Our Happiness Dilemma, Part 2: Embracing the 8 Worldly Winds

In part 1 of this blog, I explored our Happiness dilemma by using three recent data points: an interview with the U.S. Surgeon General, a newly published book, Anxious Generation, and the Annual World Happiness Report.

Using some of these insights, I explored how and what we consume with smartphones and social media contributes to our happiness dilemma.

In this post, I focus on how we might rethink “happiness” and cultivate the mind of satisfaction.

A Whole View

Much of our dilemma surrounding happiness begins with our definition and approach to it. Like so many other societal ills, the more we talk about it, the less we seem to impact it.

We require a different approach. Rather than a binary view of happiness as a problem to fix, I suggest viewing it as a larger phenomenon, one pointing us to a different way of thinking.

Beyond Binary

Binary thinking leads to an important—often invisible—source of unhappiness: separation and false dichotomies. Grasping onto binary views creates permission structures to separate and disconnect in ways that can isolate us and “otherize” people and situations.

We all think in binary terms, but the Western mind reifies it, adding layers of meaning and creating conceptual dichotomies that cordon off the critical aspects of any experience.

For instance, to become happier, we focus on problems to fix, eliminate, or do things that make us happy without ever becoming intimate with the nature of our suffering or unhappiness. Much of the recent awareness around “toxic positivity” isn’t because positive thinking is bad: It’s when people believe that negative thoughts about anything should be avoided.

Rather than viewing happiness as a binary problem to fix, we can appreciate the experience as an interdependent whole that includes suffering. The shadow reveals the light, the pleasant emerges from the unpleasant, and dissatisfaction offers insights into our satisfaction.

This Paradox of Happiness

A central tenet of ancient wisdom states that the more you chase happiness, the more elusive it becomes, advising us not to pursue happiness directly.

Additional ironies reveal that happiness arises when we look beyond ourselves and become more intimate with and accept discomforting, even painful emotions. This works against our American ethos, which demands a right to comfort.

Our views of success, fame, pleasure, and fortune are all linked with expectations of ease and comfort and convenience. Happiness is then conflated with materialism, pleasure-seeking, hyper-individualism, and comfort.

Eric Weiner, the author of “The Geography of Bliss,” clarifies this thinking:

There’s an assumption that if you’re American, you’re wealthy and you’re high tech and you’re successful; you should be happy. There’s a lot of data that shows that the greater your expectations, the less you’re happy. (NYT: 3/20/2024)

Technologies such as smartphones elevate and distort notions of “comfort and discomfort,” which can confuse one’s views and attitudes.

Smartphones and social media prevent us from tapping into the full range of human experiences by flooding us with toxicity, screening out the negative, or forcing us into false dichotomies where we bounce between the pleasant and unpleasant.

Either way, we lack a healthy relationship in which there is a full range of experiences.

Any kind of growth first depends on expanding beyond comfort zones and inviting the necessary pains to liberate us from outmoded assumptions. And yet, discerning the truth, though painful, will cultivate awareness, insight, and satisfaction.

Finding Fame, Followers, and Fortune

As detailed in part 1, Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy has sounded the alarm about the level of unhappiness among the younger generation. Beyond the younger generation, we’d all be wise to heed this clarion call. The techno-driven rewiring of our brains is cause-for-pause, even for the most mindful among us.

We are all affected by changing priorities and attitudes about our notions of beauty, success, fun, “friends,” connections, and what it means to be young and find satisfaction, to name a few.

Murthy states this in alarming terms:

“I ask [young people] what hustle culture is telling you success is,” he said. “They say some version of fame, followers, and fortune. I have had too many young people say what they feel like they’ve really got to do right now is build their brand. And they don’t say that ironically.”(Guardian:3/19/2024)

To paraphrase, the ethos here is clear: What we have to do “right now” is “build our brand” to achieve “fame, followers, and fortune.”

One can feel the urgency of this declaration. This online get-rich-quick, self-focus, and instant gratification culture has captivated our imaginations these past 15 years. We’ve succumbed to a narrow view of success and satisfaction—a hedonic rather than eudemonic view of happiness.

Hedonic Happiness

Hedonic pleasure is like a sugar high. Its fleeting pleasure inevitably causes disappointment. To ensure constant pleasure, we persist in seeking hedonistic activities. The activity—not our intrinsic motivation—keeps us stimulated or in pleasure mode.

Most people who seek this “pleasure-centric” comfort are attracted to an easier life, need certainty, or require assurances begin to realize how such a life is rooted in the avoidance of discomfort.

We need a different definition of happiness—eudemonic happiness, deep satisfaction, or sukha (Pali and Sanskrit)—to take us the distance.

In Buddhist text, “sukha” is contrasted against “preya,” or transient pleasure. The pleasure of “sukha” has an authentic, lasting state of happiness within a being. Sukha comes from an awakened view we bring to life, understanding the interconnected nature of reality and happiness.

Happiness scholar Arthur Brooks describes the effort, discipline, and focus required to create sustained satisfaction in his book Build the Life You Want: The Art and Science of Getting Happier.

Brooks also shares that the secret to satisfaction is “wanting less.” Cutting our cravings is an idea taken fromDOWNLOAD PDF

Our Happiness Dilemma, Part 1: The Rot Undermining Our Satisfaction

Our obsession with happiness leads us to seek out elixirs and excitement, often undermining the happiness we seek to attain. Given that we enshrine a pillar of our Constitution to the Pursuit of Happiness, it is curious that we’ve slid to number 23 in this year’s Annual World Happiness Report.

In previous years (2017, 2018), I’ve focused on structural and social issues and tensions that point to security and social cohesion gaps that might keep the U.S. out of the top 10.

Last year, I highlighted insights from Finland, consistently ranked #1 in overall happiness. Finns identify with deep satisfaction, or eudaimonia, a sense of meaning and purpose in life.

This year, the Happiness Report also focuses on people’s happiness at different life stages.

A Deep Dive

This year’s Annual Happiness Report was met with three additional touchstones:

1. For the first time, the World Happiness Report’s found that those under 30—mostly in the U.S. and then in Canada—were the unhappiest.

2. The U.S. Surgeon General focused on youth and “the dangers of social media.”

3. A new book offers mounting evidence that pegs the younger generation’s anxiety with smartphones.

The unexamined and ubiquitous nature of smartphones and social media has increased over the past 15 years. In a two-part blog series, I will examine this situation in depth.

In this part 1, I’ll explore a dimension of our Happiness dilemma. I’ll use these three recent data sets above to explore how smartphones and social media have contributed to the rot at the center of our happiness dilemma.

Part 2 of this blog will address how we might rethink and cultivate the mind of happiness.

To be clear, happiness is a complex term to explore, and several factors go into one’s overall satisfaction. But now, our 21st-century technologies have the power to shape minds at a rate unimaginable two decades ago. It is time to reconsider how and what we consume—and even perhaps why we consume as we do.

Under 30: The Impact of Social Media

Three benchmarks point to a common claim: The effects of smartphones and social media have rewired our minds, especially young minds.

This set of techno-structures has burrowed into our minds, distorting our thinking and rewiring our expectations. This can be complicated when we believe these structures are “necessary” ingredients to our happiness recipe.

1- The World: Youthful Trends

This year, the 12th Annual World Happiness Report focused on the younger generation. Across much of the world, including Central and Eastern Europe, the youngest cohort was happier than the oldest. Likewise, negative emotions are more frequent now than in 2006–2010 everywhere except in East Asia and Europe.

The United States and Canada were outliers in the generational trend, with the youngest group being less happy than the oldest.

Economist John Helliwell, a coauthor of the report, was surprised at “such an extreme change” in the drop in happiness among younger people. “This has all happened in the last 10 years, and it’s mainly in the English-language countries. There isn’t this drop in the world as a whole.”

For the U.S., the happiness gap has risen since 2010 and actually puts the youngest group as the least happy of all age ranges, including the middle-aged group—a more traditional metric of dissatisfaction.

A 2022 Harvard University study showed that well-being among young adults in the U.S. had declined in the previous 20 years.

Young people—those between the ages of 18 and 25—reported the lowest levels of happiness compared with other age groups as well as the poorest mental and physical health, sense of purpose, character, virtue, close social relationships, and financial stability.

2- The Nation: Surgeon General Speaks

Are younger people less happy because of actual circumstances, or are they just more tuned into them because of their constant access to social media? Moreover, is social media amplifying a constant diet of negative and hyperbolic news to ensure clicks?

These are questions Surgeon General Dr Vivek Murthy has grappled with. In May 2023, he issued a new advisory:

The most common question parents ask me is, “is social media safe for my kids.” The answer is that we don’t have enough evidence to say it’s safe, and in fact, there is growing evidence that social media use is associated with harm to young people’s mental health.

Last month, after spending time with the younger generation, Murthy sounded the alarm.

In one instance, Murthy met with a group of young people and concluded their phones were feeding them a diet of “headlines that are constantly telling them that the world is broken and that the future is bleak.”

The latest Gallup data show that American teens spend five hours a day just on social media. In the U.S., Gallup suggests that younger people’s unhappiness could be because of an epidemic of loneliness. Between 2000 and 2020, the amount of in-person time young people in the U.S. spent with their friends decreased by 70%.

Murthy told the Guardian, “Students said to me, ‘How are we supposed to start a conversation?’” He continued with the following:

It’s just not the culture anymore to talk to one another. It’s an indictment of the trends that we’ve seen. What’s happening in social media is the equivalent of having children in cars that have no safety features and driving on roads with no speed limits.

Unlocking the Wisdom of Co-Creating in Coaching

In the coaching field, “co-creating” refers to the collaborative process between the coach and client, in which both parties actively participate in shaping the coaching relationship, discovering ideas, setting goals, and designing strategies for growth and development.

Often, I hear co-creation described inside a binary paradigm. The coach follows or guides the client, or the client knows what’s best to guide the coach. Or the coach offers soothing nods and remains quiet and reserved while waiting for the client to guide them.

Although this view supports many dimensions of coaching, it is limiting and stifles the “creativity” embedded in co-creation.

Creativity: The Essence of Co-Creating in Coaching

So then, what is creativity? How does it shape co-creation and coaching?

Co-creation emerges out of our understanding of what it means to be creative. Here, I will explore the wisdom in creativity as a human process and phenomenon without reducing it to merely material output. 

Creativity involves the openings or possibilities that foster emergence. It can be messy, unpredictable, energizing, and revealing. Although Western philosophy views creativity as a “to-do” dynamic, Eastern philosophy views it as a “to-be” phenomenon—the space where something new emerges.

Cultivating creativity as a human dynamic relies on spaciousness. Bringing wisdom to co-creation expands access to our human faculties. The vastness of the sky allows for any climate—and so the spacious mind can receive anything.

From a human development perspective, co-creation involves mutual participation that results in unpredictable emergence. Its general nature demands awareness, openness, and inquiry.

Principles and Practices of Co-Creation

The following four principles and seven practices will support a process of cultivating co-creation. The focus is on a process of cultivation (Bhāvanā in Sanskrit), openness, or a spacious mind.

These principles and practices develop a co-creation process in a conversational domain that supports coaching. The process is less about what we do and more about who we are. How can we navigate our experiences by cultivating openness and a spacious mind rather than closed-mindedness and fixation?

The speaking in co-creation comes from listening and involves suspending certainty to cultivate the space for ideas and energy to flow.

Given our integration of Eastern and Western thought, a spacious mind means an awakened heart or loving mind—an inviting and receptive mind embodied with clarity and openness.

Each principle and set of practices habituate a mindset that cultivates a foundation of clarity, recognizing afflictions, and discerning truth and emergence.

PRINCIPLE 1: COMMUNION. Coach and Client Engage in the Creative Process

Communion speaks to an intimate partnering.

When two people come together, new wisdom emerges. At that moment, a new world can be discovered. Discovering the meaning and shape of that whole requires full partnership and participation.

The coach and client develop an interdependent partnership. By increasing awareness, the coach supports what is struggling to emerge.

Listening creates the space for the client to sort themselves out and invites the coach to facilitate and guide them, which can catalyze the client’s journey of self-discovery, learning, and growth.

Mutual trust, vulnerability, and collaboration contribute to the discovery, learning, and creative process. This dynamic supports a “participatory consciousness,” coined by physicist David Bohm, that leads to “thinking together.”

Both coach and client engage issues together, side by side, to support the messiness and partake in understanding and birthing something new.


1- Pausing. The process of cultivating space begins with small steps in our mundane lives. Placing space between our experiences can detangle our impulses and help us let go of items to move freely.

  • Pausing after daily events, such as meetings, calls, emails, the gym, playing with kids, and so forth, creates space to enter the next event clear and grounded.
  • Pausing before speaking to notice your experiences, intentions, and expectations.
  • Pausing through our day interrupts and reveals our fixed patterns and supports slowing down and openness.

2- Letting go. The key to letting go is increasing awareness to recognize “holding on” in its many forms.

“Letting go” generally refers to releasing control or negative thoughts, emotions, grudges, or unhealthy habits. It can involve letting go of a person, a situation, or an attachment to a certain outcome, or it could involve letting go of material possessions or relationships.

Meditation master Thich Nhat Hanh understands that perceptions are the ground of all afflictions and sees letting go as “throwing away notions and ideas that are the base of our suffering.”

Together, pausing and letting go create space and increase awareness to support the next principle.

PRINCIPLE 2: SPACIOUSNESS. Creation Requires Empty Space

The difference between this principle and the next acknowledges the difference between first perception and intuition and then interpretation.

For the coach, principle 2 requires quieting the mind. We cultivate space to refine perception and develop intuition. British philosopher Wildin Carr [1] defines intuition as “the apprehension of reality by the mind, directly as it is” rather than through intellectual or conceptual apprehension.

With clear perception and developing intuition, the coach becomes a vessel for gaining insights via inquiry or dialogue to support better interpretations (the next principle).

Quieting the mind increases awareness and space as we tune into our concrete (body and matter) and subtle (energy and thoughts) experiences.


1- Mindfulness: The practice of mindfulness builds on pausing and letting go. It is both a sitting practice to become intimate with your mind and the afflictions that cause suffering and aDOWNLOAD PDF

Becoming Gardeners: Cultivate “Organic” Thinking

Decades ago, I recall when I first heard the term “organic.” It captured my imagination and intrigued me.

Later, in 2002, I attended facilitator training by Harrison Owen, founder of Open Space Technology (OST), where he kept using organic to describe the nature of his work and process.

I heard his term “organic process” as whimsical, random, and willy-nilly. It seemed clear that mechanical processes were superior: they were precise, direct, predictable, and controllable.

I approached him about it, and he asserted that the organic process requires increased responsibility and is more sustainable because it isn’t predictable. I left the conversation suspicious.

Then, as a teacher, consultant, and researcher, I came to embraced this idea. Indeed, Owen’s claims included much wisdom now obvious in fields such as biology, psychology, organizational development—and leadership.

Simply put, “organic” and “mechanical” paradigms represent different ways of conceptualizing and understanding various aspects of systems and human functioning.

Although much of this literature applies this thinking to larger living systems, each “view” can inform how we interact with everyday processes as we approach decisions, goals, and projects.

In most cases, the literature links mechanistic thinking to inorganic systems and organic thinking to living systems or within organizational models. This post will describe how adopting an organic view can relate to a general approach to life.

Mechanic and Organic Paradigm

Each paradigm has qualities that support understanding situations.

Mechanical Paradigm:

The mechanical paradigm, influenced by Newtonian physics, sees living systems as machines with discrete, separable parts. It applies reductionism, breaking down complex systems into simpler, more manageable components.

Reductionism: The mechanistic paradigm seeks to understand complex phenomena by breaking them into smaller, more understandable parts. It uses a rational process that focuses on separating and analyzing components.

Predictability: The mechanistic view assumes that if you understand the parts and their interactions, you can control the behavior of the whole system.

Integrates Quantitative Data: The mechanistic view recognizes the importance of quantitative data, evidence, and research and uses data to inform decisions and optimize processes and goals.

Causality: The mechanistic paradigm emphasizes cause-and-effect relationships, assuming that events can be explained through a linear causal sequence chain of events.

Organic Paradigm:

The organic paradigm views systems, including humans, as dynamic, interconnected, and holistic entities. While this often includes living systems, it can also support developing a view we bring to any situation. As a view, it emphasizes the integration of various components to create a functioning whole.

Holism: The organic paradigm sees individuals and systems as holistic, where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. It appreciates the interdependence and interconnectedness of different aspects.

Adaptability: The organic paradigm views systems and processes as adaptive and capable of responding to environmental changes. There’s an emphasis on flexibility and resilience.

Balancing Quantitative and Qualitative: Recognizing the importance of both quantitative data and qualitative experiences, organic thinkers balance analytical thinking with an appreciation for qualitative aspects. While data informs decisions, they include the experiential dimensions to consider the quality of relationships between elements.

Purpose: In living systems, there is an inherent purpose or drive for growth, development, self-organizing, and self-actualization.


Much of the literature on organic and mechanical systems focuses on living and inorganic systems. Inorganic systems are essentially inanimate and governed by physical laws, such as gravity and thermodynamics.

Each mindset has its own application. More often, because of our conditioning, education, and sense of urgency we habitually revert to mechanical thinking.

Mechanical Thinking: In project management, a mechanical mindset might involve breaking down a project into tasks, setting clear timelines, and optimizing resource allocation for efficiency. The focus is on achieving specific, measurable goals.

Pitfall: The mechanical paradigm analyzes isolated parts. Such reductionism may oversimplify complex phenomena, leading to a loss of the true nature or holistic context.

Organic Thinking: A team leader with an organic mindset fosters collaboration and values the diverse strengths of team members. They consider the team an interconnected system, where each member’s contributions influence the overall success.

Pitfall: The organic paradigm can be complex and challenging to quantify or measure precisely, especially when compared with the mechanical paradigm.

Subjectivity: Concepts such as purpose and holistic well-being can be subjective and vary across individuals and cultures.

We sometimes err in extending the mechanical approach to decisions such as whom to hire or how to structure organizations. We believe we are making rational cost–benefit decisions but fail to realize that we are dealing with living systems that respond and react to our decisions, often in unpredictable ways.

Builders and Gardeners

Even though the term “organic” is often associated with a living system, developing this mindset alters how one views and engages the world. While mechanical thinkers function more like builders, organic thinkers operate more like gardeners.


Building is about defining a specific end goal and creating plans and steps to measure and allocate resources to achieve that goal.

Builders begin a project with specific plans, tools, measurements, and supplies and follow the plan to completion. The quality of the goal relies on the planning, tools, craftsmanship, and material.

When building, very little deviates from our plans and our goals. When it does, a review of the plan analyzes the situation. A rational diagnosis adjusts the plan with proposed “fixes” based on the goal. Still, once the building is built, the statue is sculpted, or the project is completed, it is done. There’s no future growth.

Mechanical thinking conceives of concepts as abstract and separates and analyzes parts to compare and construct wholes in a fixed and controlled manner that is predictable, using rationalistic means.

The mechanical mindset, like builders, thinks in terms of producing projects. They become used to the certainty and predictability of a rational process that can be explained by seeking knowledge or solutions.

The Art of Conversation: From Debate to Dialogue

What if our interactions, experiences, and situations in life are all a conversation? Consider leadership, identity, love, trust, science, learning, and suffering as a conversation.

What if we view life as a network of conversations?

