“I want to know if you know how to melt into that fierce heat of living,
falling toward the center of your longing.”
– David Whyte
He drove up our driveway in his new silver Porsche 914. The top was down. He was wearing Foster Grants and a t-shirt. It was 1975 and my father was in the full throws of what my mother’s friends called his midlife crisis. At 51, he had become a cliché. An affair, a sports car, a new look…he grew his sideburns long, and replaced his polyester slacks with jeans. He started jogging. He started listening to music.
He was Lester Burnham in American Beauty.
His romance with one of his graduate students shattered my parents’ 15-year marriage into a billion jagged shards. When one of his colleagues asked him why he fell in love with Angela, he told him it was because she had large breasts. And he meant it sincerely, as if it were some kind of a virtue.
At half my father’s age, Angela was part girlfriend, part child. She sat tiny and stoic in the front seat of the car behind sunglasses too large for her face, and a mane of frizzy ginger hair. Though Angela was not much to look at, my father seemed, for all intents and purposes, in love.
It was all very weird.
With a nervous wave he gestured me into the topless convertible. I scrunched into the not-really-a-seat part behind Dad, my kneecaps pressed between my chin and his headrest. Angela said hello politely as she pulled her hair into an elastic band. He backed down the drive and drove us away as my mother gazed on, looking tired.
Like many divorced families in the seventies, my mother and dad agreed he would take me every other weekend. It was a time for our obligatory ice cream cone, movie and then sleepover. We would pretend to be a new (and really ‘fun’) family together for 48 hours, and then he’d return me, disassociated and numb, back to my mother’s house.
He and Angela lived in a small semi-hip apartment just off the university campus. Sparsely furnished, the place seemed empty of life or anything meaningful. Hours would pass with nothing to do. I remember sitting on the floor looking at the books on the bookshelf—most of them hers—and feeling oddly estranged from this man who was my father. Sleepovers at Dad’s was like stepping into a black hole. I was adrift without gravity, floating in space.
Once in therapy, my therapist asked me what it was like to be with my father in those days. ‘It was like living inside a dark sock,’ I replied bluntly.
When I look back now, I recognize that sensation was exactly how my father was feeling. He confessed many years later that those years were very dark for him. He felt much confusion. He didn’t understand himself and the choices he made. He was mystified by the urges. He was not the man he knew himself to be. He was lost.
In those days people did not have the skills or awareness to meet the inevitable mid 50’s push from life to create a new chapter. Generations before them were lucky to live to 50 or 60. In 1841 the average newborn girl was not expected to see her 43rd birthday. There was no mid life. There was only one flat length, parenthetically held between birth and death. And so without any modeling, people of my father’s generation misunderstood the sudden impulse to follow a wave, this new generational phenomenon—a swell in that flat length—called midlife.
Of course it was a crisis. People were ill equipped to understand that the midlife pull was a natural consequence of a longer lifespan. No one told them that life was urging a second wind, another chance, a miraculous evolutionary possibility. Ministers didn’t tell their congregation that a soul-life wanted to be born. No one said that it would also be accompanied with a sense of isolation, and fear of the unknown.
And so with only the past to reference, men and women (but mostly men) strayed to superficial quenching of an unnamed yearning, and ran into the arms of anyone who might keep them from feeling alone. And when it was over, they emerged defeated, grief-stricken, and laden with alimony payments. The midlife behemoth ravaged families and embarrassed friends.
It’s no wonder that when the proverbial clock ticks fifty today, and we feel that impulse to take the emerging less-traveled fork in our life’s path, we completely freak out.
Now that life expectancy has more than doubled since the 1900s, with a spike since the 1960s, we are beginning to see more contours in the once-flat line of life. There are more natural turning points, more curves, forks and bends, more opportunities to grow, evolve and transform.
In recent years of working with people, I’ve witnessed an interesting phenomenon with clients between the ages of 50 and 70. I would call it the ‘new mid life’. And it’s anything but a crisis, though to the ego that is dying in its midst, it does seem like the end of the world.
People facing this juncture find themselves, well, called. With the benefit of decades of hard-won experience behind them, combined with remaining good health and energy, these people are poised perfectly to courageously create a life that they previously were too scared to do. It’s a whole new breed of mid-lifers.
