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.
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. Thisshort videoshows 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 cande-center or practice letting go of identifying with mistakes, thoughts, and emotions as “our mistakes,” or worse, “I am a mistake.”
Distinguish betweenclarity 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, arugged individualwho 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,DOWNLOAD PDF
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.
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 tobe 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.
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.
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.
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.
So then, how might we cultivate an openness to giving and receiving freely? Three elements support this definition.
Letting Go and Openness
Giving and Receiving
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.
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
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 mindfulness, reflection, 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:
Defense mechanism: controlling via the impulsive self
Defensive reasoning: protecting via therational self
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.
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1 – Defense Mechanisms.TheImpulsive 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.
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 satisfymeans 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 adviserwith 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.
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 asenough toscarcity’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?
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.
FOMO or JOMO
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.
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.
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 to me: 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 “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 in participating in the creation and definition of 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.
Integrity strengthens our word to develop workability.
Authenticity expands the possibility and freedom to be, encouraging authentic self-expression.
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 of the blind spots that limit our perceptions, listening, and perspectives.
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.
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.” 
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 (idealDOWNLOAD PDF
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.”
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 spaces and practices—1) Emptyspace, 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.
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 mindfulness “sati” (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.
What fills up our space?
How can we bring discoveries of space into our everyday lives?
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.
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).
Distractions involve the objects that draw our attention to lose our focus.
Expectations involve anticipating experiences. Whether we know it or not, many of our upsets and disappointments come from unfulfilled expectations.
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
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.
“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 asense of peace and clarity from a deep understanding and knowledge of the truth.
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). CLICK TO ENLARGE.
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.
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 downandincreasingawareness to recognize “holding on” in real-time.
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.
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—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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.”
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:
The truth of suffering: there is dukkha (Pali for un-satisfactoriness or suffering),
The truth of the cause of suffering; dukkha has root causes (greed, ignorance, and hatred),
The truth of the end of suffering, or freedom from dukkha, and
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.”
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
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.
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.
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
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 theMiracle 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.
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.”
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
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
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.
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
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 EstablishingOur 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, theNames Project AIDS Memorial Quiltweaves more than 48,000 individual memorial panels into a large quilted tapestry. It demonstrates the lives ravaged by AIDS.
TheWitness Blanket, an art installation of reclaimed objects, commemorates thesurvivors 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.
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 clearlythe 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.
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.
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.
Useless speech: idle speaking/story
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.
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.
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 ourintegrity. We practice becoming aware of inaccuracies, unresolved items, and broken agreements, and are willing to clean up any impact to restore our word.
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?
What’s so: Observe what’s happening in this situation.
Intention: Create aspirationsfor direction.
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.
“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:
“Objective” means external or empirical circumstances or facts (not to be confused with a neutral or rational view).
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
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.
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.
Assertions acknowledge what’s true or false. We provide evidence for a shared, reliable, and observable basis for our interpretation to take action.
Assessments acknowledge what’s valid or invalid. Preparation for action involves discerning evidence that frames interpretations of and attitudes toward action.
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.
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.
Promises fulfill future actions. With a commitment to action on the part of the speaker, the listener expects that a concern will be addressed.
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).
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 Pathwaysfor 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:
Developing spaciousness for relaxed awareness to navigate the tension between confusion and clarity.
Discerning distractions that enable habitual reflexivity to constrain a deeper understanding.
Appreciating the unlearning/letting godynamic 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:
Embracing your intentions, speaking and listening, and claiming your past, present, and future, thus shaping your thoughts, feelings, responses, and results.
Recognizing and dissolving defensive, avoidance, and survival strategies that constrain action.
Strengthening integrity to produce authentic agreements.
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 withoutany 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
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
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.
As a value, transparency typically involves increased accountability leading to enhanced visibility.
As a mindset, transparency implies openness via communication and accountability from the willingness to share the necessary information to collaborate.
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 Ethicstested 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.
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.”
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.
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.
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 awarenessto 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. ThereDOWNLOAD PDF
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 accomplishments, disappointments, 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 forgettingwell 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.
The practice of Completing Your Year involves three phases: remembering, forgetting, 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 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, investigateyouryear.
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 involves intentionally clearing our mind. This is different from “forgetting”DOWNLOAD PDF
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 asenough toscarcity’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.
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.
Brooks quotes Swedish business professor Carl Cederström, who argues in his bookThe 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, beingextraordinary 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.
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.
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?”
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.
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.
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.”
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 fourworldviews 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 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.
Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely, stated by 19th-century British observer Lord Acton, reveals the corrupt nature of unchecked power.
Dividing people into “us” and “them” forms an opposing faction to solidify one’s support.
Divide and conquer picks off smaller factions of a larger group, leading to quicker defeat.
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.
The enemy of my enemy is my friend. This notion leads to the observation that “politics make for strange bedfellows.”
Legitimate power: Position of authority; traditional roles that inhabit status.
Expert/informationpower: Acquiring expertise, knowledge, and information that others need or want.
Reward power: Offering incentives or reinforcement (praise or recognition).
Coercive power: Exerting force, control, or punitive measures (opposite of reward power).
Referent power: Gaining approval through loyalty, who you know, or critical networks.
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.
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 toslow 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.
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.
Powerto 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
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?
The Three Dimensions of Development
The notion of development is NOT analogous to machine models as in “fixing” or computer models as in “multi-tasking.” It is about being human.
To expand humanity, leadership and employee development includes a blend of new knowledge to question the rational and cognitive self, new perceptions to cultivate the intuitive self, and new practices to sustain the following aspects of learning:
1 – Knowledge. Here we develop aptitude via research and the study of concepts. We apply concepts to develop competencies, which involve a blend of abilities, skills, and knowledge.
Knowledge develops aptitude. We develop content, skills, concepts, and methods. Examining our rationalself, we discern any impediments to acquiring knowledge.
An important result involves a new level of competency to optimize effort.
2 – Perception. Here we develop attitude via distinctions that refine our powers of observation. Distinctions access new perceptions to alter how we 1) use our senses to perceive our world and 2) interpret that information to represent reality.
Perception develops attitude. We develop context to cultivate views, mindsets, and attitudes. Accessing our intuitive self, we reveal any impediments to increasing awareness.
An important result involves a new level of awareness to expand views.
3 – Practice. Here we train techniques that range from contemplative and reflective rituals to processes and repetitive routines. We access our affective self to apply knowledge and sustain perceptions that build new perspectives and habits,
Practices develop accuracy. We employ techniques and rituals to align our attitude and aptitude and clarify our experiences.
An important result involves a new level of grounding to concentrate our focus.
When combined, this model encourages ongoing questioning, continual reflection, and important disclosures, as detailed in the image below.
Unlearning and Development
I’ve dedicated much research and energy to the notion of unlearninghere, here, and here to detail some of the complexities involved in this dynamic.
Recall that unlearning involves breaking down the origins of our thoughts, attitudes, behaviors, feelings, and biases.
This is where measuring betrays our best efforts. Unlearning is terribly hard to predict. It often involves letting go of knowledge, assumptions, or beliefs. This can impact identity to reveal what sociologist and educator Jack Mezirow calls a “disorienting dilemma.”
Mezirow argues that transformations often follow some variation of the following ten phases of clarifying meaning:
Last month marked a year since the arrival of the COVID-19 Pandemic. Reflection on this time surfaces mixed emotions.
There’s a collective restlessness and readiness to move on from this pandemic. Last week, I received emails and texts heralding “Back to Normal” sales, specials, and celebrations. Understandably, many want to get on with life: kids in school, dining at restaurants, theatergoing, shopping, traveling. Just like before.
But something happened this last year—at least for me—and I remain uncertain of the meaning of 2020.
A Hum of Expectations
Living in New York City is like residing with a low-level hum. The city doesn’t sleep; expectations persist to be “on,” out, and engaged in the numerous museums, malls, musicals, and meals galore. FOMO didn’t start in our city, but it flourishes here.
I never saw the Broadway hit Hamilton. I wanted to. I couldn’t get decent seats at a reasonable price. The rush to see it became a sort of in-out group status symbol.
I felt I missed out. However, that feeling didn’t last long. The wonders of my life made the FOMO fade. There are many “Hamilton” moments in this city of mine. No doubt such moments exist in all our lives.
To avoid FOMO, we organize busy schedules just to connect with others, and we optimize multi-tasking routines that prevent us from relating once we connect. We recognize street protestors when they interrupt the din of life; however, we are often too busy to understand the issues and implications—and whether they even affect us.
Work obligations. Family concerns. Travel desires. The din of life conceals the hum of expectations. Reconciling finances, planning for retirement, keeping ourselves informed, and curating our image, whether online, in person, or branded. This is living.
On March 13, 2020, that life all came crashing down. A government lockdown declared COVID-19 a national emergency.
Distance, Space, and Closeness
With the emergency declaration, something happened. The hum subsided, and space emerged. This was a privilege, to be sure, since I was not an essential worker and was able to work from home. And yet, having time and space felt awkward and revealed a loss of expectations.
Uncertainty fed anxiety to fill the space, so my regular breathing, reflection, and grounding practices served me well.
But what should be done with space and time when expectations of busyness slip away?
Humanity emerged. There was time for long emails, Zoom chats, and unscheduled phone calls. Conferences were rescheduled online. Attendance doubled in size and included people from all over the world.
Buddhist Sanghas created online spaces, coaching spaces appeared, and interest groups connected. Each space invited people from different parts of the world. Shopping outside included time for conversation. Workers were inviting, and customers were calm.
People spoke not of work, status, accomplishments, or travel plans, but of shared experiences of living with their children, homeschooling, being vulnerable, having aging parents, experiencing recent losses, and how the nation’s unrest was impacting their lives.
People extended themselves.
Our Nation’s Shadow
Social distancing brought us closer. I learned more, felt greater connections, and realized more community than I had when life was “normal.”
Still, with more space and attention, another shared experience emerged: a focus on racial unrest and ongoing police brutality, anti-democratic strife, militia movements, and national revolt against the pandemic.
America shocked some. Others expected this America. Many were tuning into the fullness of our nation’s shadow.
Eighty years ago, we collectively sacrificed to serve the cause of liberty in World War Two. Yet, in 2020, we could not sacrifice the slight inconvenience of wearing a mask to save humanity.
Click to Enlarge
Instead, large swaths of our nation weaponized individual liberty against a sick nation. The most vulnerable were tossed aside in favor of economic gains and the desire to shop, dine, work out, and travel. People rushed to
It is the truth that liberates, not your efforts to be free. — J. Krishnamurti
Unlearning involves breaking down the origins of our thoughts, attitudes, behaviors, feelings, and biases.
In the first part of this three-part series, we examined four ways of seeing: the default view, with our reflexive thoughts; the small view, with concrete ideas; the large view governed by systems; and the whole view, which embodies an interdependent awareness.
Each of these views optimizes complexity and change by cultivating more space for unlearning.
Our second blog focused on cultivating the whole view by exploring some of the impediments and mindsets that can undermine unlearning.
This part focuses on practices of “changing our view” that cultivate an openness to unlearning.
The Issue Is (Resistance to) Change.
We begin by tackling the heart of the matter. For humans, especially Westerners and Americans, that is change. We create, manage, control, and predict change, but we have not been conditioned to accept impermanence as the ground of being and the natural order of things.
There’s a kind of fundamental attachment to security, safety, and certainty that drives so much of human behavior. In a sense, when we’re talking about the ego … a need to know what’s going to happen next and have a sense of certainty in the face of all the overwhelming complexity and challenges of life.
[Beyond] some idealized final state of perfection, I’m talking about getting over our resistance to being part of an unfolding evolutionary process. This means getting over our need for stasis, security, and certainty. This includes waking up out of our rigid sense of self, which defends itself from any information that would challenge it.
Ultimately, Hamilton invites us to become “part of an unfolding evolutionary process,” which involves embracing the art of unlearning.
Change as Unlearning
Facing an increasingly interconnected world of multiple perspectives and cultures carried through vast amounts of information requires an evolved consciousness. This necessitates an expanded understanding of the attachment that feeds our view of safety, security, and certainty, which shapes our unsustainable world.
Learning in the 21st century must center on the primacy of unlearning. Author and educator, Neil Postman, points out the following dilemma: “If a student goes through four years of school and comes out ‘seeing’ things in the way he did when he started … he learned nothing.”
Learning at the first-person level is not possible without unlearning. We replace concerns about understanding more content with learning to alter context. Changing our mind is about adopting something new.
“Being” different begins with “seeing” differently. Vertical and interior development here are supported by the cultivation of a beginner’s mind and a deeper understanding of humility as a source of development.
The Beginner’s Mind
The notion of the beginner’s mind comes from Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind published by Zen Master Shunryu Suzuki in 1970. Suzuki cultivates the beginner’s mind to access a fresh perspective in each moment as if it were new.
Used often, the term “beginner’s mind” usually lacks developmental definition or discernment. We have identified the following three fundamental aspects of “thinking and learning” in cultivating a beginner’s mind:
Tolerate Discomfort: Be mindful of the process as you move through fear or confusion of the unknown. Learn to become comfortable with uncertainty, willing to look in the mirror to discover and name habits, defenses, and mindsets that reveal your blind spots (see previous blog).
Not Knowing: Be willing to let go of needing to know as you move beyond “rational-only thinking” to embrace “not knowing” as a possibility. Be gentle and allow yourself to live with confusion rather than fixing, hiding, or protecting yourself.
As-Lived Participation: Be willing to live with practice, by slowing down, creating space to becomeDOWNLOAD PDF
In our last blog, we explored four ways of seeing: the default view, the small view, the large view, and the whole view. Each of these views expands beyond the self to include more variables, optimize greater complexity and change, and cultivate more space for unlearning, which is critical for learning today.
In this part, I focus on impediments to unlearning that cultivate the final “whole view,” and in Part 3, I will explore practices to cultivate unlearning.
Recall from the last blog that unlearning involves breaking down the origins of our thoughts, attitudes, behaviors, feelings, and biases. We recall the following views: the default view, with our reflexive thoughts, the small view, with its concrete ideas, and the large view, governed by systems.
The Challenges of Dualism
We are now ready to leap from the large view of separate systems and structures to the whole view based on interdependent awareness.
Our first challenge is to venture beyond the external view of systems and structures to consider and integrate mental structures such as attention, thoughts, and language.
Attention supports focus, discipline, and direction. Thoughts support forms, concepts, and sense-making. Linguistic structures, such as signs, symbols, and words, create distinctions that bridge our inner and outer worlds.
Mental structures are often seen only as content. Yet, they govern what we conceive of as a structure or system.
For instance, evaluating systemic bias in policing includes external structures like qualified immunity agreements, unions, and use of force doctrines. It also involves mental structures such as patriarchy or unconscious (implicit) bias, which determine how we perceive threats.
Here, the mental structure of patriarchy (macro) and unconscious bias (micro) conceives the external structures to remedy a “perceived” threat, which are also conceived of by these mental structures.
Consequently, when we observe structures and systems, we are unaware of our own mental structures.
This puzzle brings us to our second challenge: recognizing the power of dualism. Psychologist Paul Bloom argues that dualism is hardwired into us and that, from a very early age, infants start to distinguish “mental things” from “physical things.”
The artificial separation of process and content in knowledge becomes especially problematic in systems of thought that seek to encompass the totality of existence (e.g., grand, unified theories in physics). According to physicist David Bohm (1980), it becomes easy to slip into “the trap of tacitly treating such a view as originating independently of thought, thus implying that its content actually is the whole of reality.”
Our final challenge requires integrating consciousness as fundamental into our view of reality. This interdependent awareness, arising from interconnecting causes and conditions, dissolves the “separateness” and “dualism” that objectify structures and systems as things “out there” to observe and measure.
The consciousness of any system involves unexamined thoughts informed by history, lineage, shadows, mental models, ideology, and culture. Dualism dissolves when we integrate consciousness as an essential part of a structure or system.
Defeating Mindsets and Views
Paradoxically, embracing a whole view recognizes the partial and incomplete nature of our conceptions; at any moment, the only part of an iceberg we can view is the tip. Thus, when more of the iceberg surfaces, we are not threatened, resistant, in denial, or attached.
Accepting this paradox requires moving beyond three common views that preserve dualism to undermine our unlearning: fragmentation, reactiveness, and competitiveness.