Everything says something. Our very existence evokes conversation. We derive meaning from our engagement with the world. Each interaction reveals significance, backgrounds, histories, and discourses, forming our relationship with reality.

The significance of our life lies not in the rock we stumble over but in how we make sense of that experience and how it shapes our view of reality. We are incessantly in conversations with nature, systems, cultures, technologies, events, experiences, individuals, and with ourselves.

What’s a Conversation?

Fundamentally, a conversation is a churning or turning together. In this dance, human “conversation” evokes deeper connection and understanding.

Beyond mere content, the art of conversation involves forms, such as structures, contexts, and modes, and conversational fields, such as debate, discussion, and dialogue.

How we interpret and interact with conversations constitutes our being, enabling discovery, mutual satisfaction, and shared understanding.

Image by Lawrence M. Miller | Aug 10, 2015

Fields of Conversation: Defending or Suspending

Conversations resolve uncertainty. Our human capacity and needs determine whether we enter the fields of debate, discussion, or dialogue. The field we enter can resolve uncertainty by transferring information, persuading others, or cultivating mutual understanding.

In communication, uncertainty involves disagreements, differences, and confusion that can lead to disputes, which can:

  • lead to increased tension if not approached constructively.
  • involve arguments, which can be emotionally charged.
  • include a confrontational tone or focus on opposing viewpoints.
  • often involve winning or losing.

However, when handled with dignity and openness, disputes can lead to deeper understanding by highlighting differences and encouraging clarification.

The key is to observe how we enter any “field of conversations” — practice the art of conversation. Are we prone to defend or suspend certainty?

1. Defend: We resolve our dispute via debate or discussions—controlled or skilled—which can include dialectics to achieve a victory or deeper understanding.

2. Suspend: We suspend positions or beliefs entering into dialogue. Reflective dialogue offers inquiry and can surface discourses, while generative dialogue offers the space for flow and possibilities.


Conversations That Defend: We Expand Expression

Defending is a natural and habitual way of entering a conversation. Bringing awareness to our approach will support recognizing and reflecting on this “defending dynamic” in a conversation.

The field of conversation that defends protects us and keeps us on guard. This field includes several forms, such as politeness and debate, and involves discussion, which is controlled or skillful and can lead to dietetics.


The primacy here is politeness: to appear nice or avoid conflict. Information remains shallow and reveals little. People do not say what they think and often speak to what needs to be said or wants to be heard.

Politeness can include shared monologues involving talking about something but not with someone. For instance, we’ve all been in a situation where someone just doesn’t stop talking. This might include their interests, perspectives, or tendency to dominate a conversation.

Politeness often leads to some type of Breakdown. According to Otto Scharmer of Theory U:

In Breakdown, one or more people break social conventions to say what they really think or feel. This rocks the “politeness” boat, sometimes triggering others to speak about—or at least be in touch with—their authentic thoughts and feelings.

This opening allows for more deliberate communication in the form of Debate or Discussion.


With debate, we enter a more “deliberative” conversation. This formal discussion focuses on a particular topic where opposing arguments are put forward. It may become confrontational and prioritize winning over understanding.

Although it can sharpen one’s ability to articulate and defend ideas, the competitive nature of debate may hinder new understanding or genuine connection.

Characteristics include formal or informal structure with defined or rational rules. Debate involves presenting and countering arguments. Typically, “debate” has a competitive aspect with an emphasis on persuading.


Physicist and thinker David Bohm, in his seminal book, On Dialogue, defined discussion as “making something common” as in the root of “Communication.” Based on the Latin commun and the suffix “ie,” which is similar to “fie,” it means “to make or to do.” So “discussion” is “to make something common,” that is, from one person to another in as accurate a way as possible.

Discussions can be controlled or skilled.

  • Controlled discussions focus on advocacy and competing ideas and can include abstract brawling. These may lack structure and can sometimes devolve into a less focused conversation.
  • Skilled discussions involve an exchange of ideas and opinions, often using analytical data and reasoning to support solutions. When facilitated well, skilled discussion allows for the sharing of perspectives, fostering connections that can lead to a shared understanding.

Generally, discussion is the preferred mode for developing or negotiating agreements. It is also useful for clarifying goals, expectations, and coordinating action.

Characteristics: Although more informal, discussions still have an aim—“to make something common”—this mode can involve exchanging ideas and opinions. When skillful, the emphasis is on sharing perspectives and can be participatory and collaborative.


Skilled discussions can become dialectic as a method of reasoning to discover the truth by exchanging logical arguments. Engaging in this level of discussion requires a commitment to intellectual rigor and discipline.

Focusing on logical arguments and rational ideas, including analytical data for discerning truthfulness, can seem cerebral andDOWNLOAD PDF

4 “Virtues” that Undermine Our Perceptions & Learning

Concepts like perfectionism, individualism, problem-solving, and multitasking are often considered virtues. Notice when reviewing the list if you feel a twinge. Might you identify with any of these concepts as “virtues?” Might you lean into these as “skills” when relying on colleagues or friends?

Many people rely on these mindsets and look for these “skills” when recruiting employees. Yet, with closer scrutiny, they also have downsides and challenges. I’ll explore how each concept can distort perceptions and impact our learning.

1- Perfectionism.

When perfectionism is driving us, shame is riding shotgun, and fear is that annoying backseat driver! – Brené Brown

At first, striving for perfection seems like a virtue. We admire high standards, and perfectionism can lead to setting and achieving high standards and goals. Additionally, perfectionists usually pay attention to detail, often promoting a commitment to quality.

The AMA defines the causes and types of perfectionism, such as setting unrealistic expectations for themselves and others. In most cases, perfectionists are quick to find fault and be overly critical of mistakes while shrugging off compliments and overlooking their success.

They tend to procrastinate on a project out of their fear of failure, which includes the inability to perform a task unless they know how to do it perfectly. They cannot see a task as finished until the result is perfect according to their standards.

Additionally, perfectionists may confuse making a mistake or doing something wrong with being a mistake or being wrong.


Perfectionism can distort our perception in significant ways.

  • Fear of Failure: Perfectionism can create a fear of failure, leading to procrastination and avoiding new challenges.
  • Self-Criticism: This often results in harsh self-criticism and self-doubt, which can hinder confidence and risk-taking.
  • Time-Consuming: Striving for perfection can be time-consuming and may prevent the completion of tasks.
  • False Ideals. This short video shows how our imagination often compares actual and challenging tasks with our manufactured ideals. Lacking actual information, evidence, or experience, perfectionists do not develop the patience to achieve excellence and harshly criticize themselves when their ideals don’t manifest.
  • Constant Comparison. Social media distorts our perceptions as we scroll through curated stories and identities for the perfect ideals for comparison.


The process of unlearning perfectionism can begin by:

  • Letting go of the comparison mindset. Remember, truth exists beyond appearances. Most of what we see online has been curated to reinforce false ideals.
  • Recognizing black-and-white (all-or-nothing) thinking to explore different alternatives.
  • Shifting our relationship with mistakes. Instead of avoiding or denying mistakes, we can understand and acknowledge that mistakes are part of the learning process, ultimately leading to improvement.
  • Frame mistakes as learning opportunities that cultivate humility. We can de-center or practice letting go of identifying with mistakes, thoughts, and emotions as “our mistakes,” or worse, “I am a mistake.”
  • Distinguish between clarity and certainty. Clarity involves seeing the next choice, while certainty needs to know and control all outcomes of that choice.

Perfectionism can impede learning by focusing on certainty or the end “ideal” result rather than the learning process or leveraging mistakes to improve the result. It may discourage experimentation and risk-taking, which are vital for learning and growth.

2- Individualism and Independence.

The notions of individuality and independence seem part of the American DNA—a proxy for freedom and rugged individualism. Our definitions of individuality and individualism rest on the ideals of self-reliance, as in “going it alone.”

Individuality is the idea that every person exists independently from external forces or people. Psychologically, no two people have the same psychological makeup. This can overemphasize uniqueness as a virtue rather than one of many human qualities.

Individualism is the idea that a person should act on their own uniqueness and fulfill their personal desires, valuing independence and self-reliance. This advocates for the interests of the individual to gain precedence over the state or a social group.

At its best, individuality encourages taking personal responsibility for one’s actions, emotions, and impact. And independence can lead to innovation and the development of unique perspectives and self-expression.


Again, this seemingly virtuous ideal promotes a view of human potential as hyper-individualistic, focusing exclusively on self-reliance, self-sufficiency, self-responsibility, and individual achievement, causing several distorted perceptions and beliefs.

  • Self-Made. Combined, independence and individualism promote a false perception of the self, a rugged individual who relies on no one. Worse yet, when internalized, we project this false belief onto others as a standard. “I did it. Why can’t you?”
  • Isolation: This can reinforce or overemphasize separateness and otherness, leading to social isolation and a lack of collaboration.
  • Limited Perspectives: This can limit exposure to diverse viewpoints, hindering deeper or fuller understanding.
  • Resistance to Help: Excessive independence may make it difficult to seek assistance or guidance when needed.
  • Attachment to individualistic notions of leadership: This blocks the emergence of shared leadership. Accountability is vertical, not to peers or those served.


Although individualism and independence can promote self-directed learning, they can also hinder the benefits of group learning, diverse perspectives, and collaborative problem-solving.

Our “self-made” myth, which is so connected with “The American Dream,” has been associated with the Benjamin Franklin, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Horatio Alger stories. Yet, if we reflect honestly, we’ll find many “trail angels” in our lives.

In their books, authors Malcolm Gladwell (“Outliers”) and Marion Wright Edelman (“Lanterns”) reveal different kinds of support that shape us, such as mentors, community, culture, one’s generation, and upbringing, to name a few.

None of us have arrived here independent of nature, community, caregivers, orDOWNLOAD PDF

Granting Being: The Impact of Being Seen, Heard, and Acknowledged

Organizational stakeholders today are inundated with consultants, workshops, and materials promising quick cures for ailing cultures. I’ve encountered several of these “cures” in the form of books, mottos, and models.

  • Radical candor, conversation, listening, focus, love, even radical dharma.
  • Embodied listening, leadership, cognition.
  • Authentic leadership, communication, listening.
  • Crucial conversations, difficult conversations, candid conversations, authentic conversations, compassionate conversations.
  • Revolutionary love. Resilience culture.

Many of these offerings can support a culture once we develop a foundational container for being human. The organizing principle of an organization begins with beings as “legitimate beings.” Here, our fundamental capacity requires accessing our humanity – to grant being – and then granting being to another.

Without our ability to “grant being,” other “solutions” become tricks in managing symptoms. We never tap into the deep concerns driving the humans we profess to care about. We never reach the level of authentic connection critical to developing trust and communication to access our dignity.

The Question of “Granting Being”

The term “granting being” can be understood from different contexts.

1- Existential Philosophy

In existential philosophy, for philosophers like Martin Heidegger and Jean-Paul Sartre, “granting being” relates to our individual generative capacity to bestow meaning or confer “being” upon ourselves and our world. We view human existence as not predetermined or fixed but as a continuous process of creating meaning and identity.

In this context, “granting being” views individuals as responsible for defining their own existence and meaning-making through their choices, actions, and authentic engagement with the world, aligning with the existentialist concept of “existence precedes essence.”

2- Spiritual or Ethical Contexts

In spiritual or ethical contexts, “granting being” is the act of recognizing and acknowledging the dignity of all living beings as legitimate beings. It suggests that, at our best, individuals can extend an openness to respect others, affirming their existence and dignity.

“Granting being” acknowledges the shared humanity and inherent worth of every individual. It reflects a commitment to upholding human dignity.

3- Ontological Philosophy

In ontology, the branch of philosophy concerned with the nature of being and existence, “granting being,” could refer to discerning the fundamental nature of reality and what it means for something to “be.”

Here, “granting being” might involve an inquiry into the ontological status of entities. To grant something existence is to recognize—or highlight from a general background—the conditions of that which exists, whether it be a quality, concept, or another structure.

While evoking a connection, granting being is more than a touching sentiment. This human structure connects with a dimension of being to create meaning for ourselves and our world.

The Practice of “Granting Being”

Generally, “granting being” suggests a process of assigning meaning, value, or existence to oneself, others, or the world. It often carries implications for human agency, responsibility, and ethical considerations.

Recall the worn phrase that children should be seen, not heard. This notion diminishes a child’s sensibilities. Children and human beings need to be seen, heard and acknowledged. While evoking a connection, granting being is more than a touching sentiment. This human structure connects with a dimension of being to create meaning for ourselves and our world.

“Being seen,” “being heard,” and “being acknowledged” are related but distinct concepts that highlight different structures of granting being in human interactions.


“Being seen” refers to the experience of being recognized and understood for who we truly are, including our thoughts, feelings, and inner self. It’s about feeling that someone perceives our essence, authenticity, and uniqueness.

Being seen involves people respecting and seeing our “way of being in the world.”

The primary capacity of “being seen” involves awareness and understanding as love –expressed through looking deeply.

When we feel seen, it often generates a deep sense of acceptance, validation, and connection. It signifies that someone is paying genuine attention to our inner world and values our presence.

Power of Observation

The skills most useful here include developing interest, self-awareness, bearing witness, and understanding deeply. It all begins with a genuine interest in others. Genuine interest notes what moves others and the details and distinctiveness that others bring to life.

On a surface level, we relate to others as more than a part of the system, more than any demographic, identity, title, or role. We see the person.

On a deeper level, we look deeply. With deeper awareness, we see who and what one is and what they contribute.

Consider a person who approaches projects from an artistic mindset. They offer creative ideas, questions, and solutions. Their boss may only see her as a competent taskmaster, never bearing witness to their creativity.

This invisibility can be soul-crushing and undercut one’s value, self-worth, and wholeness. What is missing is an interest that cultivates and results from deeper understanding.

Looking Deeply: The “Understanding” in Love

Deep understanding is akin to love. At the heart of Zen master Nhat Hanh’s teachings is the idea that “understanding is love’s other name [1] :

We must look deeply in order to see and understand the needs, aspirations, and suffering of the person we love.” This is the ground of real love. You cannot resist loving another person when you really understand him or her.

A greater understanding connects us deeply to others. The ability to see deepens the understanding that grows love.

Studies show that being seen is necessary for feeling like we matter. It promotes mental and emotional well-being. Social psychologists Morris Rosenburg and Claire McCullough wrote that feeling noticed is “the most elementary form of mattering.”

In teenagers, an absence of mattering is highly destructive. A landmark study of 2,000 adolescents in 2009 found that as teens’ feeling of mattering in their family decreased, antisocial, aggressive, or self-destructive behaviors rose.


Generosity—The Mind of Letting Go

When we describe someone as generous or acting with generosity, we are experiencing a giving person.

Synonyms of generous include liberality, magnanimity, abundance, amplitude, largesse, unselfishness, kindness, beneficence, and even hospitality. And yet, I find these definitions and synonyms confusing because they miss the fundamental truth of generosity—an openness that begins with letting go.

Going East

To clarify and deepen our notion of generosity, Eastern thinking offers some wisdom. Dāna is a Sanskrit and Pali word that translates to “generosity.” It connotes the virtue of offering or giving in Indian religions and philosophies. Giving and receiving require open hands—thus letting go.

In Buddhist teachings, generosity cultivates giving freely without expecting anything in return, purely out of compassion, goodwill, or the desire to aid someone. It comes from open hands (material), an open heart (compassion), and an open mind (wisdom).

Indeed, informed by the East at Bhavana Learning Group, our definition of generosity is an openness to giving and receiving freely.

Developing Generosity

So then, how might we cultivate an openness to giving and receiving freely? Three elements support this definition.

  1. Letting Go and Openness
  2. Giving and Receiving
  3. Freely

You may have already recognized something different from the conventional understanding of generosity. As we unpack these elements, consider where you may expand your understanding of this important principle and practice.

1- Letting Go and Openness

Generosity begins with openness, a function of letting go, as explored in a previous blog. Letting go involves releasing control and clinging, an ongoing practice as we cling to attachments and judgments and continually identify with objects and concepts.

When we practice letting go, we create a space for openness that offers the presence of mind and open hearts.

  • Place an object in your left hand, pass it to your right hand, and then back again. This can train the mind in letting go.
  • We can support letting go by observing when we become closed, including when we are overwhelmed or experience fear, threat, stress, or anxiety.
  • Pausing, breathing, reflecting, and investigating are good practices to discover and let go of underlying attachments or fears that find us closed.

Some letting go can be especially challenging, such as areas that involve forgiveness.

Forgiving ourselves can be especially hard, yet it opens us to forgive others. Deserving its own blog, forgiveness involves letting go of blame, shame, judgments, grudges, resentments, and bitterness. We absolve ourselves from making mistakes, hence creating a space of vulnerability.

When we let go, openness emerges. We become open to whatever arises and then allow it to be. It can then pass naturally and prepare a level of openness for giving and receiving.

2- Giving and Receiving

Giving and receiving are part of an interdependent, free-flowing energy. Core to generosity is the openness that keeps the energy flowing freely without obstruction.

Closed fists push others away and fix us in place, while open hands are receptive and invite flow. When we let go and are open to receiving life, we become a source of giving.

Tuning into our lives offers a fuller experience of the many mundane details we often take for granted. When we receive the moment fully, we experience our legs walking, our nose inhaling, our mind resting, our smile lifting us, our eyes witnessing, and our touch connecting.

Our full presence develops an appreciation for the many details life offers. Such appreciation cultivates gratitude and satisfaction.

Learning Model for Generosity


Appreciation is an underutilized skill and practice in our growth toolkit. Briefly, it has two definitions: to recognize something’s full worth and to increase something’s value.

According to Buddhist teachings, human birth is precious. The first of the “four reminders” is “the preciousness of human life,” as such:

Here, now, I have a chance to make something of my life.
I have health.
I have energy.
I have the ability to think and feel freely.
I have enough food and enough money to meet my needs.
I live in a country free of war and many of the other difficulties people can face.
I’m not trapped in a negative state of mind like madness, craving, hatred, or depression.
All of these things can change, but while I have these advantages, I have a great opportunity.

Before there can be any change or liberation from suffering, the Dharma asks that we contemplate this precious life.


From an interdependent awareness, appreciation is a precondition for gratitude. When we recognize and appreciate how much we have, gratitude naturally emerges. Appreciation and gratitude make it possible to give and receive.

Neuroscience has revealed a link between gratitude and generosity. Researchers Robert Emmons, Michael McCullough, among other psychologists, have learned through several scientific studies that there’s a deep neural connection between gratitude and giving—they share a pathway in the brain—and that, when we’re grateful, our brains become more charitable.

Still, to experience generosity requires an openness to receiving and giving. For many, receiving can be challenging, as detailed in this lovely piece. Receiving appreciation through help, recognition, friendship, love, or support from others can be met with confusion or suspicion.

How do we receive appreciation? Are we dismissive or indifferent?

How many of us—when thanked or acknowledged by someone—respond with something like, “Oh, that was nothing, no worries,” or “No need to thank me.” How many of us find it difficult to receive a gift of appreciation or support when offered?


Anytime we obstruct the natural flow of appreciation, we choke off the cultivation of gratitude. Indeed, we may miss how others truly appreciate us, thus not fully appreciating what others offer.