And what they are creating collectively is very exciting. Latent entrepreneurs, visionaries, healers, authors, non-profit founders, inventors and leaders are awakening from the dormancy of their chrysalis and unleashing themselves into the world.
These people seem to have a few things in common. They engage with some kind of mindfulness or spiritual practice, they are life-long learners, they access wisdom and intuition as a means to navigate choices, and many imagine themselves late bloomers who have just begun leaning into their real life’s purpose. One major attribute to this group is their ability to cultivate a relationship to the unknown—that land where transformation resides.
The unknown—that terrifying empty place on the other side of the threshold you are crossing. Our fears of jumping into the unknown are infinite. Fear imagines that we will destroy our families, disappoint our relatives, and end up homeless without good healthcare if we really take that leap and live into our deepest calling, our – as Parker Palmer calls it – true vocation. Fear tells us we will fail, we are imposters, or that we are just too damn old.
But some are reluctant members of this group. Instead of hearing a call, they more like stumble and trip over the feet of the unknown stretched in front of them like a prank. Midlife drags these folks by their hair to places they thought they’d never have to go. It can come in the form of a sudden layoff, or health crisis. The message is clear: life as they knew it is now officially over.
Whether you feel lured by a kind of yearning of the midlife transition, or fall flat faced into it, the journey across the threshold is the same. And it usually starts with being afraid.
‘How do you stop being afraid?’ asked one friend the other night at dinner. His voice betrayed the yearning in his heart. A successful professional, a choice to follow his heart seemed like it might cost him everything. And that was a lot (there is a price to a certain kind of privilege).
‘I don’t stop being afraid,’ I said. ‘I feel afraid all the time.’
He looked at me confused.
Being afraid is a natural consequence to befriending the unknown. According to neuroscience, several factors contribute to throwing you into an ‘amygdala hijack’, ie, fight-or-flight response. A major one, next to actual physical threat, is ‘the unknown’.
‘I just recognize that I’m going to feel afraid, and do what I’m called to do anyway.’
If, when hearing that mid life call, we become afraid, know that it is by design. The darkness, the fear, the aloneness is a crucible created elegantly to hone us to the people we need to be to live the next chapter. “…wanting soul life without the dark, warming intelligence of personal doubt is like expecting an egg without the brooding heat of the mother hen,” writes poet David Whyte.
In his amazing audio-set Midlife and the Great Unknown Whyte begins by quoting Dante. ‘”In the middle of the road of my life I awoke in a dark wood, where the true way was wholly lost.” When you find yourself suddenly without bearings, as Dante Alighieri voiced so well centuries ago, where will you look for guidance?’ he asks.
Great question. So where does one go to glean support, guidance and some kind of light in these times? I can share with you some of the ways our clients, friends and colleagues have found support.
Good company — surround yourself with those who do not encourage you to ‘stay safe’, but rather celebrate your courage, and have a sense of your true gifts.
Meditate – it really does assist in giving perspective, easing stress, and most importantly acquainting you with the fact that all those fear-thoughts and resulting anxious feelings are simply made up. Like, really. Who you are is not that story you keep telling yourself. Best instruction I’ve found on how to meditate in a really easy way can be found here.
Poetry – poetry works, writes Jerry Colonna, because like all great art, it acts upon our unconscious. It speaks to our soul. Just when you think you’ve landed squarely where no human has been before, a poem shows up that describes that place in such exquisite detail, you know the writer has spent a year inside your heart.
Solitude – start actually spending time with yourself—your…self. Journal, draw, wonder, sit in nature, take leisurely walks, bring a camera…allow those quieter voices to emerge and tug you over the threshold.
Get a coach – gifted coaches help you listen to your own intrinsic wisdom, and hold you accountable to your hearts yearning. The midlife transition is an amazing opportunity not to be missed. Good coaches help you to leverage all you can from it.
Forgive yourself, forgive your past – now is the time to finally, once and for all, forgive all that happened before now. Not to do so keeps you stuck in your old ways and your old stories. Just do it.
Befriend fear and anxiety – it’s just a sensation. Period. And if you are leaping into the unknown, you’re going to feel plenty of it, if you are like most of us.
