Wholeness and Reciprocity: Lessons in Life and Leadership from Bainbridge Island

Authentic leaders in every setting aim at liberating the heart, their own and others, so that its powers can liberate the world Parker Palmer

Last month I was staying on Bainbridge Island in Puget Sound. I was there to begin a journey that will span the year, joining 30 other souls from around the world on the Academy for Leaders Programme run by the Centre for Courage and Renewal. Before the retreat began I paid a visit to the grave of Chief Sealth, later known as Chief Seattle whose name was given to the city I could see across the water. Looking across the sound from the little graveyard, my imagination felt the span of time and the relationship between two very different worlds. The words that boundary his grave are taken from a speech that he gave in 1854 and they came to me as an invitation to think about what it really means to be a leader, they  spoke deeply to what I had come to explore on the island;

Every part of this soil is sacred in the estimation of my people. Every hillside, every valley, every plain and grove, has been hallowed by some sad or happy event in days long vanished. Even the rocks, which seem to be dumb and dead as they swelter in the sun along the silent shore, thrill with memories of stirring events connected with the lives of my people, and the very dust upon which you now stand responds more lovingly to their footsteps than yours, because it is rich with the blood of our ancestors, and our bare feet are conscious of the sympathetic touch.

Walking later along the silent shore of the sound, I began to think about the kind of leadership that Chief Seattle described in these words. What does it mean to walk with a barefoot consciousness, a barefoot heart and a barefoot mind on the earth? Seattle’s cosmology was living, animate and interdependent. It was a world in which human feet walked as relations amongst the ensouled stones and the dust.  What must it have been like to live and breathe, to sense and feel from this ‘hallowed’ place, to live so respectfully?

For Seattle, every grove and plain was hallowed. To hallow means to set apart as holy, to be intimately and sensually whole. Seattle describes a world where everything is holy thus illuminating a paradox that sets apart each holy thing in a universe in which all is holy, wholes are part of larger wholes.  The depth and quality of a life lived in such reciprocity with the natural world, with such a sense of responsibility and freedom must have been extraordinary.

It seems a tall order for the western mind, the western consciousness to be able to take off its shoes and feel the aliveness of the world again. Yet, it seems to me that the work of leadership today is intimately bound with our capacity to recover and re-imagine the principles of which Chief Seattle spoke.  We must learn to call this capacity for wholeness forward again into our lives and our work, from the earth, from the ancestors from within ourselves.

A Spiritual Crisis

Our understanding of leadership today is intimately connected with big questions about the future of the earth itself. There are so many crises that require good leadership. When I reflect on the root of the crises that we face today it seems that the source of the trouble is not material but spiritual. Chief Seattle’s primary orientation saw the world as holy first, as whole and interdependent and as such, fundamentally spiritual in nature. We sense in the Chief’s words a balance between spirit and matter. This understanding of the nature of reality has been largely lost, certainly as a determinant of good leadership and this must be a profound concern.

In a wonderful essay from Pendle Hill titled Integrity, Ecology and Community, the Quaker writer Jennie Ratcliffe puts it this way;

At the heart of this crisis is a profound-yet false-belief in separation, a way of viewing the world that creates distances, dualities, polarities, oppositions, enemies, shadows and demons

I liken the Chief’s way of seeing with Thomas Merton’s understanding of Tao. He said;

…The way is still ours, but we do not know it since the effect of life in society is to complicate and confuse our existence, making us forget what we really are by causing us to become obsessed with what we are not.

William Stafford in his final poem ‘The way it is’, spoke about the relationship that each of us has with the threads of our lives. Whilst we hold the thread he re-assures us- we can’t get lost. Suffering and death will come our way of course, but they will unfold within a greater reality. The thread speaks to us of relationship with the vastness of reality; it speaks to a sense of place. The thread and our place in the world offer up a central metaphor for our relational lives and this has implications for our sense of leadership. That we have lost our collective thread seems clear.

Integrity and wholeness

Standing at the grave of the old Chief, another word really stood out for me as a summary of the man and his relationship to the world; integrity. The word integrity, in its deepest sense, points to a state of wholeness, to the unity and sacredness of life, the oneness of all that is, to a relationship with the world that is, as Martin Buber suggested,  I-thou rather than I-It.

Integrity as a principle makes certain assumptions about the world, specifically the primacy of the principle of unity. Unity contains multiplicity. Put this way, Integrity is another paradox, a condition that contains both the principles of unity and differentiation, that acknowledges our individual experience but also the thread of connection that binds us and all things, that lies hidden from our ego position and yet is a truth known intimately to the soul.

