energy we hope to extract from the people we hire. This company, the Jesuits, was loathe to waste the creative energy of its workforce. It instituted regular reflection as a driver of creative thinking to unbridle its members, which naturally unbridled the interaction between them and led to its five hundred year existence and growth.

The company of Jesuits was formed in 1540 by ten men, led by forty-nine year old Ignatius of Loyola, grossly undercapitalized and with little to no business experience. It would be easy to dismiss their formative success by looking back in time (since they are connected to the Catholic faith as active leaders of the very Church itself), but theirs was an inauspicious beginning. However, in the first ten years of their meager existence, these exercises led these men to unleash enormous successes. In just ten years they opened over twenty six institutions of higher education. Most importantly, the boss, Ignatius of Loyola, allowed these men and these exercises to guide the group decisions. They had NO PLAN to open these institutions, he simply sent them out to do the work they were meant to do and asked that they check back from time to time.

Today, for the first time in history, the Pope is a Jesuit. His leadership seems very much akin to that of the Jesuit founder. He seems to understand the fundamental Jesuit wisdom that to know oneself is to unleash inordinate potential.