The most beautiful part of allowing the midlife transformation is the permission to wholly and truly be ourselves. At last. For this awakening Lao Tzu offers the following words:
At the center of your being,
you have the answer:
you know who you are
and you know what you want.
There is no need
to run outside
for better seeing.
Nor to peer from a window.
Rather abide at the center of your being:
for the more you leave it, the
less you learn.
1. Having or showing a rational, modern, and well-informed outlook.
1.1 Spiritually aware.
1.2 Possessing knowledge that brings change or transformation, usually through faculties such as wisdom.
A few months ago I was having coffee with the former CEO of a large and well-known socially responsible company. Our conversation was lively as we shared our mutual enthusiasm for the innovative new frontier of businesses leveraging their power to create a just and sustainable world.
“It’s the end of politics,” he said. I asked him to tell me more. He described a trend where such companies wield more power than lobbyists, leverage more funds than PACs, and work in alignment with the public’s true voice. “Commerce is beginning to challenge democracy as our highest means of expressing public values,” he said.
Take an example with Lyft and Uber. In 2016, Lyft’s competitor, Uber, was set to own the emerging ride-sharing market. But fast forward a few months and Uber found their CEO fired, their market share drop dramatically, while Lyft grew more than 100%.
Though many factors contributed to that scenario, Uber’s fate pivoted around a bad day in January 2017, when the Trump administration issued a ban on Muslim travelers.
Uber made a series of corporate messaging mistakes. Lyft was perceived as protesting against the ban, while Uber seemed to be on the wrong side. More than 200,000 people deleted the Uber app in just a few days and the company has been reeling ever since.
Consumers are assumed to be self interested—willing to buy cheap T-shirts from China, while perpetuating human rights abuses at sweat shops. The word consumer is nearly a four-letter word. Public narrative asserts that humans are selfish, greedy and short sighted. But this logic is myopic, and unhelpful. Instead, given the right conditions, consumers are assisting in changing the political landscape.
“We have long had niche markets for ‘socially responsible’ products, but they were expensive novelties, the snooty preserve of wealthy consumers looking to wear their politics on their recycled handbags,” writes Chris Ladd, former GOP Precinct Committeeman and author of The Politics of Crazy. “Yet capitalism is evolving in ways that could transform corporate behavior and change the meaning of government,” he continues. “We are living through the emergence of social capitalism, a new landscape for economic activity.”
Socially responsible companies, and companies who exert ethical and moral action are proving that—given a chance—humanity chooses consciously. Such corporate influence is abandoning corrupt policy, and creating their own truly democratic responses to the challenges we are facing. Where the ballot is failing, the buck is winning, writes Ladd.
In the wake of the 14th school shooting this year, Walmart, Dick’s Sporting Goods, and Kroger decided to break from the mire of political inertia and create their own policy. Walmart and Dick’s Sporting Goods took steps to limit their sales of firearms, thrusting themselves into the middle of the polarizing national debate over gun control.
Walmart, the biggest gun seller, no longer sells guns to anyone under 21 years of age, and no longer sells items resembling assault-style rifles, including toys and air guns. Dick’s immediately ended sales of all assault-style rifles, stopped selling high-capacity magazines, and required any gun buyer to be at least 21. In their words, ‘regardless of local laws’.
“Our thoughts and prayers are with all of the victims and their loved ones,” Dick’s wrote in a letter to customers. “But thoughts and prayers are not enough,” they continued. “We have to help solve the problem that’s in front of us. Gun violence is an epidemic that’s taking the lives of too many people, including the brightest hope for the future of America — our kids.”
L.L. Bean and Kroger, too, banned all sales of guns to anyone under 21. And Delta Airlines sucker punched the NRA by ending group discounts to its members. Delta held their ground, even as the state of Georgia punished them by stripping the airline of a $40 million dollar tax break.
Over the past year corporate influence dampened state efforts to discriminate against LGBT citizens in North Carolina, Georgia and Texas. And it doesn’t stop there. Every day more companies reveal their good corporate citizenship.
It’s important here to differentiate social capitalism from the traditional ‘social responsibility’. Social responsibility relies upon activists to persuade companies to ‘do the right thing’ at the expense of profits. While, social capitalism, by contrast, is an emerging phenomenon in which social consciousness is a core element of profitability.