Lacking gratitude for what we already have can cause us to look elsewhere for satisfaction. We may purchase happiness in expensive dinners or vacations, change our appearance to feel good,DOWNLOAD PDF

Evolve Our Reactive Mindset to Expand Our Being

Over the past decade, coaching has expanded from performance-related strategies to include perception-related practices.

Coaching’s evolution to expand awareness and perspectives supports greater clarity and presence. This involves deep listening, self-discovery, and discerning mindsets and worldviews by developing practices such as mindfulnessreflection, and embodiment.

Including perception-related learning and practices makes sense as we are living in times of increased anxiety and reactivity.

Social media incentives and conditions support scaling, speed, information overload, multitasking, fragmented attention, and short-termism, causing anxiety, with even more people avoiding situations or winging it to survive.

Unsurprisingly, today’s professionals revert to a reactive mindset—unconscious reactive patterns—to confront or avoid the social, cultural, and technological changes that evoke uncertainty, confusion, and anxiety or fear.

Speed, Fear, and Survival

Research shows that speed and ambiguity trigger our fear and bias. The confusion and anxiety that can result from uncertainty reinforce our habitual and overlearned behaviors and impulses.

In the face of fear, speed, and uncertainty, we develop reactive “mental structures”—patterns, attitudes, and mindsets—early in life to cope with difficult situations.

The paradox is that, with speed, confusion, and uncertainty, we rely on these very reactive mechanisms that hinder learning by preventing individuals from expanding their self-awareness.

The practice of slowing down and increasing awareness, although wise, is also a double-edged sword. Increased awareness offers clarity and understanding. We become aware of the structures, patterns, and concerns we might have ignored or avoided.

Increasing awareness also reveals our unexamined patterns, views, and beliefs. We become aware of pesky habits, unconscious or habitual impulses, and overlearned behaviors. By bringing awareness to habitual energy, we begin recognizing the motivations and behaviors that comprise our reactive self.

Many coaches, programs, articles, and assessment tools work to identify the reactive mindset. Here, the key is to understand our reactive tendencies better.

In this blog, I will clarify this Reactive Mindset and the nature of the Reactive Self. 

What defines the Reactive Mindset, and how can we learn to recognize it? How does it impact our learning, and what practices can support us in moving beyond it?

The first part of this blog distinguishes the three sets of defense mechanisms supporting the Reactive Mindset. Then I explore the cost of this mindset. Finally, I will develop the three identities reinforcing the Reactive Self to unlearn these tendencies with practices that support expanding our being.

The Reactive Mindset

“Reactive Mindset” may first imply unstable, impulsive, or emotional outbursts or frenetic functioning. But upon closer examination, we will see a mindset that is more nuanced, subtle, and even deliberate and rational. Yet it relies on habitual or overlearned behaviors.

Systems thinker scholar and author Peter Senge defines reactiveness as an impediment to learning. “For most of us, reactiveness was reinforced [daily] in school,” Senge continues:

We solved problems identified by others, read what was assigned, wrote what was required. Gradually, reactiveness became a way of life. Fitting in, being accepted, became more important than creating. We learned that the way to succeed was to focus on the Teachers’ questions as opposed to our own. Reactiveness is a bane of continuous learning.

The goal is to bring awareness to our reactiveness—to make conscious the unconscious—to expand our experience of being. Recognizing the reactive mindset involves distinguishing and experiencing the different psychological processes as each arises.

I will explore three psychological processes—defense mechanisms, defensive reasoning, and compensation—that individuals employ to manage challenging situations.

Technically, these psychological processes are all defense mechanisms. Each involves a relationship with the ego: to control or comply with situations or protect oneself against perceived challenges or threats. All three are also reactive, responding to stressors.

We will see that each mechanism serves a function. Together, these three functions constitute our Reactive Mindset by leveraging a set of conscious and unconscious psychological strategies:

  1. Defense mechanism: controlling via the impulsive self
  2. Defensive reasoning: protecting via the rational self
  3. Compensation: complying via the striving self

Until recognized and examined, we tend to possess parts of all three. In other words, we control, protect, or comply as “survival strategies” that support our reactive mindset.

These images illustrate reactiveness: (L) represents the psychological processes of the Reactive Mindset, (R) represents the identities of the Reactive Self.


1 – Defense Mechanisms. The Impulsive Self: Focus on Controlling

Defense mechanisms are unconscious psychological strategies to protect oneself from challenges, such as anxiety, emotional pain, or threatening thoughts and feelings. The following are some common defense mechanisms:

Denial is an unconscious process in which one refuses to recognize or acknowledge objective facts or experiences.

Repression is the unconscious blocking of unpleasant emotions, impulses, memories, and thoughts from one’s conscious mind. Repression is like “avoidance.” (Suppression is like repression but is intentional.)

For example, a young child is bitten by a dog and develops a severe phobia of dogs but does not remember how this fear began. Having repressed the painful memory, they are unaware of exactly where their fear came from.

Projection involves unconsciously attributing one’s own feelings, desires, or qualities to another person, group, animal, or object. For example, the classroom bully who teases other children for crying but is quick to cry is an example of projection.

Rationalization is an attempt to logically justify immoral, aberrant, or generally unacceptable behavior (see defensive reasoning).

Displacement involves unconsciously transferring negative feelings from one person or thing to another. For example, someone angry at their boss may “take out” their anger on a family member by shouting at them.

The impulse to control situations leads individuals to use defense mechanisms to maintain strength or power to offer immediate relief from emotional distress by redirecting or distorting threatening thoughts and emotions and shielding against overwhelming anxiety or distress. They also distort reality, which hinders accurate perceptions and decision-making.

Becoming “Enough” to Create Satisfaction

The annual World Happiness Report has ranked nations on an international happiness index since 2011.

Published last month, the 2023 report ranks Finland as the happiest country in the world—for the sixth consecutive year!

Many opinions exist, but if you ask Finns why they are happy, you’ll discover some pretty basic insights that begin with a sense of satisfaction.

What Is Satisfaction?

Satisfaction can be elusive. Its origin in Latin is satis (enough) and facio (to make, do, create). And to satisfy means to do enough. Thus, enough action.

Here, “enough” implies any action or situation that can achieve a state of fulfillment and completion. How can we better recognize and accept that possibility?

Kristian Wahlbeck, a psychiatrist and lead adviser with Mieli Mental Health Finland, explains this truism: Finns tend to find happiness in “the small things,” such as “family and good friendships, spending time outdoors, or enjoying a good cup of coffee; many Finns find happiness in their everyday life.”

Arto O. Salonen, a professor at the University of Eastern Finland who has researched well-being in Finnish society, explained it this way: “When you know what is enough, you are happy.”

The happiest people in the world aren’t “happy” as we may define it: they are content. Their consistent level of satisfaction is joined with the truth that accepting limits creates satisfaction.

So can we develop an awareness of “enough” to appreciate contentment when we achieve it and recognize its possibility in any activity?

Before answering this question, I’ll explore how we create and cultivate dissatisfaction.

Creating Dissatisfaction

The notion that accepting limits creates satisfaction can be confusing and oblivious. It rubs against American consumerism, striving to accumulate, possess, or achieve more.

Here, we see the nature of our suffering: the obsessive, goal-oriented behavior that drives modern life. We strive for our wants and cravings without questioning or understanding their fleeting nature.

In Buddhist psychology, attachment to desires is the root of all suffering, or dukkha. Buddhism focuses on the intention, motivations, and actions to recognize and dissolve indulgences and attachments to counter desire.

When we ignore the idea of “enough” in our lives, we often fall into a cycle of perpetual dissatisfaction. The relentless pursuit of more material possessions, achievements, or experiences can lead to a constant feeling of inadequacy or chasing a fleeting sense of happiness. This can result in stress, anxiety, and a lack of fulfillment.

One dilemma in recognizing satisfaction might come from our confusion about abundance.

We define scarcity as lacking or insufficient. Yet we define its opposite—abundance—as a state of excess, plentiful, ample, and lavish.

Ironically, when internalized, this notion of abundance as plentiful finds us lacking. Rather than proclaim “enough,” this view provokes the need to seek more.

Doesn’t it make sense to define abundant as enough to scarcity’s not enough?

Framing abundance as “enough” supports our notion of satisfaction.

Too Many Choices

Coaches and consultants often observe “busyness” as lacking time and focus on time management, self-care, or prioritizing. Yet there may be something more fundamental and confusing to examine: choices and choosing.

As humans, we have never had more choices than we do today. However, do those choices bring us more satisfaction?

In his 2004 book The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less, psychologist Barry Schwartz argues that the diminishing returns of additional choices paralyze rather than liberate us.

Although Schwartz posits that freedom of choice is critical to our well-being and choice is critical to freedom and autonomy, he argues that eliminating choices in certain situations can greatly reduce anxiety.


According to Schwartz, how we view choices characterizes us as either a Maximizer or Satisfier. (See the previous blog.)

The Maximizer has no standards. They operate from an ideal of “the best” rather than the idea of “good enough.”

The Satisfier operates from predetermined criteria for what is good enough and applies it to any option before them. When the product or service meets their standard, they are satisfied and stop searching.

This mindset recognizes that “enough” is possible. The Satisfier also comes away with another lesson: some choice is necessary, but more choice is not always better.


Choosing often means confronting “choice shock,” claims Schwartz. He concludes that social media has created a context where “nobody’s good enough, and you’re always worried you’re missing out” – known as Fear of Missing Out (FOMO).

Many of us have become Maximizers. The level of dissatisfaction manifests in daily life. Each choice becomes an epic battle of confusion, research, and analysis to seek out the best. Our mantra: never settle for second best.

How can we shift our internal compass from FOMO to JOMO?

JOMO, or Joy of Missing Out, is about understanding yourself, your needs, and your desires and choosing to live in a way that energizes you. To embrace JOMO, we need to practice reflecting on our choices to understand better what’s driving our FOMO.

This piece on the shift from FOMO to JOMO offers some tips, from slowing down and disconnecting to reflecting, reconnecting, and testing.

The Striving Cycle

Dissatisfaction lives within. The inner critic compares us with others or social standards, highlighting our deficient nature with an impulse to overcompensate for our perceived deficiency. This cycle of deficiency keeps us trapped and isolated, confirming that we are “not enough.”

A big culprit of this cycle involves “perfectionism,” which can be defined as having excessively exacting standards and being overly self-critical. Studies have found three types of perfectionism: self-oriented, socially-prescribed, and other-oriented. Like multitasking, many wear being a perfectionist as a badge of honor.

A column in Psychology Today details ten signs of a perfectionist mindset. The perfectionist mindset impacts our thinking (all-or-nothing) and actions (procrastination). This blog focuses on these four (numbers 1, 3, 4, and 9 ) as we explore striving and how limits can create satisfaction.

  • Self-criticism.
  • Self-worth is based on achievements.
  • Constant comparison toDOWNLOAD PDF

How the “Coming Out” Process Supports a Coaching Mindset

Coming Out of the closet as a gay man is a choice. Yet, making that choice requires considering several consequences. As a coach, the experience of coming out offers many lessons we can use to support people in living their truth.

I contributed a chapter to the book “Coaching Wisdom” – written by gay male coaches. In this chapter, I explore how the “coming out” process supports a coaching mindset to serve clients in becoming whole.

My mentor, Devorah, a black woman living with Parkinson’s disease, shared this thought with me: “We all live in closets and struggle with coming out.”

Devorah expanded my view of coming out, showing me this all-too-common human struggle. We do all live in closets. The LGBTQ community has lived with these questions. Upon personal reflection, I can see how the experience of coming out offers unique access to aspects of our humanity to confront our freedom and cultivate becoming whole.

Beyond the many coaching practices I’ve learned and taught, this question remains critical: what does it mean to be human and true to oneself? In this chapter, I invite everyone into inquiries and practices representing a professional commitment to awareness, freedom, and wholeness.

Coming Out and Being in the World

As gay coaches, we can access our shared experience of coming out to serve our clients if we use it as a model for becoming whole. The process of “coming out” involves a cycle of asking, acting, and accepting.

We ask questions from a different view. Rather than asking, “What is wrong with me? Why am I not normal?” which results in diagnoses and seals us in our closets, we ask, “What is happening? What am I observing or experiencing?” to open possibilities.

We act on our discoveries courageously. Action expands awareness of our role as we create and define our relationship with the world outside.

We accept our individual uniqueness as “different” (unique) rather than developing competence in performing “normal.” This agency invites integration and inquiry, evolving consciousness with each cycle.

Exercising this generative capacity — “coming out” as asking, acting, and accepting — cultivates possibility, aliveness, and openness. It is the antidote to our closet as gay men. Universally, this capacity also expands humanity, where fear and denial closet us by making us conceal and withhold our unique selves.

Inside-Out Structures that Support Becoming Whole

Insights from the coming out process support a coaching mindset. Rather than examining concepts in a “normative, problem-solving method” to “fix behavior,” coaching embraces an “ontological inquiry” into our emotions, bodily sensations, and language to examine “the nature and function of being.”

As gay men, we may take for granted the fundamental lessons, skills, and practices revealed by the coming out process. Since we do not have visible markers such as skin color or sexual organs that identify us as gay, we are what we say about ourselves. We affirm our dignity in the face of society’s hostility. Our unique experience of inquiry and integration supports our work as coaches to serve others in their pursuit of becoming whole.

This chapter examines four inside-out and interdependent vehicles — structures and practices that constitute being human. Each relates to coming out inside a coaching model for becoming whole.

  1. Self-awareness cultivates our observer, clarifying self-perception.
  2. Integrity strengthens our word to develop workability.
  3. Authenticity expands the possibility and freedom to be, encouraging authentic self-expression.
  4. Commitment prioritizes our care to expand dignity.

1- Self-Awareness as Observer

Human beings can be said “to be” because of our ability to see, perceive, feel, and interpret. Our self-awareness cultivates the “observers” we are as “being” human. We become attentive to the effects of the filters, maps, and blind spots in our interactions. Our observer reflects on discoveries and interprets what the world discloses.

Self-awareness reveals the nature of being as projecting views and then seeking evidence to confirm them. “What you don’t know, you don’t know” is home to many blind spots that limit our perceptions, listening, and perspectives.[1]

Seeing reality begins with continually stripping away our self-deceptions and dissolving any delusions. Consider the inner observer that leads to coming out. Recall when this stripping away of beliefs and delusions encouraged questioning and self-discovery to embrace your queer identity. Becoming whole begins with self-awareness.

Inquiry. To further develop our observer, cultivate our self-perception, and sort out projections, we surround ourselves with different perspectives and invite feedback. Multiple perspectives and discoveries require the adoption of humility to seek questions rather than know solutions.[2]

Practices. Coaching supports practices such as pausing to clarify perceptions that precede behavior or performance. We pause between events (communications, meetings, situations, or activities) and before speaking to support mindfulness. In Sanskrit, mindfulness means “to remember.” We pause to remember what we care about and our current frame of reference, such as our roles, functions, jobs, or agreements.

  • Increased awareness invites us to strip away delusions and enable self-discovery to reveal projections and truths. (See grid below.)

2- Integrity as Workability

Integrity is accountability to our word for the purpose of creating “workability” in our life. The process of coming out is a profound example of the power of our word to create workability. Recall the intense unworkability of living inside the fear of the closet.

To constitute ourselves as our word requires “transparency about what one is giving one’s word to, to whom it is being given, and by when the promise given by the word will be executed.” [3]

Such an inquiry requires self-awareness to examine and discover when we are “in” or “out” of integrity — whether I can be counted on to act as I’ve stated. Unfortunately, socialization views integrity through morality (being virtuous), ethics (the right standards), or normative (ideal behavior). In this context, examining ourDOWNLOAD PDF

Creating Space to Access Wisdom Daily

As first defined by William Davies of LRB, the term reaction economy best fits the lives we all navigate. To quote Davies, “Each of us becomes a junction box in a vast, complex network, receiving, processing, and emitting information in a semiautomatic fashion, and in real-time.”

Reactive Spaces

Davies focused on reactions such as facial expressions, gestures, or emojis, which have become an influential currency of the digital public sphere. Nonetheless, his term describes a reactiveness that has splintered our attention and fragmented our awareness.

Getting through the events that make up our day can drain us, and fending off those who fill our capacity with clutter can be overwhelming. This much we can recognize.

Managing our schedules can become so impossible that it is easier to react to events: we apologize for slights, wing it on calls, and feign preparation at meetings.

Over the past two decades, we have discovered three significant “contexts” and practices—1) Empty space, 2) Prep time, and 3) Fallout —that can enliven your participation in activities and expand possibilities.

This blog will first distinguish Empty space to uncollapse compressed spaces. Empty spaces develop the conditions for Prep time and Fallout that reveal our flow of life. These spaces may seem like additions to your schedule, but they reveal a deeper truth. We require space to show up as co-creators who cultivate the quality, care, and insights to navigate this reaction economy.

So Many Events

Consider the many events we experience in a day. Eating, writing, responding to emails, working out, meetings, researching, reading, meditating, calls, tasks, shopping, Yoga, and traveling to events, to name a few. Notice how these events often run together; by 3 p.m., we are FULL. We lack the space to prepare or recover.

In this process, an “Event” is defined as an “instance” or occasion in which we show up to participate. Any “happening” we choose to attend or engage or any concern we wish to fulfill is an Event.

These instances might include grocery shopping, practices, traveling to work, meetings, calls, lunch, workouts, Yoga, school/study, entertainment, games, etc.

Events take up most of our lives and reveal what we care about. Yet when stacked together, they can become compressed into a stream of stress.

For some events, such as grocery shopping or workouts, we have a set routine that prepares us. We examine cupboards and the fridge to make a list before shopping. We grab our exercise shoes, shorts, and bottled water before heading to the gym.

We arrive at some events prepared and ready to participate, yet we wing it at others.


Empty Space: for reflecting, remembering, restoring

Much like the compression of time, our information overload and hyper-interconnectivity have compressed space. Personal, professional, downtime, daydreaming, family, and reflective spaces are merged into “on time.” Bells, dings, haptics, notifications, buzzers, emojis, and so forth are akin to Pavlov’s experiments.

We no longer experience sacred spaces to process, prepare, or restore ourselves.

We must develop practices to “decompress the spaces” we’ve been conditioned into by our culture of “speed and urgency.”

1- No Space for Wholeness

Thirty years ago, phones, TVs, and games occupied different spaces. We could focus on a designated activity in a subway, car, park, beach, or bathroom. Today, the phone can access excess connections, information, and consumption to shop, entertain, chat, and work anywhere, anytime, for anything—all at once.

Blurred boundaries confuse our views, communications, structures, and agreements. We careen from one event to another, accumulating unresolved items. We feel drained, uneasy, and anxious.

The impact of compressed space fractures our attention and fragments our awareness. We lack the capacity: to be present to experience our being, to remember our priorities, or recognize our wisdom.

Consider the meaning of mindfulnesssati” (Pali) or “smrti” (Sanskrit) is “bare attention” or “to remember.” Remembering is an underappreciated condition in which life has shattered.

As a practice, dedicated, reflective spaces are necessary to cultivate the capacity for discerning insights and remembering (recenter) our wholeness.

  1. What fills up our space?
  2. How can we bring discoveries of space into our everyday lives?
  3. Which of our practices allows space to loosen our fixed views?

To ponder these questions, I explore reflective spaces and then pausing as a practice to create space.

2- Reflective Space

It is important not to conflate space with time.

