Wisdom and Education

This Creation, the whole changeful natural order with all its apparent collisions, cruelties and waste yet springs from an ardour, an immeasurable love, a perpetual donation, which generates it, upholds it, drives it. We live in a world produced not by mechanical necessity but by passionate desire-Evelyn Underhill

I was recently re-reading an essay entitled ‘Contemplation in a World of Action’ by the Trappist monk Thomas Merton in which he writes;

‘He who attempts to act and do things for others or for the world without deepening his own self-understanding, freedom, integrity and capacity for love will not have anything to give to others. He will communicate nothing but the contagion of his own obsessions, his aggressiveness, his ego-centred ambitions, his delusions about ends and means, his doctrinaire prejudices and ideas’

A principle effect of contemplative practice is to temper our bias for action, what we might call the active life, with a more receptive position whose work it is to attend to the complexity and uniqueness of our inner experience. The practice of contemplation represents a choice to deliberately put time aside to develop ones’ inner capacities in order to live more effectively and fully in the world (call it stage development or greater complexity in business language) and thereby to lift up the good and reduce the harm we can do to ourselves and one another. The dangers inherent  in assuming or being granted power and  authority without sufficient capacity for interior reflection is what Merton is getting at in the passage I have quoted and its consequences are visible everywhere. When we have power with insufficient insight (without a wide enough appreciation of the nature of Self and reality) it is hard to act in ways that do no harm, let alone good, since we cannot see beyond our own limitations, prejudices, impulses, wants and needs. We remain subject to the excesses of our personality, our egoic drives, constrained by the level of our ego development with no connection to the guiding intelligence that lies outside our self-created limitations. Contemplative practice assumes a broader spectrum of consciousness than that generally supported by our contemporary bias for the rational, allowing also for guidance from both the transpersonal and mystical states.

Contemplation is derived from the word templum, to mean a piece of consecrated ground put aside (that is in no way utilitarian) for the purposes of inner reflection and development. What such a space would look like in the context of leadership development is worth considering. Making space for contemplation may well seem questionable at first blush in the context of the intensely active and demanding nature of modern work practices, but there is a pearl of great price to be found there as the philosopher Joseph Pieper notes;

It is contemplation which preserves in the midst of human society the truth which is at one and the same time useless and the yardstick of every possible use. So is it also contemplation which keeps the true end in sight and gives meaning to every practical act of life

As we consider the landscape of leadership today, we might find real value in thinking about the ways in which we hold the tension between contemplation and a world of action, giving some time to consider the value that might lie in engaging in  practices that are at once ‘useless and the yardstick of every possible use’.

Thinking the Unthinkable

Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; WB Yates

 That we live in unparalleled times is well understood. The intensity, frequency and amplitude of change affecting our lives have increased exponentially in the context of rapid globalisation and the digital capacity to communicate news in minutes rather than days. There is considerable evidence that leadership at the most senior levels is overwhelmed and unable to cope in the face of these forces and senior roles seem to be becoming less tenable and less attractive in the face of the frequent failure of top management to execute effectively in a constantly changing environment.

Change of course is happening everywhere but to what effect? One CEO recently said to me at the conclusion of a 9 month cycle of business transformation, ‘’we’ve seen change but haven’t seen improvement’. In a conversation recently with Nik Gowing the BBC correspondent who co-authored with Chris Langdon the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants research paper titled Thinking the Unthinkable-a new imperative for leadership in a digital age, he told me of one CEO who said;

The rate of change we are going through is comparable to what happens at war time-yet we think we are at peace. The global pace of change is overwhelming the capacity of national and international institutions to cope’

The research that Gowing and Langdon undertook consisted of 60 in-depth private interviews with senior leaders from the corporate and public sectors and their conclusions are very telling. The executive summary begins:

‘A proliferation of ‘unthinkable’ events over the previous two years has revealed a new fragility at the highest levels of corporate and public service leaderships. Their ability to spot, identify and handle unexpected, non-normative events is shown not just to be wanting but also perilously inadequate at critical moments. The overall picture is deeply disturbing’

The authors described 2014 as ‘a great wake up’ and site examples of ‘unthinkable’ events during that time including the seizure of Crimea by President Putin, the rise of Islamic State, the outbreak of Ebola, a 60% fall in oil prices and the cyber-attack on Sony. The refugee and migrant crisis and the failure at VW are further examples of ‘unthinkable’ events and today as I write this, I do so from a United Kingdom that has entered a torrid and protracted process to leave the European Union after 40 years.

What is compelling about the research is the conclusion that, despite the evidence, there is a ‘deep reluctance’, an ‘executive myopia’ to ‘contemplate that unthinkables might happen, let alone how to handle them’. By and large they say, ‘mind-sets, behaviours and systems are not yet adequately calibrated for the new reality’. The feeling reported again and again at the highest board and C-suite levels is one of overwhelm.

It seems that in some very real way we have become a civilisation at perpetual war with itself either metaphorically or literally. Steven Pinker recently made the well-publicised point that literal war is in fact greatly decreasing in the world today. Whilst I would not discredit such findings as symptomatic of an important and constructive shift I think it ignores the nature of the hidden war we are engaged in every day as described by the CEO above and the consequences of that war (the battle for growth, business advantage, survival, resources and such like) on so many people’s daily life as it is experienced at work. The consequences of this state of conflict are serious and potentially catastrophic. Scenario planners looking out towards 2035 are considering the very real possibility that our current trajectory is towards the collapse of civilisation as we currently understand it. This is not simply seen as one possible scenario but as the most likely. Doing more of what we know will not turn this around.

We must ask ourselves with Yeats in mind what kind of centre we can create that might hold in times like these. Thus, though it seems counter-intuitive to suggest that a debate about urgent change could include discussion of things sacred and holy and of practices such as contemplation as a means to addressing the crisis we are in, so it must be. Given that one apparent and stark effect of modern living for so many is the sense that Marianne Robinson describes as ’joyless urgency’ in the face of ‘economic servitude’, we should consider what it means for a human being to live well and engage with disciplines whose purpose it is to think about such things.

The Myths we live by

Did you bring the breast feather?

I didn’t no.

I did he said, showing it to me.

So you were the man I met on the path. You were the tramp whose conscience was mouldering.

No answer came from a downdraught of smoke that covered him

I waited for him to emerge

 

What ails you I asked, what troubles you? 

 

John Moriarty

 

A myth is a thing of mystery and yet of tremendous practical benefit to those it serves. Mythos as a counterpoint to Logos has been essential to every culture on earth as a way of making sense of the great questions that we hold about life. Through myth we can encounter the world anew in ways that cannot be known rationally. Ralph Waldo Emerson was thinking about the role of myth when he wrote;

It is the largest part of a man that is not inventoried. He has many enumerable parts: he is social, professional, political, sectarian and literary, in this or that set or corporation. But after the most exhausting census has been made, there remains as much more which no tongue can tell. And this remainder is that which interests.

We know intuitively what Emerson is getting at here. He is speaking to the range of our experience that is subjective, personal and relational, that speaks to an essential knowledge that informs our philosophy, morals and ethics, that is not accessible to clocks and rulers. Mythic language gives us access to realms long hidden to the analytic mind. Myth speaks in the language of symbol, metaphor and poetry and it speaks of the great themes in ways that offer us a living place in a living universe; creation, and destruction, death and rebirth, the great cosmic wheel are all mythic subjects. We make sense of things through story and we live out our lives as stories and storytellers. In times such as ours when the old story begins to fail, when the centre doesn’t hold, we are called to re-imagine the story we are in and to tell it anew around the campfires of our lives.

In an interview given in 2013, Betty Sue Flowers talked about the duelling myths of business. Flowers is well equipped to discuss myth and business in the same breath following a long career as a strategist with Royal Dutch Shell and  having been tasked with editing ‘The Power of Myth’ in 1988- a record of the interviews that took place between Bill Moyers and mythologist Joseph Campbell on PBS.

A myth as Flowers describes it, is essentially ‘a view of the nature of reality so prevalent that it goes unseen.’ In her reading, any myth can become so imbued with life that it moves from its proper metaphorical place (as symbolic guide in the relationship between the unconscious and conscious worlds) to a literal position (dogma of the conscious mind) to become  ‘the truth’ for the one living in it, thereby providing the context within which all events are framed. In a world unfamiliar with the power of myth and mythic language this movement from metaphoric and symbolic in-forming to literalism is both easily done and fatally dangerous

Flowers suggests that there are 5 essential myths that shape the world of decision makers, all of which have strengths and limitations, the latter often being unconscious to those who live out of the primary myth they favour. These she describes as the economic, ecological, scientific, heroic and religious myths.

Business, says Flowers, is a human creation borne out of the economic myth which supports the principle of endless growth and the idea that the optimum situation is to become as large as possible. The economic myth values products over people  and  sees high consumption as a preferred end in itself, measuring affluence or ‘standard of living’ against such things as financial income and relative purchasing power. The danger as Flowers sees it is that the economic myth leads to ‘single lines of measurements of success such as revenues, profits and market size. Those will eventually decline at some point because all systems have limits-and once they start to fall they fall fast’. It seems plausible that much of the acceleration and intensity of change felt by and within organisations is a failing attempt to avoid this decline which is not fully understood since those living within the myth cannot see it any more than a fish knows the water it is swimming in. I imagine also that part of the issue today with ‘unthinkable’ events is that they cannot be understood or resolved within the existing economic myth described here. The data as it is experienced within that narrow frame appears chaotic which is to say -too complex for our understanding (rather than ultimately unintelligible) and is experienced as overwhelming.

In Flowers mind all of the myths are ultimately limited when literalised and taken in isolation. The scientific myth-the search for truth through reason proposes that there is an absolute rational knowledge available to humanity even if not yet known. It rejects those that challenge the myth as ‘emotional.’ The heroic myth, when it loses its nuance of separation, descent and return, merely separates the world into winners and losers and increases the sense of vulnerability amongst those who don’t win. The ecological myth, de-coupled from its archetypal feminine, Gaian roots looks at the whole system, its interdependencies and complex interrelationships but can gets lost in excessive expenditure as it seeks to hear everyone’s voice, resulting in gridlock. The religious myth whose essence is profound spiritual revelation becomes over-simplified and runs the risk of rejecting dissenting views which are seen as dangerous in the face of dogmatism, ritualism and religious fervour.

Flowers contends that many of the challenges we face today are a result of conflicts arising from voices representing different and seemingly competing myths unable to hear or see the limitations of their own viewpoint or appreciate the others stance. I would go further and say that in order to re-imagine myth we must reclaim our inheritance for thinking and communicating with the language and consciousness of myth itself which is no small task. Nonetheless, I would agree with her that greater insight can arise if there is appetite for dialogue between mythic positions. In business terms this would amount for example, to a different conversation between those representing the economic and ecological myths as a means to tempering the principle of growth with participation and greater systems thinking. It would invoke a new discussion on what winning means and how it is measured from the heroic perspective and from a religious perspective what it means to live a good life. All of this could be informed by the discipline and rigor of science and its own fundamental interest in seeking truth.

The violence of modern life

‘Violence is what happens when we don’t know what else to do with our suffering.’ Parker Palmer

Violence is joined at the hip with suffering. There is so much about modern living that is in one way or another violent, passively inhuman or worse and if we are to address it, it will require us to think differently about the nature of suffering itself.

There is a story within the religious paradigm about a Prince who grew up in the Himalayas. He was a greatly gifted child who excelled in sports and was quick, brave and yet tender hearted. It was said that he would become an emperor or renounce the world for a great spiritual destiny. His father the King, wishing to ensure that he fulfil his destiny as an emperor gave him all he wanted but insisted he stay within the walls of the palace so that he not be disturbed by the ways of the world. He lived thus, a life of luxury and ease, surrounded by opulence. Eventually he married a beautiful young woman and they had a son.

In time however, despite having all he could wish for in material terms, the young man’s heart became restless and he wanted to know about life beyond the palace walls. He had many questions which could not be answered within the palace itself. Has life a purpose or is it just a fleeting show? Is there nothing beyond the material trappings of success? Eventually he persuaded a servant to take him out and it was this radical exposure to the raw humanity of the world that transformed him by transforming the nature of his inquiry. During the day he saw other faces of life until then utterly unfamiliar to him, in the form of sickness, old age and death. He asked if such things would someday affect him, his wife and child and the servant replied that they would, that there was no escape. On the way home he saw a holy man seated in meditation and asked the servant what he was doing. The servant explained that this man had foregone conventional ideas of success and was engaged in practices to better understand the nature of reality. In some distress the young prince returned home and concluded that all life was change; He reflected;

Everything is change. Each moment comes and goes. Is there nothing more, nothing to the future but decline and death?