Now for the first time in human history, consciousness, ethics and morality are not at odds with corporate financial wellbeing. Which is, to me, overwhelmingly exciting.
The reasons behind this new trend are too complex to explore here. However, suffice to say a veritable ‘perfect storm’ of influences including social media, the de-evolution of traditional institutions, and a deepening rift between the public and a vastly mis-attuned government, are major contributors.
There is a curious shift also happening internally within companies. In working with many C-suite executives over the years, I have noticed a sea change in the desires and goals of these professionals. Having stretched themselves and their companies to the very edge of their limits, they are finding themselves on the horns of a dilemma: continue the conventional course and end up another casualty of 21st century life, or transform.
In effect, corporate leaders are seeking—I’m going to use the word deliberately—enlightenment.They are seeking the greater sensibilities that enlightenment affords: a sense of connection to the whole, wisdom, meaning, deep presence and service.
Once the rarified domain of spiritual practitioners, social drop-outs and Buddhists, enlightenment was reserved for those who donned robes, sat cross-legged, and abandoned worldly matters to attain ‘oneness with the Absolute’. But now, those in the trenches of humanity’s progress—on the bridge of the Titanic— are calling for a deeper way of being.
These leaders are seeking a higher consciousness, and an active engagement with the wellspring of wisdom, intuition and attunement. And further, they are not just seeking it for themselves, but endeavoring to actively spread those attributes throughout the culture of their organizations.
Arie de Geus’s seminal book, The Living Company changed my perception of corporations many years ago. According to de Geus, companies are not inanimate objects. Just as a body is made up of living organisms – cells, so too are companies made up of living organisms – people. He reasoned that organizations, like all living things, not only grow, but given the right conditions, have the capacity to evolve, even transform—in a similar trajectory as a human life.
He asserted, then, that if the people within a company are supported to evolve, so too, will the company itself. And the higher its evolution, the more socially aware, and socially conscious it would become.
The ability to evolve and transform is essential to the lifespan of any living thing, including a company. According to Standard & Poors, in 1955, the average lifespan of a company on the Fortune 500 list was 61 years. Today it is 18, and declining. Those rare companies who survive and thrive well beyond the average life expectancy are doing so because they are becoming, yes, enlightened.
“Companies die because their managers focus on the economic activity of producing goods and services, and they forget that their organizations’ true nature is that of a community of humans,” writes de Geus.
Given the economic might of today’s corporations (of the world’s top 100 economies, well over half of them are corporations, not countries), we are sitting at the brink of a truly awesome possibility. The sector that once threatened our very planet’s survival, is now poised to be its salvation.
In a moving discourse that reads more like a sacred text than a business book, author of Conscious Business, and LinkedIn’s Vice President of Executive Development, Fred Kofman writes, “The larger purpose of business is to serve as a theatre for self-knowledge, self-actualization and transcendence.
Self-actualizing work transcends the ego, freeing people from an exclusive preoccupation with themselves, he continues. “Those who work for the sake of a transcendent vision, honoring their values through virtuous conduct, achieve a personal transcendence similar to what is called “enlightenment.'”
The real invitation now for both companies, and their leaders is to create conditions within their organization for enlightenment. Not only does this benefit both parties, and ensure their sustainability and wellbeing, but it will create a natural consequence of good corporate citizenship that will in turn benefit the world.
We just may be witnessing the extinction of politics as we know it, and the dawning of a pure democracy. And in that synergistic space between the young people courageously taking to the streets, and the highly evolved companies creating wisdom-informed policies, we may be part of the birth of a true Age of Enlightenment.
I spent my high school years in a small Northern New Mexico town that was perched along the southernmost foothills of the Rocky Mountains. Our team mascot, a prowling orange tiger, was painted in loud colors across the gymnasium’s external wall, which took up easily half of the entire school (decidedly sports were more important than academics).
The tiny rural community that surrounded the school operated through a network of distinct social definitions that served as cogs within some kind of working order. There were the cowboys, the miners, the Italians, the Slavics, the Hispanics, the Indians, the hippies and the wetos (Spanish slang for white person). I was disparagingly called blondie. My friend was called a Mexican with the same unfavorable edge.