1. Fragmentation supports a view of reality as binary.
We’ve discussed much of this “separation” as dualism, which, when optimized, perpetuates multitasking, silos, otherizing, either/or thinking, and fragmenting attention.
Regarding separation, Bohm emphasized: “a major source of fragmentation is the presupposition that the process of thought is sufficiently separate from and independent of its content, to allow us generally to carry out clear, orderly, rational thinking, which can properly judge this content as correct or incorrect, rational or irrational, fragmentary or whole, etc.” (Bohm 1980, 18).
2. Reactiveness attached to a permanent or fixed view of reality.
For most of us, reactiveness was reinforced daily in school. We solved problems identified by others, read what was assigned, and wrote what was required. Gradually, reactiveness became second nature. Fitting in—being accepted—became more important than questioning, learning, and growing.
Author and thinker Peter Senge calls “reactiveness [the] bane of continuous learning. The attitude, ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it,’ prevents the steady improvement of products and processes.”
Reactiveness also cultivates two pervasive identities: the problem-solver and the expert.
The Problem-Solving Mindset. We cannot unlearn something if we don’t question our current view. Senge has noted, that many of the problems we want to fix arise from previous solutions, and many of today’s solutions will be tomorrow’s problems.
Problem-solving as a method can work with inanimate objects, but as a mentality, problem-solving trains us to become fixers. We wait for answers and stop questioning. Seduced by quick fixes and lulled by immediate results, we habitually perceive and diagnose observed problems.
We normalize reflexive thinking with snap judgments about what’s
In times of change, those who are prepared to learn will inherit the land, while those who think they already know will find themselves wonderfully equipped to face a world that no longer exists. — Eric Hoffer
On this occasion of a new American government, broken systems and conflicting cultural norms and priorities reveal the importance of Hoffer’s words. Yet, learning today requires focusing on unlearning outmoded knowledge.
In this first of a three-part blog, I explore the art of unlearning through four ways of seeing. Part 2 will examine impediments to unlearning and part 3 will explore practices to cultivate unlearning.
The Four Ways of Seeing
Each of these views offers our world – the water we swim in, shaping our actions, beliefs, and possibilities.
As we move through these worlds, unlearning increases in importance until it becomes foundational in the final view. We navigate each view’s characteristics, focus, and learning and unlearning.
1. The Default View
First, we learn to see our default view. A feature of this view is habitual energies and actions that lead to downloading beliefs and uploading responses to situations and experiences.
Core Focus: The Ego System
This view identifies our reactive impulses and becomes attentive to the effects of our filters, maps, and blind spots on our interactions.
We project these blind spots and assumptions onto the world and seek evidence to confirm them. The default view reflexively sees “time” as related to instant satisfaction.
Learning and Unlearning
Ironically, unlearning our default view involves learning to recognize it. It begins with learning about what the self is as we acknowledge and examine our own default view. We ask ourselves: Where do these beliefs come from? Are these aligned with the life I want or the person I want to become? Do I believe this to be true to myself?
Learning to recognize our default view in our choices, feelings, and actions begins to surface constraints to listening and blind spots in the face of threats, concerns, insecurities, fears, and misperceptions. By setting aside impulses and habits, we perceive the more accurate view of a small view.
2. The Small View
Second, we see the small view. This less reactive view considers content, and one of its features is its focus on objective details and subjective experiences that impact the world closest to us.
Anthropologist Clifford Geertz recognized the knotty nature of culture, made up of many layers of intertwined symbols and signs. He introduced the concept of thick description into the discipline to detail the many layers of context in culture.
Geertz writes that the “Grand Realities” of “Power, Change, Faith, Oppression, Work, Passion, Authority, Beauty, Violence, Love, and Prestige” in the give-and-take detail of everyday life to “take the capital letters off of them.”
Core Focus: Infrastructure
This small view reduces the larger “Grand Realities” or cultural context to discrete content that we interact with daily —“kitchen table” issues such as finances, occupation, social media, religion, business, policing, healthcare, government bureaucracy or services, entertainment, and schooling.
We experience this infrastructure with individual beliefs and knowledge via as-lived experiences, facts, details, concepts, rules, policies, and laws that shape our worldview.
A man might become aware of women’s issues because he has three sisters and two daughters, become aware of health issues because a lack of healthcare affected someone close to him, or view the concept of police brutality from personal experiences with the law.
This view processes information in a binary manner. For instance, inadequate healthcare is due to a lack of a consistent job; thus, the remedy requires finding a good job. And people ought to follow police orders to avoid trouble.
Learning and unlearning
The small view pays close attention to what happens and what is said and who said it, how they said it, to whom they said it, and when, where, and eventually can discern why they said it. Discerning patterns in details, facts, and information reveal emerging systems. The view of time here is more deliberate within the immediate scope of events.
Moving beyond this view begins with discovering patterns to question beliefs. Unlearning supports breaking down the origins (beliefs and assumptions) of thought, attitude and behavior patterns, and feelings that reveal our biases and blind spots.
3. The Large View
Third, we see the large view. This view accepts the nature of discerning patterns and complexity to recognize systems and structures.
Greater complexity evaluates the patterns of information, behavior, and structures that constitute the society, economics, media, technology, and political forces that shape our everyday lives. We can now see how these larger structures and institutions socialized our previous two views.
Core Focus: Separate Systems
Like the previous views, this view seeks discrete causes to explain experiences, specifically by predicting problems and solving them. Here, time includes a strategic view: We ask ourselves how history might view this situation. We seek greater productivity and strategic planning, resulting in greater control and more predictable outcomes.
So, diagnosing an inadequate healthcare system is owed to inefficiencies, improper management, and lack of “access.” With an enterprise view of the system, we diagnose problems, optimize inefficiencies, and create subsidies to offer access. This solution maintainsDOWNLOAD PDF
A hidden element in improving the quality of our attention and effectiveness may be tied to vague thinking. The connection between thinking and action, while often overlooked, can reveal important blind spots.
In working with professionals, I’ve come to experience the effects of our digital age: Fragmented attention causes us to skim and scan instead of reading, multitasking causes us to speed through tasks rather than experience them, and the fear of missing out (FOMO) produces reflexive thoughts and actions.
Our Tranquilized Obviousness
This digital mentality has come to cloud our mind and cultivate a tranquilized obviousness, a complacent, autopilot state of being. We tolerate confusion, avoid details, and often do not experience the simple pleasure of completing a task. Accepting vagueness from ourselves or others can confuse us and undermine our actions.
We can learn to recognize the source of complacency, which typically takes three forms.
The first is the primacy of problem-solving: We reduce thinking to transactions that seek answers to solve problems. We endeavor to find solutions before conducting a true inquiry into or experiencing the situation. Once we find an answer or evidence that confirms our position, we stop questioning.
The second source of complacency is reflexive thinking, which lacks questioning completely. This approach is akin to simply saying whatever is necessary to achieve a desired outcome. When asked how we arrive at our thoughts, we are stymied because no scrutiny has taken place.
This final issue involves assumptions. We are simply unaware of how much we assume, and we neither pause to consider that we are relying on any assumptions nor do we question them.
Learning theorist and author Chris Argyris has created a tool called the “Ladder of Inference” that clarifies this dynamic and the related reflexive loop, thus revealing how our beliefs screen the data we both select and avoid.
Three Kinds of Vagueness and Related Costs
The etymology of “vague” comes from the Latin “wandering.” It shows up in our language and thinking as cloudy and imprecise, enabling a tranquilized obviousness. We enable “wandering.” I’ve discovered that vagueness surfaces as tranquilized obviousness in three common forms: surface or lazy thinking, lacking specifics and lacking accuracy.
1 – Surface or Lazy Thinking Costs Competency.
Here, thinking is limited. At our very best, we understand something at the surface thinking level. For instance, we might say that COVID-19 is just like the common flu. This is not untrue, but it is also not wholly true. COVID-19 is a virus like the flu, but it is much more efficient in its transmission; therefore, it is more dangerous. Moreover, it is a new virus, so a lot about it remains unknown.
We may also employ lazy thinking, which amounts to whatever comes to mind, our reflexive ideas, or our thoughts. We might believe arguments supported by people we admire without further examination. The impulsive or impatient among us simply repeat plausible answers that readily come to mind.
Surface or lazy thinking lacks the rigor of scrutiny and analysis. This enables glibness, platitudes, and hyperbole bolstered by stock phrases or general, ambiguous statements.
Lazy thinking costs us competency: when we are questioned, we often lack the facts or information to test assumptions and expand our knowledge. We become ignorant.
2 – Lacking Specifics Costs Effectiveness.
The key to strong persuasion and effective communication relies on a relationship to and use of language that honors specific and vivid details. For instance, each of the following pairs includes a general and specific item:
many = 500 to 1,000;
early = 5 a.m.;
hot = 90 degrees Fahrenheit;
most = 79.5%;
very rich = a millionaire;
soon = 7 p.m., Tuesday; and
color = navy blue.
Consider this statement: Officials are monitoring this situation very closely, and I can promise that we shall take all appropriate measures to ensure that the situation is resolved in a way that is fair to all the parties involved.
Listening to this statement ought to raise alarm bells. Despite the impression of taking action to do something specific, this speaker here has not promised to do anything at all.
Which “officials” are monitoring? What are the appropriate measures? What do we mean by “very closely” or “fair” and for which “parties” are we speaking? Here the specific details matter as much as the context for them. Without this level of clarity, we can escape being held accountable.
Being specific is powerful because it allows us to picture details in specific situations. It also invites accountability for what we see and say. Others can now verify our claims, which develops credibility that leads to trust.
When we are vague, our communication is weak. We allow for multiple interpretations, confusion, and misunderstanding, which sow doubt. We perpetuate inaction and avoid being held accountable by claiming any interpretation that allows us to escape scrutiny.
Altogether, being specific develops the credibility that engenders the trust required to coordinate action effectively.
Lacking specifics costs us effectiveness: without specific details, we gloss over items, miss important signs, and signals, and make unnecessary missteps that take time to clean up. We become unreliable.
3 – Lacking Accuracy Costs Direction.
Being accurate demands a level of presence, focus, and discipline that gets to the bottom of any matter. Saying that we are overweight is different from stepping onto a scale with a specific number.
Think about your relationship with math or your CPA. Both relationships require rigor—math requires a level of precision, and accountants usually require detail. Such situations that demand accuracy can become annoying, and even reveal painful truths.
Being vague can soothe our pain and comfort us. It’s easy to say “I am overweight” but not by how much, to avoid math and take a guess, or to let the CPA handle the details. But the cost is a disciplined ability to obtain an accurate view that develops foundation and direction.
We want to make a difference. We want our lives to matter.
The connection between those wants and our lives actually mattering points to our participation. Participation may be key to our aliveness. Unfortunately, it is so misunderstood.
The advent of participation trophies, mocked by many, has added to this misunderstanding. Still, participation brings meaning to our existence. It is worth exploring and connecting to as a practice.
Beyond the Surface
When I taught college, I discovered a challenge early on: How do I get students to participate in their learning? We know that student involvement leads to greater engagement, more discoveries, and better comprehension. But how can we accomplish this virtuous cycle?
Many in our profession create team exercises and discussions. Some of these can work. During my first year of teaching, I found myself designing such activities. Then, I discovered something. Beyond any contrived teams or tasks, if the material mattered to students, they would find ways to involve themselves.
But how can we make the material matter?
Reframe Attendance. Immediately, I noticed that we conflated attendance in class with participation. Physical attendance gives the appearance of involvement. Actual participation includes an authentic interest, connection, and willingness to become involved. I see this is a precondition to co-creating.
Make It Matter. I discovered that, as a teacher, I also have to be involved in the material to make it matter to the lives of learners. Content that matters encourages participation.
Participation Evokes Possibility and Fear
Participation matters. But many do not believe that it makes a difference.
Unfortunately, much of our participation seems guided by whether we can achieve some goal or agenda. Organizing life’s activities around winning or succeeding misses a deeper understanding of being human.
Our full participation in any effort offers the possibility of discovery and connection. We discover gaps in our awareness, uncover blind spots, and bump up against hidden alternatives. We also open up new possibilities and connect to a more profound understanding of ourselves and others.
— Full participation always yields better results and surprises.
— Greater participation in elections yields greater legitimacy and trust because it includes more voices and ideas.
— Civic participation produces better citizens and meaningful societies.
— Full participation in any change effort can alter any perception, situation, or issue.
So why don’t we participate fully? I’ve discovered two reasons: fear of failure and fear of looking foolish.
These fears often manifest as an attachment to winning, success, achieving status, and creating impressions, as well as avoiding failure, by looking silly or incompetent. These fears also constrain when and how we participate.
The Importance of Involvement
Letting go of our fears and diving into life offers immense rewards.
At its fullest, our participation involves us wholeheartedly and unreservedly throwing ourselves into something. This definition differs from merely “going through the motions” of doing something, as it requires involvement.
Our involvement requires taking risks and letting go of fear, which can be challenging.
Pose this question to your students: Would you rather know how to get an A, or give up the A to discover how to learn, risk, and fail? Our system rewards the former, but a meaningful life rewards the latter.
Involvement is the secret sauce that motivates our participation. It invests our attention, intention, and energy into the worlds that make up our life.
Whether we’re writing, sailing, parenting, playing music, cooking, or serving customers, our full involvement unlocks the love, joy, concentration, and aliveness that makes life sing.
And yet, our participation is often stifled by whether we will win or lose, succeed or fail. This saddens me, as so many of life’s realizations are revealed through our involvement in efforts—especially when we lose.
Every time I play chess or Scrabble, I enjoy participating. Even when I lose, I always learn something that adds to my enthusiasm.
Winning is temporal, but involvement is fundamental to being human. Moreover, experiencing loss focuses our attention and direction even more. And how we deal with loss reveals our character.
Our full involvement in any activity may be the ultimate hidden reward. Indeed, our involvement may result in what finds us “in the zone.” Whether we’re writing, sailing, parenting, playing music, cooking, or serving customers, our full involvement unlocks the love, joy, concentration, and aliveness that makes life sing.
Levels of Involvement
Becoming more involved motivates our participation in co-creating worlds and becoming more, which begins with our level of involvement.
LEVEL 1: Involvement with Self. I explore topics through personal learning, investigation, and research. I gain more knowledge about issues that interest me.
LEVEL 2: Involvement with Others. I explore my knowledge and experiences with others, which leads to questions and discoveries. Through dialogue and questions, I clarify assumptions to apply knowledge. With greater “experience,” I increase my expertise and become competent.
LEVEL 3: Involvement in Worlds. I immerse myself in a world. What I learn, how I learn, and what I do with what I learn are guided by theDOWNLOAD PDF
Between COVID-19 and the ongoing racial unrest in the US, the business community has been pressed into moral leadership. This is worthy of examination.
A Social Pandemic
The brutal murder of George Floyd at the hands of four police officers now finds businesses signing on wholesale to social justice. But what does that mean?
Will businesses put health-related needs before economics? Or profits over hateful material on social media platforms? Will leaders create policies and practices to support racial equity?
— It’s more than a little cringeworthy to hear the NFL declare that Black Lives Matter yet continue to ostracize Colin Kaepernick.
— Or financial firms standing with protesters while continuing practices that push out billions of government-issued, pandemic dollars that favor those with “access.”
— Or witness tech platforms with algorithms that drive hate speech at marginalized groups yet issue edicts supporting equal justice.
— Or note the Washington, DC football team changing its racist name only because of boycotts from Amazon, FedEx, and Nike.
We have several contagions.
COVID-19 has devastated our nation with a biological disease. It has exposed a deeper moral epidemic of racial and criminal injustices, as well as depravity in our business, healthcare, and economic systems. These dilapidated priorities and beliefs have for too long maintained the very inequities that could tear our nation apart.
How will businesses lead at this time? Can business leaders imagine a world beyond opportunistic “scaling strategies” and impulsive, short-term fixations? Can we think beyond the next quarter, slogan, or branding scheme?
What does it mean to receive throngs of messages, posts, and viral videos supporting Black Lives Matter? Is this a branding, political, or strategic statement? Or is it a moral cause?
The current environment is fixated on performative allyship and activism, designed more for viral messaging and virtue signaling than facing historic injustices and securing true equity.