Returning home, the Prince, whose name was Siddhartha, found that the pleasures of the palace had lost their meaning. Nothing-no amount of distraction- could bring him peace and he decided to dedicate his life to the pursuit of the true nature of life. He left the Palace one midnight, shedding the trappings of the royal life and assumed the life of a wandering mendicant. One night many years later the Prince achieved a degree of insight so profound that he became enlightened. He was known thereafter as Guatama Buddha meaning literally, one who is awake. 

At the heart of the story of the life of the Buddha and his subsequent teachings is recognition that change is pervasive and that suffering is a fundamental principle of life. Thus we can conclude that ‘waking up’ is intimately connected to our subjective feeling for and experience of real suffering-our own and others-and that it is possible to go through life ‘asleep’ in some way distracting ourselves endlessly from the experience of what it is to live fully.

Suffering, from the Buddhist perspective occurs because we very often do not get what we want and when we do get what we want it very often goes again against our will. The world and everything in it is transitory and will pass away and we suffer in the face of this truth not so much as a result of the fact of this reality but because of our attachment to and craving for things that cannot last. Buddhist practice from one perspective essentially represents a body of psychological processes based on reasoning and experience through which it becomes possible to identify and follow a path towards ‘liberation’-which it holds as the purpose of life. The processes entailed include a profound confrontation with suffering in its many forms, its causes, the possibility of its ceasing and the path towards that end. What typically initiates the process is the recognition of the temporal nature of life and the grief, fear and anger that such recognition entails. At root, we each must die. In a world obsessed with physical survival that is shocking news.

Much of our consumer world is specifically designed, through distraction, to keep this truth from us (we do it to ourselves) but the consequence is a different kind of listless malaise and servitude that greatly diminishes our life experience. VUCA (meaning volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) as a popular acronym for business life describes a world of flux, much as Buddhism describes it, but falls short of buddhist sensibilities and creates more suffering as an experience because it lacks the compensatory story and practices that mitigate the tendency towards manic, ceaseless, blind action. Without a capacity for reflection and contemplation we cannot make sense of our suffering or recognise the inherent unity of life within the flux.

In order to embrace life on its own terms in an ever changing world, we must be prepared to feel and learn to formulate questions that speak to the deepest concerns that each of us holds. The real gift of suffering is found in its Latin root ‘passione’. Our suffering and our passion are essentially one thing. What we are truly passionate about-how we would really wish to express ourselves in the world- is intimately informed by our suffering, by what grieves us and grief itself is rooted in intimate relationship to its counterpoints of joy and love. Once we know how to suffer well we can extend that knowing to others as Compassion-literally meaning, ‘to suffer with’. As the writer Stephen Jenkinson puts it,

‘Grief is our way of loving what has slipped from view, Love is our way of grieving what is yet to do so’.

If violence and suffering are joined at the hip, it is also true for grief and love.

In embracing our suffering, and this is the value of the contemplative attitude, though it seems counter-intuitive, we embrace our lives more fully since we can both grieve and love what matters to us in our lives while those things are with us and after they inevitably fall away and die.

Disconnection is the malaise of our times. In the conversation with Nick Gowing I suggested that the real challenge that his research brings forward lies not in thinking the unthinkable but in feeling the unthinkable. The problem we have in modern business life is not a problem of the head but rather of the heart-more specifically of the capacity for connection and relatedness.  Part of the issue with the ‘unthinkable world’ is just that- thinking as a form of knowing is necessary but not sufficient to the times we are in. We are dealing with a quality of crisis that does not lie solely in the territory of the head; more thinking, analysis and so forth, isn’t going to work on its own. To be with the unthinkable we will have to explore different forms of intelligence including our own capacity for deep feeling. We will have to let the terrible grief that we have buried about the shared state we are in touch us and move us if we are to change the way we live together, if we are to admit and acknowledge the truth of  the harm we have done, our complicity in it and from that place consider a different alternative. What is unthinkable is just that; it must be felt.

A good Life

All during the course of our lives we struggle to catch up with ourselves. We are so taken up, so busy and distracted, that we cannot dedicate enough time or recognition to the depths within us. We endeavour to see ourselves and meet ourselves yet there is so much complexity in us and so many layers to the human heart that we rarely encounter ourselves. John O Donohue

In the language of medieval western mysticism we live our lives in what was once called status viatoris, meaning ‘in the state of being on the way’. The movement of a lifetime-the movement towards becoming fully human was thought to conclude in a further condition described as status comprehensoris or ‘one who has comprehended’. I suspect that this is, in essence, a very similar state and goal to that described in Buddhism where buddh literally means to be ‘one who is awake’.

Another way of describing status viatoris is pilgrim or one who is on a pilgrimage. It offers up a different way of thinking if we were to imagine that each of us is in fact on a pilgrimage- called our lifetime. It has a strange quality to it, at once solitary and particular and at the same time, intimately shared. Pilgrimage is not at root, utilitarian, it is unfolding, surprising, sacred.Each of us, say the mystics, find ourselves somewhere on a trail or path marked by the absence of fulfilment and the orientation towards fulfilment that are the negative and positive aspects of viator.  What an exquisite and poignant image. Who would deny the sanctity of such a journey and the need for reflection on it? The implications for such an insight into how we live together, support one another and what we choose to value are profound.

There are many ways to imagine what a good life might mean but there is no culture of depth that stops at and is satisfied with the simplistic equation we make between the possession of material goods, financial wealth and ultimate happiness. This viewpoint, albeit pervasive in western society, is lazy in the extreme. It is the height of irony that we should work so slavishly to uphold a mythos that dulls the mind and diminishes the soul, that incites bland, unthinking consumerism as a human good,that leaves our children ill prepared for real life and generates so much despair and hopelessness. Still there we are. Given the level of distress this story generates both privately and publicly, given that it has led our human project to the brink of destruction, it is reasonable to conclude that we must look elsewhere to understand what a good life might be.

The roots of western culture offer more fertile ground for this kind of conversation. Aristotle proposed that a good life essentially was one that led to happiness or more literally ‘flourishing’. Essentially this state-which he called eudeamonia, represented the proper fulfilment of the potential of a life or living a life worth living according to the human tendency towards becoming wholly oneself. Thomas Aquinas, perhaps one of the greatest western philosophers, assented to this view though he took it further in considering the ultimate good as beatitude (the knowing and enjoying of God). According to both, our primary moral imperative is to recognise what we are and act accordingly based on a natural disposition towards what is good, extending this insight to others through the work of virtue and conscience. We achieve this through the particular faculties that mark us out uniquely as human beings-namely through practical reasoning, will and understanding. Here we find resonance again with oriental thought, with the Buddhist imperative for living well simply expressed as ‘cease to do evil, try to do good’.

Thus we have the basis of an ethical life which essentially means to think and act in ways that are not contrary to what we are ‘meant’ to be and to do no ‘harm’. Each depth culture has a way of expressing this truth, a different cosmology for understanding a good life but flourishing as a principle is at the heart of any society and culture that is rooted and strong. To experience this as real in our own lives of course requires effort and discipline. The call for inner work and community building will fall like seed on stony ground in any culture that has devalued the inner life and that is certainly a problem today in western societies. Nonetheless we must as Merton asks of us, hold the tension between the importuning of our inner life and a world of action creatively. The two ways of engaging are analogous to a good life-we must be actors and we must reflect on our action. To reflect in flight is not sufficient which is why so much of what passes for leadership development falls short of what is required. As long as the urgent needs of daily business disrupt and undermine serious reflective time the tail is wagging the dog and the current crisis will persist. Nothing can be loved at speed. ‘Hurrying’ as the mythologist Michael Meade put it, ‘does not gather wisdom.’  Understanding of what it means to live a good life arises and is deepened through discipline and practice which includes the work of self-reflection and contemplation undertaken in solitude and community.

Becoming Adult.

As a pioneer in human consciousness, a pathway borne unexpectedly out of his subjective and initially frightening spontaneous out of body experiences  Robert Monroe, dedicated his life to understanding what it means for us to ‘grow up’ as a person with ‘consciousness’ in the widest possible sense. He synthesised his understanding by suggesting that we can measure human growth in three principle ways; the movement towards adulthood out of innocence, the development of maturity and the cultivation of wisdom. Monroe contended that in the main most people stopped growing (in the sense of moving towards fulfilment) before the end of their 20s, something that I think is reflected in the research by Kegan and Lahey on stage development in leadership in their book Immunity to Change. Few of us ever mature our capacity for complexity beyond what they describe as a socialised mind set.

Monroe proposed that we measure adulthood by the degree to which we assume authority and accept responsibility for our lives. He used the example of a child touching a stove and burning themselves to explain. In burning themselves the child loses their innocence in relationship to touch stove, burn. Thereafter they assume authority for themselves in relation to the stove and accept responsibility for touching the hot stove in the future. In this was we gradually lose our innocence in life as we gain experience in all manner of ways and the position of adulthood is conferred to the degree that we accept authority and take responsibility for the life we lead. In conversation with Nick Gowing it was striking to me when he used the word deresponsibilisation to describe what he experienced during his research. At heart, according to Gowing, the failure of industry in the face of unthinkable events  was not simply the state of overwhelm but also  what he described as ‘wilful blindness, group think, institutional conformity, risk aversion reactionary mind sets, denial and the fear of making career limiting moves’. To the extent that there is a vacuum of responsibility at senior levels of industry born of a tragic myopia, there is also by definition an absence of adulthood.

Maturity, Monroe suggested, could be measured as ‘the number and quality of illusions that we discard over a lifetime.’ He was at pains to point out the difference between illusions that we discard deliberately and the experience of sudden disillusionment by which our view of reality is ripped from us through some kind of violence or abuse. The work of maturity is a conscious and considered act engendering wherever possible a dynamic, creative and deliberate to and from between our conscious and unconscious modes of awareness. This was what CG Jung referred to as the process of individuation; the giving up of certain strongly held positions in favour of a broader view of life constitutes the act of discarding illusions. This can be painful of course when certain strongly held views cut close to the bone but Monroe would contend that it is absolutely necessary that we challenge our own perceptions and be prepared to expand our understanding, putting aside what experience shows us is no longer true or sufficient to account for our understanding of life. In keeping with Monroe’s work it has been the central tenet of many of the major religions to understand the nature of reality behind appearance and to conjecture that the phenomenal world of form is in some essential way illusory, something that quantum physicists are now proving to be so.

Finally, wisdom, according to Monroe, is the experience we each have of thinking, acting and being as a result of the illusions we have discarded. Freedom, Monroe, suggested, is our experience relative to the extent that these three measures of growth are developed over a lifetime

Unity in Distinction

Truth is one. The wise call it by different names- Rig Veda

For a future to be possible it is fundamental that we embrace the possibility of a synthesis of previously distinct ‘myths for living’. In the course of his life’s work, which was dedicated towards a synthesis of religious understanding between Catholic, Hindu, Buddhist and Muslim perspectives, the monastic Bede Griffiths used the term unity in distinction to express a condition whereby something is at once distinct in its own right and yet absolutely unified at the same time with something else. In his study of Christianity he applied this perspective to the relationship between Christ the person and God as understood in the phrase ‘I and the Father are one.’ In exploring this relationship Griffiths was working with the Hindu principle of advaita, or non-dualism which expresses the relationship between God and persons in terms of cause and effect. The nature of unity in distinction is paradoxical in nature and calls for an acceptance of difference and advaitic commonality. Speaking of the need for such a synthesis of viewpoints he wrote;

‘On this depends the union of East and West and the future of humanity. We must try to see the values in each (religious revelation)…..to distinguish their differences and to discover their harmony, going beyond the differences in an experience of non-duality or transcendence of dualities.