The peas were never to touch the carrots, so to speak. Each pretty much stayed to their own. The more one stayed inside their lane, the safer they remained. Those of us who found such definitions too tight, and strayed, suffered mightily. Our punishment: the imposition of greater, crueler definitions.
I learned early the painful social implications of coloring outside my appointed lines. New labels came enthusiastically: snob, too cool, dorky, too good, too loud, weird, too pretty, not pretty enough, too tomboy, stuck up.
I was also called a brain. I made straight A’s in almost every class. I hung out with other brains, which wasn’t the worst box to live inside. We studied together. We dueled over test papers.
‘What’d you get?’ I’d ask David, the smartest guy in class, whose desk was strategically next to mine.
‘An A,’ he’d reply casually.
‘What’d you get?’ his question hung in the air between us as he waited, almost with a cringe.
‘A+’, I’d say, feigning regret.
But it wasn’t smarts that made the good grades. My smarts were too bored to truly engage with school. It was vindictiveness. Rage can make a great motivator when pouring over rote high school material. And rising above the highest GPA in the school seemed like my best shot out of the hell, and the sweetest payback.
There was only one class that my anger couldn’t get around. Geometry. Mr. Gallegos, a round short man in his forty’s taught the class begrudgingly in a droning Northern New Mexico accent. He passed out worksheets with such drab resentment it was almost painful to watch. I sat in the front row so I could get my head around parallelograms and the area of a convex polygon.
Everything was going ok until we went three dimensional. Then my brain could just not grasp the logic. No amount of revenge could help me crack the code behind the volume and lateral surface area of a rectangular prism. I began to tune out.
My mind would wander to Mr. Gallegos’ worn loafers as he snailed past my desk. I imagined him eating dinner with his wife in that beige modular home he lived in down the street from me. I imagined the avocado colored sculpted shag carpet underneath his loafers at the dining table. I wondered what on earth they discussed? Did she roll her eyes behind his back when he got up to go sit on his brown vinyl lounge chair to watch Barney Miller? What did he look like in pajamas? Did his wife wear them too? Did they kiss? Did he ever smile? I imagined Mr. Gallegos’ life outside the classroom, everything tinged in brown and beige. Even his brown dog was bored.
My daydream was suddenly interrupted by a loud dramatic throat-clearing. Ah-hem Mr. Gallegos coughed, looking fiercely down at me. My sudden startle back to class, and his uncharacteristic theatrics made me laugh out loud. Livid, he flashed a glare at me.
‘You are so stupid!!’ he screamed, as he threw his eraser across the room.
Well the entire class was just waiting for that cue. Another box. Another label to keep me from causing too much trouble in that peas-and-carrots town. Of all the memories one can carry with them from high school, oddly, that moment remained with me for longer than I care to admit.
You are so stupid.
I have spent more than Mr. Gallegos’ fair share of my mind wondering if he really meant it. Wondering at times if, well, maybe I am stupid. Wondering if I’m really just an imposter. In hindsight I see how impossible it was to learn anything inside the climate Mr. Gallegos created. He was an abysmal educator. A sad, resentful man chained to a job he hated. And I fret for today’s young people who are defined through an educational system that is broken and intolerably numbing. How many feel they are stupid or defective simply because they are viewed through a flawed lens of a wrecked system?
Those definitions are powerful. The beliefs we take on about ourselves as a result of external assessments and values require enormous discernment. And the world is happy to dole out as many boxes, labels and definitions as necessary for us to fit inside. The growing list of acronyms inside the DSM 5 being a case in point: ADD, ADHD, OCD, ODD…Perhaps those teenage years made me sensitive to boxes. I began to notice them, notice the cost of living inside them, and the price of judging others by them.
Travel in adulthood lifted a veil. Many of the ascribed assumptions about who one was and how one was meant to live were challenged by my living and / or working in over half a dozen countries. Cultural concepts would fade the very moment I crossed over another border. What was deemed inappropriate in one country, was celebrated in another. Who I was as a woman in India was totally different to who I was in Amsterdam. Being a mother in America was much more constricted and stressful than mothering in Portugal.
This world view broke a perpetual spell, and immunized me against being susceptible to many of our culture’s prized precepts. Ideas like, you are too old to start a new business, or breastfeeding in public is inappropriate, thin is beautiful, or only college graduates succeed in life, run rife within public discourse without much questioning.