A Moral Moment
Regrettably, I wonder if many who occupy today’s C-suites can summon the moral courage and venture beyond branding, politics, or strategic considerations.
Our moment today seems different from other times, precisely because it ventures beyond civil rights (for full citizenship) to question the fundamental existence of our humanity. To meet this moment requires moral consciousness.
In 1968, after Martin Luther King, Jr. came out against the Vietnam War, a reporter quizzed him, asking, “Since you face so many criticisms and since you are going to hurt the budget of your organization, don’t you feel that you should kind of change and fall in line with the Administration’s policy…?”
King answered, “I’m sorry, sir, but you don’t know me. I’m not a consensus leader. I don’t determine what is right and wrong by looking at the budget of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference… nor do I determine what is right and wrong by taking a Gallup poll.”
King properly questioned what it means to stand for something.
“Cowardice asks the question, ‘Is it safe?’
Expediency asks the question, ‘Is it politic?’
Vanity asks the question, ‘Is it popular?’
But conscience asks the question, ‘Is it right?’”
Sifting through the safe, opportunistic, and popular, what is right requires digging deep beyond branding, strategy, and politics. It requires moral imagination.
What Is Moral Imagination?
Moral imagination asks us to look beyond dogmatic views of right and wrong, good and bad, or the ethics of strategic calculations and pragmatic solutions.
Moral imagination involves:
the capacity to conceive of and generate beneficial ideas,
the ability to form ideas about what is worthy and just, and
the willingness to put the best ideas into action for the service of others.
We can conceive of a better, fuller world by including different perspectives, views, and concerns from the self and groups, society and culture, and humanity and the planet.
As leaders, we expand our focus beyond scaling and strategy to focus on cultures that enact principles of service and inclusion with humility.
As businesses, we expand our view beyond profit to include equitable practices for colleagues and customers, and sustainable systems for society and the planet.
As citizens, we bring an interdependent awareness to our place in society and on this planet. We demand policies and practices that honor the dignity of all humanity.
Success is measured by the development of one’s integrity and character, not the fleeting emotions of status or the accumulation of pleasures.
This is a time of consciousness. We are interconnected. To be whole today—in the face of distraction, disruption, divergent ideas, and diverse experiences—requires us to embrace an expanded view of humanity with deep commitment and practices beyond individualism, competition, and personal advantage.
In the face of social unrest, complexity, and disruptive change, cultivating moral imagination requires a larger view of justice that views humans as dignified beings and persons with complex experiences, not objects whose value rests in utility or usefulness.
To those in business with power, as the late CongressmanJohn Lewis said, a moral vision requires “good trouble.”
As an emerging body of knowledge, study, and practices, antiracism marries moral imagination with social justice, calling us to take on such commitment and practice.
Evolving Toward Antiracism
For our firm, cultivating moral imagination is fundamental for this moment. Over these last few weeks, we’ve not made any proclamations. We’ve used this time to continue exploring who we are at this moment. What do we care about? How we will contribute?
I’ve outlined our years-long exploration into diversity, equity, and inclusion in a white paper titled A Pedagogical Inquiry: Challenges in Unlearning Systemic Bias, which has led us to antiracist work as defined by historian and author Ibram X. Kendi.
Kendi’s work develops a paradigm for thinking about racism and antiracism. He shuns the “not racist” cul-de-sac between racists and antiracists.
RACIST: One who supports a racist policy through their actions or inaction or who expresses a racist idea.
This seems to be the mantra right now. It makes sense and also reveals a hidden truth: that we expect certainty. Without it, panic arises.
A challenging truth to absorb is that the very certainty we expect, or need may also be a source of our suffering. The issue here is not certainty itself, but the need for certainty. And, the unexamined need for certainty can produce anxiety, which results in an obsessive pull to make the right choice rather than the next choice.
Individualism Heightens Anxiety
The practice of “accepting uncertainty,” must include evolving our relationship to independence as rooted in individualism into a relationship with freedom as sourced in our interdependence.
Socialized to believe that knowledge is power, we believe that knowledge offers us a sense of control, invulnerability, and even invincibility. These beliefs, from an orderly, industrial era, are now being dismantled in favor of an interconnected world of unmediated ideas and information.
When such impermanence and disruption drives insecurity, we are left to examine our relationship to individualism.
Many of our values have rubbed up against our American identity during this pandemic. Our individualism, exceptionalism, mythic self-reliance and tendency to equate “independence” with doing whatever we want encouraged some people to flock to bars and beaches – pastors even sued for “religious liberty” exemptions– rather than stay indoors or wear masks to save lives.
This independent view of “liberty” prizes individual competition, defiance, and resistance over an interdependent view sourced in cooperation, connection, and collaboration.
The coaching professional reinforces some of these views and myths, most of which rest on a view of human potential as hyper-individualistic: self-reliance, self-sufficient, and self-responsibility. We empower responsibility for the individual self instead of ennobling the primacy of the collective whole.
“Accepting uncertainty is a practice. It involves acknowledging our views, noting and naming our fears, slowly dissolving our underlying beliefs, and daring to be vulnerable.“
The nature of COVID-19 amplifies our fears as “I” in the face of the unknown. Demands to quarantine can isolate us and heighten our anxiety. Protecting our individual “I” can provoke an “us against them” mentality.
COVID-19 also reveals the limitations of our individualism. Approaching this situation has reminded us that “we” are all interconnected; doing our part reduces the risk to society, which supports each of us as individuals.
Let Go of Our Story of Separation
Our expectations of certainty are shaped by our belief in the primacy of knowledge and control in supporting individualism. This begins with the story of separation we tell ourselves. That you and I are separate. That I am separate from my circumstances and my environment. That different functions are separate.
The walls we place in the physical world represent our mental walls—our thinking and our worldviews.
Separation is our most fundamental misperception. It shapes all our beliefs about humanity, life, and living. It seeks out knowledge to protect the self and control circumstances or others.
Accepting uncertainty requires embracing the dual commitments of allowing for the unknown and accepting responsibility for complex wholes. By allowing for the unknown, wedevelop the ability to live in the question. By accepting responsibility for complex wholes,we evolve to appreciate our connection to the community, collective good, and larger systems.
Such a leap requires clarity—to act on what’s next without having to know or control the outcome. Clarity begins with a willingness to accept the truth of uncertainty.
Test and Trust Our Experiences
How can you unlearn your reliance on knowledge, and relearn your clarity of experience? Testing and trusting what you experience, is the first step toward reaching this level of clarity.
Consumption. Bring awareness to your consumption by observing how you numb your mind and emotions with news, social media, distractions, junk food, alcohol, and other impulses or cravings. Prevent racing thoughts and restlessness by avoiding stimulants and caffeine.
Silence. Observe the level of noise in your life. Experience more silence by creating pauses in conversations and between events and appointments. Mute the TV during commercials to reflect on your viewing experience.This blog postreveals how we’ve normalized noise.
Space. Notice the effect that space has on you. As you self-quarantine, and space opens up in your calendar and in your life, what emotions or sensations arise? Do you feel you should be more productive? Do you feel guilt, grief (from loss), or vulnerability?
Expectations. What expectations do you have of yourself, others, and the current situation? Should you know more, control more, or do more? Observe how you react, what impulses guide you, and when you are swept up or pulled away from this moment.
Fear. Notice when you feel helpless, fearful, or a loss of control. Perhaps you are experiencing the unknown. Feel the fear, name it if you can, allow it to be and pass, and then note the next feeling. Notice if any individualism creeps in. This could show up as us versus them thoughts or a tribal impulse to protect yourself from others.
These practices develop your ability to live in the question. You learn to explore situations with humility, curiosity, and interest in the face of the unknown and unpredictable; instead of reflexively seeking out quick-fixes to make your discomfort go away.
Just Do This Moment
Accepting uncertainty is a practice. It involves acknowledging your views, noting and naming your fears, slowly dissolving your underlying beliefs, and daring to be vulnerable.
Once you’ve accounted for yourself, acknowledged your situation, and acquired accurate information, ask yourself: Howcan I just do this moment?
Pause, breathe, feel the ground beneath your feet, and contemplate:
I am here.
I am now.
All I need is within me.
All I need comes to me.
Acting from clarity requires letting go of (un)predictable outcomes later or the (un)known consequences of that outcome. It’s focusing on the here and now.
All you can ever possibly know comes from a sense of who you are, from the presenceof the current moment, and from your ability to envision what’s next. That’s clarity.
This seems to be the mantra right now. It makes sense and also reveals a hidden truth: that we expect certainty. That without it, panic arises.
A challenging truth to absorb is that the very certainty we expect or need may also be a source of our suffering. The issue here is not certainty itself, but the need for certainty.
Our attachment to needs—growing to expect them—can find us lost in their absence.
Rather than continuing to fill these needs, how might we dissolve them? What would evolving beyond them make possible?
Certainty, Uncertainty, and Information
In the 1950s, scientists at Bell Labs defined “information” as the “resolution of uncertainty.” This was a useful definition, as information was becoming more essential to communications and adaptive systems for predicting a stable world.
This definition inextricably links information and certainty in ways that socialize us to measure for the predictable. In the absence of certainty, we expect information.
Imagine a world in which such a definition was useful: a stable, industrial age of predictable change. As we’ve experienced with COVID-19, change today is disruptive, relentless, and complex.
“Consider this paradox: Life is naturally uncertain–
we only go about life as if it should be certain.“
Most importantly, the context for change today involves an age when information is ubiquitous and fleeting, and knowledge is fungible. Certainty is no longer the norm and never actually reflected reality. Consider this paradox: life is naturally uncertain — we only go about life as if it should be certain.
The prospect for certainty as a source of comfort no longer serves us in a world where knowledge has a half-life of a news cycle and uncertainty is the new norm. A dearth of information causes our internal compass to go awry.
As soon as we receive each new norm, the goalposts are moved. There is no time to adjust, settle in, or predict any certainties.
The Need for Certainty
Yes, uncertainty can cause panic when we expect, cling to and construct a world that depends on a sense of certainty.
Certainty has come to mean control, comfort, and security. Our need for certainty is a result of our relationship with knowledge. Consider the following three conditions that cultivate this need:
Knowledge of Processes:predictinghow something will unfold or how effective measures will be. This offers an expectation of control. Regarding our current situation, we want experts to confidently predict how long this crisis will last and how bad it’s going to get.
Knowledge of Content: predictingwhat we’re dealing with. This offers an expectation of comfort. If we do not know how the situation will unfold, at least we know what it is and can rule out worst-case scenarios.
Knowledge of Outcomes: predictingwhat the end will look like. This offers an expectation of security. Even if we don’t know how this crisis will unfold, at least we know the worst-case scenario and can begin to plan around that.
Any loss of control, comfort, or security can increase anxiety.
Two items prevent us from accepting uncertainty: unpacking certainty from clarity and examining our socialized beliefs about individualism. Distinguishing both can support us in shifting from controlling certainty to cultivating clarity.
Certaintyis an emotional state. It is informed by fear, which offers a sense of safety and security in a predictable outcome. We grow to expect a specific outcome in order to hold fear in abeyance.
Certainty is grinding on the last 10% of a decision to get all the information possible, at the expense of time, energy and, sometimes, resources and market advantage.
Certainty requires us to know the outcome and to figure out how any choice will impact that outcome before any action is taken.
A lack of certainty makes us feel fearful, insecure, and unsafe. We cannot make a choice until we know what will happen as a result of it.
Clarityis a state of mind. It is the result of practices that clear the mind. It allows us to know the next step without having to know every aspect of the outcome.
Clarity occurs when we have enough information to make an informed decision.
Clarity rests on a grounded sense of who we are, accepting that nothing’s certain.
Clarity taps into our self-discovery. We make choices based on our principles (who we are), our view of reality, now, and our grounded intentions.
The unexamined need for certainty can produce anxiety, which results in an obsessive pull to make the rightchoice rather than the next choice.
Letting go of this need for certainty in favor of clarity begins with tackling something most powerful and often unseen: the sense of control rooted in our individualism.
The practice of accepting uncertainty involves evolving our relationship to independence as rooted in individualism into a relationship to freedom as sourced in our interdependence.
Socialized to believe that knowledge is power, we believe that knowledge offers us a sense of control, invulnerability, and even invincibility. These beliefs, from an orderly, industrial era, are now being dismantled in favor of an interconnected world of unmediated ideas and information.
When such impermanence and disruption drives insecurity, we are left to examine our relationship to individualism.
Many of our values have rubbed up against our American identity during this pandemic. Our individualism, exceptionalism, mythicDOWNLOAD PDF
What is the experience of being? I explored this inquiry in a two-part blog. In part one, I explored an interdependent understanding of being. In this blog, part two, I will introduce the 12 practices that support this new understanding of being.
This new dimension of being views humans as co-creators of our world. However, most psychological models relating to the self and human functioning imply that the self exists as a discrete, separate, and independent entity. Therefore, learning professionals, seldom appreciate this interdependent nature of being nor the generative capacity it reveals. They both impact learning and require unlearning.
To live between learning and unlearning entails a primary focus on intention, inquiry, imagination, and contemplation. We must clear our minds to sort out identities, penetrate distractions, prioritize concerns, disclose concealed impediments, and tune in to an intersubjective experience to co-create our existence.
If we can become open to this possibility, the question then becomes how to clear ourselves to reveal and tune into the vessel that we are?
Getting Closer to the Experience of Being
This journey requires much more than mere knowledge of theories and concepts.
We are not proposing practice in what we know or how we do things. We are proposing practice for differentiating being to clarify who we are.
This kind of practice requires becoming present to our humanness as a fluid, interdependent, interconnected being – to become aware of the felt experience of being. The practice of being opens up a dimension of our humanity that can increase performance without increasing the compulsion and wants that also increase anxiety.
Practice precedes performance. We become intentional to test our understanding of knowledge, to question our assumptions and to reveal the causes and conditions that intersect to create experiences.
These practices discovered through research and contemplative learning will expand our presence to reveal our interdependent being: our temporal nature, internal state, and our possibility as co-creators (as distinguished in part one).
Our 12 Practices
As we have grown to become Bhavana Learning Group, we have also codified our multi-year inquiry into the practices for developing an interdependent awareness.
Part of our shift involved exploring and examining rigorous practices that access our being to expand our presence: To weave together our past and future, reveal impediments, integrate lessons and realize possibility.
I have organized these 12 Practices in three vessels, each preparing learners to integrate wisdom into an interdependent awareness.
Grounding Vessel– Practices 1 through 4 – develops a foundation for our view, speech, and actions.
Fruition Vessel– Practices 5 through 8 – expands grounding to cultivate commitment and possibility.
Fertile Vessel– Practices 9 through 12 – extends and deepens the previous learning to co-create.
The key for each practice below denotes how we exist with or without each practice. I have also linked some resources after each practice to support an inquiry.
= With PRACTICE = Without PRACTICE
This practice cultivates my attention so that I observe my experience – the perceptions, emotions, thoughts and other causes, conditions, and contexts that influence me.
I react to events and circumstances, and I allow deadlines and tasks to determine my actions.
View this link to begin a practice of increasing awareness.
This practice honors my word as whole and complete, and it affects my speaking, action, livelihood and agreements to cultivate trust.
My fragmented attention and casual speaking create incongruences between my words and deeds, causing confusion, uncertainty, and distrust.
View this link to begin a practice for shifting our understanding of integrity and to buildtrust.
The practice of bringing conscious thought to the present moment. Being deliberate and responsible in my motivation, attitude, and direction, manifesting as mindful choosing, speaking, and action.
My reactions rest on sentimental wishes, wishful thinking, and my casual aims and heartfelt desires.
View this link to begin a practice for deepening intention and intention in speaking (speech-acts).
With this practice, I take custody of my unified being – who I’ve been, who I am and who I will become. My interactions reveal the possibility of being fully human.
My preoccupation with fitting in, adapting to norms and my self-image guides my priorities, concerns, and actions.
View thislinkto develop an awareness of authenticity.
5. INTENTIONAL SPEAKING
This practice focuses awareness on weaving thought and meaning, bridging my intentions with reality. With this practice, I become a co-creator responsible for language that shapes meaning, action, and outcomes.
I react with habitual patterns such as gossip, idle speaking, hyperbole, or magical thinking to make myself feel better or impress others.