Embracing paradox and what we might call ‘otherness’ demands that we think with sufficient complexity to embrace the position of both/and rather than either/or as a normative position for today’s problems. We can learn much from Griffiths’ work in the field of religious tolerance and understanding. We must learn to see events from other and multiple perspectives- a hallmark of what Kegan and Lahey call the self-transforming mind. Paradox brings greater subtlety to our current rendering of the forces at work in business that we often describe as VUCA.  Paradox asks us to hold the big questions of our experience, the relationship between time and eternity, flux and unity, being and becoming in more thoughtful ways.

Homo sapiens sapiens

There is one thing stronger than all the armies in the world; and that is an idea whose time has come-Nation August 1943

Even as we crave solutions to unfathomable problems so we continue to indulge our addictions to speed, to urgency, to intensity, to the belief that we will find the answer by doing more of the very things that have created the mess we are in. The poet Yates is right when he tells us that the centre cannot hold. The scrabble for survival is rooted deep in each of us and we know it in its worst excesses as fear and rage, fear that we might die one day and rage because we know indeed that we must die and with that lose all the things we have loved and cherished. What a strange predicament. In a world that cherishes youthfulness above all else, that thereby traps the natural initiatory passage to maturity in a perpetual sort of adolescence we are now so ill equipped to work with the forces of death. yet it remains a perennial truth that if something is to be born out of  crisis, then something indeed will need to die, be given up, sacrificed.

In a world in thrall to literalism the literal death of our human project seems sometimes to be almost inevitable and yet it doesn’t have to be so. If it is true that we must sacrifice something great in order to change, if we can grasp that as an archetypal and mythological truth then we move into a different order of understanding in regard to our predicament. To sacrifice means to make sacred and it is an act of ritual that is in essence both practical and non-rational. It is an act whereby something is given up that something else might live and indeed flourish. Sacrifice is a word that imbues both the community it serves and the wider world with life and provides the sense of mutual agency which can counter the despair of private addiction, the urgency to fix things, the belief that someone else will or can fix it without our personal contribution, effort and commitment.

That we must try to find the answer to the intractable problems of our time makes sense  but we might ask- for what purpose. What is the vision of humanity that we hold that could unite our efforts to live well together on this earth. What does it mean to live well together? What we experience all about us are the multitude of effects resulting from choices we have made about what it means to be human beings on earth but what are the causes? It’s a question that requires a great deal of thought and that requires dialogue between those who hold widely differing views but it’s important that we ask the question and create environments where such questions can be held with the gravity necessary to the task at hand. What does unity in diversity mean today?

The study and integration of the principles put forward here; the varieties of religious and spiritual teachings and practices, the mythic perspectives of Betty Sue Flowers and a mythic language for the world in general terms, the insights of poetry and the arts, Robert Monroe’s measure of adulthood and Bede Griffiths’ unity in distinction offer the basis of a contemplative education that could act as a counter-weight to the current drive for action and the bias for an approach to problems that is yet in thrall to a fundamentally western scientific approach marked by objectivity, hyper-rationality and over-analysis. Whilst not ‘wrong’ per se, a bias that marginalises the wisdom inherent in transpersonal and mystical modes of consciousness represents a profound problem that limits our perspective catastrophically, the effects of which are clear in Gowing and Langdon’s research.

In my mind, the work of change is not to get smarter or faster, it is to become more fully human and engage honestly with the immensity of what that means, to embrace the mystery of all that we are. We must step outside the palace walls and see humanity raw, in all its terrible beauty and know that it is in fact a mirror for us and our own lives. Merton called this kind of education ‘sapiential’ meaning literally (the development of) wisdom. Such an educational agenda, based in contemplative practice, seeks to illuminate and deepen our understanding of what it means to live a good life in the company of others, what it means to become homo-sapiens sapiens. The purpose of contemplative inquiry is to penetrate into the reality of things and to live in accord with the authentic insights thus attained. Practices typical in a contemplative context such as prayer and meditation properly understood are not about upholding dogma but about the discovery of the self. Words such as sacred, holy or divine express intuitions about the dimensions of a life that stretch far beyond our rational world but that are no less ‘real’ for all that.

It is the movement towards wholeness and our participation in that movement that transforms the mundane world into something sacred. Wholeness derived from the German hale shares the same root as healing. As WB Yeats once put it, ‘there is another world, and it is this one’. The possibility for a better way of living surrounds us even now if we have the eyes and heart to see it. Desecration is what happens when we disavow this movement and fall short of our potential. The root of despair is in the final reckoning, not to realise what we truly are and what our real purpose is on earth.

In the summary of their research Gowing and Langdon call for greater courage and humility in the face of the current leadership crisis. This does not mean greater heroics. Courage in this context is a call for greater heart-fullness or wholeheartedness. Humility as a virtue was in ancient times balanced with the virtue of magnanimity which offers a very different rendering of the heroic desire to win at all costs. Magnanimity is the aspiration of the spirit to great things, an ethical capacity to decide at any moment, in favour of what is the greater possibility of the human potentiality for being. Humility properly understood was a profound awareness of the inexpressible distance between the Creator and the person. It shares its root with hummus which means, to be of the earth and it takes form sometimes in human beings as kneeling and prostration before a mystery that can never be known. The two virtues together provided the root of the greater virtue of Hope whose guiding principle along with Faith and Love were considered the highest expressions of a human life.

In 1914, the English mystic Evelyn Underhill published a little book called ‘Practical Mysticism’. The book went to press in the first weeks of the Great War and as she writes;

‘Many will feel that in such a time of conflict and horror, when only the most ignorant, disloyal or apathetic can hope for quietness of mind, a book which deals with that which is called the ‘contemplative’ attitude to existence is wholly out of place’

How can a book that is underpinned by a deep conviction of the dependence of human worth upon eternal values, the immanence of a divine spirit within the human soul-which lies at the heart of a mystical life-be reconciled with ‘the human history now being poured red hot from the cauldron of war’

And yet it does. The art of the poet-certainly that of the mystic is the art of union with Reality, with both the flux of life and with the whole. I suspect that most of us have had what Wordsworth called ‘intimations of mortality’,moments when we lose ourselves in an experience we cannot name, when the world took on a strangeness indescribable, heightened, unusual, a sudden parting of the conceptual veil. It is a sad reflection of our times that neuro-science, in the grip of Neo-Darwinism has reduced the depth of human experience to the firing of ‘packets of neurons’. The great mysteries of our experience the strange sense that we have about the meaning and purpose of a lifetime-the call to discovery, the paradoxical movement between being and becoming, eternity and time, unity and multiplicity, spirit and matter, the great concerns of humanity since the beginning cannot really be reduced to words such as ‘merely’ or ‘simply’ without missing something tremendous.

If the doors of perception were cleansed said William Blake, we would see things as they truly are-infinite. To see things as they truly are is the fundamental work of leadership today because what springs from what the Buddhists call ‘right view’ is a quality of humanity that might better evaluate what work really means and how we might better embrace it. It might even allow us to uphold and secure a healthy world for future generations.

 

  1. When I speak of soul I mean ‘the principle of life’ or that which animates us and makes us human beings as distinct from anything else. Speaking of the sacred I mean that which is incomprehensible and nameless (call it non-dual reality, Atman, Tao, the Void, the Truth, the Word-whatever name we give to that which cannot be named) but that can be felt or known indirectly as mystery. In regard to holy, I mean that which is or moves towards wholeness and unity, out of the flux of our daily material life. Both the sacred and holy are marked out in this rendering as non-utilitarian which is to say, of no immediate economic or practical value. The practice of contemplation and the embrace of silence represent human practices by which we come to a deeper understanding of our lives and an appreciation of the lives of all things in the context of a world that can be partially though not completely known.

 

  1. As an example of sapiential education EF Shumacher wrote many years ago about the principles of what he described as ‘Buddhist economics’. It is interesting that his paper received a sudden growth in interest after 9/11 and it is telling-such is the level of myopia in industry and government-that little has changed since then despite the dire warnings of 2008. At heart such an economics is based on optimal rather than maximum levels of consumption and seeks to balance the human aspiration for liberation with meeting the needs for physical well-being. Work itself is seen as part of the natural life of a person, nourishing and enlivening a person to produce the best they are capable of. In line with Buddhist teachings this economics recognises that it is not wealth that is the issue but attachment to wealth, not the enjoyment of pleasurable things but the craving for them. At root Schumacher describes Buddhist economics as a system based on ‘simplicity and non-violence.’ Such a world view is apparently juxtaposed to the modern economic assumption that consumption is the ‘sole end and purpose of all economic activity’ but this is where we must begin. To follow Bede Griffith’s example, there must be a courageous commitment to dialogue between those people who represent and live in apparently competing myths. If Robert Monroe is right then we must each attend to and discard those illusions that prevent us from developing the level of complexity required to live in these extraordinary times.
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Eyes to acres: On Person and Community

The first purpose of organisational life is to support human flourishing.

To flourish or thrive is a natural consequence of any living thing that is able to grow and develop in conditions appropriate to it. Good crops are the natural result of good soil and an understanding of the seasons, planting times and so forth. What grows well does so in relationship with the surroundings that support it and the development of human persons is subject to these same natural principles.

There is a great deal of difference in the principles of education and understanding that lead to the development of individuals rather than persons, a collective rather than a community. Underpinning the direction of that process is a founding principle of relationship or connection. Real connection is based on our viewpoint or vision-put otherwise-how we see the world ,which in turn is subject to our understanding of life and its purposes.As William Blake wrote, ‘the eye altering, alters all’, and it is through the eye  as Blake meant it that we make sense of the world as essentially interconnected or divided.

The development of the whole person as distinct from the individual, and its consequential expression in community is underpinned by the incorporation of the principle of unity in its developmental philosophy. To be more precise it is the experience of unity in distinction which reflects our capacity to see and know what is unique within what connects and to learn to value or at least tolerate that uniqueness or difference based on an understanding that the balancing principle that makes our uniqueness possible and so important is that which connects us fundamentally as One.

This understanding takes us beyond the experience of the collective or the individual which experiences its world as fundamentally separate, distinct and disconnected. A sense of separation is the fruit of the dominant assumptions of western thought based on Cartesian logic and of course the persuasive sense of our daily experience which imagines it’s self as separated from everything else and sees that conclusion mirrored in the society and culture all about it. Einstein said that this view was an ‘optical delusion’ based on our inability to see the underlying unity of the universe but it is a compelling narrative and it takes work to challenge the appearance of things.

The consequence of a philosophy of separation in our lives is to be confronted by a hall of mirrors that reinforces the image of separation in whatever we see and do and encourages behaviors that exacerbate that experience leading to the dreadful sense of isolation and alienation which is so prevalent in western society today. Our hurried, searching lives cannot engender wisdom. Despite our remarkable attempts to create connection through technological systems we are, it seems, lonelier than we have ever been and we might ask why that is.

One explanation is to suppose that when attempts at connection are made from the philosophical and psychological point of view of the individual in a collective world, the hard or perhaps better put-more subtle work of real connection is omitted and overlooked. This is why technological connectivity based as it is on superficial notions of relationship, is ultimately trivial and frustrating so much of the time. Deep connection which is at the heart of personal formation and community requires among other things, time, courage and vulnerability. Upholding the principle of Unity as primary or causal in our experience is no easy thing because it demands that we accommodate and integrate the worst excesses and most unfamiliar aspects of ourselves and others in the process of becoming whole persons.

If unity is a causal principle of the universe then an effect of that unity is the act of caring. We care about what we feel connected to. Upholding the principle of care requires that we care for ourselves and others and that we practice the art of caretaking within community settings, projects, teams and organisations that are appropriate for the purpose, which is to say human,  in size and scale.

In his essay The Deserted Country, Wendell Berry refers to the principle of ‘eyes to acres’. Applied as it was to proper land use, in traditional farming practice there was an understanding that there was an eyes to acres ratio that was ‘right and necessary’ to save the land from destruction. By eyes to acres, Berry meant something he described as competent watchfulness. Connected to this idea was an awareness of the nature of the place and its history, an ability to be constantly present to the landscape and an awareness of what harm meant and what were signs of health in that ecosystem. The purpose of competent watchfulness was to ensure the continuing health of the land for the long term, something we now call sustainability but that was once simply built in to the logic of human-economic/ecologic systems. At heart is the notion of caring as Berry put it;

People who don’t care, or know enough to care, or care enough to know, don’t watch.