In his book The Biology of Transcendence, Joseph Chilton Pearce articulately describes culture. “Culture is a body of knowledge concerning learned survival strategies that are passed on to our young through teaching and modeling,” he writes. “It becomes the living repository of our species’ survival ideation and is at the root of every issue of survival. Culture, then, is a mutually shared anxiety state, a powerful catalyst of thought that converts all events into its own nature.”
Nowhere is this ‘shared anxiety state’ more obvious than in that precious, yet precarious moment in a client’s life — transition. Whether they are transitioning from a marriage, or a job, or leaping out of the cube farm altogether and risking everything to finally step into their true vocation, the angst is there to plague them. Some are tempted to listen to the angst more than their calling.
And what is the angst about? It’s all those boxes we’ve been taught to live inside — to be a good person, a good dad, a good mom, a successful manager. You know a box by the anxiety it produces in you. ‘But wait,’ a client will say in protest. ‘I can’t do that (whatever it is) because I’m not (fill in the blank) enough.’ It takes great courage to step outside of boxes. It takes resolve and practice not to listen to those limiting voices.
Try this little experiment. The next time you find yourself anxious, see if you can track it back to some idea about how you are supposed to be, or what you are supposed to be doing or not doing. My money is on you actually finding some concept, some box, that you are beating yourself up for not living inside.
Then, apply some curiosity to said box. What is the concept that creates it? What is the decree you by which are meant to live? Name it. Write it down. Let’s say it’s an idea like you should be better organized. Now examine it. Really? Is organization better than disorganization? Studies have shown that some creative genius actually works better in chaos.
So rather than stuffing yourself inside some kind of value that is not yours, perhaps your time and attention is better spent finding creative ways for your chaos to work for you.
I had a friend who had one whole room in her house designated just for chaos. She was an artist. She lived with a tidy partner, a Buddhist. He wanted order. He kept telling her that her messiness meant she had a busy mind. Pardon me but, bullshit. She was one of the most serene people I knew. She used to spend months meditating alone in a cave along the Ganges River in Northern India.
One day while showing me around her new home, she lead me down a hallway, and slowly opened the door to a large room filled from floor to ceiling. ‘And this….,’ she said grandly in her sweet English accent, sweeping the door open with great ceremony, ‘…is my clutter room.’
“If you trade your authenticity for safety, writes Brené Brown, ‘you may experience the following: anxiety, depression, eating disorders, addiction, rage, blame, resentment, and inexplicable grief.”
Contrary to popular opinion (another idea), anxiety can be our friend, as it is often the indicator of us stuffing ourselves into boxes. We become like an elephant jammed into a grass hut. We just don’t belong there. How do we know? Our anxiety is telling us. It’s basically our body saying, ‘Hey! This feels really bad! And you are not listening to me!’
Symptoms of a boxed life are, as Brené Brown writes, explicit. So rather than imagining a pathology attached to these symptoms, perhaps we can start to listen to our bodies better. Perhaps we can trust what they are telling us in the form of anxiety and depression. Perhaps we can start living more authentically. The creative and free life, the joyful life, implores for us to question the ideas that were handed to us.
Once you give yourself permission to question everything — every label, box and edict in our culture — then life becomes a lot more interesting. And a lot less stressful.
Is there some collateral damage? Sure. People are threatened when you dare to let the carrots touch the peas. When you color outside the lines, or — God forbid — throw the coloring book out altogether. ‘How can you look at yourself in the mirror?’ they might ask accusingly.
“I honestly believe that people of my generation despise authenticity, mostly because they’re all so envious of it.” wrote Chuck Klosterman in his book Killing Yourself to Live: 85% of a True Story.
You may lose some ‘friends’. You may lose a Buddhist partner who values tidiness over love. You may lose your day job. But you’ll gain an adventure. You’ll be relieved of the arsenal of symptoms of a boxed in life. You’ll breathe. You’ll be able to look at yourself in the mirror.
You’ll gain the most precious gift of this world — you.