View thislink to deepen the practice of intentional speaking
I practice reflecting on things as they are. I recreate others, acknowledge situations, and receive concerns from a foundation of wholeness and background of possibilities.
My split attention leads to stepping over items, ignoring details, and taking shortcuts. I learn to tolerate unnecessary missteps, which requires more timeDOWNLOAD PDF
Have you ever attended a seminar that offered prescriptive behaviors to adopt, processes to implement and content to remember? I recently had this experience.
What’s missing from this scenario depends somewhat on our expectations of learning and, more importantly, our view of being human. Do we react to, manage, or adopt change? Or are we co-creators of change?
To accept the former view implies an understanding of being human as fixed, separate selves, independent of our circumstances that respond to change.
If we accept the latter view, as co-creators, we shift:
From doling out prescriptive behaviors,adopting “norms” to conform
To discovering descriptive practices,accessing “being” to co-create
To make this shift from behaviors to practices –a distinction unappreciated by many learning designs –first requires a fundamental paradigm shift in our understanding of being.
I will explore these questions in a two-part blog. In this blog, part one, I will first flesh out a new interdependent understanding of being. In part two, I will introduce the 12 practices that support this new understanding of being.
What Is Being?
Most psychological models relating to the self and human functioning imply that the self exists as a discrete, separate, and independent entity. However, ontological models relate to the self (being) or all phenomena not as a discrete stand-alone entity but as mutually dependent on numerous causes and conditions.
Consider the human body (part of our being), 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.
Being is not merely an internal state of thoughts, emotions, and sensations, nor is it some set of identities or discrete or separate self, independent of its world and experiences. Indeed, our thoughts and experience – an arising-together phenomenon – result from causes and conditions that interact with our world to give meaning to our existence.
This is a departure from our rational mindset and normative view, which seeks to find discrete causes to explain our experiences rather than appreciate the interdependent nature of our role in reality.
An Interdependent Awareness
The implications of being with our world are profound!
—We are related to the world in ways that are inextricably linked to our thoughts, experiences, multiple identities, and history, which is continually revealed in our mind, body, and language as we interact.
—Our presence in the world discloses our potential, which is not yet realized or confined in the present and is always projected toward the future, and emerging in the present. The future we look forward to reveals a unique context: a possibility that brings aliveness as we co-create our moment-to-moment existence.
—Our consciousness precedes being in two unique ways. First, we are aware of the notion of past and future in the present. Second, we are aware of the inevitable certainty of our own death. This awareness gives life meaning. Our experiences reveal this unified temporal nature, as three dimensions of future, past, and present.
Key to accessing this expansive view of being centers on adopting an awareness as co-creators of our world – a mindset of continual inquiry that discovers and discloses ourselves with each interaction.
A Different Experience of Learning
As co-creators of our world, our experience can both reveal dimensions of our being and realize our potential with each interaction.
The fact that phenomena are fundamentally interconnected and interdependent (even without discrete boundaries) means that they are “empty” of a fixed essence or solid self. This nature of “non-self” is both “empty” of an inherently existing self and yet “full” of all things.
Zen Master and author Thich Nhat Hanh describes such an experience as “Interbeing,” dispelling any notion of “solitary beings.” He views us and the planet as one giant, “living, breathing cell, with all its working parts linked in symbiosis.”
“Ultimately, the purpose of learning, here, evolves from knowing and doing more to being more.”
Learning professionals, however, seldom appreciate this interdependent nature of being nor the generative capacity it reveals. They both impact learning and require unlearning.
Learning occurs between a fear and a need. The growth imperative is met by fear of the unknown, which reveals many causes and conditions that defy rational-only analysis; too many variables to codify in “behaviors” or to reduce to empirical measures.
Unlearning occurs between certainty and possibility. The willingness to let go of outmoded assumptions and beliefs often challenges our self-perception with latent doubt, guilt, and old insecurities. The remedy here requires greater wisdom and imagination rather than more knowledge and concepts.
To live between learning and unlearning entails a primary focus on intention, inquiry, imagination, and contemplation.
We must clear our minds to sort out identities, penetrate distractions, prioritize concerns, disclose concealed impediments, and tune in to experience for co-creating our existence. Indeed, the experience of our presence matters. To listen, relate, witness, and to be seen – all support connecting deeply with phenomena internally and externally.
Ultimately, the purpose of learning, here, evolves from knowing and doing more to being more. Tapping into our interdependent nature, we access new dimensions of humanity to expand intentional meaning-making as co-creators.
If we can become open to this possibility, the question then becomes how to clear ourselves to reveal and tune into the vessel that we are?
Such profound questions and claims about our existence require a view of “self” beyond a rational, epistemological knowing self to also include an ontological felt sense of being.
Most pedagogical designs dismiss the tensions between concepts of knowledge and experience of being. We still view content and process as distinct, instead of inseparable phenomena. We separate language, time, energy, and action, managing each independently. And we’ve now begun to view intention and impact as distinct dynamics, preferencing the latter.
As we interact with our world – not via knowledge of concepts or singular events but as the connective tissue of our existence – we do not merely understand content, achieve goals, or experience impact. We also clarify our views and discern our intentions to discover the obstaclesDOWNLOAD PDF
It happened 20 years ago this month. I was teaching graduate students full-time in organizational leadership, and one of my students made me an offer. He wanted to use some of our course work to expand leadership in his vast public healthcare network.
Leaping from academics to consulting revealed a steep learning curve. First off, I had no company. The following journey offers an overall report of our discoveries and some emerging and enduring questions.
Phase One: Leap and Learn
On January 15, 2000, I created Leadership Innovations, Inc. In doing so, my goal was to create innovative leadership programs.
Most of our clients included executives and managers looking to expand their leadership profiles. I focused my efforts on developing a model or methodology that I could call my own.
Between 2000 and 2006, leadership was finally becoming distinct from management. Leaders coped with change between paradigms, and managers coped with complexity to optimize the current paradigm.
Fundamental concern. The company’s focus involved three macro-conditions of change regarding 1) access to information, 2) compression of time, and 3) globalization (beyond economics). Most clients and thinkers were concerned with adapting to this new world of change.
Phase Two: Cocooning
By the end of 2006, I decided that some cocooning was in order and changed the name to Zampella Group. This change denoted enough space to explore the emerging field of leadership development without committing to a direction.
The period from 2006 to 2018 incubated a direction that established leadership as a possibility for everyone in organizational life. We also shifted our client base to include learning professionals and eventually began working with experienced coaches.
Fundamental concerns. During this period, VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity) emerged, evolved and constituted a universal acronym as both a description and impact of non-linear change, and as the context for learning and development.
Phase Three: Emerging
By 2018, now as a team, we had spent three years developing our commitment. Last year, we rebranded as Bhavana Learning Group. The name signified our commitment to integrating Western learning models with Eastern wisdom practices to support the human side of change.
After conducting extensive research in coaching, leadership, and learning, it was clear that learning involves much more than acquiring knowledge. Our focus on learning to unlearn expands into the unknown. This involves the practice of letting go of outmoded beliefs.
Some of these beliefs, such as speed and multitasking, have been disproven by science. Others, such as balancing (or replacing) material needs with psychological needs, have been revealed by our hyper-connected reality.
We clarified our client base by adding educators to our community of experienced coaches and learning professionals.
Fundamental concerns. We enter this period cultivating an emerging interdependent mindset—mutually dependent awareness—that focuses onindividual contemplation, which encourages unlearning with deeper connections to each other, to society, and our planet.
An Organic Process
I confess that this three-phased journey was not as neat or strategic as it seems. Nonetheless, it was organic. Not haphazardly informed (as organic often implies), but actually organic—as in intentionally present to what’s growing: being with mistakes and gaps, new questions and research, dancing with emerging client needs, and discovering new services and practices.
Questions emerged. Some were resolved, but most led to deeper inquiries and insights. This dynamic deepened our interest and fortified an emerging direction.
Our focus on research—to open enduring inquiries—was important early on. Our commitment to research and questioning the nature of change and related learning methods offered the necessary grounding to challenge our assumptions and evolve our efforts.
Surprisingly, we discovered the limitations of Western learning models to serve this level of human change. We ventured East to consume, study and synthesize wisdom, and develop practices and techniques.
The Nature of Change
The nature of change fluctuates between two vectors: the byproducts of change in a commercialized framework and the context of being human in the face of disruptive change. The latter can be unsettling, isolating, and anxiety-ridden. It led us to explore our capacity for learning and unlearning and to cope with what it means to unlearn.
The nature of change also discloses the decay of our current rationalistic, paradigm based on data, “independent” analysis, and “individualistic” approaches. This view of being human insists on learning methods that meet some arbitrary measurement standards. Such methods bias learning toward objective knowledge and material needs, as superior to experiences and psychological needs.
Lamentably, greater technological “advancements” have perpetuated increased separateness and isolation.
We are linked (isolated) but not connected (lack belonging).
Our need for instant gratification shapes our expectations and notions of progress, success, and (un)happiness.
We’ve substituted care for speed and quality for productivity.
Those “moving fast and breaking things” produce instant results and gain immediate rewards regardless of the impact or consequence on society, the planet, our democracy, or the human condition.
This nature of change requires embracing an interdependent mindset that
Reframes our current notions of progress, success, and growth to include greater introspection and appreciation of pluralistic views and experiences.
Develops a new moral imagination to reframe commercial interests with social good and economic justice.
Cultivates shared commitments and communities of practice where isolation is replaced with belonging and mutual growth.
We all possess dignity. Does that sound odd or even doubtful?
The inherent dignity of being human is often overlooked, as we reduce dignity to feelings of respect, admiration, or adoration.
While such traits may be useful and even necessary in some situations, dignity is more than a trait. It is a fundamental characteristic of being a human being.
With our current preoccupation with internet connections, social media postings, “likes,” and emojis, society tends to reward image and impressions. This finds us focusing on our appearance and the impression that we leave.
Such concerns work to strip away our own dignity. In doing so, we diminish our humanity—dismissing ourselves and each other as dignified beings.
What’s important now is less about the honor and wisdom of being human. We’ve been reduced—in a Pavlovian manner—that involves seeking instant gratification and succumbing to peer pressure, the effect of which has us feeling fragmented and isolated, having lost all sense of higher self.
Definitions and Distinctions
To reclaim our dignity, we must examine some distinctions for clarifying terms we may conflate with dignity.
Dignity comes from the Latin word dignitas, meaning “to be worthy.”
The View: All people have the right to be recognized for their inherent humanity and treated justly. Dignity is a given. Dignity identifies a worthy, high, and honorable condition as part of being human. You have dignity just as you breathe and experience things. No one can take your dignity away from you without your participation, and you cannot diminish it in another.
Respect comes from the Latin word respectus, meaning “to look back at.”
The View: Respect implies a review of what a person has seen or experienced; this individual is held in esteem because of their abilities, qualities, or achievements. Respect is earned. You are respected by others for what you achieve and experience and how you handle yourself as you achieve accomplishments.
Admiration comes from the Latin word mir, meaning “to wonder.”
The View: Unlike respect, in which you hold a person in high esteem for their behaviors/abilities/actions with your own, to admire is to hold one in wonder, to marvel, and to place those behaviors/abilities/actions above your own.
Polite(ness) comes from the Latin word politus, meaning “polished, or made smooth.”
The View: Our concern here leans into courtesy and etiquette toward others. This is the essence of politeness, or focusing on how you present yourself in front of others.
Much of our confusion today seems to center around dignity and respect, which I will explore further to offer a deeper understanding of dignity.
Confusing Notions of Respect
In today’s culture, respect seems to be a catchall of standards and behaviors. We assess someone as respectable or respectful in an admiring way. This implies the viewpoint or ideal of the observer, elevating that view as deserving of respect.
Put another way, dignity is akin to honorableness, a quality of the person being elevated.
Respect is a viewpoint, a quality of the person doing the elevating.
Self-respect, or being good to, taking care of, being truthful with, and not denigrating yourself, can be seen as dignified.
People have dignity regardless of whether they are respected by others. It can be difficult to respect a person of little dignity.
Respect acknowledges behaviors, attributes, and experiences, while dignity teaches the importance of honor and humanity.
Dignity and respect may seem like the same thing; however, important distinctions must be made—if for no other reason than to cultivate our capacity for dignity in granting humanity.
So, if dignity is inherent to honoring our humanity, why do we fail to recognize this in people we don’t respect?
Dignity grants the existence of humanity. What it means to be human is experienced in our being with one another. Being with all of humanity allows for humanness in each of us and invites us to expand our perspectives of being human.
From an ontological standpoint, dignity is as necessary to being a human as the body. If we ignore our body for too long (even in terms of basic hygiene), it will no longer work for us. Yet, we disregard our dignity regularly.
From a Buddhist perspective, people merit decent treatment because they possess human dignity, a feeling of inherent worth that is theirs due to the simple fact that they’re human. We need no notion of a fixed self to honor a common humanity; hopes, dreams, aspirations, and fears, which all people have, are part of our presence in this life.
Tapping into this common humanity, often via self-compassion, invites access to dignity.
Loss of Dignity: Being Indignant
Upholding our dignity is as challenging as caring for our body. Much like fasting may cleanse us to a state of wellness, the willingness to be indignant helps to restore our dignity. We lose ourselves without the willingness to express moral outrage.
In recent news, Ukraine has been discussed frequently. In 2014, the Ukrainian people led a demonstration called the Revolution of Dignity, which found them reaffirming their national honor and inherent worth.
The Ukrainians named this demonstration as such for that very reason: to tell the world broadly and remind Russia specifically of their inherent worth. With this action, Ukraine had little concern about whether Russia respected them; that is a different question entirely and perhaps not worth taking to the streets over.
To many, these actions may not have been considered respectable. Still, the Ukrainian people were willing to be indignant to reclaim their dignity.
Icons such as Colin Kaepernick today, and Muhammad Ali decades ago, have become despised by some. Yet, these individuals’ actions only revealed indignance toward undignified policies and practices. They reclaimed dignity, reaching beyond their own desires; they were willing to risk their respect for an idea, or a nation.
Google’s initial hypothesis suggested that building the best possible team means simply compiling the best people—the best experts, engineers, MBAs, and Ph.D.’s.
After studying 180 Google teams, conducting 200+ interviews, and analyzing over 250 different team attributes, to their surprise, Google was unable to reduce the “dream team” gene to any one formula or algorithm.
According to Julia Rozovsky, Google’s people analytics manager, “We were dead wrong.”
Rozovsky and her colleagues continually came across psychology and sociology research that had focused on “group norms”— the traditions, behavioral standards, and unwritten rules that govern how teams function together.
Google discovered five qualities that matter. The first four are:
Dependability. Team members accomplish things on time and meet expectations.
Structure and clarity. High-performing teams have clear goals and well-defined roles.
Meaning. The work is personally significant to each member.
Impact. The group believes their work is purposeful and positively impacts the greater good.
The Fifth Quality: Psychological Safety.
Google also discovered that full participation depends on a fifth quality, termed psychological safety, in which everyone can take risks, voice their opinions, and ask judgment-free questions. A culture in which managers create safe zones so employees can let their guard down. That’s psychological safety.
The irony is that group norms informed by expertise, knowledge, and high education levels can actually undermine psychological safety. People feel controlled, micromanaged, judged, and not safe to question, learn, and grow.
Ask yourself, regarding group norms marked by power, fear, micromanagement, and control:
Can people take risks? Challenge managers and supervisors? Offer input that isn’t solicited?
Can people question leadership without being shut down? Are some questions allowed and not others?
Are these group norms meant for a single culture, color, or sex? Can they be questioned, and if so, by whom?
Google posited psychological safety as necessary to “engineering” successful teams.
Safety for Whom?
Now, we come back to safety.
What if all of this focus on safety is misplaced? What about teams that are informed by diverse experiences, thinking, and views?
What if safety is simply another way to comfort the comfortable and preserve the status quo? Or what if it conceals real issues and suppresses differences?
Most importantly, this kind of “safety” begins to feel like groupthink. It keeps those in power from being questioned, encouraging different views, receiving feedback, or risk-taking.
So then, what do we mean by “safe” in a business context?
One definition involves entitlement to comfort without conflict.
Another involves being secure in one’s position to speak their mind.
Safety as comfort preserves the status quo and encourages groupthink.
Safety protects those in power and the dominant group to prevent raising “uncomfortable” issues.
