Why Dressing for Success is Good Upaya

Dress better, become a more successful spiritual teacher?

A recent study from Transintegral Institute suggests that dressing up for work could do wonders for a Zen teacher’s productivity, whether giving a public talk, interviewing students, or promoting a new series of online teachings.

Using a number of measures, including simulated retreat situations at which subjects wore formal and more casual clothing, the studies offer indications that wearing nicer clothes may raise one’s confidence level, affect how others perceive the wearer, and in some cases even boost the level of one’s ability to ventriloquize complex tropes, the type of activity in which sensei and roshi engage.

Rob Mayo, an assistant professor of organizational behavior at the Richard M Nixon School of Management, co-wrote the study for the Journal of Entrepreneurial Contemplation which showed that clothes with high socio-spiritual status can increase dominance and job performance in the highly competitive niche market of American Zen.

The study put 128 men ages 25 to 72 with diverse backgrounds through role-playing exercises — including a mock teisho and dokusan situation — to see whether wearing specific kinds of clothing had an effect on the outcomes. All participants had some experience of formal Zen training, ranging from six weeks to five years, but none had received formal sanctioning as Zen teachers.

The “teacher” in each case came from one of three groups. One group, sporting shaved heads, wore some kind of formal priest’s robes with butterfly sleeves, brocade kesa or rakusu. and tabi socks. Props included fly-whisks, kotsu sticks, and juzu beads. A second group wore samugi and tee shirt. A third group, referred to as “neutrals,” kept wearing “casual Friday”-type clothing. Both groups two and three used mala beads, but no other props. The group of “students”, who were asked to evaluate the “teachers’” performance using the Higgs-Winterbottom Spiritual Evaluation Test, consisted of 75 volunteers recruited from various MBSR, Vipassana- and Zen groups.

What the results show, Prof. Mayo says, is that in competitive, winner-take-all situations, wearing more formal attire can send others a signal “about you being successful and real confident in whatever you’re doing.” Those more casually dressed, on the other side of the table, tend to back down more easily, he says. The ones in formal attire become aware of the respect they are receiving and become more forceful, thus increasing their thaumaturgical efficiency as well, he says.

Another study published last year in the journal Psychological and Spiritual Manipulation, suggests that people engage in higher levels of spiritual clichés when they dress up, compared with when they dress casually. When some 45 participants were asked to deliver a Dharma talk, the ones dressed more formally engaged in the kinds of reflexive discourse that someone in a position of power, like a senior monk, would deploy. After being tested in both formal and casual dress, another 23 subjects were quicker to recall and utilize convincing-sounding plattitudes when they dressed more formally. The casual dressers tended to hesitate more and resort to less convincing examples.


“When you need to pontificate about matters of ultimate concern, or discuss subjects unfamiliar to you (i.e. Western philosophy, psychology, quantum mechanics), that’s when dressing formally will increase your ability to seduce your audience,” says co-author Catherine Muho Mann, a postdoctoral research scholar and adjunct assistant professor at Columbia Business School. “People who wear that kind of clothing feel more powerful,” she says. “When you feel more powerful, you don’t have to focus on the details.”

What kinds of clothes qualify as formal or higher-status dress, of course, can depend on the sangha your teaching in.Fashion consultants offer some insights that could be useful in any number of businesses.

“Put it up a notch, but not such a big notch that you’re going to make everyone else in the sangha uncomfortable,” says Annie Tricklebine, founder of Mindful Wardrobe Works, a personal-wardrobe consulting firm. For the average Zen teacher, that could mean an imported Japanese robe and brocade rakusu, especially for retreat situations. She recommends some careful, deliberate dressing-down for less formal or secular circumstances, such as teaching a mindfulness class or hanging with your peers.


“Say you’re wearing loose-fitting pants and a samugi jacket. The V-cut of the medieval Japanese outfit is what gives you some finish and authority,” she says. Also, “Wear a rakusu when it’s important, or you don’t have 100 % confidence in your personal charisma.” One option: Those who don’t want to wear a brocade bib all day can keep one in their man bag and put it on whenever they need a boost of self-confidence.

For most Zen teachers, formal priest’s attire, koromo, kesa, zagu, and so on, can put you in a more professional mind-set, says Aaron Roth, a spiritual style consultant and founder of NextLevelLook.com, an online style course for aspiring Zen masters. He emphasizes that you don’t need to actually be a full-time priest or monk to pull off this simple trick. “Most of my clients hold regular day jobs, but once they put on their power robes, no one would guess.”

If wearing fancy robes will come off too strong, Roth recommends focusing on fit (comfortably wide but not too baggy) and quality (linen or 100 % cotton), traditional Japanese work clothes. Wearing a crisp shirt with a mandarin collar or nice beads around your wrist can do the trick as well, he says.

Sometimes a small fashion adjustment can have big results. Don’t go looking too far afield if searching for a model of success to imitate. While Brad Warner seems to have done pretty well in business wearing bunny ears and a leather jacket, experts say he’s an outlier.


“Brad Warner is in a creative enterprise,” Aaron Roth says. “People like that are playing around with their status symbols. For most of us, high status means koromo and kesa.”


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