Along the foothills that surround my home, runs a network of hairline trails that wind through arroyo beds and over piñon-covered ridges, and finally merge into miles of national forest. They call to me each morning, promising a breathtaking view of the Jamez mountains to the west, and to the south, the Sandias. Our dog Molly, a large enthusiastic Catahoula hound we adopted last year from the shelter, looks at me expectantly. ‘Ok!’ I say, ‘Let’s go.’ We charge out the gate and up the escarpment, liberated at last.
Within minutes, Molly is already a quarter of a mile ahead of me. She looks back with that giant joyful dog grin and barks for me to hurry. There is land to love. There are bushes to jump. And so many animals to see. Not to mention those two ravens to race.
I have spent the last year getting to know this particular stretch of land, its trails and inhabitants — bear, bobcat, coyote and mountain lion. Though native to Santa Fe, this little valley just north of Santa Fe, where I now live, is asking me to be a part of it in a deeply intimate way. I am to know it, become a part of it and belong to it.
Partly it’s the lifestyle of running a small ranch with a herd of horses, a donkey, barn cats and dogs. Nature – her creatures, her plants, geology and weather – has her very own timing and rhythm. Working alongside her means dropping out of the mad technology-driven pace, and culturally-created beliefs, and into something more honest, present and simple. If the temperatures drop below freezing, there is ice to break in the water tanks. Period. If the sun goes down by five pm, the horses need feeding by 4:30. It’s the literal manifestation of chopping wood, carrying water.
And partly it’s the calling of these times. Where else to go inside a culture that has surfed to the end of it’s own internet? If we are to restore sanity in our lives, if we are to reclaim some kind of truly civilized way of being in the midst of pointed missiles and blind life-destroying bravado, nature and our connection to her, offers the way.
Jeannette Armstrong is a Canadian author, educator, artist, and activist. She is Syilx Okanagan. Her work Slash is considered the first novel by a First Nations woman in Canada. She describes belonging to place as the knowing that we are everything that surrounds us. ‘We refer to the land and our bodies with the same root syllable. This means that the flesh that is our body is pieces of the land come to us through the things that the land is. The soil, the water, the air and all the other life forms contributed parts to be our flesh. We are our land/place,’ she writes. ‘Not to know and to celebrate this is to be without language and without land. It is to be ‘dis-placed’.’
Modern life has dis-placed us. Not only are we alien to the earth, we are alien to ourselves. We are stranger to the deep sense of rooted quietness as offered by a tree. Our ears are deaf to the ancient stories of our own indigenous heritage as first peoples who tended the soil of our original homelands. And so we borrow the traditions and sacred stories of Native peoples in an attempt to grasp some remnant of memory. But they are not ours to appropriate. We meditate, we manage our stress, we eat vegan, we go to therapy.
Yet as a dis-placed people, we remain powerless, rootless, and vulnerable to the headwinds of 21st century living. We attempt to pull forth from ourselves wisdom, strength and emotional capacity, but without a greater presence to draw upon, our stores are quickly emptied.
Instead we can find another way back in, that will welcome us back to our very own belonging in this present time regardless of circumstances. Wherever we are, in a city, or suburb or cabin, we can engage with the natural world. When we deliberately take time to be attentive to and a part of the natural environment, something special happens. We become indigenous – we ‘occur naturally in a particular place’.
Becoming indigenous – a journey back to our belonging, is not a journey we take in our heads. It’s one we take with our bodies that weaves us back into the web of life, through regrowing our roots that push through earth, deep into bedrock, and drink from wellsprings. Being in nature teaches us to live like that again. She teaches us to go native, to feel the wind on our face, and the dirt on our hands.
‘In these times it’s not enough to awaken ourselves, to find our community: the world is in need of restoration and each one of us is challenged to do the work of collective change,’ writes Sharon Blackie in her astonishing call to arms If Women Rose Rooted: The Journey to Authenticity and Belonging. ‘The day of the Heroic quest is over, with its all-conquering, dragon-slaying Hero saving the world, one sword-stroke at a time. The Journey we need now is not a journey of active, world-beating individualism, it is a journey of collective re-enchantment — a re-animation of the Earth. It’s time to become native to our places again.’
It’s time to reclaim our own native power, which is the power of the earth itself. Be with her, through all her emissaries – trees, birds, animals, rocks, mountains – and she will bestow within you a quiet depth of presence that is immovable. Take care of her and she will return a thousand fold through her generous outpouring of beauty and abundance. Become a part of her and you will return home.