Reflective space is empty and taps into our awareness of being to reveal what’s arising. For instance, just scheduling 15 minutes after a tense, mentally draining meeting may not support creativity or reflection. We also need a practice for clearing spaces. We might take a walk to dissolve concerns or restore energy.

Becoming aware of the spaces in our lives involves recognizing what fills our spaces and then understanding how to restore them.


The axiom space abhors a vacuum is truer today than ever. We fill any space on our calendar or in our lives. Our conditioning toward speed, urgency, and productivity cannot stand wasted space or time. Guilt wrenches us back to load up any space with tasks.

Even when we create intentional space, concerns from previous events fill our space with distractions, expectations, and fixations (DEF).

  1. Distractions involve the objects that draw our attention to lose our focus.
  2. Expectations involve anticipating experiences. Whether we know it or not, many of our upsets and disappointments come from unfulfilled expectations.
  3. Fixations involve any attachment, obsessive energy on, or identification with an experience or object. Here, we attempt to hold onto or control something we cannot control.

These items fill our mind with concerns that weigh us down.

Empty space clears our mind of these concerns. When we recognize expectations or attachments, pausing creates the space between our experiences.DOWNLOAD PDF

Developing Wisdom: Four Models for Unlearning Common Myths

Wisdom seems so elusive. I remember encountering the notion of wisdom three decades ago in a philosophy course. I felt a strong pull at my heart to seek this out, yet also a sinking dilemma: How do you make a living using wisdom?

Much of my dilemma was rooted in unexamined socialized beliefs such as knowledge is power. Thus, I focused on gaining knowledge. Since then, I’ve come to a discovery: knowledge fills the mind; wisdom frees the mind.

Recently, I’ve read several articles bemusing the useless nature of wisdom: “What good is any wisdom we learned thirty years ago in today’s world?” This is an excellent question about knowledge, but it has nothing to do with wisdom.

Confusion about wisdom often comes from common myths:

  • With age comes wisdom.
  • Knowledge leads to wisdom.
  • Wisdom comes from experience.

After reflecting on my studies and the experiences I’ve had with knowledgeable and wise teachers, I find it helpful to examine this topic. My view is not definitive, nor is it something I am claiming any special experience with. I find cultivating insight an ongoing practice and quite humbling to accept what’s revealed.

Still, the confusion about wisdom seems critical to examine and clarify. Moreover, the wise teachers I’ve experienced offered perspectives and space in a way that the smartest, most knowledgeable among my teachers simply could not.

Turning to Webster’s dictionary, I offer conventional definitions of wisdom:

  • “Ability to discern inner qualities and relationships; insight.”
  • “Good sense; judgment.”
  • “A wise attitude, belief, or course of action.”

A fuller view of wisdom might include a sense of peace and clarity from a deep understanding and knowledge of the truth. 

Different Paradigms

So then, what does wisdom mean today? Are there different contexts for wisdom? How might we cultivate it?

To sort through many of the qualities of wisdom, I’ve organized different models that I’ve observed into four paradigms/states:

Part 1 – Information Paradigm

Part 2 – Systems Thinking/Scientific Paradigm

Part 3 – Psychological/Pedagogical Paradigm

Part 4 – Philosophical/Spiritual Paradigm

Each part of this inquiry examines different aspects of wisdom.

Part 1 – Information Paradigm

The first paradigm is concerned with observing patterns. Here, we gather and sort data, correlate, and connect it to create information that we act on and evaluate to develop knowledge. Then, we reflect on our experience of applying the knowledge and, over time, deepen our understanding and insights.

In the movie Moneyball, Billy Beane, general manager of the Oakland A’s baseball team, signs undervalued players to create a winning team. Baseball is a game of stats. Changing how we use this abundance of data and knowledge can offer new insights into the game’s human potential.

Beane hired data geek Peter Brand as a complement to his experience of the game. Together, they upended the baseball myth of big hitters by bringing new wisdom to the recruitment and selection process. They built a team based on data, not old beliefs tied to hitting stats, celebrity, appearances, or “personality.”

It’s important to note that Brand’s methods and theories were ignored or dismissed by others. Beane, however, recognized something. He reflected on his experience as a scout and his adversity as a player to question conventional assumptions. He could see something that not only eluded others but provoked resistance.

Integrating Brand’s theories, Beane wisely used science to illuminate a new game. This entire enterprise shift occurred inside Beane’s “seeing” something.

Thus, the lowest pay-per-player baseball team had a 20-game winning streak and won the 2002 American League West championship.

Key learning in this paradigm involves discerning patterns to add meaning. This process involves sorting data to contextualize information before then applying this knowledge to discern wisdom—commonly known as DIKW.

Fig-1- Technology in Tourism – Scientific Figure on ResearchGate (see reference below).

Part 2 – Systems Thinking/Scientific Paradigm 

The second paradigm concerns discerning systems by reflecting on conceptual thinking to realize deeper connections, relations, and new contexts. As an outcome, wisdom achieves elegance.

When we question past assumptions, reflect on experience and knowledge, and discover wisdom, we shift contexts, think differently, and see new relationships. We move beyond past-based constraints to seeing different systems.

Billy Beane’s and Peter Brand’s strategy didn’t just change the future of the Oakland A’s. It changed the game of baseball. Instead of paying for star power, and big hitters, baseball was now buying wins, no matter where they came from. After Beane declined a $12.5 million offer by The Boston Red Sox to be their GM (as highest paid GM in baseball), the Red Sox used Beane’s strategy to win the 2004 World Series.

Steve Jobs took a leap by conceptualizing the personal computer as a “bicycle for the mind.” He shifted paradigms in seven industries: computers, music, book publishing, television, telecommunications, photography, and apps. Apple indirectly impacted industries such as news/newspapers, transportation, accommodation, radar detection, dedicated GPS industry, and others.

Job’s wisdom came from discerning qualities: his incredible focus and decisiveness, legendary attention to detail, and deep understanding of the human connection between the humanities, arts, and technology.

Within months of Job’s return to Apple in 1997, his Zen-like precision and appreciation for simplicity and elegance reduced product lines by 70%, simplified operations, and let go of a nagging lawsuit with Microsoft. These streamlined priorities focused attention and surfaced new questions for a future that wasn’t possible a year earlier at a company hemorrhaging $1 billion.

Key learning in this paradigm involves discerning patterns to add meaning that connects and develops relationships. This often entails moving from analytical, focusing on what has happened, to creative analysis to generate new openings (future possibilities).

Fig 2– Thanks to Karim Vaes for expertly detailing the process of wisdom at the systems level.

Fig 3– Thanks to Karim Vaes for detailing the process of wisdom at the systems level.

Part 3 – Psychological/Pedagogical Paradigm

The third paradigm concernsDOWNLOAD PDF

Slowing Down: Letting Go, Letting Be, Letting Come

The notion of slowing down has become a common refrain over the past decade. And at the beginning of a new year, it makes sense to contemplate our pace of life.

Reflecting on the speed of change and volume of information and complexity can leave us more fragmented. Between new year’s resolutions, self-imposed goals, obligations, and daily concerns, we can feel fractured and frenetic. Finding time to pause has been a good antidote to curb anxiety.

But we need more. It’s time to appreciate the process of slowing down.

The Essence of Slowing Down

Slowing down is often conflated with waiting, slacking, or delaying.

For our inquiry, slowing down involves becoming fully present to acknowledge, allow, accept, and appreciate the fullness of what is occurring and emerging.

The irony is that slowing down, as we mean it, will lead to speeding up. Sorting through the confusion of slowing down supports the foundation for developing “presence,” a topic beyond the scope of this blog.

Slowing down requires a disciplined set of practices that involve 1) letting go of habitual holding, 2) letting be to cultivate acceptance, and 3) letting come to connect to emergence.

Letting go and letting be are often used interchangeably, which can cause unnecessary confusion.

“Letting go” involves releasing, and “letting be” involves acceptance. Both can be helpful in different contexts because they involve different levels of intention. Together, they offer complementary strategies for dealing with life’s challenges.

The stages and practices involved in letting go, letting be, and letting come, supports the art of surrendering control, a necessary condition for slowing down.

1- Letting go.

Letting go brings awareness to our “holding on.” The key to letting go is increasing awareness to recognize “holding on” in its many forms.

“Letting go” generally refers to relinquishing control or ownership of something or releasing negative thoughts, emotions, grudges, or unhealthy habits. It can involve letting go of a person, a situation, or attachment to a certain outcome, or it could involve letting go of material possessions or relationships.

Until we increase awareness of “holding on” to objects or “holding on” as a tendency, we live in automatic ignorance, drifting and sleepwalking through life. Waking up brings awareness to the old habits and perceptions that drive our defending, coping, or reacting habits.

Letting go may be the most challenging step because it involves slowing down and increasing awareness to recognize “holding on” in real-time.

Going Slow

Letting go involves reframing the notion of going slow inside a process of becoming present. The practice of pausing, connecting to the ground, and breathing supports becoming present as follows:

  • Pausing before approaching your scheduled daily events, such as meetings, calls, emails, the gym, playing with kids, and so forth. Pausing creates space to be present for these events. If any preoccupations or distractions arise, capture these for later self-reflection.
  • Pausing before speaking to notice your experiences, intentions, and expectations. Remember why you are in this conversation.

Until we slow down, we remain in a reactive state. We download what comes at us and automatically upload our practiced habitual responses. Pausing interrupts and reveals our fixed patterns and supports slowing and calming down.

Otto Scharmer of Theory U describes this downloading pattern as “projecting habits of thought” that enable our sensing and actions. The reactive state maintains our current level of ignorance, perpetuating our existing blind spots.

With awareness, we recognize much of what we download, including the 95% of human experience in our subconsciousness.

Meditation master Thich Nhat Hanh understands that perceptions are the ground of all afflictions and sees letting go as “throwing away notions and ideas that are the base of our suffering.”

It seems simplistic to point to awareness as the remedy to reveal blind spots and support dissolving fixations, distractions, and habitual patterns. However, with increased awareness—pausing, coming back to the moment, breathing, and regular reflection—we can tune into our bodily sensations, surroundings, and fixations to surface our blind spots.

With awareness, we become present to all that fills the moment and begin to notice “holding on.”

Awareness of Holding On

The practice of pausing supports slowing down, coming back to the moment, and being aware of our habitual patterns. We begin to recognize the impulse of “holding on” that highlights letting go.

There is always an undercurrent of trying to prove something. We are chasing some goal, deadline, emotional feeling, or aspiration that produces stress because it is wrapped up in our identity or some fleeting experience we want to endure.

That’s “holding on” or clinging.

We hold on to unhealthy habits or outmoded beliefs by clinging to grudges, material items, or relationships. We also hold on to pleasurable experiences, expectations, or things from an underlying attachment.

Releasing Attachments

Releasing attachments—or non-attachment—encourages a more open-minded approach to life and can help reduce stress. Nonattachment is often misunderstood. It does not suggest rejecting experiences or things; rather, we no longer “cling” to our experiences or expectations of them.

  • We set goals and achieve results but do not define our self-worth or value based on them.
  • We acknowledge achievements and learn from setbacks without identifying with either the wins or losses.
  • We recognize underlying worry, fear, or thinking that finds us possessing unhealthy relationships or outdated possessions or beliefs.
  • We notice experiences such as “I experienced sadness or anxiety” as different from identifying with experiences such as “I am sad or anxious.”

Nonattachment is distinct from detachment, which involves a disconnection from our experiences and seems to others like indifference. Instead, we fully connect with our thoughts, feelings, and situations without holding on to our experiences.

The stages and practices involved in letting go, letting be, and letting come, supports the art of surrendering control, a necessary condition for slowing down.

Releasing the Past


Evolving Mindfulness, Part 4: Restoring Wisdom

In this final blog, I connect a few important concepts related to restoring wisdom to mindfulness via Buddhist psychology.

Recall that, in Part 3, I introduced the Four Noble Truths. We see mindfulness in the training category of “mental discipline” in the Eightfold Path. The ethics of mindfulness is in the training category of “ethical conduct.”

Wisdom is the overlooked category in Western learning. This begins with our socialization and education. Wisdom simply gives way to practical knowledge in the American worldview. Yet without wisdom, we lack grounding, a compass, or clarity.

Wisdom Beyond Knowledge

In times of volatile change and growing complexity, “objective” knowledge cannot do the heavy lifting required of wisdom. The depth and complexity of this training informs the Eightfold Path through “view” and “intention.” Developing this training category is unlike the other training categories.

  • Mental discipline (samādhi) involves meditation practice and training to develop right mindfulness, right concentration, and right effort.
  • Ethical conduct (sīla) involves a focus on self-management and behavior, embodying the principles of right speech, right action, and right livelihood.
  • Wisdom (prajñā) involves subtle perceptions, thoughts, and understanding. Wisdom, or Prajna, develops a penetrating discernment that cuts through the fog of our lives and informs ethical conduct and mental discipline.

Indeed, the very rise in popularity (and acceptance) of mindfulness these past few decades mirrors the increasing levels of change and complexity and breakdown of our other knowledge-based learning systems in society.

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A Glimpse of Wisdom

In Buddhist thought, wisdom integrates right view with right intention.

The Eightfold Path is not a series of progressive steps but rather a part of an interdependent whole. Here, right view shapes the commitment to these other steps.

Right view focuses on discerning the correct way to look at existence. This involves a view of the self and phenomena that is interdependent, impermanent, and empty of intrinsic meaning (which is explored later in this blog). It results in seeing things as they are.

Right intention focuses on the thoughts that shape our experience. We cultivate three aspects: 1) dissolving indulgences and attachments to counter desire, 2) increasing goodwill to counter ill will, and 3) developing wholesomeness to counter harmfulness.

Unlike knowledge, which involves adding content and concepts, wisdom involves letting go (intention) and seeing (view) through concepts to create space for wisdom to emerge.

1- Awakening Wisdom

Wisdom means deeply knowing or understanding the truth to penetrate distortions. 

Wisdom is the missing link for what ails us today. Hence, we must learn to cultivate, recognize, and access the wisdom available via the core teaching of mindfulness.

How do we cultivate wisdom?

We develop wisdom through a cycle of discovery, inquiry, application, and realization that circles back to discovery.

In Buddhist psychology, the Three Prajnas (wisdoms) lay out a cycle of hearing, contemplating, and meditating. As is typical with Buddhist psychology, these terms have different implications for the Western mind.

The wisdom embedded in the three prajnas is common among traditions.

The Three Prajnas

Each subsequent stage emerges from the previous one as a cycle of discovery and awakening.

  1. Hearing. The Tibetan word “thöpa” means “to hear,” as in hearing intellectual studies. This involves listening, observing, and studying knowledge. Hearing invites exploration to understand new terminology and concepts. At first, this may seem like a blur of thoughts, feelings, and sensations all running together.
  2. Contemplating. Here, “sampa” means “to think about” and involves our experiences as we apply and digest knowledge. We experiment and discover many flavors and feelings of learning to distinguish concepts. We reflect on our experiences and engage in activities such as journaling, discussions, developing questions, discovering enhancements, and even gaps.
  3. Meditating. The third wisdom principle, “gompa,” means “to familiarize” or “to habituate to.” Here, we bring knowledge into the heart and mind to metabolize insights beyond a conceptual understanding. From the intellect to the heart, knowledge gives way to flashes of insight and realization, integrating it with different experiences to habituate a way of being. Instead of using knowledge, we are now used by knowledge.

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This cycle reduces suffering by releasing one’s expectations to know and understand everything. It allows us to be where we are. There are two essential insights:

  • First, this cycle normalizes a process that involves confusion. Letting go of goals and expectations, we can appreciate the confusion that precedes clarity.
  • Second, we learn to accept that wisdom requires awareness and discovery. The initial “hearing” of teachings is the first round of learning that develops the foundation for future cycles.

This is quite different from the linear manner that Americans learn. Typically, we add more knowledge to memorize rather than metabolize – without the reflection necessary to discover or integrate experiences or to release outmoded views or beliefs.

Buddhist psychology requires a circular, embodied approach to digest and transcend its lists, frameworks, terms, and concepts in our lives. These blogs offer a tiny slice of the Dharma. No doubt, you may have already experienced some confusion. Be where you are.

2-  Buddhist Psychology

Buddhist psychology is primarily about awakening via self-knowledge, understanding our decisions, actions, thoughts, feelings, and so forth. It aims to challenge our worldview by addressing the root of our psychological functioning, our sense of who we are, and our relationships with others and with the world.

The primary concern of Buddhist psychology is alleviating human suffering, distress, and dissatisfaction. Our psychological state depends not so much on particular things or circumstances but more on how we relate to what life brings our way. It acknowledges that pain—whether physical or emotional—is an unavoidable part of life, and with that pain comes some suffering.

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However, as human beings, we tend to add additional layers of psychological suffering through how we engage with our experiences. Specifically,DOWNLOAD PDF

Evolving Mindfulness, Part 3: The Truth of Suffering

Once we move beyond McMindfulness, as discussed in Parts 1 and 2 of this blog series, we can explore the nature of mindfulness from its core teachings.

In this part, I develop a pedagogy as a foundation for awakening. I’ve selected the most relevant core teachings, topics, and resources of mindfulness from the Dharma to represent the “ground of mindfulness.”

NOTE: To support the learning in this blog series, we’ve created a page of terms, citations, and resources. Items in the blog followed by a number (1) or letter (a) are found on the resource page. Items with a lower roman numeral [i] are found in the endnotes below.

The Ground: Truth, Suffering, and Liberation

The ground of mindfulness is awareness of truth in each moment. By contemplating truth, we recognize its liberating nature. Whether scientific, historical, or personal, truth satisfies us when revealed, even if it might initially be uncomfortable.

As stated by Sōtō Zen priest Dainin Katagiri, “As human beings, we are currently present in the truth, but we are doomed not to know the truth exactly.”

Bypassing Discomfort

We focus on the truth of suffering because it also holds the remedy. Exploring suffering requires examining how our ego-clinging mind can and will sidestep that truth. With grounded practice, the Dharma teaches us to investigate the clinging nature of attachments (to objects or ego) or identification (with experiences). Both are developed below.

The danger of secular mindfulness and McMindfulness is that it obscures the causes of suffering (see Part 1). We escape, rather than confront, the true nature of our suffering.

In his book, Toward a Psychology of Awakening, Buddhist teacher and psychotherapist John Welwood (16) introduces the concept of spiritual bypassing as a “tendency to use spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep or avoid facing unresolved emotional issues, psychological wounds, and unfinished developmental tasks.” In an interview with Wellwood, he states the following:

When we are spiritually bypassing, we often use the goal of awakening or liberation to … rise above the raw and messy side of our humanness before we have fully faced and made peace with it.

When we begin mindfulness, pain, suffering, and discomfort will surface. That is the point, not the problem, as stated by Atlantic writer Arthur Brooks in “Mindfulness Hurts. That’s Why It Works.” Brooks writes, “Facing the painful parts of life head-on is the only way to feel at home with yourself.”

Still, rather than address the truth, some focus solely on the circumstances or on others as the sole source of suffering without also looking inward. Many others use Buddhist teachings such as impermanence, karma, and compassion to avoid rather than confront pain.

People may avoid issues by claiming that “it will pass,” “that’s karma,” or invoke compassion to avoid their own discomfort, hence, enabling rather than feeling pain.

Tibetan Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön calls this form of compassion “idiot compassion”: Instead of offering a friend medicine, bitter though it may be when ingested, you feed them more poison—and you don’t take away the cause of the pain.