Competent watchfulness has much to do with the eye that sees and the care with which the eye sees- its deeper vision. Competence means knowing in the sense not only of techne (skills) but also poesis (making) and Berry makes an important connection between the ability to know and to love. Describing what he refers to as a practical and practicing live he writes;

How likely impossible it is to know authentically or well what one does not love and how certainly impossible it is to love what one does not know.

Any landscape, agricultural or organisational, requires careful watching and careful is the correct term here. Care is a matter of the heart and thus the art of caring is the business of the heart and the business of love and cannot rightfully be separated from other forms of business in any sustaining notion of the world. The concept of economics has it linguistic root in the principle of good housekeeping. It is deeply connected to the principle of ecology –the intelligence of the household-but in its modern rendering, divorced from its ecological responsibilities it has misinterpreted and underestimated our relationship with the earth solely on its own terms. Disconnected from the heart felt awareness that would mitigate the worst excesses of a human misunderstanding of what ‘resource’ actually means, this misreading of our responsibility and duty has come at a devastating price. When a forest becomes merely so many cubic feet of timber or cattle become so many kilos of meat we have crossed a line that has consequences that we see everywhere today.

In his reading of what it meant to educate a person rather than an individual Thomas Merton distinguished the true self from the false, describing the false self not a separate in any real sense but as an incomplete understanding of what it means to be fully human. The development of true self and wisdom which is the fruit of right understanding requires first of all and above all the renunciation of our obsession with the triumph of the individual and collective will to power. A logical consequence of this reading is that no constructive change in a person or group is possible if we continue to see the world and draw conclusions about what success means solely through the logic of the individual and collective eye.

Related to this  concern Martin Buber, made a simple but profound distinction between ways of knowing the world as I-it or I-Thou:

I-thou can only be spoken with one’s whole being, I-it can never be spoken with one’s whole being.

To see the world as I-thou is to transform and be transformed by it. This is the perspective at play when Berry speaks about competent watchfulness and it is what distinguishes and saves any community from the mono-cultural indignity and uniformity of the collective mind, it is what allows the human being to grow and mature into what he or she is meant to be, not homo economicus but homo sapien, a lucid, valid and contributing member of the eternal dance of life.

The true self, wrote Thomas Merton,

‘ Is the mature personal identity, the creative fruit of an authentic and lucid search, the ‘self’ that is found after other partial and exterior selves have been discarded as masks, this inner identity is not ‘found’ as an object but is the very self that finds’.

Put another way, unity is what we discover ourselves to be when other partial understandings fall away through the process of self-discovery. Unity by definition is not ‘elsewhere’ and cannot be separated from what we ourselves essentially are. The subtle work of personal formation, its consequences and responsibilities for what forms community as organisation or in any other way we care to imagine are deeply implicated in this understanding of what at heart it means to be fully human.

Organisation as community, based on the principle of care and connection renders a future whose outcomes are profoundly different from those of the collective. This shift in perspective knows to reckon the economic value not just of the money economy but of the wider ecological economy, which in human terms has to do with things such as knowledge, memory, familiarity, imagination, sympathy and neighbourliness.  These are perennial, timeless means by which communities have historically been able to balance the value and need for the provision of quantities of goods and materials with that of quality of life. They are also means by which we have traditionally imposed limits on our own behaviours. Freedom with limitations is at the heart of what actually empowers and sustains people and communities to act well; countering a model based solely on growth with one that seeks a balance that again is based in long term thinking.

Reckoning these things as part of the hidden economy is to define or redefine what we mean by value, the values we uphold and the value we place on the life we share with all that lives in this world. It gives a perspective that practically acknowledges the hidden unity that lies behind the appearance of things.

The purpose of organisations is to support human flourishing at human scale which is the most beautiful expression of the human being where conditions allow. It is a good that encompasses economic need but mitigates economic greed and thus encourages flourishing as a universal good. As we learn to care so we see differently. As Blake said, the eye altering, alerts all.

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Limited creatures in a limited world

Weave real connections, create real nodes, build real houses.

Live a life you can endure: Marge Piercy

 

When you do something useful things can happen. Usefulness is one of the great currents that sustains and builds communities and that upholds and creates what Marge Piercy called ‘real connections’. When we are no longer useful to one another, in the deeper sense of ‘being of service’ we retreat into smaller worlds and our lives shrink with that movement. Our experience is diminished.

It is May and the natural world has become a riot of colour and noise. After a mean winter, nature is suddenly profligate; life is rushing and pushing itself sunwards, a blossoming, budding, leafing, bursting extravagance, especially after the last few days of rain. What surplus plants and crops we have I have put out beside the lane with an honesty box and now cars and walkers stop by to browse or buy and something is beginning to happen, people stop for a chat, connections are being built.

There are many different kinds of exchange; Lewis Hyde differentiates between the notions of exchange as gift and commerce.  Gift unlike commerce brings us to an important currency in human interaction which commerce as a transactional process can and usually does, overlook which is reciprocity-the value of relationship and interrelationship in whatever exchange is made. The idea of ‘fair exchange’ takes on more meaning when the relationship between those involved becomes central and particular rather than an abstraction. The gift exchange, unlike commerce,  is complex and woven with stories and shared experience-it is a live encounter.

Relationship brings to mind the value of conversation. Conversation has its Latin root in the word conversationem meaning ‘to keep company with’. The old French word, conversation, literally means ‘a manner of conducting oneself in the world.’ In this light conversation becomes a guiding principle for how we conduct our affairs with others-not merely an act but a value or principle for being together and building fellowship, it is part of the process and practice of exchange that dances between the pleasure of the present and an investment in the future-the strengthening of bonds.

We are’, wrote Wendell Berry in an essay a few years ago, ‘limited creatures in a limited world’. Challenging our collective western view that ‘there’s always more,’ Berry described our ‘true religion’ as a kind of ‘autistic industrialism’ built on a false belief in limitless growth.  A consequence of the economic fantasy of limitlessness has been a catastrophic neglect of the real wealth of land, resources and genuine workmanship, along with other vital aspects of human interaction that give actual meaning to life including neighbourliness and caretaking which, he points out, ‘cannot be done by remote control, with the greatest power on the largest scale’.

 The recognition that human limitlessness is a fantasy matters because it tells us that, as a paradigm, its life expectancy is limited. Berry continues;

‘We are not likely to be granted another world to plunder in compensation for our pillage of this one. Nor are we likely to believe much longer in our ability to outsmart, by means of science and technology, our economic stupidity’.

The inflection point here lies in a choice, or so it seems, between hope and despair a point I have often encountered. Actually, neither hope nor despair, insofar as they take us into a remote and distant future are useful. What is useful is the recognition that an understanding of what it means to be a limited human in a limited world can begin with any one of us right now. Recognition of the value and necessity for constraint is actually a strange seed of hope because it is tangible and real-it can be acted upon, it brings us to the place of actual experience which is not tomorrow, but today, here and now.

The gift of constraint, of reimagining what life at human scale might look like is the gift of choice, we can choose to act differently and thereby contribute directly to a new story that has effects both today and tomorrow and we can do it in numerous ways. Limitless growth by contrast smacks of choicelessness another word for which is addiction. The implications of limitlessness are in fact exhausting and the consequences are visible everywhere. The gift of the recognition of our limitations is to return us, as Wendell Berry put is, to our ‘real condition’ and to our ‘human heritage, ‘from which our self-definition as limitless animals has so long cut us off’. Limitation self-imposed has some relationship with humility; it loops us back to our clay selves, our earthy nature.

Limitation in this context has two basic aspects; natural and cultural. Earth is one definition of natural limitation as is place and ecosystem. To understand our ecosystem we can think about the actual meanings of words such as economic (literally from the Greek eco nomos meaning household management) and ecology (literally from the Greek eco-logos meaning understanding of the household). From the perspective of household with all that is implied in terms of shared responsibility, we can personally rethink our understanding of what economy means in our own lives and can act accordingly in the spirit of their deeper meaning. The connection between earth and household can also help us better understand the relationship between limitation and culture which is our collective response to self-restraint.

‘As humans’ writes Berry, ‘we may elect to respond to this necessary placement by the self-restraints implied in neighbourliness, stewardship, thrift, temperance, generosity, care, kindness, friendship, loyalty and love.’ We can ask ourselves quite practically how we are today in relationship with these human cultural qualities, what they mean to us, how we actually express, rather than talk about them in our lives then we can get to work on those things and know that that work we do actually makes a difference.

Yesterday two people from the village came by for a walk around the land. After they left I sat and thought for a while about how often in recent years I have reached for hope and felt despair- lost in grief or anger or listlessness, in the face of the fantasy of limitless growth that we have adopted as our ‘true religion’. I recognised as well that for too long I have been waiting for government policy or someone or something to shift things and that in the waiting, in that sense of impotence, I have talked too much and acted too little and in so doing I have lost some of my own vitality and overlooked my own behaviours and actions that have run counter to my expressed beliefs. I have been guilty of living for a remote future with little attention for the day in which I could act.

Hope, in fact, it seems to me, is not about some future point in time where along with all else, it becomes abstract and unreal, conjoined with despair.  Hope, if it is anywhere, is here and now, in the multitude of small actions that connect and foster life-that make time for the art of conversation and companionship, that honour and respect the earth.

The ‘idea’ of global crisis and words like ‘environmental’ and ‘sustainable’ can actually get in the way when everything becomes an abstraction, taking me away from the today in which I can actually do something real, something in particular, acting in a small way, in my own place, on what I would consider a human scale in the company of others. Whatever global crisis there is, whatever healing of divisions must be done, begins with a commitment from me to re-imagine my own relationship with the principles of ecology and economics, with ideas of limitation in my life and to act accordingly and faithfully.

It is May and the world is a riot of colour. Perhaps we might imagine, as I do, looking at the grass or the weeds among the vegetables that growth is indeed limitless but of course that’s not the case. The seasons will turn and growth will follow its pattern of eternal duration and generation setting seed and fruit for the continuance of life. For my part, I too can act in this setting in a way that feels both real and consequential.  Husbandry is the art of relationship with the natural world, a legitimate place for us to be in good company with our habitat, to encourage and constrain, mindful of the extent and range of the life we must care for, balancing a need for good food and income with the long term future of the place which is, as I have come to learn, not simply the land itself but the community in which it is nested. It is an art I am still learning.

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The Work of Peace

Far out in space there is a remarkable song of the earth. I was reminded of it a few days ago when I flew back into London from India.

At Heathrow arrivals there is a large billboard carrying a picture of the British astronaut Tim Peake welcoming travellers into the country. Looking more closely at the image recently I noticed that one of the badges sewn onto his overalls had the word peace written on it.

As a 12 year old boy I remember when in 1977 the Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft left Earth to venture into deep space.

On board each spacecraft there is a golden phonograph record which carries messages from the peoples of the earth intended as a greeting to other life that might co-exist with us in the universe. Pictures, music and sounds were sent along with messages from a total of fifty-five countries. It is a narrative, a collective story told in fifty five languages. It is our earth song.

Having just spent the week in India I was struck to discover that the first word recorded on the disc is Namaste.

Namaste, more than a word or a greeting, is an organising principle of relationship. Traditionally the word is spoken with hands in prayer lifted to the heart. It means ‘the spirit in me salutes the spirit in you.’

It is a greeting that assumes and prioritises our spiritual nature and that recognises spirit rather than matter as primary in our experience. Philosophically it assumes deep connection between people rather than division. It  has ancient roots and tells a story about how we can be together. Perhaps there is no word on earth more singularly representative of what we understand instinctively to symbolise peace; within ourselves, between souls and in the world.

Namaste was followed by many other words and voices but the sentiments were strikingly similar. In every dialect and language the message we sent was the same. In Aramaic, Hebrew, Bengali, Burmese, Urdu, Welsh, Telugu, Sotho, Russian, Punjabi, Portuguese, in every voice-the same thing-and the same word again and again.

Peace.

We welcome you; we greet you; peace be with you;

Of the twenty one categories of sound well over half were of the natural world and of core human activities. Sounds included the rain, wind and surf, the sounds of a dog, of volcanoes, earthquakes and thunder, of hyenas and elephants, a baby crying, a mother’s kiss, trees sighing, the sound of footsteps, heartbeat and laughter.

We sent sounds of connection, sounds of Life.