Safety offers comfort for those in power. We cannot speak truth to power or question the status quo. We can only share views that are comfortable for those in leadership.
Safety undermines true innovation, which begins at the margins. What seems odd or awkward today becomes tomorrow’s new products and services.
Safety as secure in our position to speak our mind involves brave spaces.
Secure in our well-being, we are encouraged to speak our mind. With practice, we learn to:
listen to different experiences, ideas, and ways of thinking;
handle questions, feedback, and opposing views;
consider new ideas; and
become agile and nimble, able to surface and question outmoded assumptions and beliefs.
Power and Fear
Unlike safe spaces, brave spaces dissolve and address the power and fear that can cripple team participation.
Power typically involves five dimensions:
Legitimate power: position of authority
Expert power: acquiring expertise and knowledge,
Coercive power: exerting force and control,
Reward power: offering incentives or reinforcement, and
Referent power: gaining approval through loyalty and admiration.
Power in teams is often used to control agendas, hoard resources, predict situations, prevent discomfort, or protect self-interests. This can lead to hostile work environments.
Fear typically comes from some perceived threat, such as loss of power and loss of self.
Dweck found that children with fixed mindsets would cheat, lie, and give up just to preserve their “all-knowing” identity.
Argyris defines 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 or not they have achieved them.”
These values serve to “avoid embarrassment or threat, feeling vulnerable or incompetent.”
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.
This brings us back to the group norms we internalize that often define how we operate in teams. Are these norms based on being challenged to grow and embrace change or preserving status, power, and identity?
Principles for Brave Spaces
In times of volatile change, complexity, and integrating diverseDOWNLOAD PDF
Diversity. Equity. Inclusion. Three words (DEI) have sown confusion in corporate culture. With a deeper understanding of these terms we can reimagine power and possibilities for genuine equity and inclusivity. I wish to explore these items as follows:
What is DEI as distinct terms, and which set of concerns do they address?
Why is equity critical in sustaining this triad?
What are the challenges to ensuring equity?
To begin, I will explore each term and focus since we often conflate these as interchangeable. I hope such clarity supports those in adult learning and development to consider any gaps in understanding.
The term diversity includes empirical, observable demographics, often amounting to statistics that highlight differences.
Diversity includes all the ways in which people differ. This includes not only race, gender, ethnicity, and multiculturalism, but also age, national origin, religion, ability, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, education, marital status, language, and physical appearance.
The goal of diversity addresses visibility and representation: When I look at membership and leadership in an organization, do I see marginal groups represented beyond token status? Do I observe their impact and hear their voices?
The term equity is related to patterns, practices, and processes that deliver routine outcomes.
Equity focuses on just treatment, access, opportunity, and advancement for all people, while at the same time identifying and eliminating barriers that prevent the full participation of some groups. Equity involves questioning advantages and barriers within the procedures and processes of institutions, as well as in their distribution of resources.
The goal of equity addresses systemic bias to confront root causes of outcome disparities within an organization (and larger society) and to reduce barriers to access for everyone.
The term inclusion involves the felt experience of members belonging to an organization.
It involves cultivating environments where any individual or group can be and feel welcomed, respected, supported, and valued to fully participate. An inclusive climate cultivates a shared understanding or commitment for appreciating differences in words and actions.
Note, while an inclusive group is by definition diverse, a diverse group isn’t always inclusive. A shared commitment will also recognize unconscious or implicit bias to encourage inclusivity.
The goal of inclusion addresses full participation to actualize diversity through equitable structures that foster full participation for all members.
Process and Outcomes:
— Diversity is an outcome. A company’s website reveals its multicultural or gender palette while reports reveal the diverse population via demographic categories.
— Inclusion is also an outcome. Surveys and interviews can reveal the internal “temperature” of a welcoming culture based on marginalized identities.
— Equity is not an outcome. Equity refers to the structures and systems a company consistently engages to ensure that people with marginalized identities have access to opportunities to grow, contribute, and develop — regardless of their identity.
Here’s the larger point: the purpose of the entire DEI enterprise is to produce justice. Only equity addresses the “systems of barriers” that prevent justice. Therefore, equity requires critical examination so as to monitor every aspect of the business process.
Equity: a System of Justice that Questions Power
Equity has changed the diversity game, making it both much more complex and more honest in ways that lead to accountability and systemic change. In my research, equity acts as a system of justice to address power: 1) the power of individualism, 2) the power of systemic barriers to prevent access, and 3) the power of privilege that exploits unearned advantages.
Equality vs. Equity
To support this inquiry, it is essential first to distinguish between equality and equity, which can cause confusion.
Equality essentially is sameness. In fairness to its noble purpose, equality presumes that treating people the same offers the “same” opportunity or starting point for ensuring the same outcomes or endpoint.
Equity is about justness. It provides access to the same opportunity and measures it in terms of outcomes achieved.
Some oppose equity as not meritorious. They state that we can only offer everyone the same opportunity. And claim that equity guarantees everyone the same outcome, which is not fair. This is glib and simplistic.
For instance, one such belief is in meritocracy, which assumes that everyone has had the same access and opportunities.
Never mind the research showing that members of marginalized groups must work twice as hard to be heard, or to achieve average performance. Further, when marginalized colleagues complain about “oppressive” work conditions, they are labeled as difficult.
This ideal of meritocracy conveniently conflates equal opportunity with equitable outcomes. This notion is detailed in the just-published New Yorker piece Is Meritocracy Making Everyone Miserable? which explores two books with insights on the problem.
Education measures stats (diversity) which show parity between women and men and improvement in racial gaps. But, when examining the outcomes, “such data suggests that higher education is not doing much to close the income gap, and that it may be helping to reproduce a class system that has grown dangerously fractured.”
Equity is concerned with outcomes insofar as they measure barriers to access opportunity. These barriers serve, and are defined by, the current power structure.
1- Power of Individualism
Equity addresses systemic changes, root causes operating at the level of ideologies and systems, not individual acts.
The very nature of belonging to a dominant group makes it difficult to see anything beyond ourselves as individuals, never having to carry, navigate, or account for the psychic concerns of our “group” (noted by psychologist Monnica T. Williams).
Only the blindness of rugged individualism allows some to believe they are either above or somehow disconnected from everyone else.
In her book, White Fragility, Robin DiAngelo reveals pillars that prop up whiteness (and racism) without our realizing it. Ideologies such as individualism tend to rub up against coaching philosophies, espousing that one can write one’s own destiny and, throughDOWNLOAD PDF
I’ve recently come to see the impact that deep understanding has on strategy, culture, performance, and connection. Thus, here, I will introduce the term mutual understanding for exploration.
In my research, I have found it challenging to grok the concept of mutual understanding. It is usually described in cognitive or conceptual ways or through philosophical or deep communication models.
How might we expand this human possibility to give meaning to our lives?
A Developmental Pathway
Mutual understanding stems from a deep interest in others and a radical openness that honors what arises. It cultivates new levels of awareness, resulting in dissolving boundaries and creating intentional meaning between self and others.
Mutual understanding exists as part of our human experience beyond our cognitive or conceptual notions of individual understanding. Given the nature of connectivity, which involves experiences, perspectives, and meaning, cultivating mutual understanding will soon be in demand.
To begin, I will outline a pathway that involves three stages of progressive development, viewed here as three mindsets: cognitive self (X), affective self (X+Y), and Intentional and embodied self (X+Y+Z).
X = Our cognitive self clarifies our thoughts and perceptions with logical reasoning and objective evidence and knowledge. We discern circumstances and concepts to develop a grounded understanding.
X+Y = With our cognitive self (X), we add context, emotions, and experiences to develop our affective self (Y) and thus create a shared understanding.
X+Y+Z = We become intentional (X) and cultivate radical openness (Y) to receive and internalize perspectives and meaning. We develop our intentional/ embodied self (Z) to cultivate mutual understanding.
A Fuller View
We identify this developmental pathway from grounded understanding to shared understanding to mutual understanding.
Grounded understanding (X)
This stage of understanding begins with our cognitive self. Here, we achieve a norm-content view to become effective at discerning circumstances.
We develop an understanding grounded in our cognition to observe facts, knowledge, and evidence to gain an objective view of reality.
With reason, we clarify our focus on observing and analyzing circumstances accurately to conceptualize and manage events and conditions.
Grounded understanding defines boundaries and situations to become fully present for managing events and ourselves.
The work at this level is fundamental to developing a disciplined focus to observe facts and question evidence. This level of grounding shapes what’s possible at the next stage. We arrive at a grounded understanding to manage content and navigate conditions efficiently and effectively.
Shared understanding (X+Y)
At this second stage, we increase our awareness of our affective self. Here, we achieve a reflective-action view to create context.
We include our experiences and values to express our voice and relate to others.
We add context by reflecting on shared norms, values, and interests.
Shared understanding emerges from shared experiences that support us in being related.
X+Y relies on the previous stage (X) to enhance how we relate to circumstances. We tune into a shared vision or larger context and communicate with others. We arrive at a shared understanding to anticipate and coordinate actions effectively with others, often from shared values and deeper relatedness.
This stage develops a shared language (thoughts/meanings) discovering our worldviews (perspectives, ideologies, attitudes, etc.) for learning together.
We cultivate a radical openness that cultivates an intentional presence and interconnectedness, “in-betweenness,” or communion with others.
This stage requires dancing with elements from a grounded understanding to be fully present (X) and a shared understanding to be fully related (X+Y). We can be with the possibility that arises and create intentional meaning (X+Y+Z).
Mutual understanding creates a shared meaning for discovering together. We arrive at mutual understanding to tune into a deeper meaning (cultural, ideological, or perspectival) to discern contexts or open possibilities.
Definition + Experience + Meaning
Each stage of understanding is constituted by specific components:
1. grounded understanding: cognition through definition and agreements. 2. shared understanding: affective life through experience and 3. mutual understanding: intentional self through meaningfulness and possibility.
So, where are we in this three-dimensional model?
Here, I am concerned with shared agreements based on facts and rules that I can observe, discern, and communicate.
For example, if I am in a car accident, can I seek evidence to make my case and support my findings to move forward? This requires focus to assess the situation, analyze the data and information, connect the dots (who to call first, second, and third, and what information to secure), and act on the information promptly.
This level of understanding is used daily to manage content and deliver on promises to plan events and complete tasks.
With practice, this level will support me in becoming grounded and expand my capacity to predict, which I can hone to reach the next level: shared understanding.
Here, I can access a shared experience within a context.
Last week, I left two notebooks at Starbucks, where I visit to develop ideas and edit, and I nearly panicked. Those notes are priceless to me; in them, I write ideas for future blogs, curricula, and half-baked thoughts, which I reflect on often. The next morning, I called Starbucks. The person listened to me, left for fewer than 60 seconds, and returned with, “Yeah, we have them here.”
Relieved, I appreciated our shared understanding.
Any other restaurant may have thrown those notes away. However, Starbucks staff has been trained to understand why, beyond its lattes and lunches, customers consume their brand.
Consider that this worker knew exactly where to look and what to expect. They likely figured this out through shared agreements, identified priorities, and best practices onDOWNLOAD PDF
Recently, I presented work on the topic of “unlearning,” which addressed many issues, including our fixation with “problem-solving.”
After my presentation, an educator defended problem-solving as an important skill for students. The discussion was similar to others I’ve had with educators who regard problem-solving as critical preparation for students.
I commented that expanding our perceptions beyond current assumptions requires letting go of our dependence on problem-solving.
I’ve come to see the pervasiveness of the problem-solving mentality and its implications on us as learners, thinkers, and creators.
Addressing the implications of this mindset is a primary focus with students who attend our courses in leadership development. Students (as well as clients) have been so programmed to seek out and solve problems. They fixate on “correct” answers, seek out immediate solutions, and avoid any risk-taking with questions they deem as silly.
Extensive training has students expecting answers to their questions. When we suggest that they “discover for themselves” in their lives, they become both unsettled and intrigued.
Limits of Problem-Solving
The concept of problem-solving has been idealized to mean just about anything. I see it as both a process of finding solutions to difficult or complex issues and a method for continuing to examine many possible root causes for any identified problem.
Strengths: Problem-solving has a singular focus on creating a solution from known or predictable pathways. There’s some creativity to this process, as it can also involve seeking out different root causes.
Great examples include a business process that produces inefficiencies, a financial system that fails to predict outcomes, or any malfunctioning object or product, from a broken toilet to a faulty network server.
Limits: Problem-solving works well within external situations from fixed views and rational perspectives. When issues involve deep thinking or a change in context or perspective, problem-solving constrains us to our current knowledge and assumptions. This forces premature or predictable diagnoses and resolutions.
From a systems-thinking perspective, the maxim goes, “The quickest way out of a problem leads you right back in.” And yet we react, with quick fixes, often to some external stimuli or some internal fear. So pervasive, problem-solving is now our default thought process.
Method or Mentality
As a method, problem-solving can focus on creating positive solutions. But when embodied as a mentality, we becomefixated problem-seekers: discovering solutions to make something unwanted go away.
This normative and rational mentality prescribes a reality without any “unwanted” problems.
This same view informs our medicalized (and psychological) model, which often pathologizes variances and informs our educational pedagogy by rewarding immediate answers over unsolvable questions.
Once trained in this mentality, we become fixers, we wait for answers, and we stop questioning. Seduced by quick fixes and lulled by immediate results, we seek out solutions to our perceived problems.
We normalize reflexive thinking with snap judgments about what’s right or wrong, good or bad, true or false, about what wins or loses, or succeeds or fails—all to render quick fixes for instant satisfaction.
Moving beyond the problem-solving mindset requires distinguishing between its power as a method (how we act on issues) and dissolving its hold as a mentality (how we view issues).
It also requires appreciating these differences:
Problem-solving discovers solutions to make something unwanted go away.
Creativity reveals new methods and approaches to bring things into being or to fashion novel solutions.
Imagination cultivates ideas beyond what exists or what currently seems conceivable.
Education and Learning
Unfortunately, the evolution of education has slowly beaten down the imagination required to combat a problem-solving mentality. Consider the legacy of this last half-century:
— We’ve forgotten how to inspire curiosity and cultivate intuition, instead proclaiming rational problem-solving (that emphasizes binary thought) as the epitome of human potential.
— We have defunded educational art and music programs, which cultivate the imagination that transports us to other lands.
— We have diminished the very humanities Steve Jobs wedded with science to generate elegant ecosystems of technological design. Jobs summarized it this way: “It is in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough; it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the results that make our heart sing.”
— We’ve so derided literature and history that connects us to the human condition that we lack the moral imagination to envision the concerns of others so different from ourselves.
— We are all becoming trained in formulaic thinking, whether through STEM, business education, or the coding mania.
Our education system is now steeped in a problem-solving mentality, as crystallized in STEM. I once asked another educator about the lack of creativity in STEM and was told that engineering provides sufficient space for creativity and imagination.
Sufficient for what? For whom? Problem-solving is the grammar of engineering.
The reactive stance in management is evident in the fixation on problem-solving. Many managers think that management is problem-solving. But problem-solving is fundamentally different from creating. The problem solver tries to make something go away. A creator tries to bring something new into being.
The impetus for change in problem-solving lies outside—in some undesired external condition we seek to eliminate. The impetus for change in the creating mode comes from within.
The outcome of our fixation on problem-solving—as trained in school, reinforced via technology, and rewarded through business—is a reactiveness that is subtle yet narrow in imagination.
With Pavlovian fervor, we solve problems identified by others, read what is assigned, and write what is required to cultivate a sense of “rightness.” Being accepted (or right) becomes more important than being ourselves.
Problem-solving trains us in formulaic assumptions with expectations to resolve, fix, avoid, or dismiss any perceived problems. We automatically view mistakes and failures—the very essence of learning and discovery—as problems.
We deem anything that doesn’t meet our expectations a problem.
My journey began in 2000 when, working with my mentor Devorah Gilbert, I recognized the wisdom she had developed from her time in an Ashram. As a faculty member, coach, consultant, and researcher in adult and leadership development, I would frequently come upon work from Eastern wisdom and Buddhist psychology. What did they know or experience?
I began to find that Buddhist studies bridged several Western paradigms (Integral Theory, developmental psychology, and adult learning) used in my academic research. My practice, however, was sporadic, mostly involving reflective techniques of pausing and taking several breaths before acting.