The Four Noble Truths

Buddhist philosophy begins with the Four Noble Truths:

  1. The truth of suffering: there is dukkha (Pali for un-satisfactoriness or suffering),
  2. The truth of the cause of suffering; dukkha has root causes (greed, ignorance, and hatred),
  3. The truth of the end of suffering, or freedom from dukkha, and
  4. The truth of a path leading to freedom from suffering is the Eightfold Path.

1- The Truth of Suffering

This truth acknowledges a fundamental aspect of the human experience.

The Buddhist idea of suffering (dukkha) includes the entire range of human dissatisfaction and anguish beyond the clinical disorders described by psychiatry.

Buddhism mostly refers to the emotional or mental aspects of suffering rather than physical suffering, per se. The feeling of suffering here is more like a general dissatisfaction, akin to feeling off-kilter. Ever drive a car with a wheel out of alignment? Notice the extra effort required just to keep the car in your lane? This extra exertion feels uneasy, restless, and even stressful. This is dukkha.

Meditation master Chogyam Trungpa [i] reminds us of this paradox, ”at the same time, because of the clarity of mind, the pain itself becomes more pronounced — not because the pain is more, but because the confusion is less.

Mindfulness supports remembering this state as part of our common humanity. All beings share the desire to be happy while experiencing hopes, fears, anxieties, and confusion. We all want to relieve our dissatisfaction.

These “truths” show us the way.

2- The Truth of the Origin of Suffering

Dukkha also refers to that which is temporary, conditional, and (inter)dependent on other causes and conditions. Even something precious and enjoyable is dukkha because it will end.

Chögyam Trungpa (15)  reminds us that “the practice of meditation is not designed to develop pleasure, but to understand the truth of suffering…” The general cause or truth of suffering is greed or desire. From the Dharma, the word “tanha” more accurately translates as “thirst” or “craving.”

There are three types of dukkha:

  • The suffering of suffering (dukkha-dukkha) refers to the physical and emotional discomfort and pain all humans experience in their lives.
  • The suffering of change (viparinama-dukkha) refers to suffering that arises from an inability to accept change. People cling to pleasurable experiences and feel sad when these moments pass. They cannot accept the truth of impermanence.
  • The suffering of existence (sankhara-dukkha) is best described as a background of suffering caused by judgments, thoughts, and anxiety simply by things not being how we want them to be rather than how they exist.

Finally, continued dukkha is called Samsara, or a cycle of suffering.DOWNLOAD PDF

Evolving Mindfulness, Part 2: The Demise of Wisdom

What is the cost of discarding the ethics and wisdom from mindfulness? Is there a way to restore the wisdom for lay practitioners or non-Buddhists?

In Part 1 of this blog, I discussed the rise of McMindfulness that emerged from secular mindfulness techniques, which flourished in the wake of the Mindfulness-Based Stress-Reduction (MBSR) method launched by Jon Kabat-Zinn in 1979.

Ironically, Jon Kabat-Zinn’s compassionate approach gave rise to McMindfulness. Much of this involves our American appetite for consuming, reducing, and, thus, simplifying wisdom. I explore this dynamic in Parts 3 and 4 of this series as I set out to recover much of what we’ve lost.

In sum, McMindfulness denatures meditation from its core, from the wisdom, ethics, and mental discipline found in the Noble Eightfold Path.

In this blog, I will examine the different critiques of McMindfulness.

NOTE: To support the learning in this blog series, we’ve created a page of terms, citations, and resources. Items in the blog followed by a number (1) or letter (a) are found on the resource page. Items with a lower roman numeral [i] are found in the endnotes below.

A Menu of (Mc)Mindfulness Critiques

McMindfulness has inspired different views and critiques.

NOTE: Buddhism is quite complex, with various lineages, schools, and doctrines, so this is not a review of Buddhism. Rather, I will review different critiques of mindfulness as commonly practiced in America. When I speak of Buddhist or Eastern wisdom, I center it on specific teachings, practices, or concepts that will be highlighted in Parts 3 and 4.

Pathway to the West

Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi

To contextualize these critiques, I offer some thoughts from Bhikkhu Bodhi (born Jeffrey Block) [i]. An American Theravada monk ordained in Sri Lanka and appointed the second president of the Buddhist Publication Society, Bodhi has edited and authored several publications grounded in the Theravada Buddhist tradition.

In his piece, “The Transformation of Mindfulness,” Bodhi (g) addresses two shifts that shaped how mindfulness developed in the West.

The first shift involved “the ‘custodianship’ of the Dharma – the teaching authority – from the monastic Sangha to Western lay teachers.”

Here, Bodhi recognizes the “stultifying” effect the monastery might have on the teachings but also notes that “despite its faults, this tradition has ensured that all modes of Buddhist practice—whether scholarly, ritualistic, or contemplative—are imbued with veneration for the Three Jewels and rooted in a worldview based on the Buddha’s discourses.”

He sees this shift in teaching authority as playing “a monumental role in the revamping of mindfulness and thus in extending it into new domains never found in the Buddhist traditions of Asia.”

The second shift happened later and resulted from the first, as Bhikkhu Bodhi notes:

Multiple factors, woven together into a complex tapestry, contributed to this development, including the American spirit of pragmatism, the declining influence of theistic religion, the triumph of the therapeutic, the human potential movement, the quest for authenticity, the reaction against technological impersonality, and crass American commercialism.

A complete presentation of these issues is beyond the scope of this blog. I will focus on a few that persist today in the form of American Mindfulness or McMindfulness.

1- Secular Critiques

First-generation Buddhist practitioners celebrated “American Buddhism” as non-hierarchical, gender-egalitarian, and free of the cultural and religious “baggage” of their Asian predecessors. Jettisoning this religious “baggage,” however, resulted in the emergence of McMindfulness.

Engaged Buddhists David Loy and Ronald Purser responded to the effects of this trend with their 2013 blog (b), Beyond McMindfulness. Most of the critiques of American mindfulness involve its complicity with socioeconomic structural injustice or dismissing traditional ethics and wisdom.

Examples include adopting mindfulness to train sharpshooters in the military to become more effective killers, or using mindfulness to enhance the focus and create “productive workers” in unjust economic systems.

Another critique involves the hyper-modern and scientific view of mindfulness by “experts,” who measure self-improvement benefits for busy professionals to keep them “busy,” focused, productive, and consuming.

Psychologist and dharma teacher Malcom Huxter pointedly states, “The difference is that the contemporary definitions of mindfulness are ethically neutral. In stark contrast, Buddhist mindfulness is ethically wholesome, and an overt effort to live an ethical lifestyle is considered as an essential foundation for the practice.”

Parts 3 and 4 will expand on the misunderstood notion of mindfulness as “non-judgmental” or “neutral.” Indeed, when properly cultivated and developed via an integrated path, we can discern wholesome/skillful and healthy states of mind from those which are unwholesome and harmful to self and others (Bodhi, 2011). [ii]

These critiques argue that teaching mindfulness in these contemporary contexts conflicts with core Buddhist teachings of non-harm, right livelihood, and interdependence.

2- Three “Emerging Turns”

In her book, American Dharma: Buddhism Beyond Modernity (1), Associate Professor of Religion and Cultural Studies Ann Gleig posits three emerging turns within American Buddhism: critical, contextual, and collective.

The critical turn refers to a growing acknowledgment of the limitations within Buddhist communities. Although this view acknowledges the scientific and secularization of Buddhism, it encourages a discussion about the problems and pitfalls of these processes.

Some focus on what has been lost by discarding the wider religious context of Buddhism and have called for restoring the neglected aspects of the dharma, such as ritual and community.

The contextual turn refers to understanding how Buddhist practice is “shaped and limited by the specific social and cultural contexts in which it unfolds.” [iii]

Critics have discussed issues of power and privilege in American Buddhism, in which mindfulness hasDOWNLOAD PDF

Evolving Mindfulness, Part 1: The Rise of McMindfulness

Mindfulness has become the elixir for all that ails us. Stress, performance, focus, anxiety—mindfulness is the remedy. However, recently, some have deemed mindfulness as damaging, unsettling, and even narcissistic. Yet these benefits and flaws are often taken out of context.

So, then, how should we view mindfulness? Is it religious, secular, spiritual, materialistic, Eastern, psychological, just a technique, or something else?

Our Inquiry into “American Mindfulness”

First popularized in America about five decades ago, meditation and mindfulness can evoke numerous views. As a Buddhist and experienced practitioner, teacher, and student, I will explore the evolution of “American mindfulness” in this four-part blog series. (I offer my personal journey.)

Part 1 explores the secular version of mindfulness in the US with the rise of McMindfulness.

Part 2 examines different critiques of McMindfulness and secular mindfulness.

Parts 3 and 4 explore the core Dharma teachings (see the meaning of dharma) and how we might integrate them into a more holistic view and practice of mindfulness.

NOTE: To support the learning in this blog series, we’ve created a page of terms, citations, and resources. Items in the blog followed by a number (1) or letter (a) are found on the resource page. Items with a lower roman numeral [i] are found in the endnotes below.

An American History

The history of mindfulness in America has three main sets of supporters.

In 1976, Joseph Goldstein, Jack Kornfield, and Sharon Salzberg founded the Insight Meditation Center. This retreat center emulated their experiences of living the dharma and practicing Buddhism in South Asia, where they studied.

The second champion of mindfulness was the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh. By the mid-1970s, he was promoting mindfulness and meditation before he published the Miracle of Mindfulness. See this tribute honoring this work by Thich Nhat Hanh.

In 1979, inspired by attending Buddhist insight meditation retreats, Jon Kabat-Zinn (4) promoted mindfulness as a secular and scientific practice. Starting a stress reduction center at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, he created an eight-week Mindfulness-Based Stress-Reduction (MBSR) course.

These efforts honored a more traditional view of mindfulness, exemplified in the following quotes. In his book on the topic (10) of the Satipatthana Sutta (the establishment of mindfulness), Thich Nhat Hanh [i] offers the following definition of mindfulness:

To practice meditation is to look deeply in order to see into the essence of things. With insight and understanding, we can realize liberation, peace, and joy. Our anger, anxiety, and fear are the ropes that bind us to suffering. If we want to be liberated from them, we need to observe their nature …

Observing “the essence of things” is a process of studying and practicing mindfulness during and after meditation. Author and dharma teacher Joseph Goldstein (2), whose book Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Awakening is based on the Satipatthana Sutta, describes that process of observation slightly differently, with an emphasis on present moment awareness:

The most common understanding of mindfulness is a present-moment awareness, presence of mind, and wakefulness. … Whenever we’re lost or confused about what to do, we can simply come back to the present moment experience.

This blog series explores how the Buddhist wisdom traditions, so often omitted in contemporary mindfulness, can bring these two definitions together.

Compassionate Mindfulness Becomes a Brand

To accommodate the health profession and mainstream society, Kabat-Zinn downplayed and separated mindfulness from its Buddhist cultural or scriptural context while attempting to honor its wisdom, as noted in his definition.

Kabat-Zinn (4) defines Mindfulness as “awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally, [a]nd then I sometimes add, in the service of self-understanding and wisdom.”

Kabat-Zinn’s nuanced blend focused on the attentional aspects of mindfulness to cultivate compassion. He began with a body scan to tune into bodily sensations, note one’s thoughts, and label feelings for better emotional regulation. His attempt to bridge these two worlds, however, got lost in translation as teachers routinely simplified the wisdom to a technique to “reduce stress.”

Science, Secularism, and Commercialism

Studies on mindfulness have repeatedly shown a reduction in stress, a slowing of our reactive self, better emotional regulation, and improved overall presence.

This research shows mindfulness training can alleviate stress on the job, empowering employees with the right tools to succeed better at tackling responsibilities and communicating effectively to boost productivity.

Ironically, Jon Kabat-Zinn’s compassionate approach gave rise to mindfulness as a performance drug, showing that managers who meditate daily are more likely to make smarter financial decisions. Other benefits include the following:

  • Decrease anxiety or stress
  • Lower blood pressure
  • Improve positive emotions
  • Lessen intense pain
  • Enhance immune function
  • Improve heart function
  • Heighten intelligence
  • Reduce loss of brain cells due to aging
  • Ability to find peace and happiness
  • Increase focus and performance
  • Help stave off dementia and Alzheimer’s
  • Improve digestion
  • Ease chronic pain
  • Improve learning and memory
  • And even raise GRE scores

Two large benefits—reducing stress and increasing attention for greater focus—have been used to brand mindfulness.

American (Mc)Mindfulness

Regrettably, the scientifically secularized mindfulness method arising out of American capitalism strips out the core wisdom of the practice, a point emphasized in a 2019 Guardian article (c), How capitalism captured the mindfulness industry:

Instead of letting go of the ego, McMindfulness promotes self-aggrandizement; its therapeutic function is to comfort, numb, adjust and accommodate the self within a neoliberal, corporatized, militarized, individualistic society based on privateDOWNLOAD PDF

Bearing Witness, a Coaching Practice for this Moment

Lately, the act of bearing witness has occurred to me as sacred and momentous. In my work with coaches, bearing witness can be an important coaching practice.

Kristi Pikiewicz, in Psychology Today, shares that bearing witness can “obtain empathy and support, lighten our emotional load via sharing it with the witness, and obtain catharsis.”

Conventionally, bearing witness is the process of observing, establishing, and honoring the experiences, stories, and histories of memories or events.

The graph below reveals that usage of the term bearing witness has waned since the rise of mass media and multiple, fragmented media.

Dick Blackwell (1997), in his paper Holding, Containing and Bearing Witness, explores the therapist’s role in supporting their clients’ wants and needs during therapy.

Blackwell explains that “bearing witness is a personal and political activity. It is to constitute ourselves as some sort of testimony to the history with which we are engaged.”

His last point may reveal an impetus to bear witness to events such as the George Floyd murder and other police brutality incidents, as well as the continual flood of mass shootings we’ve endured in the U.S.

Observing, Establishing, and Honoring

Pikiewicz reminds us that “most people bear witness daily, and not only in reaction to traumatic events.” We also witness events that can shape our consciousness.

Experience of Bearing Witness

As a gay man, I witnessed the AIDS crisis in the 1980s. Seared in my psyche, I recall our government’s denial, federal agencies slow-walking life-saving research and drugs, attending the funerals of young men my age, and the threat of quarantine spurring new forms of bigotry.

Over the last two years, we’ve all witnessed the cost and damage of the pandemic. Whether we’ve shared our own story or witnessed another’s, excavating the truth can be a painful yet necessary step toward healing.

Observing and Establishing Our Witnessing

Earlier this month, Americans were invited to witness the trial of Alex Jones. Jones has claimed that the Sandy Hook school shooting was a hoax. Two parents, Scarlett Lewis and Neil Heslin, who lost their children to this shooting, invited us to bear witness to their pain about their devastating loss.

This summer in the U.S., the Congressional January 6th Select Committee invited Americans to bear witness to the testimony of the historical events on January 6, 2021—the insurrection that occurred against our constitutional government. Bearing witness to these types of events impacts how the truth lives in the future.

The National Memorial for Peace and Justice.

Honoring Our Witnessing

Kristi Pikiewicz suggests honoring this process as “we bear witness to one another through our writing, … art, and by verbally simply sharing with others.”

Examples of the art she mentions include:

  • At 54 tons, the Names Project AIDS Memorial Quilt weaves more than 48,000 individual memorial panels into a large quilted tapestry. It demonstrates the lives ravaged by AIDS.
  • The Witness Blanket, an art installation of reclaimed objects, commemorates the survivors of Indian residential schools. It includes braids from First Nations people, bearing witness to indignation. One of the first actions of school administrators was to cut the children’s long hair, symbolizing how they were cut from their cultures and families.
  • The National Memorial for Peace and Justice commemorates the black victims of lynching in the U.S. It consists of 805 hanging steel rectangles representing each of the U.S. counties where a documented lynching occurred.

As a New Yorker, witnessing 9/11 overwhelmed my senses for months. I recall the leaflets plastered throughout the city displaying photos and stories of missing people. Much like the AIDS quilt, the city became a living memorial.

Upper- AIDS Quilt (right), Witness Blanket (left) Lower- Ray’s Pizza, AP Photo by Beth Keiser, Mailbox, and (R) NYU Medical Center Wall by B. Jones

Commitment and Process of Bearing Witness

The Buddha said, “[I]nner freedom is not guided by our efforts; it comes from seeing what is true.” Truth is an underappreciated part of the healing process. Avoiding, denying, or concealing the truth further oppresses us.

Spirit of Truth and Healing

I will examine a view of bearing witness that centers on a commitment to a “spirit of truth” as truth-seeing, truth-hearing, and truth-telling.

This is more akin to the biblical version of bearing witness as the “Spirit of Truth” (John 14:17) or as expressed in the Ten Commandments against bearing false witness.

This spirit of truth, as bearing witness, appears in several domains of life and creates an important condition for healing.

Psychologically, bearing witness allows us to connect with spaces willing to hold truths. Such spaces can support our release of emotional reactions, such as pity, shame, or fear.

Spiritually, bearing witness invokes a sense of interdependence, oneness, and a direct realization of the wholeness of life. Realizing the experience of interdependence dissolves disconnection, isolation, and the feeling of separateness.

Politically and socially, bearing witness enables us to see more clearly the web of causes and conditions that create suffering—to seek mutual understanding and/or take wise action.

Coach as Witness

Blackwell (1997) continues to expand on the therapist as being “a companion on the client’s journey of ‘truth.’”

Coaches are uniquely situated to offer space for witnessing. Free of normative ideals, rational-only methods, or medialized diagnoses, coaches can offer a space for clients to freely sort themselves out.

In this space, coaches cultivate a commitment to truth that invites clients to hear their truth with clear and empty listening. Anyone with training in hospice care or contemplative care will recognize a similar approach.

Contemporary spiritualDOWNLOAD PDF

Intentional Speaking: Five Impediments to Co-creation

Language is the bridge between our intentions and our worlds. Our relationship to language determines how we wield words to bridge our worlds.

We cultivate a generative relationship with words by embracing Wholeness, Truthfulness, and Freedom. A poor acronym (WTF), we develop these qualities with intentional speaking, yet our habitual patterns conceal them.

Five Impediments

Intentional speaking begins with recognizing and dissolving five common impediments or habitual patterns. Recognizing any of these impediments and enacting practices can be like treating poison with an antidote.

  1. Reactive speech
  2. Gossip
  3. Useless speech: idle speaking/story
  4. Harmful speech
  5. False speech

With practice, we dissolve these five impediments and restore WTF to enable intentional speaking.

1. Reactive speech

Reactive speech involves speaking that exists beyond our awareness: erratic or impulsive communication from confusing thoughts, ungrounded emotions, or distorted perceptions that cause us to react or even overreact.

This speech is so ingrained in us that we often confuse it for who we are. Examples of reactive speech include saying yes to promises or agreements that we do not fulfill, making insincere requests, reacting to statements, and going along with something.

The reflexive nature of this speech supports gossip (#2 below), false speech (#3), or harmful speech (#4).

The practice of dissolving reactive speech involves becoming grounded. Begin with pausing by stopping, connecting to your breath, and feeling the ground beneath your feet before speaking. Then, connect with your words and the matter at hand.

2. Gossip

We gossip when we express concerns to someone other than the person who can actually do – or support doing – something about those concerns.