Of the music, Bach, Mozart and Beethoven were mixed together with traditional songs from The Aborigine of Australia and the Navajo Indians. There is a men’s house song from New Guinea, there are pan pipes from Peru, bagpipes from Azerbaijan, pipes from the Solomon Islands and song from the gypsies of Bulgaria, a pygmy girl’s initiation song from Zaire. Song after song after song we have sung out into the universe and we have been doing so for millennia.

Listening to the recordings it seems hard to imagine that peace itself is anything other than fundamental to human life and human aspiration yet it seems we have become distanced from our own vision and our instinct for what the pioneering Benedictine monk Bede Griffiths called unity in diversity.

Unity in diversity is a principle connected to the Hindu word advaita or non-duality. It recognises both the value of difference in human relations and the fundamental truth of our interdependence or unity, a belief that underpinned Griffiths’ lifelong work to find synthesis between different religious perspectives, especially Christian and Hindu.

Instead of unity in diversity, we find that our societies have become increasingly wrought with separation and division. This division is felt ecologically in our separation from the earth, socially in our separation from one another and spiritually, in our separation from ourselves. Exploitation of Earth’s resources, extreme poverty and personal isolation are some of the consequences of the choices we have made in the name of progress and all are symptoms of division.

In contemplating our earth song, it is sad that contemporary life with all its pressure and urgency has so greatly undermined and threatened the livelihoods, beliefs, rituals and life systems of the people’s whose voices we sent out in greeting to the universe. As an example, one in ten young Australian Aborigine men now consider life today to be ‘meaningless’. We sent the aborigine songs but we have greatly harmed their people.

It is sad that the consumer choices we make every day threaten the plants, birds, fish, animals and other creatures we hear on the Voyager recording-to the point of extinction. We are currently losing species from the earth at the rate of 1000-10,000 times the background rate. We have sent the songs of the natural world but we continue to destroy earth’s habitats and plunder her resources for profit.

Today we live in a world where the gap between reality and what we know to be possible seems almost insurmountable.

To live creatively inside that gap, we will need to learn to balance our will to action and self-interest with a capacity for quietness and the ability to listen to others. Quietness is a capacity that we have lost touch with in contemporary life but it remains, I believe, inherent in us as does the capacity to listen deeply. We need to learn to listen again, precisely in the places where we have become most terribly divided. That is the practical work of the times we are in. Not easy of course, but there we are.

William Stafford invites us to consider the nature of quietness and our relationship to listening in a poem called ‘Being a Person.’

Be a person here,
Stand by the river, invoke the owls.

Invoke winter, then spring.
Let any season that wants to come here make its own call.

After that sound goes away, wait.
A slow bubble rises through the earth
and begins to include sky, stars, all space,
even the outracing, expanding thought.
Come back and hear the little sound again.

Suddenly this dream you are having matches
Everyone’s dream, and the result is the world.
If a different call came there wouldn’t be any
world, or you, or the river, or the owls calling.

How you stand here is important.
How you listen for the next things to happen.
How you breathe.

In the space between what is and what could be how each of us stands is important. To stand up is in itself an act of singular courage. It starts with each of us and then goes from there. The principle of Namaste can help here. In acknowledging our primarily spiritual relationship to one another, in acknowledging what is holy and sacred between us, we can better ensure the commitment to meet our material needs. From such a place we will find the courage to ask ourselves what dreams we can share and how we might learn to dream the world together once more.

Along with our songs and music, we sent a recording of the sound of fire into space with Voyager. We have sung songs, told stories and listened to one another around fires for a very long time. There is an inherently numinous quality in the relationship between fire and story, the place where we encounter the spark of Imagination. Stories told in many languages can reconnect us in the places where we have become broken. They can do it because they are born in and carved out of life itself and the shared resource of our collective Imagination.

Stories are born out of the heart, out of the hardest and softest places of our lives that make our living real. They are valuable because they honour not only our personal lives but also our transpersonal experience-the sense of mystery common to all human experience. As such they have a special place in our understanding of self and other both materially and spiritually.

There are stories of the earth, of society and of the spirit in each of us that need to be told now and heard now.  In reclaiming our inheritance as creative storytellers, in reclaiming Imagination as a fundamental voice of the human spirit, we might discover or recover a collective myth strong enough to hold and guide us through tough times, one that will do honour to the message of peace we sent out with Voyager, one that honours all the people and voices of the earth that made up that song.

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Ignite or be gone Poetry, shamanism, love and a world of action

I have been sitting in my room this morning in candlelight. The first light has come into the sky now and the candle sends shadows flickering about the room suggesting shapes, forms, ideas, playing with time and space, moving my imagination between the worlds.

Candlelight is so evocative.

I have been sitting as I do each day in silence for half an hour. It has become a morning ritual for me- an important one. In recent days the end of this time has coincided with the sun’s rising- up over the hill that runs in a line north to south-the horizon of the view from my window. These last few days have been quite beautiful. Clear nights full of stars have led to bright frosty mornings, the sky an unimaginable array of blues and the sun itself, breaking over the hill, has jewelled the landscape, washed it each day with new light. The sun has been rising way over in the south west for months now. It is hard winter here still but I notice each morning that the sunrise comes just a few moments earlier. In a few months it will rise more or less entirely in front of me and finally, by midsummer, it will rise far away to my left almost out of view.

Sky wanderer

As it moves and changes with the days and seasons, how can we say that the sun is not alive-is not life itself-life begetting life.

‘Ignite’ wrote Mary Oliver, ‘or be gone.’

Yesterday I went out for a walk shortly after the sun had come up. It’s another more or less daily ritual when I’m at home and carries the same importance as the time I sit. There is a place that I like to stand on the top of the hill that gives its name to our village. In Somerset the old word for hill is barrow. I live in North Barrow. The village church sits on top of the hill and from the field I stand in the sun rises up behind a line of ash trees, silhouetting the church and casting the whole scene in the most glorious light. From this spot, the path I follow wanders thinly through fields over gates and stiles down to a small brook. On the descent the view opens right up. We live on the edge of the Somerset levels. In the distance, on a clear day such as yesterday was, you can see Glastonbury Tor rising like a beacon out of the landscape, a broad, distinctive hill, steep on its southern aspect and falling away more gently to the north. The simple remains of the church of St Michael are outlined at the summit and history presses in. It is ancient land. Stories layered upon stories.

The light yesterday was remarkable. If each day were immersed in these colours there would be fewer arguments about God. I stood awhile beside the stream and listened as it riffled and flowed over shingle and stones. The flow of water is such an eternal sound. The light caught the fence that runs alongside the stream illuminating strands of wool left by sheep that use it as a rubbing post. The trees- an old oak and the string of willows that hug the water, were outlined like charcoal drawings against the sky which was pristine. The whole scene shimmered.

I was standing at a spot where several weeks ago I had come across a song thrush. The small bird was dead though still warm. I picked it up and held it in the palm of my hand for some minutes. There were no marks on it at all-its death was a mystery. As I held it I thought of my friend who, as it turned out, had died the previous day. I had been visiting her at home in the months before her death. Her dying was no secret between us and we talked about her experience openly and honestly. We sat with it; as much as was possible we sat in it together as her-self, her story, began to dissolve back into that other greater story. We both felt the subtle changes, the easing away of something, the gravity and grace of impermanence as her grip on life changed to something softer. Slowly over many months she had unpicked the threads that bound her to this world. Her books, her family, her passions, her beliefs, her activism, all of it, softened, loosened, entered the current we could both feel. There was grief and joy. We laughed more often than we should have perhaps. The universal and the particular moved and flashed together-it was like watching a fish move, working and settling in the current of a stream.

To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.
I placed the bird down beside the stream and covered its body though not its head, with several leaves that had fallen from the willows that lined the opposite bank. The next day I walked by again. The leaves were still there as I had left them, but the bird was gone.

Leaving the stream, the way home takes me up the lane, past a farm and down into the village, the circuit returning past the church and on down the hill to home. As I walked, I was struck quite suddenly by the transitoriness of this life. I felt it so strongly that I wept. It was not grief I felt, or joy exactly though it was both of these things and much more. It was, I’m sure, an affirmation, a blessing of sorts. I found myself turning the words of Prospero over in my thoughts as I made my way along the lane;

We are, he said,

such stuff

As dreams are made on, and our little life

Is rounded with a sleep.

 

I repeated the words several times and each time came the same gift of tears. It touched me in the way that breaks and forms in the same moment. It hurt in the way love can and does.

 

Words are powerful, especially as poetry. I share the opinion with Ted Hughes that poetry is shamanic. By nature, inclination and experience, I have come to believe this to be true.

‘Poetry leads us into the underworld, wrote Hughes, which is one of the main regenerative dramas of the human psyche, the fundamental human event’.

In a few simple lines good poetry will carry us down into the depths of ourselves. It will console, act as guide, mentor, teacher. It will also provoke us and encourage us to meet the immensity of the world its author intuits senses and seeks to describe. As such poetry is a bridge between the world of words as utility and the wordless silence which must remain always ineffable. There is an edge as Thomas Aquinas discovered beyond which words cannot go. In the burning presence of God, he put down his pen, put aside his final work and became silent.

We live out our days between time and the eternal and this is, I think, the landscape and territory of the poet in each of us. In these landscapes, the unfamiliar moves. There are footprints in the snow and in the mud, traces left on broken branches, there are thick forests and strange mists. This is the grimpen home of the poet who tracks and moves like a hunter in new fallen snow, seeking out image, symbol and metaphor, working with cadence and rhythm.

A poet will sit beside the bear cave of words all winter for a single sound, a smell, a vision.

We hear the drum sound and the feet of our souls-move.

Our spirits curl upwards like smoke. We respond.

There are, wrote Wendell Berry,

No unsacred places.

Only sacred places and desecrated places.

Here is a drum beat.

The world is sacred he says- not just in special places but everywhere, the world is first and foremost is holy, sacred ground. We know that don’t we-but we forget and in our forgetting, we lose ourselves, as Wordsworth said- in the light of common day. It is that sense of loss that so deadens the soul, separated as it is-as it seems to be, from its native goodness. I wonder if it’s a loss of a feeling for home or a longing for adventure, a keening to embark on the journey of return-I’m not sure, but if we lose that sense of being in it- if we lose the confidence that we are with our breath-involved-participants in the greatly mythic world around us, we suffer.

Our breath marks us as participant, as intimates with all that breathes and yet we can feel so alien. Even the rocks, breathe slowly. They sing too, so I hear.

Is there anything worse than to lose the capacity for awe and wonder in the face of the immanence of our un-being?

To be fierce with life is our birth right and what makes us truly human. It’s a strange image but it captures the courage that marks the best of our days, our living and our dying.  It is something to affirm our own lives in a world that is forever and perpetually affirming life, pouring it forth with wild abandon in a zero sum game that yet must include our own decay and death. Paul Tillich called this affirmation the courage of despair-the courage to be. That we can embrace being itself in the face of despair-this outlook is what makes things real.

Another drum beat.

How do we engage with our lives, not only our own lives but life in general-how do we participate-in the world?

Start close in.

There is our beginning. Make it what it is- what you know it is- which is personal. The poet knows;


..don’t take the second step
or the third,
start with the first
thing
close in,
the step
you don’t want to take.

What is that step I don’t want to take?

This is the shamanic journey to the underworld.

Close your eyes and see the other world.

Adjust. Get close in.

You can feel the fire; see how the light tricks your eyes in the darkness of the question, of the invitation. There are many faces. Time past and time future swirls about your head. Intoxicated. The drum beats swims, dreams, the ground falls away; you die.  Animals come, there is pain, burning, tearing, move across landscapes, over water, the stars seem near and far, move, dance.

We are danced.

Life is dancing us, we are dismembered, drunk, in love, sensual, sexual, cold, alone, our heart pounds, we sweat, we bleed, we soften, we weep, we rest, we sleep, we are awake, we are sore and hungry and tired and awake, awake, awake.

That is the first step. Descent and return is always the step we don’t want to take

Not the second or the third step.

Start close in.

What is the step I don’t  want to take? The one that goes over the edge.

We know what we sense and we discern truth from fiction when we get close in.  There is a trustworthy voice that is wholly our own if we will listen Up close the truth is always personal but it’s also universal.

The poet diviner.

There are currents moving beneath us and around us that are more intimately who we are than anything the common day world can tell us or give us.

The shaman’s first tool.

Nature. Always nature.

There are no unsacred places. The earth knows that and we too know but we forget.