I knew that practice was important, so in 2005, I took a 30-day residency at a Zen Monastery led by John Daido Loori, Roshi. There, I discovered the writings by Thích Nhất Hạnh, which connected me with “mindfulness.” Practicing in the monastery meant daily silent time, meditating for 90-minute Zazen sessions 2–3 times a day, and a rigorous, precise work-study schedule.
In Buddhism, anger (aversion, hatred, aggression, and self-loathing), greed/gasping, and ignorance encompass the three root Kleshas (poisons). In that monastery, I discovered the central role anger played in my life.
Rage led me to visit therapists since the age of 8, a result of the violent nature of my family. In the wake of my childhood, I lived with several caretakers, dropped out of high school (1982), confronted my sexual orientation, and came out (1984).
With therapy, I learned to cope with my past. However, my aggression, impatience, and sadness remained untouched and informed by an ego designed to protect me through its use of anger. In 2005, I connected mindfulness to Buddhist wisdom as a way to meet my anger, understand its flavor, and tame its desire.
In time, I began to see anger as the tension between hurt and hate. Throughout my life, whenever hurt or frustrated, anger filled me with racing thoughts and rushing sensations that bypassed the hurt and fueled my aggression. I found myself drawn to angry people, angry causes, and angry approaches. I was both a consumer and purveyor of anger.
Buddhist author, scholar, and monk Thích Nhất Hạnh.
In the face of dozens of false starts in practicing meditation, I developed a commitment, mostly because of how I discovered mindfulness.
Studying mindfulness through the work of Thích Nhất Hạnh—rather than from a workshop to reduce stress—connected me to an ethos. I saw how he used it to work with anger, sadness, and joy and appreciated the practice of compassion and wisdom drawn from these teachings. I also valued Buddhist ethics and wisdom, even if beyond me, and appreciated meditating in Sangha.
Still, it took me 15 years since my journey began in 2000 to develop a regular, consistent sitting practice that befriended my monkey mind to offer some presence.
In November 2014, I attended two days of teachings (16 hours) by the Dalai Lama in NYC. I understood perhaps 5% of what he said yet felt an urgency to deepen my study and practice.
Shortly thereafter, I entered more formal studies, deepened my mindfulness practice as part of Buddhist ethics, and brought these practices to our clients. It helped to have a team of colleagues willing to join me in this commitment.
The Ethics and Wisdom of Mindfulness
Even before taking my vows, I found refuge in Buddhist psychology grounded in the Four Noble Truths. When confused, its wisdom guided me in unlearning beliefs. Developing a relationship with my anger, I experienced greater discipline and patience—something quite unthinkable a few years ago. Sometimes, a mundane event can illuminate much.
Over a decade ago, I recalled spilling a glass of water on a coffee table and soaking the papers I was reading. In the past, I would have reacted aggressively, yelled at the table (yes!), and become judgmental, slamming the glass down.
But on this day, I looked at the puddle and began to chuckle—no aggression, judgment, or force. More surprisingly, there was no impulse or habitual energy to lash out or react.
Light and free, I grabbed paper towels to clean the mess. Similar incidents have occurred. In each instance, there’s been more space, a lighter self, and, often, humor.
Please understand that I am not suggesting my anger is gone. I simply no longer avoid or deny it and rarely judge it.
These are the moments that remind me of my mindfulness practice.
As a presenter at ACTO’s conference, I offered research on unlearning to cultivate openness for cultural issues. I also realized three unique attributes of our LGBTQ community, which I’d like to share as a step toward better understanding some of these issues.
First, we must come out. And we must do it repeatedly, with each interaction, to constitute ourselves. Telling our truth is an act of dignity.
In 1988, the LGBTQ community launched the annual Coming Out Day on October 11. This important activism put a human face to our issues, as notables started coming out each year.
The 1980s also revealed the cost of not coming out, of embracing the fear of the closet. Hence, the ACT-UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) slogan “Silence = Death.”
Recently, the story“Gay Suicides Are On The Rise”highlighted the struggle of gay and bisexual men in Canada to come out within society’s newfound opposition.
Second, we haveno family from which to learn. LGBTQ children do not learn how to cope with being gay (LGBTQ). Unlike families in other minority groups, ours cannot offer a shared experience, historic reference, or common heritage.
When we are young, we are not exposed to a shared experience from our family. We do not hear:“This is how it was when I was young. This how you manage the hatred.” We must fill that missing void on our own, which can be horribly isolating. Isolation is a hidden “queer-tax” on our esteem. In addition to public discrimination, we miss the initial experience of solidarity.
According to TheTrevor Project, “40% of transgender adults have attempted suicide, 92% before the age of 25. LGB youth who come from highly rejecting families are 8.4 times as likely to have attempted suicide as peers who reported no or low levels of family rejection.”
Third, we’re a community of communities. Every community—whether Black, Latino, Asian, first peoples, differently-abled, male or female—have LGBTQ members. When we come out, we have a second journey to become part of a diverse community of communities.
Often, such diversity results in a backlash from the dominant culture. Just this last week, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) presented a second two-year survey. Tolerance for LGBTQ among 18- to 34-year-olds has decreased in America:
—36% of young people said they were uncomfortable learning a family member was LGBTQ, compared with 29% in 2017.
— 34% were uncomfortable learning their doctor was LGBTQ vs. 27% in 2017.
— 39% were uncomfortable learning their child had a school lesson on LGBTQ history vs. 30% in 2017.
Tony Zampella is the learning designer at Bhavana Learning Group (previously, Zampella Group), which serves coaches, learning professionals and business executives. As an instructor, researcher, and designer of contemplative learning programs and practices, his work develops mindsets for growing a culture of servant leaders.
At 1:20 a.m. on Saturday, June 28, 1969, four plainclothes policemen in dark suits, two patrol officers in uniform, Detective Charles Smythe and Deputy Inspector Seymour Pine arrived at the Stonewall Inn’s double doors and announced, “Police! We’re taking the place!”
During the events of June 28 to July 1, 1969, outside a little West Village bar, the modern-day LGBTQ movement was born. While a vital community existed before—mostly underground—this moment energized many to mobilize, come out and to venture into the 21st century.
This past weekend, five million people descended on my home city of New York, which was selected to host World Pride Dayto commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising.
I came out as gay in 1984, during the emergence of the AIDS crises. For 35 years, I’ve learned new ways to confront my own internalized homophobia as well as integrating my gay identity into life as an activist, researcher, publisher, writer, consultant, and educator. In each of these spaces, coming out offered me and those I interacted with a richer experience of differences and diversity.
Coaching is the one profession where I work more intimately with people, and yet I must intentionally navigate an identity that isn’t (explicitly) expressed in the competencies or practices of the field.
Coaching and Identity
As a coach and researcher, I see how my internal struggle—integrating more of my identity and distinguishing society’s oppression—has given me access to a deeper awareness of humanity.
I have spent the last year on a task force formed by the Association of Coach Training Organization (ACTO) to explore how we might become more aware of and include identities as part of our professional service.
ACTO’s membership includes coach-training schools and organizations. Our task force explored deep conversations, research, and topics that encompassed implicit bias and discrimination at the individual level and group identity and systemic bias at the collective level.
The conference highlighted many gaps in the coaching profession. It also revealed some of the gaps in our “global community” that still lean into white privilege from North American views. I’ll save these discoveries and suggested resources for another blog.
Ironically, I just completed the global survey proffered every four years by the International Coaching Federation (ICF), this one for release in 2020. Yet, outside of gender, only region and country identify who you are as a coach. No questions are asked about race, ethnicity, sexual orientation or physical ability. This mirrors ICF’s 2012 and 2016 surveys.
This survey will guide the “global” International Coaching Federation (ICF), for the next five years. Identity may be one of the most critical issues associated with inclusion and belonging to understand and coach in organizational life. (For example, see this survey on sexual and gender identity by the New York Times.) How can we address what we are unaware of?
Taking a Stand
One way to combat the perception of#coaching-so-white might be to survey ICF members with a focus on expanding and including more diversity.
Another way is to demand change. What would you do if you were another white speaker at a conference of all white speakers? Might you risk your status and take a stand? That is what fellow ACTO member Molly Gordon did by pulling out as a speaker at a conference for Master Certified Coaches (ICF’s highest credential).
Finally, we can take a stand for the future of coaching. That is what ACTO did last year to guide its future:
What would it mean to have all coaching schools and training organizations accept such a stand?
Impact of Ignoring Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion
Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) is becoming the silver bullet for all that ails organizational culture. Companies have created new DEI roles to brandish their cultural street cred.
Still, do coaches truly understand these issues beyond attending a workshop or reviewing a text, as lived?
Do we understand who is impacted when these issues are left unaddressed?
These recent headlines reveal the influence cultural and social issues now have on business and institutions in society:
Wisdom is the missing condition during these times of volatile change, information overload, and dynamic knowledge. Yet our inability to discern clearly has so clouded our thinking such that we lack clear judgment, rendering wisdom inaccessible. In this blog, I focus on clear thinking, perhaps the most misunderstood of our abilities.
From journalists to lawmakers to educators, we no longer possess a penetrating lens to peer through cloudiness with any credibility. We can no longer advocate for the truth, nor can we call an act what it is. With our perception and judgment clouded by euphemisms and reflexive beliefs, we’ve lost our ability to think.
Our primary culprit of lazy thought is that we haven’t cultivated a “habit of questioning.”
This complacency commonly takes two forms:
— The first is the primacy of problem-solving: we frame thinking as seeking out answers to solve problems. Once we find an answer or evidence that confirms our position, we stop questioning.
— The second issue is more reflexive thinking; it lacks any questioning at all. This approach is akin to simply saying whatever is necessary to achieve a desired outcome. When asked how we arrive at our thoughts we are stymied, because no questioning has taken place.
Both views delude us into thinking that we are thinking, when in fact we are comforted by initial evidence or by the fruits of wishful thinking. At best what we claim as thinking is the activity of managing our old thoughts or beliefs, or analyzing the agreeable evidence.
Both of these views lack a habit of questioning that clarifies assumptions, discards outmoded beliefs, and makes space for new thoughts.
Thinking about Thinking: A Habit of Questioning
Whatever the reason, when we stop questioning, we dismantle the mechanism of thinking.
Thinking involves questioning our beliefs, our assumptions, and the evidence in a way that opens space for new thoughts. Philosopher Hannah Arendt points us to the issue: “Thinking aims at and ends in contemplation, and contemplation is not an activity but a passivity.”
Thinking dwells, lets itself be; and as Arendt suggests involves “cultivating the habit of questioning whatever comes to pass, or that attracts our attention.”
In this way thinking is less about cleverness, calculation, and consumption of data and more about mindfully being with situations in a free and open manner that invites each moment to present itself fully.
Thinking is related more to freedom than to facts, and aligns more with presence than reasoning.
The question then becomes: do we meet the moment freely with openness, or do we rely on old thoughts and project unexamined assumptions?
Activist and education philosopher Paulo Freire offers insight: “Even if the people’s thinking is superstitious or naïve, it is only as they rethink their assumptions in action that they can change. Producing and acting upon their own ideas—not consuming those of others.”
Clear thinking, then, first requires surfacing projections that mask as thinking, and two of the most pervasive are magical thinking and positive thinking.
To practice clear thinking, we begin by confronting our magical (“fantasy” or “wishful”) thinking, which can distort what is seen and acted on.
Magical thinking denotes the causal relationship between perception, actions, and events. It is the belief that one’s wishes or desires can influence the external world.
Magical thinking is marked by vague claims, generalizations, platitudes, or hyperbole. It wants (wishes for) something based on beliefs or hopes that have no possible reality or are not based on concrete evidence or specific details.
We’ve all had moments of magical thinking. Fifteen years ago I started a non-profit Center to deliver leadership programs without a market, funding strategy, program development or plan for training. After all, I had secured a 501(c)3, and had the knowledge, right? And with funds, I signed an office lease, designed a website, and hooked up phones.
Such events reveal our casual relationship with reality. I not only didn’t question my expectations; it didn’t even occur to me that such questioning was necessary.
You don’t need to know how to get where you are going, but where you are going must be in the realm of what’s possible or credible when looked at from the perspective of where you actually are. Magical thinking causes others to question that credibility.
OUTCOME: I employ platitudes to move others to a goal, sell an idea, or agree to terms without any details.
A common form of magical thinking, “positive thinking” attempts to frame the facts or conditions that confront you in life with a more positive interpretation. “Pollyanna,” “do-gooder,” “goody-two-shoes”—these are some of the disparaging nicknames that we have for people who avoid evidence in an effort to be positive. (Note: One can be supportive and deliver the facts without having to make it positive in this unseeing or unobserving sense.)
We say, “It’s a great idea, so it will all work out,” or “don’t be so negative, think positive.” We do not seek out counterfactual evidence, question the available (or lack of) details, or recognize how we distort conditions to spin our positive claims.
This kind of distorted thinking places a layer of positive sentiments or delusion between us and what we are dealing with, like a layer of fog. Instead of dealing with the conditions in front of us, we are left to navigate the fog, so we become better at describing the fog.
OUTCOME: I employ a positive spin on circumstances to make myself and others feel good.
Clear thinking is the ability to question assumptions critically with the ability to engage in independent and reflective thought. It involves questioning concrete evidence and specific details that point to causes and conditions with evidence, concepts, logic, and/or context.
Concrete details are tangible. For instance, the house at the end of the block is on fire. This claim is understood by three concrete items: house, fire, block. These are clear byDOWNLOAD PDF
This blog begins a series to distinguish specific items that can support cultivating wisdom. Each item inquires into a specific “tension” or idea. In this case, the tension between Certainty and Clarity. The confusion and tension between certainty and clarity can cause a great of suffering and with practice can cultivate wisdom.
Meet the “U” in VUCA
Most of us in the learning and development profession have become familiar with the acronym VUCA—Volatile, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity—during the last two decades.
Each of these terms represents a phenomenon that affects the human condition and influences our view of reality.
Volatility and complexity tend to measure externalities that experience the pace or scope of change. Uncertainty and ambiguity often describe internal conditions or experiences that define our observations and perceptions of change.
We will discover that our relationship to clarity is bound up in our understanding of certainty and uncertainty.
Certainty v. Clarity
Let’s begin by distinguishing these two terms.
Certainty is an emotional state. It is informed by fear that offers a sense of safety and security in a predictable outcome. We grow to expect a specific outcome to hold fear in abeyance.
Certainty is grinding on the last 10% of a decision to get all possible information, at the expense of time and possibly market advantage.
Certainty rests on how and what. It requires that we know the outcome and that we’ve figured out how any choice will impact the outcome before taking any action.
By its name, certainty is designed to avoid “uncertainty.”
Clarity is a state of mind. It is the result of an inquiry that clears the mind. It allows us to know the next step without having to know every aspect of the outcome.
Clarity occurs when you have enough information to make an informed, optimal decision. Then you make that decision.
Clarity rests on a grounded sense of why. It gets you out of bed with a sense of deep commitment before you know whether customers are lining up to purchase your services. Here, purpose is key.
Clarity is design to be with “uncertainty.”
The term, “attached,” above is from an Eastern wisdom context for “attachment” to mean “fixated on” or “obsessed with.” This is different from a Western context that tends to mean “bonding with.”
Knowing v. Discovering
Clarity says, “This problem deserves your attention,” while certainty tells you, “Wait until you know the answer.”
Here’s the rub: the essence of VUCA and the nature of change reveal that we can never know all the factors of any endeavor. In fact, we discover some of the most important variables after we’ve moved forward with our effort.
If we become attached to certainty, we will miss critical signs, patterns, and possible opportunities to alter, question, or clarify our direction.
Sure, we may produce our “expected” outcome, but we may be headed for a cliff. Or, we may miss critical opportunities to learn, innovate, and grow in ways that produce a different or more sustainable result.
The wise person realizes this: nothing is fixed or permanent. The best-laid plans or thoughts are subject to influence. Only a clear mind—unattached to an outcome—can be with the uncertainty that opens us to discovery.
Zen master Shunryu Suzuki points to this level of openness: “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s, there are few.”
So, how do we move forward in uncertainty?
Unclear v. Uncertain
There’s a big difference between being unclear and being uncertain.
Being unclear is not knowing which step to take.
