Self-Awareness in Working with Others: CiTTA at the YNPN-Chicago Leadership Institute

Self-Awareness in Working with Others with YNPN-Chicago Leadership Institute

Developing full awareness – to see ourselves and things around us as they truly are. It’s a practice that can benefit all of us trying to make the world a better place.  

And it’s a practice that’s long been foundational to CiTTA Partnership co-founders Belinda Li and Phyllis Lee. Belinda and Phyllis are both practicing Buddhists and meditation facilitators for the Chicago Buddhist Meditation Group.

That’s why they were excited to have the opportunity to meet with the Young Nonprofit Professionals Network – Chicago Leadership Institute on February 15 to explore the role of  “Self-Awareness in Working with Others.”

“Phyllis and I have benefitted from Buddhist meditation in all facets of our lives – both in our work and in running a business, and in our personal lives and relationships,” said Belinda. “That’s why we are so happy to share and pay it forward.”

YNPN-Chicago Leadership Institute:  Self-Reflection and Skill Building

The opportunity to share came by invitation from the YNPN-Chicago Leadership Institute.

The Institute consists of a cohort of 15 mid-career nonprofit professionals. With facilitators, mentors, and a robust syllabus, the program takes seriously the goals of leading teams, overseeing projects, and guiding organizational growth in the nonprofit and public service sectors.

As stated in their program goals, self-reflection “enhances one’s ability to understand his or her own strengths and weaknesses, build more effective communication skills, and develop one’s own leadership style.”

“To Study the Way is to Study the Self”: Zen Buddhism and Meditation Practice

In order to bring focus to self-reflection, Phyllis began by leading the cohort in a centering and relaxation exercise.

“Being relaxed and breathing naturally are important foundations to mindfulness practice, due to the interconnectedness of mind, breath, and body,” said Phyllis.

Yet the CiTTA founders also emphasized the notion that being calm and relaxed – while useful tools – are not actually the end goals of Buddhist meditation practice.

Instead, it’s really the central idea of the event: developing awareness. To illustrate this, they shared a quote from 13th Century Japanese Zen Master Eihei Dogen, “To Study the Way is to Study the Self.”

In other words, practitioners develop clarity of vision of themselves and those around them, moment to moment – without becoming too attached to one thought, emotion, or event.

The CiTTA founders also shared an excerpt from the article, “You Are Already Enlightened,” by Guo Gu, sharing the metaphor of a spacious room for the spaciousness of the mind.

“Our habit is to fixate on the ‘furniture’ in the room,” said Belinda. “That is, the person, emotion, or situation – and we can become obsessive or fixated on them, building it up with our own opinions or ideas.”

When we do that, it is easy to miss out on the interconnectedness and interdependency of us all, and the true nature of the spacious mind.

Put another way, meditation practice also encourages people to fully accept what is happening in each moment (rather than judge or look to what “should be”).

“Being fully aware and accepting all that arises helps us to truly know ourselves. And that will help us know what needs to be done,” said Belinda.

How Meditation Practice Helps in Everyday Interactions Working with Others

Belinda and Phyllis then identified some main applications that nonprofit professionals can use in their work with others:

  • With increased awareness, we can more skillfully respond to others as we work and communicate with them, instead of immediately reacting in a habitual manner in challenging situations.
  • Strengthening our compassion for both others and ourselves, after recognizing that we all have the tendency to “fixate on the furniture.”
  • Developing more of a “Beginner’s Mind.” That is, realizing each moment or situation, even when they seem familiar, is fresh and new. In working with others, this makes space for fresh ideas and new solutions to problems.


Cohort members took part in both guided seated and moving meditation.  As Belinda and Phyllis pointed out, meditation is not limited to seated meditation; it can also be done moving, walking, standing, and even eating!

The CiTTA founders were happy to hear the ideas and experiences of the Leadership Institute cohort during a final round of sharing and Q&A.

“We hope this will help them become even more effective in the important work that they do – which is to make the world a better place!” said Belinda.