Seamus Heaney is our guide.

Cut from the green hedge a forked hazel stick

That he held tight by the arms of the V:

Circling the terrain, hunting the pluck…

 

Is that not our lives?  Are we not, at our most alive, our most engaged, our most committed-hunting the pluck?

What is that feeling? It is our own unique relationship with the great world which is also every relationship with the great world. If we meet the hidden world with confidence- we will be met.

Unfussed. The pluck came sharp as a sting.

We will be met

We will be met

We will be met

We will be met

The drum beats- we can smell the hide and the resin in our darker minds

Between earth and the hidden streams of life we are mediators. The tools of our work are all about us, in front of us, so common you might disregard them. The kingdom of heaven is all about but men do not see it.

Our work?

Nothing fancy

To fashion ourselves.

To get close in to our own lives first and then lend our weight to the public effort

To fashion the one green hazel that is our own, to walk into the world with bare feet, to engage. To meet our part of the bargain with confidence. The earth, the living world wants to respond and it waits only for our agreement.

The rod jerked down with precise convulsions,

Spring water suddenly broadcasting

Through a green aerial its secret stations.

The pluck comes.

I am at my desk again. The candle burns still but the daylight hides the shadow play. The days of bright sun and frosty mornings have passed and the morning has broken cold and grey. There is a northerly wind that whips around the edges of the house. When I stop writing and listen, I hear it at play. The branches of the tree just down the lane are swaying, dancing, and flocks of sparrows and starlings move across the sky in dark liquid flows. The crows, higher up, are scattered and windblown. It all seems like play. It is play.

My time of quiet in the morning is greatly important to me. I sit still. I have learned to simply be there loosening slowly around my need for things to happen. To be there is enough. Sitting at the feet of eternity. That’s how Teresa of Avila put it. Another poet.  Another shaman. There is silence. There is a drum beat which is also silence and that tells me it is good.

John Main, The Benedictine monk recommends that we don’t measure our progress when it comes to meditation;

‘…the great test is-are you growing in love? Are you growing in patience? Are you growing in understanding and compassion?

From the stillness it is time for work, time to make of the day what I can. Mary Oliver is right of course when she remarks that meditation is old and honourable;

Why should I

Not sit, every morning of my life, on the hillside,

Looking into the shining world?

 

She is right to, to challenge her own thinking

Can one be passionate about the just, the

ideal, the sublime, and the holy, and yet commit

to no labor in its cause? I don’t think so.

 

What cause do we labour for?  What is it that that connects us to what is just, ideal, holy, sublime?

Here we are in the territory of the poet guides. Poetry can drop us like a lead into other worlds. As we travel we realise that there are many different worlds, worlds of reflection, of wonder, of tremendous grief and sorrow, of terrible beauty, of love. We visit those worlds, inhabit them, and coming back with what boons we can we find if we are lucky that they are all one world and that we are the breath and eyes and ears and heart of that world which is really this world of ours in all its mystery. Then we are participant. Then we can labour in its cause.

We are, wrote TS Eliot, the music while the music lasts.

We are stillness and we are actors. I have watched my friend’s life shimmer from one to the other and I know consequently, in her absence, the reality of both. Her gift to me was to remind me of the imperative that we have to live our days as fully as we can and then, when it is time, to let go.

‘There is but one music in the world…’

wrote the mystic Evelyn Underhill,

‘……and to it you contribute perpetually, whether you will or no-your own little ditty of no tone. Mad with joy, life and death dance to the rhythm of this music. The hills and the sea and the earth dance. The world of Man dances in laughter and tears’.

It is good and beyond good that it is so. It is in the final reckoning beyond words that it is so and that is the territory of the gods- of God. Yet there is a territory that spans our days and gives them the texture of good words that bridge the mundane with the eternal, the sacred, the holy- and that word that voice is the voice of the poet and the poet-shaman, which is each of our deepest inheritance. We are dreamers and actors all, we are dancers and artists and as such we must where we can- find our drum, find our voice and sing.

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In the shadow of VUCA: A call for Soul and Sanctuary in Leadership

The sun has its story

That no curtain can stop. Mark Nepo

Many years ago, so the story tells us, an archaeologist hired some Inca tribesmen to carry his many discoveries from an archaeological site deep in the mountains to the sea where a boat was waiting to take him home. The tribesmen were happy to carry the load and set off covering many miles of mountain territory each day. This went on for several days; each day the archaeologist was up early wanting to get to the boat as soon as possible and the tribesmen were happy to walk. After they had been moving for a week in this way a morning came when the tribesmen stopped and insisted they would go no further. The archaeologist grew impatient and then angry. But no matter how much he cajoled the tribesmen would not go any further. Nothing happened for three days. The tribesmen would not move, nor would they speak. Then, strangely, on the fourth day the tribesmen changed their attitude. They picked up their burdens and set off once more. When the bewildered archaeologist asked why they had stopped and refused to move for so long, the tribesmen answered, “We had been moving too fast and had to wait for our souls to catch up.”

A short while ago during a small group coaching session in the US with senior executive leaders, one man literally fell to his knees on the floor sobbing. He was exhausted by the pressures of his job and had been unable to sleep for so long that he had almost passed out at the wheel of his car on the highway a few days earlier and crashed. He described himself as ‘utterly overwhelmed’. Over the afternoon each man had a story- a story behind the story I should say-of loss and bewilderment that would be hard to imagine had we met for a beer a few hours earlier. In the sanctuary of our shared space each man wept for something that afternoon; a child they hadn’t seen, an estranged wife, fear of failure, fear of an early death, an abusive Boss, a loss of meaning. The story behind the story was one of grief, loss, isolation and loneliness and there had been no time to share it, no one to share it with and nowhere to tell it until now.

Why is it I wonder, that so many of the men and women I work with are so exhausted and burnt out in their roles?  Why do I sit and witness again and again, top level executives, in the privacy of a coaching space both alone and in small groups, break down in tears as they reflect on the pressures of work, the cost of business life to their families, the sense of disorientation and loneliness in the face of so much international travel, the sense of a strange pervasive ‘loss’ of something essential and important in their lives, a kind of emptiness despite apparently ‘having it all.’

In a plenary session one would not know anything is wrong of course. We all learn as a consequence of modern life to hide certain things. We develop a public face in order to succeed and to get along and rightly so perhaps-it’s called socialisation and it has its proper place in the adaptation of the spirit to society and the culture in which the individual grows up. A central part of the work of leadership is to learn to manage the tension that inevitably exists between that public or ‘onstage’ self and what we could call our private truth- a view on things that is personal, the essence of who we are-what some call the souls voice. Sometimes we manage the tension well and sometimes not.

Typically in environments that are wary of emotional expression (the soul feels vividly) we learn to hide how we really feel and present a persona-call it the voice of the ego- that sends out a clear message that says ‘all is well’. High fives, joking around and an air of invulnerability shield and protect us from some other voice-the story behind the story- that is at once strangely distant and very close. If this condition persists we may become slowly closed to the quiet calling of our inner life or discover ways and means of numbing the inevitable suffering that comes when the gap gets too big for too long and we ignore the importuning of our innermost concerns. We can do that for years-perhaps until the children are estranged or we fall asleep at the wheel and the story changes and we wonder as the Talking Heads song goes-how did I get here?

As facilitators in the practice of leadership we talk about how it ‘feels’ to lead-such is the nature of any dialogue on the ‘inner work’ of leadership but in general what comes back from the circle, well intentioned as it is, is what people think about things. Feelings are uncomfortable; a problem in organisational life. The intelligence of feeling is valued less than the capacity for rational and objective thinking yet nothing is seen to be lost because of that, our perception is not thought to be diminished by an over reliance on logic. It’s easy enough to confuse a feeling for a thought of course but they are very different things. Perhaps it’s no surprise that what is denied in public spills out so frequently and with such force in private. Psychologically-given the level of denial- we could call it a shadow aspect of leadership. One wonders how and where else it spills out when unguarded. In the conversations I am involved in I know it comes out in the myriad forms of violence that the author Wayne Mueller describes in his reflections on the cost of a successful life;

A successful life has become a violent enterprise. We make war on our own bodies, pushing them beyond their limits; war on our children, because we cannot find time to be with them when they are hurt and afraid, and need our company; war on our spirit, because we are too preoccupied to listen to the quiet voices that seek to nourish and refresh us; war on our communities, because we are fearfully protecting what we have, and do not feel safe enough to be kind and generous; war on the earth, because we do not take the time to place our feet on the ground and allow it to feed us, to taste its blessings and give thanks.

The violence of modern life takes its toll in many ways it seems. Perhaps it was the recognition of a ‘safe space’, the chance to be honest for a moment, that provoked the sudden grief that poured out of the hearts of those men that afternoon, not broken open as a natural consequence of living fully but exhausted and shattered by years of ill treatment and neglect.

The shadow of VUCA

Those of us that work in the field of leadership development are familiar enough with the acronym VUCA. A great deal has been said and written about the term and its implications for organisations and leaders since it was imported into the world of business from its origins in the US Army Military College in the 1990s. VUCA was first used to describe the changing nature of military intervention in modern warfare; the degree of unpredictability and surprise that might be present in a field situation unfolding in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan. VUCA offers a practical code for awareness and readiness and invites us to look at learning models that support preparedness, anticipation, evolution and intervention. It’s an exciting field and offers much opportunity for the development of the leadership mind in more complex ways.

Few would deny that organisational life today is indeed typically experienced as volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous; VUCA, we are told, is the new normal and leaders and organisations need to shape themselves accordingly to thrive in conditions that are at once destabilising and rich with opportunity.  The sense of rapid change is addressed and underscored elsewhere in many emerging models and theories of organisational development

The term discontinuous has superseded turbulent as an adjective to describe the deepening nature of constant change that organisations face. The edge of chaos, drawn from the science of chaos theory tells us that the dynamically charged space between the known and the unknown, between entropy and chaos, is where innovation, creativity and new possibility emerge as new patterns of life. Leaders are encouraged to adopt ways of knowing that are experimental, curious and able to hold paradox, to be unafraid of failure. The ability to navigate effectively in that space offers any executive a competitive advantage and we might make the assumption that it will be a pre-requisite for organisational survival in coming years within the existing paradigm within which business is presently conducted.

Whilst I would not disagree with the assumptions about the business environment expressed in terms such as VUCA and would endorse the creative development of leadership capabilities towards the stage of development that Bob Kegan call self-transforming mind, I would say that the cost for the human soul of inhabiting VUCA environments over extended periods of time has been largely overlooked and represents a real concern for the future health of organisations and the leaders that serve them. Put simply, the time and space for the dignified and respectful development of the human person towards what CG Jung called individuation, is being ignored and this omission is leaving people trapped; privately incapable of holding the myriad tensions at play between their personal and professional commitments. Ignoring this truth, all theories of change fall short if they are not supported by practices that sustain both the spirit and the soul of the leader.

When the soul of a person (‘that which is essential’) is left behind, when we forego a language and appreciation for soul- when we no longer know or are able to stop long enough to let our souls ‘catch up’- the consequences are devastating. The fact that these consequences are largely hidden and denied makes the fact more dangerous and inhuman, not less so. The poet WB Yeats writes about the dialogue between self and soul.  The soul of a person, as every poet knows, needs to speak, to muse, to consider and reflect-if it is to be well, if it is to act as it should, as a guide for what is most important in our lives. It’s not a matter of indulgence it’s a matter of sanity.

A poem by Mark Nepo offers an example of this capacity and need for reflection and came to mind that afternoon in our coaching circle; it speaks to the story behind the story;

I’ve been watching stars

rely on the darkness they

resist. And fish struggle with

and against the current. And

hawks glide faster when their

wings don’t move.

 

Still I keep retelling what

happens till it comes out

the way I want.

 

We try so hard to be the

main character when it is

our point of view that

keeps us from the truth.

 

The sun has its story

that no curtain can stop.

 

It’s true. The only way beyond

the self is through it. The only

way to listen to what can never

be said is to quiet our need

to steer the plot.

 

When jarred by life, we might

unravel the story we tell ourselves

and discover the story we are in,

the one that keeps telling us.

 

I think there are times when we all think this way. In times of transition and rapid change it is especially true that we are called to face questions of meaning in our lives. Our capacity to sit creatively with such tensions is what allows us to grow more fully into our lives. To leave such concerns unmet, buried or hidden isn’t brave or tough; it can only diminish our experience and our capacity to meet the world more honestly and on our own terms-that is to say-authentically.