Being uncertain is not knowing what the outcome of taking that step will be.
It’s important to distinguish between the two and to be able to recognize whether it’s a lack of clarity or the fear of uncertainty that’s getting in the way.
Unlike certainty, clarity isn’t reached via a tortuous route that can involve our identity or ego. When we personalize outcomes, our ego conflates being certain with being right. We then filter out ideas that question our desired outcome, ignore feedback we do not wish to hear, or deny data that “gets in our way” that we do not wish to see.
According to Steven Stosny, Ph.D., “To create a feeling of certainty, the brain must filter out far more information than it processes. In other words, the more certain you feel, the more likely you are wrong.”
And here’s an important paradox: the more self-assured one is of an outcome, the greater the chance of being caught off guard or paralyzed by fear.
Because clarity is not an emotional state, it is unclouded and unhindered, with the humility to choose the best next step.
Those who are clear expect to be wrong or surprised and can choose in the face of change.
Those that must be certain before acting find themselves trapped—unable to act until they are certain.
A time-tested truism states that the only way to predict the future is to create it. Develop yourself to embrace uncertainty: use the result of each step to pave the direction to that future, now.
What You Can Do to Embrace Uncertainty
The good news is that you possess the clarity required for any effort. We simply need to let go of any attachments to goals and outcomes and to trust our choices. These practices offer support:
Find a mindful practice that creates space in your life for reflection, introspection, and inquiry.
Notice any disappointment. When it occurs, first, discover any expectations. Then practice tolerating uncertainty by letting go of any attachment to expectations or to the outcome.
Learn to distinguish between being unclear (not knowing which step to take) and being uncertain (not knowing what the outcome of taking that step will be).
Practice differentiating outcomes as a fixed eventDOWNLOAD PDF
Would you rather be stuck in an elevator or listen to an elevator pitch? This is a tough call for me: both evoke stressful situations.
My niece—a young, brilliant artist—recently graduated from a design school with a Bachelor of Fine Arts. She graduated armed with two formulas to sell her services in the “real world”: mastering the elevator pitch and finding your customer’s “pain points.”
Did I mention she graduated from an art school?
Some of our business concepts can offer real solutions, but others can be reductive and can pollute education, learning, and the human spirit.
Two such ideas include the elevator pitch and the popular pain-point primer for pitching products.
1 – Ditch the Pitch
Much of what we call an elevator pitch demands a formula for reducing services to a 15- 30-second script. Elevator or not, I often feel trapped when delivering or receiving such a script.
For those who have a well-defined need, no pitch is necessary—but if it works, great. For most of us meeting you, and getting to know you as an offer, the pitch is a turn-off in at least three ways:
— People do not buy products based on the words you use. Most purchases are based on how you make the consumer feel or because they see a possibility for themselves. Before you fill a need for others, they connect either with you or the possibility you create.
— A pitch relies on a canned script, something you’ve thought through before connecting with the person in front of you.
— A pitch is another word for “sell.” It reeks of an icky agenda, informing what comes out of your mouth as obvious and often cringeworthy.
Instead of a pitch, consider three or four scenarios that you might find yourself in. Practice speaking to yourself in each scenario, imagining the person in front of you.
Ask questions and listen to the person—not your agenda. Pause, and reflect on what was said to seed a conversation (perhaps with more questions).
Remember your why. Speak from the purpose or commitment that animates you to make a difference. What is that difference you wish to make? How do you see your offers leading to that?
Share examples or stories about client benefits. People often find themselves in stories they can relate to.
Take the next steps: Create a possibility to set up a meeting or follow up with an email.
The goal is to transform “making the sale” into “making a connection.” An authentic connection will either lead to work or to a champion of your work.
2 – No Pain, Big Gain
A pain point is a specific problem that prospective customers of your business are experiencing. Some common examples include pain points in finances, productivity, process, or support. This is where you step in to relieve your client’s “pain” with your service or product.
The pain-point formula drives much of today’s marketing, branding, website design, and business value statements.
My quarrel isn’t with the idea; it can work, and it can produce critical insights. My problem is that we stop thinking and start relying on the formula. This leads to narrowing our mind.
1 – We adopt a problem-solving mindset that reduces our focus and all ideas to problems. We seek out problems and quick fixes without truly understanding issues.
2 – We come to rely on problem-solving with binary thinking that destroys imagination in ways that quash our ability to create possibilities.
Is this difference between problems and possibilities just semantics? Only in the way that achieving success is qualitatively different from not failing. In the latter, we focus on the problem: not failing.
Such a focus frames our assumptions about human potential and capacity regarding creativity and imagination.
Problem-solving discovers solutions to make something unwanted go away.
Creativity discovers new methods and approaches to bring things into being or to fashion novel solutions.
Imagination cultivates ideas beyond what exists or what currently seems conceivable.
Imagination is the ability to envision something that does not yet exist, the ability to form a mental image of something not yet perceived by the five senses. According to Einstein, “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution.”
Instead of reciting pitches or relying on pain points, become curious. Imagine a future your clients wish to create or think of aspirations they wish to cultivate. Position yourself as the paintbrush on your client’s wide-open canvas.
What is the future your clients imagine? How can their offers or products create or impact that future? What kind of leadership will that future require?
When Companies Imagine Beyond Pain
What great companies like Apple do is invent twice. First, they imagine a new world as an aspiration, and then they return from that world with inconceivable ideas to invent products that both create and then serve that world.
They do not invent products first. They create a new world for those products. That requires imagination.
If we explore the iPod, what pain points did it set out to resolve?
The iPod solved the yet unknown pain points of finding, buying, storing, managing, and transferring music. Had Apple focused there and fixed those issues, we’d have some peripheral products to resolve these concerns.
Apple likely realized these pain points. But if it had offered a product to resolve those alone, I would have passed.
Instead, Apple imagined a world in which its product resolved issues we didn’t know about to connect us to music. When marketed, the iPod promised to “place 1,000 songs in your shirt pocket,” just like the Mac originally promised “a computer on every desk.”
Apple imagined an unimaginable world that offered us possibilities yet to be discovered.
To imagine its world, Apple built a whole ecosystem around iTunes and apps. Without it, the iPod would have just been an expensive niche MP3 player or perhaps the Zune.
You get one marshmallow now or two in an hour. I remember this test, which proved a valuable point about emotional intelligence: that our temperament can forecast future success. Delaying immediate gratification paid more dividends—even more than IQ—to one’s success.
This seems a quaint notion now, a quarter-century later, as we experience an abundance of information and daily inundation of content with a profusion of choices.
Perhaps the most important capacity today is the capacity to choose wisely.
Choosing requires the judgment to sort priorities. Without it, everything appears the same and becomes an emergency to do now (lacking priority).
Coaches and consultants often observe “busyness” as lacking time, boundaries (or balance), and focus on time management, self-care, or prioritizing. But at the heart of this issue is something more fundamental and confusing: choices.
What, how, and why we choose are often unclear to us unless and until we reflect on our relationship to “choice” with a clear mind.
Schwartz points to how the act of choosing intersects with our notions of free will, power, and responsibility. The sense of control we often get from choosing can be overwhelmed by the number of choices we cannot absorb, evaluate, or fully understand. We also often focus on the freedom of choice while dismissing the responsibility that we must take for our choices.
If we are unclear about what matters to us, beyond others’ expectations of us, we are more likely to choose from scarcity, from not (being) enough. Choosing from scarcity can cause greater regret, guilt, anxiety, and insecurity, without ever realizing satisfaction and the possibility of freedom.
If this sounds abstract, consider the frustration expressed in the tweet below.
How is this possible? What can we do about it?
Paralyzing or Liberating?
Capitalistic logic might indicate that more choices mean more competition, which increases quality. We have more news media outlets today than ever before, with more choices for consumption: broadcast, print, blogs, apps, streaming services, etc. With the abundance of time and cyberspace, what have we produced?
Economics suggests that a rarity of space, time, and intellectual resources—once governed by square inches, barrels of ink, and broadcast minutes, providing fewer choices with greater deliberation—yields a more thoughtful product.
Today, the abundance of space and time has offered more choices and greater access, without any threshold. The result is a system that churns out information and misinformation that has drained our intellectual resources to absorb, evaluate, and be informed. Sure, we have some better products, but we also have many more inferior products. Most do not have the literacy, time, or energy to discern the difference. Instead of more choices liberating us, we become paralyzed by choices or numb to weighing the differences.
Maximizer or Satisfier?
According to Schwartz, how we view choices characterizes us as either a Maximizer or Satisfier.
The Maximizer has no standards. They operate from an ideal of “the best” rather than the idea of “good enough.” They engage in exhaustive research to seek out the best, becoming drained. When they decide, they are left wondering if another, better option might exist and are unsatisfied.
For this mindset, an abundance of choices is met with a fear of missing out (FOMO) and the possibility of never having enough. Applied to news, without standards, we consume endlessly for fear that we will miss out on the latest. We become confused and drained.
The Satisfier operates from a predetermined standard for what is good enough. They apply that standard to any option before them. When the product or service (or toothbrush) meets their standard, they are satisfied and stop searching.
For this mindset, an abundance of choices is met with the recognition that “enough” is possible. Applied to news, we might read and view from a diet that informs us. Then we stop.
The satisfier also comes away with another lesson: some choice is necessary, but more choice is not always better.
FOMO or JOMO
Choosing often means being confronted with “choice shock,” claims Schwartz, who told Pacific Standard Magazine, “My suspicion is that [social media], and dating sites have created just the thing I talk about in connection with consumer goods: Nobody’s good enough, and you’re always worried you’re missing out.”
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.
Practice Choosing Well
In addition to these ideas, I have found four frames that support intentional choosing.
1 – Choosing Principle: Important or Urgent
I offer you this temporal grid, originated by President Eisenhower and popularized by Stephen Covey, to observe your choices.
Q1- PRESENT – We manage deadline-driven projects, pressing issues, and tasks.
Q2- FUTURE – We manage important items that are not urgent but reflect our values. We live by our principles, not by others’ deadlines.
Q3- PAST – We use distractions to cope: to feel good and ignore items that are urgent or important.
Q4- PAST – We use distractions to neglect items, often becoming obsessed and fixated by disruptions.
Beyond routine learning and acquiring simple skills, there’s a learning—let’s call it deep learning—that cultivates our capacity to learn, unlearn, and evolve as human beings. Deep learning encourages the necessary challenges to grow beyond our beliefs and assumptions to unlearn outmoded thinking and experiment with self-discovery.
Deep learning develops learners in ways that match these times of exponential change and information overload. With our abundance of (and access to) content, our learning challenges involve context—our perspective, worldviews, and discernment.
Our challenge is to bridge the gap between our cognitive and affective lives to integrate new knowledge and emotions or experiences in ways that alter our self-perceptions.
Learning vs. Knowing
As a society, instead of delving deeper into the important questions posed by Senge and Kofman, we’ve begun focusing on the delivery and accumulation of knowledge.
We develop assessments to measure knowledge and technology and thus access more information, accelerate training, and optimize content delivery. We create new processes to repurpose ideas for faster consumption.
A quick review of the literature on learning and development reveals that data and analytics have focused on data-driven learning. Marketing has guided and scaled learning to focus on immediate benefits. ROI has focused on why and what we measure.
With our focus on technology, scaling, ROI, and delivery modes, we’ve made little progress in differentiating the cognitive (knowledge and knowing) from the affective (experience and discovery) aspects of being human.
What’s the point of adult development if heaps of knowledge cannot cultivate sufficient wisdom to get us in touch with what deeply matters to ourselves and others?
Much of this involves a reduced view of learning that eliminates our experiences. We accumulate information without discovery, acquire knowledge without wisdom, and analyze thinking without a deeper connection or emotional satisfaction.
Learning today is so focused on achieving cognitive results that we fear not knowing and the possibility of discovery.
Learning, Emotions, and Fear
With all our knowledge, we’ve failed to realize that adult learning involves an emotional—not cognitive—challenge.
Learning occurs between a fear and a need; we traverse the fear of the unknown to fulfill an unmet need. Much of our fear comes from reflecting on our experience, where learning actually emerges. As philosopher and scholar, John Dewey noted, “We do not learn from experience. We learn from reflecting on experience.”
Whether guilt, shame, despair, or dread, fear can impede our exploration and discovery in ways hidden from us. For instance:
— Being a beginner and the fear of not knowing can provoke anxiety and stress. While the three words “I don’t know” are the most difficult to utter, “I’m a beginner” is a close second.
— Being confused or stuck in confusion can produce self-talk that something’s wrong with us. This can isolate and prevent us from seeking support.
— Concerns about looking foolish, or being perceived as stupid or dumb can often cause embarrassment or drive one to be defensive or unwilling to participate.
— Taking feedback personally can cause us to overlook important connections and insights.
— Concerns about unlearning outmoded views or ideas can become overwhelming, dreaded, or ego-crushing.
The fear we experience as part of any deep and personal learning process can become disorienting and even lead to a loss of identity.
Deep Learning Includes Emotions
Once we recognize our fears, we can appreciate the role emotions play in guiding and informing our learning. According to Alan Sieler, author of Coaching to the Human Soul, Volume II:
Our initial challenge as emotional learners is to observe what is—to allow ourselves to observe and acknowledge emotions as phenomena that constitute an integral part of how we are human.
This is the paradox of learning: The very emotions that can impede us are most critical to learning.
Typically, our traditional learning paradigm tends to intellectualize emotions—we talk about them rather than experience or learn from them. We explain why an emotion exists—distancing ourselves from the feeling—rather than sitting with its sensations or felt experience as it moves through our body.
Intellectualizing our emotions aligns more with cognitive than affective learning. For most educators, teaching is more about understanding teachings than experiencing learning. While a wise teacher can bring teachings to life, ultimately, the learner learns what they care about.
Delving into deep learning involves more than great teachers and teachings. In fact, we need more than what is available individually or experientially.
This journey requires venturing East.
The Three Gems
Deep learning that expands our view of the self and others cannot be achieved individually. And while teachings and a teacher are necessary, they are insufficient to expand our awareness of self.
Hence, another paradox emerges: Only in a trusted community can we grow individually.
Alternatively, when it comes to individual growth, we must look beyond the self. Buddhist thought offers the three gems(or three jewels), which represent an interdependent whole that includes:
The Buddha (the teacher),
The Dharma (the teachings), and
The Sangha (the community).
The most important part of this triad, however, is not any single item. The treasure here is the wisdom of its interrelated, interdependent nature.
Western learners may view this triad as three separate items to combine.DOWNLOAD PDF
Listening is an underdeveloped asset in our leadership, culture, and organizational life. Deep listening expands our capacity to remain open, receive concerns, perceive experiences, and discover situations newly. And yet, as change becomes exponential and information assaults our senses, listening suffers.
On a deeper level, being heard can lead to a release that can feel empowering, validating, and important. This involves sharing deeper concerns and truths.
For coaches, therapists, and educators, a failure to listen deeply can create professional negligence. For leaders, team members, and business professionals, it often produces unnecessary setbacks, misunderstandings, missed connections, or conflicts.
My research emerges from the deep learning that informs deep listening in several past blogs, as well as a white paper. These prior writings examine listening in a developmental model. This blog offers an unexplored aspect of listening: specific learnings and practices to expand and deepen one’s listening.
Listening as Context
What is listening? Let me begin with this: Speaking is insufficient to say what listening is. As soon as we breathe a word about listening, we’ve reduced its fullness. We’ve defined and limited a human phenomenon that is misunderstood, underappreciated, and highly involved.
We tend to observe listening as the opposite of speaking—in other words, if you are not speaking, then you must be listening. These observations engage a fatal error.
Listening as context is first a field of being, manifesting a commitment to be with what arises.
Listening as competency improves our knowledge, ability, and skills that form our habits.
Listening as content recognizes the material we uncover and shapes our speaking.
If this is news to you, please consider whether, at some point, you’ve reduced listening to something much less than what is possible.
Deep listening supports levels of awareness of a field within which life emerges. I propose that such a field is governed by our openness to change. Deep listening expands our identity to include three interdependent states: intention, openness, and wholeness, each involving specific learnings and practices.
With each state, we awaken, deepen, and embody listening as a field or context to recognize the reactive self, competitive self, and fragmentedself. Each of these identities results from our conditioning and impedes deep listening.
