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?
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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.