Perhaps it seems strange to conjure poetry in a discussion about leadership but I contest that it is precisely the lack of poetic sensibility that undermines the health of individual leaders, their teams and organisations. Poetry is the language of the soul and has much to teach us. The consequences of the omission of soul in the estimation of what amounts to organisational success is something that I see too regularly to count as an anomaly nor am I willing to discount it as ‘collateral damage’. In my estimation the people in the room with me a few weeks ago were committed, intelligent, courageous leaders actually marked out for advancement in the corporation they served-yet privately they were suffering; willing and able yes as any good soldier is, but ill equipped for the physical, psychological, emotional and spiritual cost of VUCA life.

Leadership and Addiction

Prior to beginning my practice with senior executive leaders a decade ago I spent over 15 years working in the field of addictions and criminal justice. In that time I worked with many hundreds of people whose lives had been shattered and broken in a thousand different ways and who had turned to substances like alcohol, heroin and crack cocaine and behaviours such as gambling, sex addiction and stealing to mitigate the pain and suffering caused by the many forms of abuse that a person or a society can inflict on another human being.  I learned that anyone could get caught in addiction and over the years have worked with people from every conceivable background.

The term addict is an interesting one, deriving from the Latin, addictus, it means ‘to be a slave to’ and refers to the multitude of ways that any person might become lost in patterns of thinking, feeling and behaving that corrode choice and undermine their capacity to grow towards the noble and dignified state of human maturity that we call adulthood which is the gift of a lifetime where conditions allow.

It’s relatively easy to spot addiction to Crack cocaine and in some ways ‘easier’ to work with since its consequences can be so quickly and obviously destructive. Other addictions are sometimes more pernicious and hard to see. A pervasive form of addiction today is simply intensity-in its myriad forms- at work, in sport, in entertainment, on vacation, it seems we can never relax. A high flying adolescent can never get enough and our relentless need for intensity speaks of a curious lack of maturity in our society today. We don’t know how to be still.

Intensity is of course both an appeal and a danger in the context of VUCA. VUCA if misunderstood will speak only to the classic hero myth; It’s easy enough for the psyche to repackage a thing and miss the point, as TS Eliot put it, ‘we had the experience but missed the meaning’. VUCA is a call to adventure which is fine in itself but if not grounded by a mature perspective that includes a capacity for stillness, it will appeal only to the adolescent in us, the young warrior, because it is derived from and works with the language and intensity of warfare. VUCA tells us that we need to be alert, prepared, anticipating, evolving, aware and ready-all the time. In a world addicted to better, bigger, faster, what better than this?

The issue with VUCA is that it takes real depth and wisdom to be able to embrace conditions of volatility, ambiguity and so on. It can be tough and demanding to live in a space of liminality and complexity whilst simultaneously navigating the numerous day to day business demands that take up so much time and energy. For many it’s too much. The addictions and states of de-stabilisation that I saw in my first career are mirrored often enough in different forms in my work today that I consider them to be a pervasive pattern related to a general incapacity to cope.

Addiction is always symptomatic of a life out of sorts concomitant with a loss of freedom. Addictive behaviours are an attempt, albeit misjudged to right the balance, to compensate for what seems to be lost, enslaved, missing; to numb the intolerable, to cope, and to survive. Ultimately however, insofar as such behaviours ignore the importuning of the inner life through the application of outer fixes, they are life denying and only increase the suffering to the one caught in the drama and to those they work with and care about.

The point is that real suffering (as distinct from neurotic suffering) which gives our life character, builds resilience and provides us with the strength to endure amongst other things is a matter not simply for the ego and it cannot be addressed through acts of bravado, denial or traditional ideas of power; Incorporating our suffering into the narrative of our lives is a matter for the soul. Conditions that are inhospitable to the work of ‘soul making’ as the poet John Keats put it divide and diminish us in every conceivable way and bring about a particular quality of suffering that is life denying rather than life giving; shattering and isolating, more closely related to hopelessness, a quality writ large in the ennui, despair and loneliness so prevalent in western society today.

It is in the nature of a life that we suffer and indeed it is through our suffering, our passion, well met that we might be moved towards the greatest gift of fellow feeling that we call compassion, again deriving from the Latin meaning to suffer with. Compassion has to do with the heart as addiction does, but where the addict protects and shields the ego from the wounds of life, the compassionate person admits it all and recognises that we grow and become fully human precisely out of our heartbrokenness.

Finding Sanctuary for the soul

Sanctuary has its roots in the word sanctus, to mean ‘holy place.’ Psychologically if we follow the same linguistic root we discover a place that is deliberately put aside for the development of wholeness, a place also of healing. Finding sanctuary, taking time for retreat from the push and pull of the daily round, is essential to life; essential to our capacity to hear the story behind the story. It is worth taking the time to consider where and with whom we find such space, what happens when we make space for sanctuary in our lives and what happens when we don’t.  It is my conjecture that no serious conversation about leadership in a VUCA world can take place divorced from a conversation about the human need for sanctuary; it is the place we go for shelter and refuge, refreshment and renewal, solitude and companionship, to make sense and meaning of our experience to find the courage to re-engage creatively with the things that matter to us. We know it in our lives both by its presence and its absence.

To deny the value and importance of sanctuary is to deny the depth of our experience and the conditions necessary for proper human formation. In times of change and transformation it is natural that our questions become more philosophical. We inquire of ourselves; about who we are, what are life is for, what matters, and in this way we create and re-create meaning. The work of becoming a mature human-there is no free pass to adulthood based on the number of years lived-includes this process of reflection and honours our need to make meaning of our experience as a central part of our development. It is a process that takes time and is connected to other practices of interiority such as contemplation and meditation, practices of being that balance the bias for action so prevalent in our society. To ask the ego created in earlier life to carry us through our total life experience in its entirety is naive and asks too much of a psychological system not designed for such work.

A divided life is always destructive and the consequences are felt both personally and organisationally. When an executive weeps in a coaching session, the clues or inner warnings that might have mitigated the ‘breakdown’ have been dismissed, ignored or in some other way, waived aside. I suspect that in nearly every case the act of dismissing is unconscious, encouraged by the environment in which the person ‘makes their living’ to use the term ironically. That it happens so often tells me how badly organisations fail to ensure the well-being of those that serve them. Perhaps it is too much to ask of any organisation that they should think of such things though it seems incredible to say so. Nonetheless, this being the case, it falls into the hands of the executive leaders themselves to ensure that they include access to times of sanctuary as an integral part of their leadership practice and it is, I submit, the work and responsibility of executive development facilitators and establishments to ensure that such spaces are available and such practices encouraged. At the moment it seems to be something that happens only rarely but it can be developed and must be.

Greater complexity and ambiguity require greater interiority. The rational and objective mind so highly favoured by leaders and organisations brings great advantages to a company but it is of little help when it comes to dealing with our hearts and souls. It is, as the poet Ted Hughes put it, ‘useless in the most vital activity of all; that of understanding ourselves’.

If we are to stand our ground with dignity in a VUCA world then it will demand a level of maturity not available to the rational ego alone. The path to adulthood, to becoming human is just that, a journey, a way, a discipline that is open to the live encounter with life itself and with other people. In the imaginative space between our inner life and the world around us we form, deform and reform meaning throughout life. This process of human development is soul work-James Hillman describes soul as ‘the imaginative capacity of our natures’- and it requires time and care including the time apart that I am referring to as sanctuary. Through this work we might if we are fortunate, develop, expand and enrich our lives, deepening our inner dialogue that is sensitive to times of transition that can navigate the VUCA world and act as our most faithful and  trustworthy guide. The sun does indeed have a story that no curtain can stop. It is the work of a lifetime to honour that story and let it speak.

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The feeling of walking: a poetic journey on foot

The feeling of walking: a poetic journey on foot

The following poem is an account of a journey on foot through a part of Wales that I took a week or so ago. It is that and, for me, much more. When I got back I sat down and wrote about the walk for almost a day. At the end of the day I was dissatisfied. I had spoken about the walk but had not touched the walk itself, the imaginative or creative spirit of the walk-the feeling of it. On the second day I wrote what I have chosen to share.

It was James Hillman that offered up a definition of soul as the ‘imaginative possibility of our natures’. In exploring soul this way, experienced through dream, image and fantasy, Hillman suggested that the idea of soul referred also to that component in each of us that makes meaning possible, deepens events into experiences and can be known whether through love or religious experience through its special relationship with death.

If we attend to Hillman’s words; love, depth, meaning, religious experience and death we come to see that the territory of the Imagination is indeed the territory of soul making, that it is intimately related to matters of the heart and represents the real work of a lifetime.

To live fully has to do I think with living closely to the forces that Hillman speaks of. I have come to experience poetry as a means by which it is possible to do just that, to move , to journey even, between the worlds that form and  inform (sometime deform) so much of our lives. Poetic work inhabits and navigates the world of meaning making, experience, death and so forth as no other medium of language can. In the space between my inner landscape and the outer world I meet a capacity for Imagination, the capacity that Coleridge called ‘the shaping spirit’, something that seems to be both personal and universal in nature.

William Blake declared that Man is ‘all imagination’, Yeats saw Imagination as the conduit through which each of us might seek to remake the world according to the impulses of the Great Mind, the Anima Mundi. It is through the Imagination that we shape the world, that we come to know it, that we come to change and to be changed by it.

An olive tree is what it is until we see what Van Gogh sees. The woods around Capel Y Fin where I was walking last week are ‘only woodlands’ until they come under the gaze of the artist David Jones, until he can show us as every artist and poet must-just what we are missing. The world numinous is none other than the world fully imagined.

In his essay on the founding of the Arvon Foundation, John Moat, a poet who I had the very good fortune to know, described imagination as ‘a formative force’ that he felt was ‘universally inclusive’. He wondered whether;

‘ the failure to grasp how this formative, determining mystery, properly reverenced, as the guide and unfolding force of the lives and venture of every individual and their society and above all their education, amounts to a serious missing of the mark. One that leave individuals and society…unfit for purpose’.

Were the Imagination to venture forth in each person, as a primary way of knowing the world, which in John Moats estimation it surely could, being the gift of us all, I would contend that much of what we allow today in the name of culture or society or education would become quickly intolerable.

In his essay on Ted Hughes and the mythic imagination, Keith Sagar reminds us of the performance of Aristophanes’ The frogs at the Great Dionysia in 405, at the point when Athenian civilisation was close to collapse. In the play Dionysus is sent to Hades to bring back the greatest of the dead poets. The ghost of Euripides asks him what he wants a poet for and Dionysus replies’ to save the city of course’. Sagar makes the point that what’s remarkable here is that Athenian society might imagine that a poet could indeed be the very person to save a city, something that would be little understood today in our own society.

And yet, is there not something essential in this observation, something that we should actually take seriously?  Who else, (what else in ourselves) should we turn to when our trouble, our crisis, is one of absolute exile from ourselves and the natural world around us? Is that not at the root of the malaise and ennui that we see all about us? To quote Ted Hughes;

The story of the mind exiled from Nature is the story of Western Man. It is the story of his progressively more desperate search for mechanical and rational and symbolic securities, which will substitute for the spirit-confidence of the Nature he has lost.

The spirit-confidence that Hughes speaks of is what has indeed been greatly lost. It is a lovely phrase because it lifts up the sense of confidence, not as hubris but as something closer to its original meaning of ‘with trust’ and in so doing it has something to do with faith.

To engage the Imagination is the pressing work of our time, it is nothing less than the work of soul making. It is everyone’s work and everyone’s privilege since Imagination and heart are not merely the province of the few but the greatest gift of us all. That we foster and encourage the gift matters because it enriches our lives and our shared world, connecting us to one another and the vital pulse of the earth itself.

As John Keats said, we do this work with the material of our lives; the hurt, the suffering the delight of our experience. This work is both heart breaking and healing.

How we imagine our life, the story we tell about it, is what makes us and it is through Imagination that our lives become our personal and collective healing fictions. In the poem I will share now the great split in the oak is both its wound and its gift. The Ravens dance out a dance for all time. The waters of the well of a murdered hermit can heal. What happened, happened.