Gossiping can give us an emotional charge or immediate satisfaction. This cultivates a way of being or attitude that invites more gossip. We become that person interested in gossip and soon become surrounded by it.

Gossip has several harmful effects: it hurts others, drains us, and wastes our energy and time without producing results or genuine satisfaction.

Speaking about an absent person can be compassionate when it supports them, works out an issue, or brings people together.

The antidote to gossip is direct a request to someone who can do something about the issue at hand. If that’s not possible, invite a trusted listener to offer feedback on your perspective. Be truthful about your issue and willing to hear the truth.

3. Useless speech

Useless speech includes idle chatter or “story.”

Idle chatter fills a space or silence with platitudes, small talk, justification, rationalization, or chit-chat.

The Pali word for useless or pointless speech is Sampappalapa: the act of talking just to talk. We insert ourselves into a conversation with something unrelated or unnecessary, often to draw attention or assert our presence.

More complex is the idea of “story.” Here, we fill a space with explanations or rationalizations to avoid uncomfortable facts, conceal challenging evidence, or prevent action.

A person who evades accountability may resort to “story” to conceal their impact. “Story” leads to gaslighting.

The practice of becoming grounded in intentions, needs, or motivations helps us recognize how we fill space with useless speech. Shift your focus to what’s happening right now. Get “out here” (out of your head) to where the action is. Remember, your words reveal your credibility.

4. Harmful speech

Whether intentional or not, the impact of harmful speech devastates others and remains with us for some time.

Society today seems to thrive on harmful speech. Social media incentivizes it to optimize clicks and profit. The latest offense provokes outrage, sometimes in bad faith, to drive more outrage. We can hurl insults on multiple platforms.

In his book The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching, Thich Nhat Hanh warns against speaking cruelly:

We don’t shout, slander, curse, encourage suffering, or create hatred. Even those who have a good heart and don’t want to hurt others sometimes allow toxic words to escape from their lips. … When we say something poisonous, it is usually because of our habit energies. Our words are very powerful. They can give someone a complex, take away their purpose in life, or even drive them to suicide. We must not forget this.

The antidote to harmful speech involves bringing compassion to speaking. With compassion, we tune into the truth of suffering (both our own and that of others) to relieve it. Limit your consumption of toxic thoughts or emotions via any medium or conversation. When feeling the impulse to speak or act out of anger, pause and continue the conversation later when you can speak with more clarity and respect.

Also, discern between being right and being effective. Being effective often requires skillfully sharing your concerns privately rather than in a group.

5. False speech

False speech can take the form of outright lying, misrepresenting another’s views, mischaracterizing a person or situation, exaggerating one’s efforts, etc.

We honor truthfulness. We avoid dishonesty, which includes being dishonest with ourselves. We seek out the most accurate version of the truth of any situation. When something is green, we say it is green and not purple.

We avoid exaggerating or embellishing. We don’t dramatize unnecessarily, making things sound better, worse, or more extreme than they actually are. If someone is a little irritated, we don’t say that they are furious. We endeavor to describe situations completely and accurately, even if they do not favor us.

We avoid speaking with a forked tongue. We don’t say one thing to one person and something else to another. We may frame the truth differently to help different listeners understand our meaning, but we must be clear about and loyal to the truth.

The antidote to false speech begins with honoring our word as whole and complete – as our integrity. We practice becoming aware of inaccuracies, unresolved items, and broken agreements, and are willing to clean up any impact to restore our word.

Think Before You Speak

Without intentional speaking,DOWNLOAD PDF

A Grounding Practice in a Fragmented World

About six years ago, I noticed a shift in my coaching practice. People were coming to their sessions more fragmented and with heavier loads. I also noticed that it took a little longer to get into each session.

Since then, two comments I often hear at the end of sessions have stuck with me:

  • I feel more grounded.
  • I feel lighter.

As a researcher, such trends and patterns have given me pause.

Being a Coach Today

Over the last two years, three events have rocked so many Americans: the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the George Floyd murder and protests, and the insurrection against the U.S. government.

Today, being a coach means understanding how such events impact us and our clients. Whether culturally, socially, productively, or personally, incidents such as these shake foundations, rattle emotions, disrupt lives, overwhelm the senses, and fragment attention.

Combined, these dynamics compete with accelerating technological and cultural change and complex modes of communication. Our general frazzled state involves exhaustion, feeling overwhelmed, and mental drain. This is what arrives at a coaching session.

Unlike in previous years, when I might have checked in on clients in pursuing their goals and getting into action, supporting clients in becoming grounded is now vital both during and beyond coaching sessions.

What is “Ground?”

Ground questions our view. What situation are you encountering? Who is arriving?

Who are you in your situation? Are you projecting, or are you reacting to or observing circumstances? Can you access your awareness in the moment, or later upon reflection?

We’ve developed an effective grounding practice that involves three phases:

  1. What’s so: Observe what’s happening in this situation.
  2. Intention: Create aspirations for direction.
  3. Motivation. Investigate what moves you.

I’ve developed each leg below with an inquiry for reflection.

1. What’s So: Observe What’s Happening in this Situation

The power of what’s so acknowledges situations and conditions as we find them. We distinguish facts (who, what, where, when, and why) from any interpretation.

Like the ladder of inference by learning theorist Chris Argyris, what’s so reveals our beliefs and assumptions. When distracted or “hooked” on an interpretation or assumption, we notice our thinking and bring ourselves back to discern what’s happening.

Developing What’s So

In more than 20 years of research and practice, I’ve discovered a version of what’s so in every wisdom tradition I’ve pored over.

Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung taught us that whatever we resist persists.

EST guru Werner Erhard developed a document that begins as follows:

“What’s so is always just what’s so. What’s so doesn’t care what you think, feel, intend or wish; it will not bend.”

Buddhist author and black and gay activist Lama Rod Owen offers the following insights:

“… if we want to change something, we must first begin to love it; what I am actually communicating is that we must accept the reality of something before we can begin to change it. …

This teaching can be hard to hear when we are being asked to accept forms of violence or harm happening to us or others. I tell activists often that if we want to change systems of violence and inequity, we must accept the reality of those systems. Again, accepting doesn’t mean celebrating or condoning; it only means that we allow the reality to be present so we can see it … We cannot walk unless our feet are on the ground.”

What’s so trains our observer in objective examination. There are two points here:

  1. “Objective” means external or empirical circumstances or facts (not to be confused with a neutral or rational view).
  2. Developing skillful practice with empirical situations tests our ability to observe evidence. These skills then support the perception of subjective experiences that involve levels of interpretation to analyze emotions adequately.

Our ability to reproduce empirical situations accurately increases our awareness and discerning judgment, which develops our capacity to examine our experiential life.

Applying What’s So

As a coach, applying what’s so is fundamental to support grounding.

Consider the following scenario:

A client arrives at a session upset.

I ask, “What happened?”

“They just don’t respect me.”

“who doesn’t respect you?”

“My colleague and his boss.”

“How do you know this?” 

“I got an email that has messed up my entire weekend. I am so frustrated.”

“What did it say?”

“It was so disrespectful.”

“I see. Can we review the email together?”

“Sure, I’ll pull it out.”

“Okay, let’s review it.”

I’ve seen different versions of this scenario all too often. We read the email together, and with each sentence, the client begins to calm down.

“Oh, I didn’t see that. I stopped reading after a couple of sentences about working this weekend.”

“What do you see now?”

“Well, I see I have some wiggle room here. I can negotiate some of this and not have it spill into my weekend.”

Sometimes it involves rereading an email or getting the client to lay out the details of an incident. Other times, it involves the client reproducing both sides of a conversation.

At the end of the exercise – even if the situation hasn’t changed – grounding in “what happened” produces calm and can even allow for a different perspective.

As the Dalai Lama said, “The suffering and happiness each of us experiences [reflects] the distortion or clarity with which we view ourselves and the world.”

The point of “what’s so” is to refine our observer. We see things as they are — what is happening now as a matter of observed reality.

What’s so is fundamental to being grounded. The ability to see and say what happened penetrates our fog to achieve clarity. Stay with this practice to embody it asDOWNLOAD PDF

Generative Communication: A Model for Generating Commitment, part 2

Developing a generative mindset involves a shift in being. We expand our awareness and open up possibilities for creating new contexts. We transform our relationship to language from being describers of some objective-knowable world to being designers of reality. Beyond new content and style, we realize the power of perception to alter contexts.

In my last blog post, I examined this mindset, the source of generativity with a set of principles, and the language of action.

This blog begins with language – specifically, speech acts. I then offer a model for generative communication to cultivate generative conversations.

The Power of Intention

A leader generates a credible interpretation of the present, declares the possibility of a different future, and is able to generate trust in others.
Without language, these actions could not be performed.
– Fernando Flores

Here, Flores illustrates the power of intentional speaking and the role it plays in humans becoming co-creators.

In linguistics, a speech act is an utterance defined in terms of a speaker’s intention and the effect it has on the listener. The resulting speech act theory (language-action paradigm or the pragmatics of language) reveals practical ways to improve coordination and effective action via tools such as speech acts (see the GRID in the previous blog).

Flores’ work details “conversations for action” that increase performance, enhance trust, and deepen relatedness. With increased awareness, we become present to qualities of actions, which, when spoken with intention, transform our listening into action.

Speech Acts in Daily Life

In his 2013 book, Conversations For Action and Collected Essays: Instilling a Culture of Commitment in Working Relationships, Flores develops six commonly used speech acts that we listen for and work with:

  1. Assertions acknowledge what’s true or false. We provide evidence for a shared, reliable, and observable basis for our interpretation to take action.
  2. Assessments acknowledge what’s valid or invalid. Preparation for action involves discerning evidence that frames interpretations of and attitudes toward action.
  3. Declarations create a context for coordinating action. A new context for action fulfills the concerns of a community that listens to the declaration and registers it effectively.
  4. Requests bring forth a future. With a commitment to action on the part of the listener, the speaker expects that a concern will be addressed.
  5. Promises fulfill future actions. With a commitment to action on the part of the speaker, the listener expects that a concern will be addressed.
  6. Offers involve explicit or implicit requests to fulfill promises, with a commitment to a new future action on the part of both parties.

Consider how speech acts show up in our personal and professional lives, and the ecosystem of language (map below).

EXAMPLE 1: A client requests a product. We assert that we have it in stock and promise to deliver it at a specific time to the client’s office. When the client receives it, she declares dissatisfaction with the product and assesses that it does not meet her expectations.

EXAMPLE 2: Your daughter requests permission to borrow the car to attend a party. She asserts that the party is at a specific place, promises to return at a specific time, and offers to fill up the gas tank. We grant her request, and she declares her gratitude.

Click to Enlarge

Generative Communications: A Pathway to Commitment

Generative communication reveals a paradigm shift. The power of our word creates a world that doesn’t yet exist. This involves embracing our humanity:

  • With the quality of our intention (grounded commitment) and attention (spacious listening) from a depth of responsibility (authentic disclosure).
  • We relate to our word (speaking) with integrity (the whole) to create future action (coordination) and the willingness to be accountable (complete) for conditions of satisfaction (possibility).

In generative conversations, we become more, as detailed here by Theory U scholars at the Presencing Institute:

Generative conversations … generate shared meaning and lead to action. They involve an authentic exchange of sharing and inquiry, leading to the emergence of new knowledge or understanding that could not have been created individually.

To recap, generativity means giving birth to something that emerges from a conversation. You feel more connected, understood, seen, heard, and experienced. You’ve been recreated beyond any label or concept – acknowledged as a legitimate being. That is generative communication.

If you feel disconnected, isolated, or stuck after a conversation, then you’re not in the realm of generativity.

Five Pathways for Generative Communications

In a generative communication model, our capacity for reflective awareness, humility, and openness enables us to rest in the undivided flow of life. Beyond communication as transactional, informative, or performative, language becomes a medium of creation through which to evoke possibility and cultivate emergence in a transformative realization.

The following five pathways develop the underlying commitment necessary for generative communications:

1 – Cultivating Reflective Awareness

More than self-reflection, a reflective mindset arises from relaxed awareness to be intentional rather than reactive. Being reflective involves:

  1. Developing spaciousness for relaxed awareness to navigate the tension between confusion and clarity.
  2. Discerning distractions that enable habitual reflexivity to constrain a deeper understanding.
  3. Appreciating the unlearning/letting go dynamic to develop grounding.

2 – Acknowledging Responsibility

We embrace a level of responsibility for our intentions and reactions, and for the power of our word to co-create our world. Acknowledging responsibility involves:

  1. Embracing your intentions, speaking and listening, and claiming your past, present, and future, thus shaping your thoughts, feelings, responses, and results.
  2. Recognizing and dissolving defensive, avoidance, and survival strategies that constrain action.
  3. Strengthening integrity to produce authentic agreements.

3 – Embracing Complexity


Generative Communication: The Power to Connect and Create, part 1

Language is the house of being. This phrase by philosopher Martin Heidegger reveals a dimension of being human that connects, coordinates, and creates.

Mastering language involves more than words and terms. Language is our primary system.

  • With awareness, we weave thought and meaning to bridge the mind and existence.
  • With practice, we discern our reactivity and develop the capacity for reflectivity.
  • With language, we wield the power of interpretation to generate meaning-making.

This manifests the possibility of generative communication.

This blog post examines layers of generative communication: the paradigm or mindset, the source of generativity, a set of principles, and the language of action. In the next post, I’ll examine language – specifically, a model of generative conversations.

The Mindset: Attitude for Action

Generative communication unlocks the context of being human in language. This intentional and interactive process generates a mutual commitment and shared meaning to co-create. We become more, as detailed here by Theory U scholars at the Presencing Institute:

Generative conversations … generate shared meaning and lead to action. They involve an authentic exchange of sharing and inquiry, leading to the emergence of new knowledge or understanding that could not have been created individually.

This shift in mindset – our awareness and attitude – is not of style; rather, it alters context. We transform our relationship to language from being describers of some objective-knowable world to being designers and authors of reality.

Language becomes generative when:

  • Communication opens minds to bring something new into existence or prompts action that changes a situation.
  • We accept responsibility for our intentions, speaking and listening, and claim our past, present, and possibility to shape our thoughts, feelings, responses, and results.

Emerging from fields of study such as cognitive studies, linguistics, the philosophy of language, and neural linguistic programming, generative communications reveal properties in language that access human faculties to unlock creation (being) and action (being-doing).

The Source: Spaciousness of Creativity

Generativity unlocks a paradigm to access the “‘poetic power of language’ to bring forth distinctions from the undivided flow of life,” as stated by scholar Peter Senge, author of The Fifth Discipline.

Consider the word “generativity.” Notice its similarities to genesis, gene, genome, genetic, generation, and generous. All these words come from the root gen (“to beget, birth, produce”), the source of things, a context of origination from spaciousness without any frame of reference.

Generativity taps into our boundless humanity – an unlimited supply of truth (wholeness) and freedom (spaciousness) that shapes our authentic being (possibility) for consensual coordination (intention-action).

In his paper Biology of Love, systems theorist and biologist Humberto Maturana credits linguistic coordination as essential to our self-generating and self-maintaining structures:

Language is a manner of living together in recursive consensual coordinations of … behaviors and must have arisen in the spontaneous coordinations of behavior that takes place when living together; sharing space and food in intimacy occurs.

We humans are not only languaging animals, but we exist in languaging, and we disappear as humans if language disappears. … our psychic existence includes the relational dimensions of our languaging being.

I am still moved by a note sent to me by my mentor more than 20 years ago, as I struggled to discover my grounding with this generative view of language. The note said:

“Technically, ‘context’ is the generative mindset. Here generate includes but means more than ‘create.’ It is mistakenly referenced as creative, like the ‘to do’ part of create. But it is the ‘to be’ aspect of creation, as in ‘to be’ the source of that which is created. You could say that it is the source of the meaning of what is created, but that, too, is limiting. It is more like the source of the DNA or the source of the space for creation, or the ‘to be’ of the creation. It is where the Bodhi’s power dwells.”

Each of us finds our own way to truth and freedom to access “to be” as the source of that which is created. This is possible by unlocking the generative power of language.

The Power: Seeing and Being

When distinguished and spoken intentionally, generativity offers clarity, captures attention, and opens up possibilities that generate meaningful conversations.

Through distinctions in language, we discover a radically different way of seeing and being.

The ingenious map below (and here) developed by Nathan Shedroff reveals how distinctions in language generate a network of agreements and commitments.

For instance, what if we viewed organizations as networks of agreements? The power of our agreements determines our capacity to coordinate action, which is required to successfully serve clients, create new products, and initiate change.

With awareness and practice, we discover creative human faculties that transform our perceptions and understanding. We shift from using language as a tool used to mechanically transfer knowledge and information that describes a world that already exists (a representative view), to a way of being that generates meaning-making as action that creates a world that would not otherwise exist (a generative view).

Click Image to view High-Quality Image.

Beyond performative branding or motto-making, the power of generativity involves the authentic source of our being. From that space, we architect reality, design worlds, and author existence – not as forced objects or a contrived will, but as flowing from being a deep commitment.

Generativity means giving birth to something, and that something emerges from this conversation. You feel connected, more understood, seen, heard, and experienced. You’ve been recreated beyond any label or concept – acknowledged as a legitimate being. That is generative communication.

If, after a conversation, you feel disconnected, isolated, or stuck, then you’re not in the realm of generativity.

The Principles: Foundation for Practice

Researchers at Theory U revealed, “we’ve only scratched the surface of this area. Supporting theDOWNLOAD PDF

The Community Nature of the Self

Adapted from Peter Senge, “Communities of Commitment”

Nothing happens without personal transformation; and the only safe space to allow for this “transformation of the self” is in a learning community.

                                          — J. Edwards Deming

When somebody asks us to talk about ourselves, we talk about family, work, school, sports– all about our affiliations.  In all this talk where is the ‘self’?  The answer is ‘nowhere.’ Consider this: the self is not a ‘thing’, but a point of view that unifies the flow of experience into coherency.

In our culture, the self is a “myself” isolated from other selves.  You turn the self into a thing when you allow personality traits and behaviors to become identified as your ego and reified as yourself.  In this process a primary value is assigned to the ego and a secondary value to community.

When we reify the self, we set ourselves up as objects for use.  We then treat encounters with others as transactions that can add or subtract to the possessions of the ego.  In this process we treat community as nothing more than a network of contractual commitments for symbolic and economic exchanges.  Community is much more than that.  Community supports certain ways of being and constrains others.  Community as context ultimately determines what it is to be a person.

Constitution of the self can only happen in community.  As we remember together that the self is never a thing, and is always being transformed, we create an opening in which others appear as legitimate beings.  Only then can we engage with one another in particular interactions that can open new possibilities for our being.  Said another way by a Native American Elder:

Community.  Somewhere there are people to whom we can speak with passion without having the words catch in our throats.  Somewhere a circle of hands will open to receive us, eyes will light up as we enter, voices will celebrate with us whenever we come into our own power.  Community means strength to join, strength to do the work that needs to be done.—Starhawk

Link back to the blog: Becoming the Heart of a Learning Culture, part 1

Transparent Cultures require Commitment

Over the last few months, several of our clients have shared their ideas about transparency. As the term evolves to become a strategic imperative, it’s important to identify the practices, benefits, and limitations involved in transparency.

Transparency, which involves openness, communication, and accountability, is practiced in companies, organizations, administrations, and communities.