I will briefly develop each state and review five learnings and four practices that I’ve discovered to sustain deep listening: 1) learning to observe, 2) practicing “coming back,” 3) learning to let go of “the need to know,” 4) practicing resistance training, 5) learning to dissolve the “problem” paradigm, 6) practicing acceptance, 7) learning radical openness, 8) learning to “be with” possibility, and 9) practicing granting being.
Intention: Awaken the Field
With intention, we increase consciousness to disclose and discover automatic, habitual energy that drives listening and choices. Ultimately, we become aware of our reactive self and interrupt its impact on us and others.
We create and cultivate space between opinions and actions. Some outcomes include:
The ability to distinguish between intentions, expectations, and impact.
Accurately reproducing communications, requests, and conditions of satisfaction.
Two practices and two learnings support this state: 1) learning to observe, 2) practicing “coming back,” 3) learning to “not know,” and 4) practicing resistance training.
1. Learning to Observe
Here, we begin with listening to your observer. We are always observing, but for most, it is casual and can be distracting. These four levels of observation reveal how layers of reality often happen in tandem. We can discern these levels upon reflection.
Level 1- Observe events around us—the rain falling, the dog barking, and the garbage truck driving by.
Level 2- Observe our direct experience of events. It’s raining, and I am wet. The dog’sbarking is loud.The unpleasant smell of the garbage truck.
Level 3- Observe our internal state. I notice disappointment that it’s raining. I am delighted to see the dog. The garbage truck reminds me that I forgot to take out my trash, and Ifeel anger rising.
Level 4- Observe our listening. A stranger asks for directions. I pause and ask her to repeat the question. In a split second, I notice my listening. I set aside rising anger, disappointment, and delight. I now pay attention to the question.
2. Practicing “Coming Back”
The practice of coming back involves distinguishing between focus and concentration.
Focus is the span of attention or staying present.
Concentration is the depth of attention or stayinggrounded.
The practice of coming back supports both being present and staying grounded by focusing the mind on a single object, to the exclusion of other objects, to foster concentration on a single task. To practice, we notice distracting thoughts or sensations that arise, then gently return awareness to the primary object of experience (the breath, a word or conversation, etc.).
3. Learning To Let Go of “the Need to Know”
The three hardest words to utter may be “I don’t know.” Yet, until we can become comfortable with not knowing, we cannot fully discover, inquire into, or embrace the uncertainty on the other side of our opinions and judgments. Paradoxically, freedom and openness emerge from that uncertainty.
Deep listening expands beyond what we already know. To cultivate this space, we practice letting go of the need to know, prove, or explain. We allow for unexpected discoveries.
— Listening for knowledge seeks certainty: the fixed and predictable. We are located in our head and thinking about or intellectualizing events.
— Listening from wisdom involves questioning knowledge. With humility and uncertainty, we experience events using all our senses by tuning into our breath and body.
More importantly, avoid turning something new into something known. This reduces “differences” to similarities. Embrace each moment with a fresh perspective.
This learning is a fulcrum we revisit for cultivating deep listening. Using practices one and two, we become open. Learning to let go as aDOWNLOAD PDF
Commitment is a universal element in life. While just speaking the word commitment can elicit confusion and angst, there’s no question about its importance in our lives. Everything from monthly bills to education, marriage, work, and goals depends on some level of commitment.
The challenge becomes distinguishing, cultivating, and deepening commitment, especially in times of volatile change and uncertainty.
With this post, I will examine a fuller understanding of commitment: first, to offer different views of commitment, then to explore it as a context with fundamental conditions, and finally, to address some of the challenges in cultivating a life-giving commitment.
The research on commitment includes at least three broader views: psychological, philosophical, and Buddhist.
John Meyer and Natalie Allen published a three-component model of commitment in Human Resource Management Review (1991). The model distinguishes commitment as a psychological perspective toward an organization, with three components that affect how employees feel about the organization:
— Affection for job (affective commitment). Here, you feel a strong emotional attachment to your organization and to the work that you do. You may identify with the organization’s goals and values and want to be there.
— Fear of loss (continuance commitment). This type of commitment is achieved through a cost-benefit analysis; you weigh the pros and cons of leaving your organization. You may feel the need to stay at your job because the loss you’d experience by leaving it would be greater than the benefit you might gain in a new role.
— Sense of obligation (normative commitment). Here, commitment feels like an obligation: you are duty-bound to your organization, even if you’re unhappy in your role. You feel that you should stay with your organization because it’s the right thing to do.
Each option in this model offers a normative view, depending on some evaluative and external assessment as good, or better. Even so, each case seems insufficient to generate a commitment from within yourself to bring to work.
A philosophical inquiry questions the relationship between freedom and commitment. Business philosopher Peter Koestenbaumhighlights the importance of this inquiry:
“One of the gravest problems in life is self-limitation: We create defense mechanisms to protect us from the anxiety that comes with freedom. We refuse to fulfill our potential. We live only marginally.”
We become less because we are unwilling to commit to our fullest potential. In his classic, The Fifth Discipline,Peter Senge dissects different views of commitment that reveal who we are regarding our potential.
Compliant. Here, we conform to others’ expectations. The attitude is “we do this because it’s our job.” As long as we finish the task, we are satisfied, even though more opportunity exists. We see no incentive to go the extra mile, which often entails creating more work.
Signs of compliance:
1. Objectives are only completed at minimum standards.
2. Meetings are attended but with limited participation.
3. Input is acknowledged but nothing happens.
Enrolled. Here, we express ourselves, aligned with an organization’s purpose and the “spirit” of a vision or future. We see value in our participation and recognize our valuable contributions based on our experience, insight, and intuition.
Signs of enrollment:
1. People approach you instead of you looking for them. They proactively sign up for positions or tasks, and ask: “How can I help?”
2. They actively contribute in meetings, ask questions, and interject opinions.
Committed. Here, we do whatever it takes, becoming willing to make personal trade-offs and taking responsibility for co-creating reality. We put ourselves on the line in order to reach key objectives and goals to bring about a vision or future.
Signs of commitment:
1. Show up to meetings and events fully and prepared to contribute or seek out contributions from others.
2. Challenging assumptions and opinions based on expertise and skill sets.
3. Willing to break the rules after they have been learned.
When we venture East, deep commitment becomes akin to a vowor a willingness to surrender to something larger than yourself. Commitment emerges from a compelling future that binds and guides us:
It can ground us and provide a sense of purpose.
It can provide direction in life.
It can give us something to serve.
It can help us evolve emotionally and in wisdom.
It can provide a context for making decisions.
It can prevent us from acting on unhealthy impulses.
It can unify the mind.
From this view, making a commitment doesn’t necessarily mean that you will reap the desired result. The outcome of any commitment can involve conditions beyond your control. Therefore, you aren’t committing to a certain result—you are committing to a way of life, to showing up as your best effort. The reward comes from acting on your commitment.
Elements of Commitment as Context
We can begin to see commitment as more than a goal I achieve or a value I embrace to achieve goals: it is a context for viewing life that enlivens and animates me. Commitment as a context involves three fundamental conditions: choice, word, and stand. Each of these exists at three levels of awareness: life either happens to me, by me, or through me.
Choice: Intention from a level of consciousness. My relationship to “choice” is based on my level of consciousness.
1. Life happens to me. I am at the effect of life. Choosing occurs as reacting, mostly unconsciously (Senge’s “compliant” view).
2. Life happens by me. I make things happen. Choosing occurs asDOWNLOAD PDF
A new year often heralds announcements. True to form, I wish to use this space to announce our new direction, which will begin to unfold this week.
About three years ago, our team realized through our teaching, research, and client services that conventional notions of leadership—even the more innovative versions—were failing to manage the effects of our pace of change and information overload.
We recognized that the disruptive nature of change—especially as it relates to coaches, educators, and executives (our client base)—and its unintended consequences demanded greater attention and inquiry.
Leadership development today requires more than strategies for dealing with product life cycles, supply chains, and scaling or mission statements that encourage employee retention and optimization of teams and systems.
The onslaught of information and frequency of change revealed another critical dimension to our work: the well-being of the colleagues and the wellness of the culture to transform a business into a community.
Through much research and inquiry, we explored becoming more.
New Direction: The Human Side of Change
We began with a shift in direction, guided by our clients. Most come to us for leadership development—yet, we have noticed a stronger focus on cultivating learning than on developing leadership. This includes the learning, unlearning, and openness required to navigate the effects of our information-laden world of volatile change.
Today, the nature of change demands that we pay attention to learning to learn and to coping with unlearning.
This learning-and-unlearning dynamic is necessary to cultivate the very openness required to develop leadership mindsets today—to release outmoded views and deepen the commitment for an inclusive and sustainable culture.
We view this as the human side of change, which involves a three-phase methodology:
AWAKEN. An inquiry into your being as body, mind, and language.
INTEGRATE. A transition that expands mindsets to include your whole self.
SUSTAIN. A life of contemplative practice to sustain awareness and action.
This focus on the human side of change through deep learning will now become our “north star.”
This realization began with the task of changing our name, expanding our brand, and birthing an evolving story.
Our new brand involves three interrelated elements: our name, our symbol, and our tagline, which come together to tell our story.
Our new name, Bhavana Learning Group, speaks to several elements of our new direction.
Our new brand affirms our shift to include Eastern wisdom and practice as a fundamental part of who we are becoming.
Bhāvanā is an ancient Sanskrit word meaning “to seed” or “to cultivate.” It’s derived from bhava, which means “being, a state of body or mind.” The Buddha himself chose the word bhāvanā to describe a process of cultivation: the development of mental qualities, such as imagination and awareness,directedtoward intentional change.
Typically, the topic preceding bhāvanā is the focus of cultivation. Metta bhāvanā in Sanskrit means to cultivate kindness. At Bhavana Learning Group, we view our work as grounded in a commitment of becoming.
We support learners in cultivating the soil of awareness and seeding intentional change as they develop the leadership to serve their colleagues and organizations within our field of learning.
The symbol that accompanies the name embodies two messages.
The first message is represented by an image of the contemplative labyrinth.
The labyrinth was originally created by the Greek king Minos to keep the Minotaur (the part-man, part-bull beast) confused and therefore contained.
Today, the walking or meditation labyrinth is widely used in parks and public spaces of sacred reflection or practice. It is no longer used to confuse but to help one navigate a path through contemplation. By meandering, we find ourselves at the center for clarity and enlightenment.
The Bhavana labyrinth exemplifies the deep reflective process and confusion-and-clarity journey that leads to transformation and expansion.
The second message is illustrated by an image of an emerging sprout.
The emerging sprout represents becoming, which is central to our work at Bhavana. It reveals the journey of wisdom and practice that leads to growth and expansion from being grounded in contemplative practice.
Through our services, study, resources, and practices, we trust that this symbol will come to represent the unique and focused personal commitment involved when working with the professionals at Bhavana Learning Group.
The story of our tagline may now be more apparent.
It clearly acts as a prescription of wisdom and practice for becoming, which represents a deep part of our commitment as demonstrated in our programs and services.
However, there’s another dimension that is often overlooked.
The work of distinguishing being extends beyond inspirational or sentimental moments that often lean toward the aspirational. When we considered these three words, we wanted to convey a both/and approach that cultivates an interdependent view—the notion that becoming rests both on wisdom and practice.
Wisdom involves what is most significant. Bringing wisdom into everyday living requires deep reflection and an openness to inquiry—of our experiences, their immediate impact, and unfolding connections and consequences.
Practice includes what is most fundamental. These are the basics we tend to forget—the pausing, breathing, or clear-minded observing that form disciplines we dismiss or avoid as we reach for the aspirational. Yet these disciplined practices ground our being and open us to the moment, to each choice. With practice, we cultivate consistency that conveys credibility. In fields of human mastery, such as art, music, and sports, practice shapes our competence and credibility and deepens our capacity to generate.
We endeavor to live our commitment to integrate Eastern wisdom and practices with Western learning and business models. Thriving in a world of volatile change requires continual learning and unlearning from both the significant (wisdom) and the fundamental (practice).
Working with coaches, educators, and executives requires a clear-eyed focus on human potential and the human side of change.
Expanding leadership capacity today requires a cultural awareness from an interdependent mindset. With contemplative practice, we can embody learning and unlearning to expand views, question knowledge, andDOWNLOAD PDF
As we end another year, it seems natural to reflect on it. We take inventory, question assumptions, and pause. The notion of reflection requires a relationship with silence, a willingness to cultivate and appreciate moments of silence.
Silence can be a confusing topic—it may also be our best teacher.
In working with clients — coaching, and facilitating practice and meditation sessions — the idea of sitting in silence has surfaced, with appreciation for some and anxiety for many.
Some professionals become anxious in silence. They may not know themselves without the many distractions that invade our minds. Technology and related chatter are becoming systematically woven into our identity to alter our expectations.
For others, silence may reveal much: perhaps experiences they’ve identified with and would rather leave aside or perhaps doubts, insecurities, or fears from now or long ago. In silence, some may be confronted by waves of sadness.
Even with these reservations, I’ve found that most professionals wish to experience and increase moments of silence during mindfulness practice. That silence is key to increasing awareness and recovering our memory of the whole self.
Mental and Emotional Demands
Learning to engage silence may be the hidden gem of our modern day. Our lives involve interacting with mental and emotional demands, larger in quantity and frequency than ever in human history.
Mental Demands involve the degree to which you must exert mental effort to complete tasks at home and work. The fast pace and overload of our distracting lives require us to sustain the effort to continually bring ourselves back to the present moment. This takes energy that can drain us.
Consider how language shapes our affective life as well. New terms, acronyms, symbols, and concepts impact systems, processes, tasks, and applications with more updates and upgrades—all of which have become essential just to “prepare to work.”
Emotional Demands involve our affective lives. These include absorbing an exacting saturation of information: an avalanche of opinions, ideas, and attitudes from different perspectives and viewpoints that cascade without the time to decompress or recover to reflect.
Increasing amounts of content trigger anxiety and emotions that require a release. The everydayness of life—meetings, reports, traffic, packed subways, email/text messages, and reacting to comments, notifications, and emojis—activates emotions that shape our affective lives.
Silence offers the possibility of venturing beyond our preoccupations. Only quieting the mind can access the depth beyond the surface rhythm of life that shapes our views: our imagination, creativity, spiritual connection, and deep learning arising from insights tucked below.
— Small print agreements and warnings gild gadgets and services to convey risks and rights.
— TV narrators warn of the side effects and conditions of prescription drugs.
— Lights glow—bright, flickering, or subtle—in rooms creating “moods” that cloud perceptions.
— Multiple TV screens and channels line the walls in bars, restaurants, airports, and coffee shops, “entertaining us” while we eat, drink, or rest.
— Shelves full of clutter and trinkets fill space and grab our attention.
— Ruminations churn inside us as we fixate on assumptions, judgments, beliefs, or conditions.
Navigating the labels, signs, and signals often prevent us from enjoying the direct experience of life’s little pleasures. As you notice the noise, reflect on where you might reduce its tangible and mental forms.
Rescuing Our Attention
Noise pollutes our mind, mesmerizes us, and steals pieces of our attention. Like the low hum of an air conditioner, it becomes normal. Over time it fragments the self, increasing anxiety. Then one day, the AC is off, and we experience clean silence: our eyes rest, attention dwells, and listening expands.
In the business-class lounge at Charles de Gaulle airport, what you hear is the occasional tinkling of a spoon against china. There are no advertisements on the walls and no TVs. This silence . . . is what makes it feel genuinely luxurious. When you step inside and the automatic airtight doors whoosh shut behind you, the difference is nearly tactile, like slipping out of haircloth into satin. Your brow unfurrows itself, your neck muscles relax and after twenty minutes you no longer feel exhausted. The hassle lifts.
Crawford rightly notes that “because we have allowed our attention to be monetized, if you want yours back, you’re going to have to pay for it.”
From silence, we experience what is often ignored, unspoken, or not yet sorted out.
Adding silence in a conversation often leaves others sorting through deeper thoughts beyond reflexive or automatic responses. Managing the silence can be a struggle, as it invites the ultimate surrender: to give up control and accept the unpredictable.
Most of us avoid silence in a conversation, either to avoid the discomfort of another’s struggle or to satisfy our impatience for a quick answer.DOWNLOAD PDF