It is through and with Imagination that we address the facets of the soul for meaning making, depth of experience and work with the forces of love, of religious concern, of death. It is the gift to each of us who are given life and breath and it can be reclaimed. That done it is a work of discipline that requires us to hear and stay with the call, as Philip Larkin meant it, to be serious-to get to work with the gift we have been given. When we hear it with faith, with good heart, we might just be met.

The feeling of walking: a poetic journey on foot

The mountain is uttering

Blood and again blood. Ted Hughes

 An aperture

A Skylight

A window into the world

Awake now.

Outside the first sky is a patchwork of slow moving whales, blues and greys

In Wales, in a dream.

The treetops sloping left to right are hints of the valley that was hidden last night and the snow is gone and the day is bright.

The mountain looms larger then I recall but what is memory anyway in this place?

White topped peak, close and far away at once. My breath fogs the glass, the mountain disappears

The sun has returned from a long night crossing, shipped oars, he flushes the hillside unexpectedly with a gift of newly minted gold. The bushes and hedgerows, burst into life, the colours and lines pulled out of themselves while the northern hill casts a sullen look

The radiator ticks and the stairs creak. The old barn has a new face, I make my way downstairs to

A kitchen, a pic sits wrapped in a towel that kept it warm last night, a freshly baked freshly offered gift. Currants, eggs, mixed spice, caster sugar, flour-warm, slices thick, dripping butter. Tea never tasted better.

Boots sit by the door. Waterproofed and solid on the stone tiled floor, patient as a dog before the scent of a walk.

Wear clothing that knows the elements are gods that would kill you without any change of face. The terrain, the way things can turn on the mountain in a moment. Always fickle.

Such is the way with gods.

Boots.

Sure footed, ankle deep, tough toed, strong gripped. Like a compass, they know themselves precisely. The feet find their way in, the laces pull up

Tight.

The sound of buttons, the sound of zips,

Shucking the rucksack, the sound of clips,

Locking into place, the sound of our breath when the

Door shuts tight the warmth behind, out here

The air is cold.

Snow lies patchy, dripping gently under a cold sun and a breeze, not too much on the lee

But the clouds tell me that the mountain will give us the full force of the wind

Which is riding down from the north, what news from the north will it bring?

Lambs leap and daffodils doze in the quiet corners, water trickles everywhere, a million streams and rivulets are a prayer to the land both to and from itself.

First steps and the pattern of the boots begins, the track starts here, the traces of my being here, these footprints are barely markers for those that follow lasting only until the weather washes all away. The grass is greasy, slipping, sliding, giving no purchase, slowly climbing up into the valley where the mountain waits.

I am in a wood. The trees are as old as the hills. Oak and ash, beech, rowan, birch, cling to the side  with gnarled roots fingering out, the path of broken rocks falls indistinct .The track winds its way high into the foothills out of the valley which narrows and steepens down to the tumbling river runs lyrical, slight and full of song.

Her song finds me here, her rhythm of labour, glistening sun, easy and urgent, smelling the Usk, smelling the sea, she knows she must go on. She longs for home.

O I see a ship

Sailing on the sea

And her mast is made of

The Ferun tree.

 

Here is where I meet the fox. Here is where we exchange the look that’s ours for a lifetime of work

Down by the stream I am all fox.

I smell the flowers and the water, the first hint of ramsons and the scent of earth is strong. I see a man, up on the ridge; like looking through water, what kind of animal is this? He watches me curiously, he is still, I have no fear.

We exchange eyes. I see the fox and the fox regards me steadily. Engaged but what kind of marriage is this? I am not the first to be visited by fox, the strange housekeeper and friend of Macha, she of the horse;

Welcome to the great world she said

It’s a nothing, a nowhere I’ve walked into he said

 

Beware when the animals come

What kind of animal I am?

I hold my walking stick, cut hazel, forked end;

I took a knife to it to make a few marks of significance.

The fox and the river make their slow way down hill, following the scent and I too am following in another way. Is there a scent that the mountain gives? Am I called by bell, pelt, flower, church, the earth of old red sandstone? What am I longing for?

I am in a tree. Up above the treeline where the sheep graze, where the land was cleared, where the forest used to be, long stone walls and a ruin are today

What were you once? I was home, store, shelter. See how the rowan prospers here

I am in a tree, an ancient ash, split top to tail on its northerly side. From the south it stands sentinel. From the north it is entrance to another world.

Opened up, the tree invites me in to close again. There is barely room but I am in and down. Inside the tree I breathe and the breath makes sounds against the rain stained wood.

The red stained wound.

How so alive? How rooted still, how reaching still after all this time and trouble?

A temple here thinly disguised in which I

Sing softly, and call down a hollow branch- a didgeridoo to the world, to the river, to the fox. It could close up anytime and then what?

Downwards or upwards or simply standing still.

A shaman’s way out-to the animal beings to the spirit beings. Can you hear the sounds of the drum calling? What sounds do I recall?

The hut, the wheel of a cart, the razor, and the prickly beards of shepherds, the barren moon, the flies, the damp cupboards, the rubble, the lace-covered saints, the wounding lines of eaves and balconies……

That was always the sign of life. Here is a place for prayer sure enough.

The sky is blue. Clouds cut south in streams, the wind catches leafless branches, they bend and give, sag and sigh-I feel the giving-ness.

Forgivingness surrounds me from the tip of her crown to the deep down work world centre of the earth where the roots the filaments end.

I am much says the tree. I am much. There are wounds that never heal. Therein lies the strangeness, the inventiveness of the work.

Guardian and Threshold.

Wounded and healed at the same time and in the great crevice, out of the vulvic crevice, born again into the day. The tree is nothing but itself. A skylark and a kite sing out, cry out, death and life.

I feel the sweat on my back from the climb, I feel a sigh run through me river deep, filament deep, through my solid boots, into the thin grass and down. Sweat from my brow will dewdrop the earth.

We drink together.

Bog and heather.

How the name is recalled like a distant boat.

The way comes and goes the mountain grows the stream runs down between the thighs of the foothills and the path cuts away on contours that suit the climb. The fox follows the stream, traffics away from the path of men and the paths that they make through heather bells and bilberries, civilised.

Where the fox runs home is thistles and broken stones and the cold water that quenches thirst. Home as marginal as life. With fox there is neither map nor discipline. Remember this-

Snowline, the sun breaks out above the mountain and lights the world-emphasises the immensity in cold, biting wind that hits the face hard as stone. Buttons click, zips, water from the flask, red faced, heart surge out to the peaks that rise out surly to the west.

The snow settled here, deep and more to come, an ink blot sky bleeds out before the sun.

Ravens have found the wind; the wind and the Raven are dancing out the great duende. Fox watches on.

I remember  Jerez de la Frontera, how the old Spanish lady arrived last to the dance with the water waisted girls all raven haired and she raised her arms, threw back her head, a single stamp and won the day.

A country open to death. Sweeping the earth with its wings made of rusty knives.

The duende works on the dancer’s body like wind on sand. The ravens are wind and sand, whirling up, caught up in the blast of things.

Behind the great pillars of stone, the backbone of a dragon or so many dice scattered by giants playing for bones. Behind the great rocks there is only stillness.

In the foothills Blackthorns are gathered in a witch’s circle, washer women at night they tend the stream by day, feed it blossom in spring and dark berries when autumn comes. How old is the lichen that clings to the branches, how the wet roots finger these places how they ignore the dead one, plucked up in a storm, where decay worms slowly in.

The witches do their work. Magic is everywhere

We are the keepers of Samhain, when the veil is most thin. We are crone, we are strife. Mark us well

We are those that made a crown for the one below

Now there is smoke, smoke from lazy fires of peat and coal and wood. My feet have rhythm my voice is a song that the birds can understand.

Like a ghost, smoke wanders through quiet lanes unpeopled though the ghosts of the past are everywhere. The school bell is silent though the bell and the laughter are still gathered here in a dark recess of memory

Soft cherry blossoms of spring- not at the school gates but home in bed and sick while the sun danced outside, while the curtain lifted in the first warm wind of spring while the children were at play

A first exquisite solitude. I have never forgotten that day.

A poem springs to mind, a poet, the track near blind, wants the river, insists on bringing the sound nearer to my ear, by the bridge, houses huddle and take in the mountain, perpetually astonished by the view, backs to the gentler hill and ancient woodlands where a royal beech spreads itself wide as a king the silver birch on the march where deer work the land with sharp ears where merlin walked and a hermit found his way to a final resting place.

Here was the home of a hermit once. Perhaps he came the same way through these dense woods and found his god , resting by the stream a crown of thorns put to one side and water wetting that bristled beard. Still the eyes pierce deeper than any thorn. The man almost naked, naked as any poet should be, saving the cloth around his waist- all sinews, he was Baskins hanged man once, full sized, wood carved, each line cutting out a life knife sharp from the world of time.

The stream is called nant mair. Marys stream.

Mary the mother says the man of thorns under his own breath

The duende wounds,

We will have a straight fight beside the well.

The duende wounds and in the healing of the wound which never closes-is the prodigious, the original work of man.

Here says the naked man, kneeling, and never taking those blue eyes from the hermit, piercing, let me give you water. On this path, not for the muse or the angel, we are baptised in this dark water.

Issui built a home here a hermit’s cell and drank dark water from the dingle well.

A traveller came and in some dispute, was there a struggle- we cannot say-Isuui fell down dead.

Issui murdered.

Methur Issui.

Issui dead.

Where does death lead except to life it seems then back again slowly or suddenly it winds us in and on, serpentine.

In sudden death we find the footmarks of pilgrimage. Here, out of the blood, out of the suffering, out of the wound I put my fingers in, rises water, a well and a sharped eyed hawk. Here is a place of healing and poetry.

People have been healed here. On the other side of the mountain, the tree split from top to toe, her filaments reaching all the way to the dark well where we are baptised out of blood and into life. If we cannot smell death there can be no fight. No life. We will not come they said.

Mana breathes. Mana lives here by the dingle stream. The cross is only small but the goddess is another thing, she the source of everything, this terrible life, the substance of all substance born to die. Mana will come to you sufferer, as your own response to the deep hurts that you bear. She is healing and medicine. She is redemption. You pay for it here with your suffering.

Mana is the source of this and every well worth the name.

In the moment of unbearable pain, I begin to flow she says.

What is the total wound, the head to foot wound that you carry?

That is the question. The Agony rent for agony to be redeemed.

That is the work here where Issui fell and still falls with the light tumbling from his eyes.

I drink the water. Time here is written in blood. Whitewashed more than once as though time were some kind of heresy, still it pushes itself out again or so it is said, a man of work, a spade, a scythe, an hourglass. Beneath time a hollowed trunk of oak where the men of god would keep their valuables thrice locked.  Here the stones speak;

Menhir made me, in the time of Genillin.

A thousand years of incantation, Menhir and Genillin are joined forever in stone and time watches on.

Bread for the birds, welsh scone and butter, a gift passed on, never better, snow hints at the red earth, the water is sweet, the wound deep. The goddess ascents and the man of thorns returns his gaze to the stream and distant lands. Nant Mair. Carry me home.

Spiral up, above the hills, the red earth oozes,

A red kite seeks out death,

Eyes search out signs of weakness in the flock jostling earth.

The track divides and the cairn is a single footprint, an earthprint not in stone,

Here mud marks the way as the snow finds itself in a flurry of hoods and gloves.

A long march by mud pools and a group of boys rise up like young horses shy at the top of the second mountain. I ask them where they will sleep tonight and the mountain ascents to keep them here away from the petty worrying of home

The voices begin to break, and Adams apple swells. A new hair on the chin in the morning

The nick of a knife.

Here is a sense of the real Eden where the boys in huddled shelters dream of serpents, dream of Eve and here the cry that screams across the mountain side. Murther Issui, Murther. Innocence dies here where Pan walks even in times of desolation.

Here you will discover with Herrera that the snow does not kill though it bites.

The ache of Baskins legs are in me. Walhaz, or a dream or maybe both, the place where the world thins easily into silence, the mud here speaks, like stones.

Annwfn.

Dragon’s home.

The greater sea moves here in that which is not seen, in what is in the deeps

Or by the well where we are baptized darkly from our suffering,

Where we travel from sleep to sleep

Walhaz,

Stranger.

Dream.

The fox follows the scent downstream as the river does.

Issui falls and in falling is redeemed.

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