Practicing transparency can enrich or disrupt organizational life.

  1. As a value, transparency typically involves increased accountability leading to enhanced visibility.
  2. As a mindset, transparency implies openness via communication and accountability from the willingness to share the necessary information to collaborate.
  3. As a culture, transparency begins with a commitment to cultivating trust from a lack of hidden agendas or conditions. It involves greater visibility from a willingness to disclose complete information, thus encouraging collaboration, cooperation, and collective decision-making.

Commitment to Transparency

Transparency in business involves being open, truthful, and straightforward about various company operations. Often missed in transparency literature is the commitment needed to develop this culture.

Commitment relies on practices and agreements instead of secrets, power, and manipulation.

Transparent leaders and organizations embody agreements and practices to become more open with their customers, clients, and employees. These cultures share information related to performance, business and unit budgets, revenue, internal processes, sourcing, pricing, and business values.

A study published in the Journal of Business Ethics tested the consumer/corporation relationship between transparency, social responsibility, trust, general attitude, and purchase intent.

According to the researchers, a company’s transparency and social responsibility affects consumers’ general attitude toward and trust in the corporation. Competence, reliability, and integrity are identified as vital components of this trust (detailed in a previous blog).

A study on operational transparency supports these results. Customers are more satisfied and less impatient about wait times if they understand the process behind fulfilling their request.

Practices to Embody Transparency

Full transparency about every part of a business isn’t necessary. However, we can embody practices that focus on what matters most to consumers, clients, and employees.

1- Open and honest communication cultivates trust.

Pride and secrecy may be two of the main impediments that undermine commitment to a culture of transparency.

Openness cultivates a culture of trust and integrity that encourages free-flowing information (#2 and #3 below) and feedback (#5 below).

Honesty means acknowledging mistakes and demonstrating accountability. When something goes wrong, or a mistake is made, transparent companies do not default to hiding it. Instead, they surface issues and own up to mistakes.

2- Disclosing information leads to loyal customers.

According to GE Capital Retail Bank, 81% of retail shoppers conduct online research before making a purchase. Disclosing complete information and updating accurate information ensures consistency in pricing, policies, and practices, and it also avoids surprises.

If a customer incurs hidden fees or discovers discrepancies in return policies either on the company’s website or in another agreement, trust suffers.

3- Open-book financials boost employee morale.

Most secrecy and distrust seem connected to financials. Commitment to sharing financial management and information with employees helps employees to not only do their jobs effectively but also understand how they contribute to the company’s goals.

John Case (1989) and John Stack (1983) advocated for the concept of open-book management, concluding that companies perform better when people see themselves as partners in the business rather than hired hands.

An extension of this “open-book” concept involves sharing wage and salary information for colleagues, as was recently implemented by the city of New York. Such policies ensure equity, assure competitive salary ranges, and can save companies from possible bias or discrimination, even if unwittingly.

4- Communicating changes fosters trust and inclusion.

Uncertainty about an unclear process, vague direction, or rapid change can make customers and employees feel powerless.

To reduce uncertainty, show or tell customers what’s happening during wait times. Inform and update callers during calls, use codes to track packages, and send confirmation messages to provide updates can reduce customer confusion. Online businesses can create a status page or use social media accounts to inform customers of technical issues, scheduled updates, website downtimes, etc.

Transparent leaders and managers ensure that employees understand changes and clarify direction. They discuss and explore changes to minimize impact. They clarify the level of responsibility and authority in the organization. They include people who are affected by decisions in the decision-making.

5- Encouraging feedback drives performance.

Feedback, both positive and negative, drives innovation and growth. Still, some companies have issues accepting negative feedback and even fight it.

If customers or employees speak up about issues or offer compliments, the transparent approach is to listen, respond, and capture details and patterns.

Feedback is free R&D. How much might you pay consultants for the same data? Feedback can prevent missteps, offer course corrections, reveal necessary processes or structures, or identify blind spots.

Too Much Transparency?

Practicing transparency brings facts to the surface. Out of context, however, facts do not reveal why something happened. Instead of figuring out why a mistake was made, we only know what the mistake was — and who made it.

Too much transparency may also be counterproductive in several significant ways. Without context, we can focus too much on the “what” and not enough on the “why.”

Stifling Creativity

WHAT: Increased transparency begets increased visibility. Employees who feel like they are in the spotlight may become overly cautious and hesitant to innovate for fear of messing up. This stifles creativity.

WHY: Resolving the fear of messing up involves communicating that learning — not creating the perfect idea — is the goal.

Slow Decision-Making

WHAT: Having too many people with tooDOWNLOAD PDF

Contemplative Learning to Access Innate Wisdom

Developing leaders, integrating cultural change, and adopting new views and understanding require “contemplative learning.” This kind of learning ventures beyond accumulating knowledge to confirm beliefs. Contemplative learning deepens vertical growth by increasing awareness and surfacing assumptions and blind spots, which allows us to unlearn outmoded beliefs.

“Unlearning” can be disorienting. It involves a blend of openness, compassion, and discipline to relax our identity and question our belief system.

Here, I borrow three Tibetan concepts and practices —1) the Three Defects of the Pot, 2) the Three Prajnas, and 3) the Four Reliances—to open our minds to the cycle of learning and access our innate wisdom.

The Three Defects of the Pot: Develop Listening

The Three Defects of the Pot explores who we are as listeners. Listening is fundamental to contemplative learning.

Nineteenth-century scholar and monk Patrul Rinpoche democratized the sacred text The Way of the Bodhisattva—previously studied by only monks—by bringing it to his countrymen. A masterful teacher, Rinpoche used the analogy of a pot to describe three defects that can impede our understanding when we receive teachings.

An Upside-Down Pot

An upside-down pot identifies listening that is not present or easily distracted. The listener may be a multitasker or have a wandering mind. Water poured onto an upside-down pot runs over.

If this is your pot, learn to ground yourself and focus your attention. Create a goal to extend your focused time from 10 or 15 minutes to longer. Turn off your social media notifications and put your smartphone away altogether while doing this. Log your efforts to grow this muscle over time.

A Hole in the Pot

This listener is like a pot with a leak. No matter how much liquid is poured into it, nothing stays. We become inattentive to meaning with a lack of recollection or memory. Here, our ability to retain knowledge is compromised by a lack of practice to internalize what has been taught.

To repair a leaky pot, create practices and structures (notes, recorders, and reminders) that capture information in a reliable way and study them. Reflect often on your learning and ways to bring new knowledge into your life. Discussing such material with someone can engage different parts of your brain (hearing, speaking, writing, etc.).

Poisons in the Pot

If you listen to teachings with the wrong attitude, biases, an agenda such as becoming famous, or an attachment to knowledge or beliefs, those lessons will be like nectar poured into a pot that contains poison.

Adopt an attitude of humility or possibility that acknowledges a beginner’s mind, and establish an intention that includes being surprised. Meditate with self-compassion on any attitudes, motivations, or preconceptions that may impede your learning.

The Three Defects of the Pot reveal the vital relationship between listening and learning—a relationship that is underexamined and misunderstood. When appreciated, listening becomes our access to cultivate wisdom.

The Three Prajnas: Deepen Knowledge

Wisdom means deeply knowing or understanding the truth. Cultivating wisdom involves increasing awareness to use our intellect and experience to absorb knowledge. Prajna, or wisdom, is the product of increased awareness.

  • “Stabilizing awareness” through hearing.
  • “Reflective awareness” through contemplating.
  • “Realizing awareness” through meditation.

This continuous learning cycle, focusing on any one area, supports the entire cycle. And it all begins with listening.

The Prajna of Hearing

The Tibetan word “thöpa” means “to hear”—as in, to hear intellectual studies. Hearing means using all your senses, not just your ears. This first “stage of listening or studying” engages the conceptual mind to develop a slice of understanding as recognition.

Access to this wisdom: hearing activates our intellect to grasp knowledge. 

Hearing invites exploring new terminology and concepts by reading, studying, discussing, observing, and listening. At first, this may seem like a blur of thoughts, feelings, and sensations all running together.

“Hearing” is akin to recognizing a specific food’s appearance, sound, smell, touch, and taste; our metabolic system ignites, and we learn to recognize it.

In this stage, our awareness never loses track of itself. We experience a stabilized awareness to recognize knowledge.

The Prajna of Contemplating

The second wisdom principle is contemplating. In Tibetan, “sampa” means “to think about” or “having thought of.” You reflect on what you’ve heard, studied, and what you’ve been taught to churn your recognition into understanding.

Access to this wisdom: contemplating our experience deepens our knowledge. 

Contemplating involves questioning teachings and knowledge via discussions, journaling, and application to stimulate the intellect and bridge the worlds of lived experience. As philosopher and scholar John Dewey noted, “We do not learn from experience. We learn from reflecting on experience.”

Through shopping and cooking, we experience the world of food. We appreciate the impact of nutritional value, calories, seasonality, variety, texture, spiciness, and energy on our bodies.

Internalizing knowledge expands our intellectual understanding to become part of our being rather than reduced to our brain or books. We experience reflective awareness to apply knowledge.

The Prajna of Meditation

The third wisdom principle, “gompa,” means “meditating” or taking something into your heart completely as a thorough involvement that goes beyond conceptual understanding or knowledge.

Access to this wisdom: meditating on our experience of knowledge opens us to realization and clarity. 

With increased awareness, we embody our experiences beyond our maps or preconceived notions. From the intellect to the heart, knowledge gives way to flashes of insight and realization, integrating it with different experiences to habituate a way of being.

We metabolize our food, digesting it to connect and embody taste and energy as we navigate the world.

The third stage of awareness develops a spaciousness that we bring to life. We experience a resting awareness to embody knowledge.

The Cycle of Learning and Wisdom 

This learning cycle reduces suffering by releasing one’s expectations to know and understand everything. It allows us to be where we are. There are two essentialDOWNLOAD PDF

Completing Your Year: Remember, Forget, Recover

As we enter the new year, we’ve likely made a resolution that we may have already broken or forgotten. At some point, we’ve all celebrated this annual resolution ritual.

A 2007 study by Richard Wiseman from the University of Bristol with 3,000 people showed that 88% of those who set New Year resolutions failed, even though 52% of the participants were initially confident of succeeding.

What if this well-worn resolution ritual itself is incomplete?

As I see it, we start each year clean, distinct from the previous year. We reduce the previous year’s experiences to objects of improvement to best, such as losing weight, gaining income, or going through a positive life change.

Instead of continuing the resolution ritual, this blog proposes engaging another practice: completing your year.

Why This Practice?

The practice of completing your year is based on the practice we use with our clients called Completing Your Day.” This practice succeeds because it surfaces experiences that we might otherwise forget, and it allows us to be complete.

The distinction of being complete is significant.

Consider the proposition that we spend a large portion of our lives doing what we are incomplete about. In other words, until we are complete, we do the same things over and over again in an attempt to get somewhere—to be satisfied, whole, and at peace.

Endings and Beginnings

The value in “completing our day,” allows us to honor the endings that create the space for beginnings.

Honoring endings involves reviewing our day for accomplishmentsdisappointments, and unresolved items. Rather than dragging these items into our next day as part of our subconscious—which can wear us down—we surface them.

Making items conscious helps us to acknowledge our accomplishments, choose how to complete disappointments, and take action on unresolved items.

What most impedes being complete are the concerns we carry in our minds, the way we hold these concerns in our bodies, and the way we ruminate on them.

To be complete is possible at any moment. We can release any concern from our mind by either 1) declaring it complete and letting it go, 2) scheduling it to be handled later, or 3) scheduling a conversation to discuss it with those who matter.

If this practice supports us from day to day, how might it support us from year to year?

Remembering and Forgetting Well

This is worth stating explicitly. The practice of being complete and the state of mind it cultivates support us in “remembering” who we are.

Remembering well—presencing, witnessing, honoring, and acknowledging—has become a lost art. The speed of our existence has numbed us to our life. The dead don’t tend to remember.

Yet, our capacity to remember depends on our ability to forget.

When we remember well, we can forget well.

  • Remembering well lives beyond our memory. It cultivates presence and perspective. We become present to our life—who we’ve been, and who we are becoming.
  • Forgetting well lives beyond our inattentive idleness. We create practices to consciously release items, resolve items, and honor change.

The ability to forget well allows the spaciousness to remember well.

This possibility and practice exist beyond our “memory” (remembering) and “idleness” (forgetting). They involve being grounded in “presencing and experiencing” our humanity.

The possibility of remembering our journey—both its hills and its valleys—can make us pause as we reflect on how we’ve evolved over a year. When we forget about such changes, we discount and diminish our efforts and dismiss our growth.

We carelessly forget who we’ve been and how far we’ve come, and we do not allow for the possibility of “satisfaction.”

Satisfaction Stops Our “Wanting” Cycle

In Latin, “satisfaction” means “enough action” (satis + action). When we witness our journey, we can presence and experience satisfaction. We can be complete.

Living life fully as human beings requires remembering and forgetting well to register satisfaction. Absent this cycle, we fall into a wanting cycle, where we desire more without realizing what we already have or have accomplished.

Expanding our capacity to remember and forget well engenders satisfaction. Satisfaction finds us full and abundant and allows us to move on.

Satisfaction is our natural human boundary. It is our way of stopping, noticing, and being full. We satiate ourselves, experience fulfillment, and presence existence. Gratitude emerges.

Reviewing the year and leaving it behind allows us to presence our experience and experience our presence.

Let’s Practice.

The practice of Completing Your Year involves three phases: rememberingforgetting, and recovering.

Set aside 15–20 minutes a day for six or seven days to establish a ritual. Remember, this is to complete your entire year.

Spreading out this practice over a few days is important. We are not cramming for an exam; we are opening an inquiry.

Walking with our inquiry will evoke awareness and experiences. Accomplishments, changes, progress, disappointments, and unresolved items will begin to appear. When this happens, you will open your mind and heart.

Remembering Well

Remembering well involves contemplating and investigating. We gain perspective, deepen our awareness, recognize discoveries, and become present to who we’ve been and who we’ve become.

Begin contemplating your past year with a short meditation session in which you reflect on your accomplishments, disappointments, and unresolved items.

After meditating, journal any items that came to you. Organize these into accomplishments, disappointments, and unresolved items.

To deepen your remembering, investigate your year.

Begin by reviewing your calendar, schedule, or other markers of the year, such as bank accounts (spending patterns), photo albums, or social media posts.

As you scan these markers, examine where you spent time, energy, or finances. Remember who you were, your thoughts, attitude, even your inner critic. Notice what mattered to you then, and what matters now.

Visiting the gym; taking a class in cooking, yoga, improv acting, a foreign language, or a favorite subject; presenting a topic at a conference or at work; visiting family and friends; ignoring a friend who supported you; being self-critical about a situation; getting regular exams (physical, eye, dental, etc.); or opening and funding a savings account.

When adding items to these lists, remember who you were—your thoughts, feelings, energy, and experience.

Forgetting Well

Forgetting well involves intentionally clearing our mind. This is different from “forgetting”DOWNLOAD PDF

The Possibility of Being Ordinary

I am ordinary, average. Or maybe I should say that I fear I am average—not unique, not extraordinary. Just ordinary.

In Western society, the pressure to be more than ordinary is pervasive and constant. Everyone wants to be recognized as special.

Honoring the Ordinary

Yet, this past week in the U.S., we honored 20 years since 9/11 and marked 18 months of living with the pandemic. We honored the ordinary: people showing up to work, saving lives, caring for others, and even giving their own lives.

Honoring the ordinary requires a “special” appreciation.

Twenty years ago, in New York City, firefighters and police officers rushed into burning buildings to rescue others. The Red Cross coordinated life-saving efforts. Volunteers worked for six months to clean up Ground Zero.

More recently, nurses, physicians, technicians, grocery clerks, packers, and drivers worked to ensure our nation’s health. Ordinary people from ordinary towns, and in ordinary ways, served and worked, adding extra hours to shifts to ensure that food, supplies, medicines, and masks were delivered.

This inexhaustible human compassion, while ordinary, is often overlooked and underappreciated.

The “Extraordinary” Trap

What if the obsession with striving for extraordinary produces its own trap?

When being extraordinary overrides being human, we find “self-help” gurus and programs for “transformation,” books that emphasize “the self,” and commercials and professions that push extraordinary results. Even the coaching field leans into this puffed-up, performative perception that celebrates “extraordinary.”

We strive to best other humans in some extraordinary way rather than being fully human in a most ordinary way.

The media doesn’t help; it celebrates this extreme version of extraordinary. Manmade spaceships prompting “space tourism” are hyped as remarkable, exceptional, amazing, astonishing, astounding, sensational, stunning, incredible, unbelievable, and phenomenal.

Who wouldn’t crave these qualities? We seek this elusive feeling while our planet burns, floods ravage our communities, and more species become extinct.

This trap leads to a dead end.

We strive to best other humans in some extraordinary way rather than being fully human in a most ordinary way.

This pursuit of being “extraordinary” leaves us exhausted and empty, feeling inferior and insufficient, striving for abundance that encourages scarcity.

Abundance: More or Enough?

We accept scarcity as the state of being in short supply, as lacking, or insufficient. We define its opposite—abundance—as existing in large quantities or plentiful, ample, lavish, and generous.

These concepts define our problem. Ironically, this plentiful notion of abundance, when internalized, finds us lacking. Rather than proclaim sufficiency, this view provokes wants—the need to seek more, to be extraordinary. Being sufficient or ordinary just won’t do.

What if we reframe abundant as enough to scarcity’s not enough? Framing abundance as “enough” aligns with our notion of satisfaction. In Latin, satisfaction means “enough” action.

“Enough” may be the critical discovery for being fully human.

Such a framework appreciates a paradox: being boundless depends on dissatisfaction, yet setting limits leads to satisfaction. We acknowledge the value of enough action rather than celebrate endless action.

Think about this: Have you ever heard a CEO declare enough profit, enough work, enough stress, enough productivity, or enough resources? Sacrilege!

In all facets of life, boundaries exist to satisfy. With enough sleep, I feel rested. With enough exercise, I gain energy. With enough food, I feel satiated. To satiate, the root of satisfy, is to gratify—to be grateful for enough. Overdoing these activities makes me feel drained, bloated, exhausted, or depleted.

“Enough” may be the critical discovery for being fully human.

10% More Self-Aware

What if Americans became just 10% more self-aware, more grateful? We’d consume far less. We’d be less susceptible to ads, fear, and FOMO. We’d find out that contentment is much closer to us than the check-out line. We’d become immune to the market’s messaging of want and greed.

Increasing our self-awareness by just 10% would undermine a consumption-based economy that relies on our dissatisfaction for 70% of its growth.

Being extraordinary is not only big business; it also fuels big business. It is the ideal “identity” for spurring dissatisfaction: becoming special by consuming more and bigger. No one wants to seem irrelevant, small, or trivial.

In his bi-weekly Atlantic column on meaning and happinessArthur Brooks stresses, “[A]s society gets richer, people chase the wrong things.” He questions, “Are We Trading Our Happiness for Modern Comforts?”

Brooks quotes Swedish business professor Carl Cederström, who argues in his book The Happiness Fantasy, that:

… corporations and advertisers have promised satisfaction, but have led people instead into a rat race of joyless production and consumption. Though the material comforts of life in the U.S. have increased for many of its citizens, those things don’t give life meaning.