The Quality of Reciprocity

Reciprocity lies at the heart of integrity and wholeness and it was, as I imagine it, a principle that underpinned Chief Seattle’s world view, his profound understanding of the inter-relatedness of all life. In her essay, Jennie Ratcliffe identifies four qualities or aspects of reciprocity that provide us with touchstones for reflection on our own experience and practice as leaders.

The first aspect she suggests is that every part of the universe is connected, inter-dependent and co-creative-as she puts it so beautifully, it is our nature to be connected with nature. This insight is shared by every wisdom tradition in the world and it is very specifically at the core of Chief Seattle’s cosmology.

The second aspect is that the nature of reciprocity is Love.

I remember once watching an interview with Seamus Heaney. He spoke about how he rarely used the world love in his work. He described it as a ‘big ‘word.  I think Love, named in this context is the sense in which Heaney understood it. Love is a big word, big enough in fact to take on our biggest contradictions and hold them all fiercely. It takes real courage to understand and embrace the implications of this kind of love as a guiding principle in our lives.

Love in this reading of it is indeed a fierce condition.  Beyond our understanding of love as a feeling, love in its deepest sense is a state of mind, an attitude, that gets beyond the conditional love which only separates, bargains, demands of others and is capable of hate. Ratcliffe calls love the Great Attractor, it is not something we have but rather, something we live.

Love in the universal meaning is a state of being in relation, response and responsibility. Love is not opposed to hate or to what we call evil; it is that universal force that liberates from the dualistic cycle of love and hate, good and evil.

From this perspective, love is what allows us to carry and own our light and our shadow, to bring them forward as partners in the world, transforming not denying hate, giving us the courage to embrace otherness and others, and transform ourselves in genuine service to our deepest callings whatever they may be. We are asked to attend to what love requires of us and in this was we re-imagine the role of our ego in the deeper process of discernment.

The third aspect of reciprocity is like creates like. Put simply, violence begets violence. We understand from this perspective that the ends and the means are the same. We will never arrive at the truth by deceptive means and the end will reflect the means we use. There is a lawfulness here that surely contains a kind of ethics and morality but again it has a universal quality to it and demands much of us as we seek to understand its principle in our lives and our work.

Finally reciprocity imposes limits. We can experience this principle easily in the natural world. We see this in a forest for example, the way a tree grows in relationship to its surroundings co-responding to the environment with intelligence that reflects balance, sufficiency and proportionality. As with the tree, as with all living, complex systems including human systems;

In human societies, individual freedom of action and competition must co-exist with responsiveness and responsibility if there is to be overall cooperation and stability rather than conflict and instability. Reciprocity imposes limits that are essential if harmony, balance and the integrity of the whole are to be maintained

In these four principles I get a sense of the four cardinal points of a reciprocal life as I imagine it might have been lived by Chief Seattle. It was a tragic fact that the settlers who took the chief’s land had apparently lost or foregone that sense of reciprocity, what the Quaker John Woolman described as ‘the motion of love’.



Concluding thoughts

Chief Seattle spoke his words as a great darkness fell on his people and on the world but even then he was present to the turning tide of humanity, demonstrating a profound understanding of the cycles of life that have brought us to the place we find ourselves today, nearly two centuries on.

Acknowledging the end of the trail for his own people he said;

Tribe follows tribe, and nation follows nation, like the waves of the sea. It is the order of nature, and regret is useless. Your time of decay may be distant, but it will surely come, for even the White Man whose God walked and talked with him as friend to friend, cannot be exempt from the common destiny. We may be brothers after all. We will see.

Sad to say, our time of decay is no longer distant. Our time has come. Perhaps our fates will indeed make us brothers again for brothers we are, our destinies intertwined today in ways that no one could predict those many years ago.

Standing at the graveside of Chief Seattle one thing was very clear to me. The new leadership that I hear being called for so much today is not new;  what’s new are the circumstances in which we are called to lead; these are certainly unprecedented times.

Chief Seattle spoke his words as a leader 160 years ago and they describe a cosmology of leadership that is both universal and timeless as great wisdom always is. The lessons we can draw from his life and words are absolutely alive today though we have lost our connection with them for many generations. Nonetheless, it seems that wholeness as a core aspect of organisational life and leadership is beginning to take root again in our own times of extraordinary change. We are being called to recognise that unity is a greater force than utility. We are beginning to understand that to thrive as human beings we need to live and work in environments that bring us to life, that speak to our imaginative forces, our passion and our power to live in the state we call love.

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