A recent survey by Credit Karma found that the pandemic may have interrupted and thus affected Americans’ compulsive consumerism.

FOMO-related spending is now viewed as less essential. Almost half (44%) of the respondents felt “less pressure to spend money to keep up with appearances.” The top five reexamined areas were dining out (47%), going to a movie theater (37%), live music or entertainment (28%), gym memberships (27%), and clothing (26%).

The “Extraordinary” Identity

So then, being extraordinary becomes the overachieving identity.

We lead highly credentialed lives that find us overwhelmed, develop bodies that require chemicals to sustain, increase working hours that create resentment, engage multiple media platforms to fragment attention and increase FOMO, and acquire large McMansions that exploit the planet’s resources.

Our fixation on extraordinary success schedules our children’s lives from age 2 to 24 with pre-pre-school, playdates, extracurricular activities, prep-testing, and testing so that they can seize select colleges, accumulate college debt, and lock in high-pressure jobs to continue the cycle.

The elegy of the Mexican Fisherman and the Harvard MBA offers an apt, even humorous, view of striving to seek out what we already possess.

This identity, while useful for consumption, has proven to be a trap in achieving satisfaction.

In my more than 20 years of working with an array of professionals, two trends have persisted. With all our advancements, people have become 1) more frenzied, frazzled and feeing behind while 2) being less available, satisfied, and content.

Something is brokenDOWNLOAD PDF

Mexican Fisherman Meets Harvard MBA

This parable, by an unknown author, reveals our view and expectations of life, living, success, and satisfaction. The story has influenced countless people to the “be more with less” movement. Let this story be an inspiration to slow down, reassess, and get real about how you really want to live life.

Mexican Fisherman Meets Harvard MBA 

An American businessman was at the pier of a small coastal Mexican village when a small boat with just one fisherman docked. Inside the small boat were several large yellowfin tuna.

The businessman complimented the Mexican on the quality of his fish and asked how long it took to catch them. The Mexican replied only a little while.

The businessman then asked why he didn’t stay out longer and catch more fish? The Mexican said he had enough to support his family’s immediate needs.

The businessman then asked, but what do you do with the rest of your time? The Mexican fisherman said, “I sleep late, fish a little, play with my children, take a siesta with my wife, Maria, stroll into the village each evening where I sip wine and play guitar with my amigos; I have a full and busy life, señor.”

The businessman scoffed, “I am a Harvard MBA and I could help you. You should spend more time fishing and with the proceeds buy a bigger boat. With the proceeds from the bigger boat, you could buy several boats; eventually, you would have a fleet of fishing boats. Instead of selling your catch to a middleman, you would sell directly to the processor and eventually open your own cannery. You would control the product, processing, and distribution. You would need to leave this small coastal fishing village and move to Mexico City, then LA, and eventually New York City where you would run your expanding enterprise.”

The Mexican fisherman asked, “But señor, how long will this all take?” To which the businessman replied, “15-20 years.”

“But what then, señor?” The businessman laughed and said, “That’s the best part! When the time is right you would announce an IPO and sell your company stock to the public and become very rich. You would make millions.”

“Millions, señor? Then what?” The businessman said, “Then you would retire. Move to a small coastal fishing village where you would sleep late, fish a little, play with your kids, take a siesta with your wife, stroll to the village in the evenings where you could sip wine and play your guitar with your amigos.”

The fisherman, still smiling, looked up and said, “Isn’t that what I’m doing right now?”

Link back to the blog: The Possibility of Being Ordinary

The Paradox of Conscious Leadership

Now emerging as a term, conscious leadership is distinct from other leadership models, mindsets, and trends. Thus far, the literature has focused on some competencies and skills that can be valuable.

And yet, conscious leadership is different. In short, a conscious leader is someone who leads from an interdependent awareness.

Emerging Trend or Expanded Consciousness?

Conscious leadership recognizes the nature of being as interdependent. Consider the human body, for example, as mutually dependent on the wind, sun, oceans, plants, and animals. Each offers us the vitamins and energy to breathe in and out of our cycle of life.

We largely remain unconscious of this interdependent experience of being. Yet, through our interactions in the world via our embodied interpretations, we give meaning to our existence, identity, and purpose.

More than additional competencies, greater effectiveness of skill, and a deeper understanding of emotional, spiritual, and systemic intelligence, conscious leadership involves a different consciousness of being.

Otto Scharmer of Theory U speaks of this as a transition from ego-systems to eco-systems.

A few thinkers—Fred Kofman, Peter Senge, Margaret Wheatley, Otto Scharmer, Ken Wilber, Barrett Brown, Robert Kegan, and Susanne Cook-Greuter, as well as the authors of 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership (Jim Dethmer, Diana Chapman, and Kaley Klemp)—offer new paradigms and learning to distinguish consciousness in leadership and business context.

This image was created for the paper “The Future of Leadership for Conscious Capitalism” by Barrett C. Brown. Click on the grid to download the paper.

Vertical Learning to Expand “Seeing” and “Being

In Conscious Business, Fred Kofman defines the term as “fostering peace and happiness in the individual, respect, and solidarity in the community, and mission accomplishment in the organization.” Through greater consciousness, defined as “aware, awake, and mindful,” we recognize who we are, what we do, how we do it, and the effects of our [inter]actions.

Expanding consciousness may be the most important distinction in conscious leadership. Unlike previous leadership models and mindsets:

conscious leaders embrace change with a capacity to evolve. They seek out blind spots to cultivate an interdependent awareness, integrate diverse perspectives, and employ varied competencies to serve multiple commitments.

Learning to expand consciousness reveals its inherent paradoxes: learning and unlearning to create spaciousness, and surfacing unconscious blind spots to make us more conscious.

The outcome is a shift beyond conventional learning designed to understand new knowledge or develop new competencies (lateral/horizontal learning) to vertical learning, which transforms awareness, perception, and the way we discern and interpret reality.

In sum, conscious leaders embrace vertical learning to cultivate “seeing” and “being,” which precede knowing and performing.

CLICK to ENLARGE. Previous leadership models produced results, created change, and developed cultures. Leadership is now an emerging concern to expand consciousness. This new evolution includes the previous models and mindsets and expands to include a new level of interdependent awareness into the experience of being. (© 2021 Bhavana Learning Group.)

Twelve Tensions That Evoke Awareness

What does it mean to expand consciousness? How can we evolve from ego-systems to eco-systems? The paradoxical nature of conscious leadership demands awareness of unlearning.

Instead of new knowledge or skills, I offer twelve tensions—paradoxes, polarities, and contradictions—that evoke awareness.

Navigating these tensions cultivates an interdependent awareness with specific qualities, competencies, or practices (bolded in each section). Combined, we can experience the emergence of a new vocabulary and pedagogical framework for being conscious leaders.

Tension 1: Resolve/Openness

This first tension navigates the heart (sensitivity), mind (curiosity), body (resilience), and will (courage).

Conscious leaders possess a steadfast curiosity to cultivate openness, particularly within their organizations—surfacing blind spots, encouraging power-sharing, embracing transparency, presencing compassion, and experimenting with ideas in a rigorous and resolute manner.

With moral fiber and the courage of their convictions, conscious leaders are resolute and can switch views and modes as required by the situation or context. They possess a paradoxical mixture of personal humility and professional will—a blend identified by Jim Collins in 2001 (Good to Great) with his concept of “Level 5 Leaders.

In his Theory U framework, Otto Scharmer explores a process to support this tension by suspending our reactive mind to experience sensing for presencing our heart, mind, and will.

Tension 2: Knowing/Learning

Confronted by changing norms, knowledge, ideas, perspectives, and backgrounds, conscious leaders venture into the unknown, which can be most disorienting. This uncertainty reveals a tension between “learning and knowing.”

Our fixation on “knowing” offers the refuge of “certainty” in the face of the unknown.

With the “openness” from Paradox 1, the shift from knowing (being right) to learning (being open) requires cultivating what Fred Kofman calls ontological humility. This means:

acknowledging that you do not have a special claim on reality or truth, and that others have equally valid perspectives deserving respect and consideration.

Developing mindfulness to remain in the present moment—allowing our mind-consciousness to relax and to stop worrying about the past or anticipating the future—to cultivate ontological humility.

Mindfulness dissolves fixations on “knowing” and “certainty” to question beliefs, surface projections, and examine pitfalls.

Tension 3: Exertion/Renewal

Conscious leaders tap into and exercise energy aligned with a higher purpose.

Greater awareness expands sensitivity, demanding greater balance. Creating space to calm and clear the mind, remove the noises and distractions that can drain us, discern nourishing consumption, and slow reactiveness via conscious breathing releases energy that supports our presence of mind and body.

Unlike other leadership models, conscious leadership honors somatic, neural, and mental energy and develops breathing and grounding practices to rejuvenate the sensing (intuitive), sensitive (heart), and rational (cognitive) self.

To regulate energy, conscious leaders practice compassion, which begins with self-compassion. More than a feeling or sentiment, compassion is an active desire to alleviate the suffering of its object, in the self or in others.

Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh views compassion as “the intention and capacity to relieve and transform suffering and lighten sorrows.”

Power Dynamics, Part 2: Worldviews and Practices

What do all men with power want? More power. — Oracle, Matrix Reloaded

Is power bad, or is the need for power problematic?

Power is a matter of perspective, whether sourced in responsibility, purpose, or choice, or force, control, and results. Our perspective depends on our conditioning within society’s views of power and, culturally, how we internalize those views.

Before we unpack these layers of power, recall that Part 1 of this blog defined the following six dimensions of power: Legitimate, Expert/information, Reward, Coercive, Referent, and Influencer.

We also developed four types of power: at the personal level, power to and power within; at the interpersonal level, power over and power with.

This blog examines power as “power over” or power hoarding. I approach this work inside of mutual learning: to better understand power and cultivate its best form. These three sections of this blog, examine power at the systemic level.

  • Section one explores powerlessness and power hoarding.
  • Section two distinguishes four worldviews that preserve power hoarding.
  • Section three develops four practice areas that cultivate power-sharing.

Each section supports a vertical pathway, developing a personal foundation to interact at the interpersonal level that cultivates power-sharing in organizational life.

SECTION 1: Understanding Powerlessness

I do not believe we can expand our notion of power authentically without understanding and examining powerlessness. This begins with unpacking the nature of fear, threat, and insecurity when we experience powerlessness in the face of change or ignorance. In doing so, we feel the need to exert control or abuse power to protect, defend, or achieve.

Defensive Fear: Losing Self

Fear typically comes from a perceived loss of control or loss of self. The most common fear we hold is a fear of the unknown, which may include unpredictability, uncertainty, or ambiguity.

We can explain fear by how we perceive threats. Research by Carol Dweck on growth and fixed mindsets and Chris Argyris on defensive reasoning reveal how experts and rational individuals find comfort in the control afforded by their knowledge and thus resist growing, changing, and learning.

Dweck found that children with fixed mindsets would cheat, lie, and give up just to preserve their “all-knowing” identity. Shifting to Dweck’s growth mindset is one solution, but it’s not easy. It takes time to surface and evolve fixed beliefs, assumptions, and expectations about life, success, change, and leadership.

Such a shift requires increased awareness of the underlying fear—complex attitudes that often present disorienting dilemmas and existential struggles.

Adult learning theorist Chris Argyris considers two dynamics that protect our self-image: defensive reasoning and the doom loop. Put simply, Argyris claims:

[P]eople consistently act inconsistently, unaware of the contradiction between their espoused theory and their theory-in-use, between the way they think they are acting and the way they really act. What is more, most theories-in-use rest on the same set of governing values.

These values serve to “avoid embarrassment or threat, feeling vulnerable or incompetent.”

“Rational” Fear of Change

Argyris describes the defensive reasoning that enables a doom loop as follows:

“There seems to be a universal human tendency to design one’s actions consistently according to four basic values:

1. To remain in unilateral control.

2. To maximize ‘winning’ and minimize ‘losing.’

3. To suppress negative feelings; and

4. To be as ‘rational’ as possible—by which people mean defining clear objectives and evaluating their behavior in terms of whether they have achieved them.

The purpose of these values is to avoid embarrassment from the threat of feeling vulnerable or incompetent. In this respect, the master program that most people use is profoundly defensive and can be overly rational.

Argyris suggests that the desire for high performance and aspirations for success cultivate a professional identity that avoids mistakes and fears failure. The professional identity preserves a “right to comfort” (to save face).

Without tolerance or resilience for “the feelings of failure or the skills to deal with those feelings,” professionals begin a doom loop of despair rather than experiencing or releasing theDOWNLOAD PDF

Power Dynamics, Part 1: Dimensions and Forms

Power may be one of the universal dimensions of the human experience. Analogous to energy in physics, power in humans can take several forms, such as wealth, armaments, influence, or knowledge.

To do just about anything — collaborate, lead, manage, co-create change, parent, learn, and even teach and coach (yes, teaching and coaching) — requires that we discern our relationship to power, then cultivate how to we wish to use it.

I begin this two-part blog on power by employing two broad definitions:

Power is the capacity to produce intended effects” by Bertrand Russell (1938); and

Power is “the probability that one actor … is in a position to carry out their will despite resistance” by sociologist Max Weber.

To expand on our understanding, Part 1 of this blog will explore the dimensions and forms of power, and Part 2 will explore the dynamics, cultural values, and practices that shift collective power.

Axioms of Power

Much has been written in Western philosophy and the social sciences on the use of power. These common axioms give power its negative connotations and often view power as “dominating” to win in a zero-sum game.

  1. Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely, stated by 19th-century British observer Lord Acton, reveals the corrupt nature of unchecked power.
  2. Dividing people into “us” and “them” forms an opposing faction to solidify one’s support.
  3. Divide and conquer picks off smaller factions of a larger group, leading to quicker defeat.
  4. Provide the followers with bread and circuses. The masses are less likely to challenge power if they are convinced that everyday life is most compelling.
  5. The enemy of my enemy is my friend. This notion leads to the observation that “politics make for strange bedfellows.”

Dimensions of Power

Since 1959, when social psychologists John R. P. French and Bertram Raven developed a framework for the study of power, scholars have explored up to eight dimensions of power. Here, I’ve condensed power to six distinct dimensions:

  1. Legitimate power: Position of authority; traditional roles that inhabit status.
  2. Expert/information power: Acquiring expertise, knowledge, and information that others need or want.
  3. Reward power: Offering incentives or reinforcement (praise or recognition).
  4. Coercive power: Exerting force, control, or punitive measures (opposite of reward power).
  5. Referent power: Gaining approval through loyalty, who you know, or critical networks.
  6. Influencer power: This can be of a few types, such as moral authority based on beliefs or values to emulate, or charismatic power based on attitudes or personal abilities to admire or inspire.

Most leaders and managers use more than one dimension to effect change. (See details in the grid of “Terms” below.)

Forms of Power

Power is often defined only in negative terms, as presented in the axioms above. This conflates power with force to dominate, but it can also be a positive force for individual and collective capacity to act for change.

We can view the application of power in four ways: two collective forms and two individual forms.

  • The two collective expressions are power over and power with.
  • The two individual forms are power to and power within.

Collective Context

Power in the collective context involves models and relationships that influence patterns and structures in groups, communities, and institutions.

1- Power Over

In its most common form, power over has many negative associations that involve repression, oppression, force, coercion, discrimination, corruption, and abuse. This form of power is seen as a zero-sum proposition—a win-lose kind of relationship.

This involves hoarding power—taking it from someone else, and then using it to dominate and prevent others from gaining it.

We experience this version of power over in politics; those who control resources and decision-making have power over those who don’t. When people are denied access to important resources like land, healthcare, and jobs, power over perpetuates inequality, injustice, and poverty.

Power over enjoys immediacy in producing effects. The biggest challenge with it is the need for “surveillance” to sustain the conditions of power. Whether those conditions include coercion, violence, wealth, or reward, this use of power dwindles as its conditions diminish.

2- Power With

An alternative to power over in the collective context is power with. This expression of power seeks common ground among different interests to create a shared understanding and shared commitment. Through communication and collaboration, much of this work develops collective strength and mutual support to build solidarity and collaboration, which leads to equity.

Power with requires cultivating collective capabilities—a notion that is often not fully understood in a developmental context. Here, new practices, such as attention to slow habitual reactions and cultivate patience, listening to develop an understanding of multiple perspectives, and intention to bridge, transform or reduce conflict to discover and promote equitable relations.

Individual Context

In the individual context, power cultivates and affirms people’s capacity to act creatively. It provides some basic principles for constructing empowering strategies that can also manifest in the collective context.

1- Power To.

Power to refers to “realizing” the unique potential and capacity of each person to shape his or her life and world. More a view than a skill, power to open the possibilities of joint action, mutual support, and creativity that can cultivate power with.

Optimally, power to cultivates a generative capacity to co-create, as expressed here by Charles Reich:

“Power means to me pretty much the same thing as freedom – skiing is power, sex appeal is power, the ability to make yourself heard byDOWNLOAD PDF

Three-fold Unlearning to Rethink Leadership Development

Over the years, I’ve experienced two emerging dynamics regarding leadership and employee development: the concern over measuring success and the efficacy of development work. The focus on measuring often prevents the very kind of unlearning required for effective employee development today.

The best development model reveals a three-fold view of new knowledge, new perceptions, and new practices. This view is most effective because it naturally includes unlearning.

The dilemma, however, remains satisfying our preoccupation with return on investment (ROI), which finds it hard to measure unlearning.

The Dilemma of Measuring ROI

The obsessive focus on ROI finds coaches and leadership development specialists scrambling to prove that their efforts 1) can be measured in quantifiable ways and 2) are effective based on those quantifiable measures.

With billions of dollars poured into leadership development and learning each year, most organizations still do a poor job of measuring the effectiveness of their initiatives, and only 18 percent have even tried, according to the 2018 DDI Global Leadership Forecast.

An ROI calculates the monetary value of the changes in business impact. Subtracts the costs, both direct and indirect. The net benefits divided by the costs will give you the ROI. Simple, right? But what about intangibles?

While intangibles can be converted to money and included in the ROI calculation, the cost of doing so typically outweighs the benefits. If improvements can be shown in teamwork, inclusion, greater trust, and communication, which are directly linked to learning and leadership development, the value is clear enough.

These intangibles rate highly among employee satisfaction and often redound to customer satisfaction.

No matter what we measure, however, we will still miss something.

The New Definition of Development

The impasse with measuring ROI stems from a narrow—antiquated—view of “development” that focuses on observable evidence from empirical knowledge.

In our age of fungible knowledge with information overload, the volatile pace of change, and increasing complexity, any notion of development today must include unlearning. How do we measure that?

Resolving the efficacy issues with leadership development will first require setting aside our (in)ability to measure adequately. We can observe change and adaptation sufficient to identify markers for success if we link development programs to longer-term strategic goals.

The real issue involves the blend that can meet today’s organizational demands for evolutionary change, which includes the need to learn and unlearn. This requires a three-dimensional approach involving 1) new knowledge, 2) new perceptions, and 3) new practices.

This approach upends more than measurement and ROI; it reimagines the notion of development beyond the incremental progression of acquiring knowledge. Three-dimensional learning will result in letting go of our outmoded self-conceptions to evolve new self-perceptions and shape new assumptions, attitudes, and actions.

This essential kind of learning will ask a more potent question than what the cost of this development is: What is the cost of not engaging in development?