As prodigal sons and daughters, it is our connection with nature that will not only restore us to sanity, but help us to collectively heal a traumatized society. Rooted in our knowledge of plants and cycles and rhythms, we can be a trusted force for change. We can be mediators of the invisible worlds. We can be Wise Women and Wise Men.
Molly races to the top of my favorite ridge, about a 30-minute run from our house. I follow suit, breathless. At last we reach a small dead tree, whose branches are adorned with bracelets, rosaries, feathers, and other offerings. At the base of its trunk are seashells, two sand-dollars, and a small statue of the fierce goddess Kali. On the ground before it is a large stone mosaic, outlining a sun shape, with large bleached bones and crystals at the center.
I don’t know who made this little mountain shrine. Or who adds to it. Since I first came upon it 12 months ago on horseback, it’s changed and morphed, with more items being added here and there. Today I bring a raven feather and wedge it’s base into the sand, so that it sticks out of the mosaic, pointing north. My contribution to its evolving story is how I participate in this place. I sit quietly for a long time, while Molly follows the zigzagging scent of a nearby rabbit. The sky is large before me. I exhale out the day of emails and expectations.
I have sat here in this place for nearly a year now. I am learning to stay still. I am learning to recognize the patterns of light at different seasons. I am learning how to listen. I am learning to see the invisibles. I am beginning to understand a hidden language told by breezes, hawks and stone. Stay present with a place long enough, and you may begin to hear its voice. And this is what I hear…You belong to me. I belong to you. It is love with responsibility.
My teacher and friend, ‘Uncle’ Bob Randall, listed Custodial Elder of Uluru, and a member of the Yankunytjatjara people in Central Australia, taught me the word kanyini in his language. It means ‘unconditional love with responsibility’. Unconditionally we belong to all things, whether we believe it or not. It is our simple birthright. And with that love and belonging, there is a responsibility to care for all things…ourselves, our families – and this includes our family of all living things.
One day while we were sitting in a rather unlikely scene together – a cafe in downtown Sydney – he said to me, ‘You can live the kanyini way anywhere.’ He looked up at a young tree neatly landscaped into the pavement near our table. ‘See,’ he laughed, ‘even here I can see my sister, and feel her love for me.’
Like this we can begin to easily yet deliberately reweave the natural world back into our lives, and allow her to – just like Uncle Bob’s tree – push through the hard pavement of the haste and worry. Like this we can thrive and flourish.
The impact was sudden. An SUV carrying several passengers, now hurtled like a Tonka Toy in a spinning arc two stories high. Six thousand pounds of metal flew through the air, flinging wreckage and bodies across the lane opposite me. My mind tried to make sense of what was unfolding seemingly in slow motion. In the span ten seconds I saw in sharp detail every shift of shape, each window collapse, a suitcase roll, an arm bend, a car to my right slam to a stop while the driver emerged to help.
Life can change dramatically in a moment. The shocking news of Prince’s body discovered alone, slumped over in the eternal lifelessness of one once so vibrant with creativity. A new young friend is diagnosed with an aggressive brain tumor. A neighbor hits a pedestrian, driving while texting. A colleague’s son commits suicide, hanging himself from a tree. All of this, inside four days. Pain, suffering, fear, insecurity, discomfort — none of these will ever be extinct from our lives. The sooner we befriend this fact, the closer we will know the truth of life.
In her book, When Things Fall Apart, author and Buddhist nun, Pema Chödrön, invites us to turn to a rather paradoxical ally — hopelessness. She writes that turning our hearts towards the deep inner (spiritual) life does not bring security or confirmation…quite the opposite. It’s about fearlessly acknowledging change and impermanence.
“Hopelessness means that we no longer have the spirit for holding our trip together,” she says. “We may want to hold our trip together. We long to have some reliable, comfortable ground under our feet, but we’ve tried a thousand ways to hide and a thousand ways to tie up all the loose ends, and the ground just keeps moving under our feet.”
She continues, “When we feel suffering, it doesn’t mean that something is wrong. Suffering is part of life, and we don’t have to feel it’s happening because we personally made the wrong move…Rather than letting our negativity get the better of us, we could acknowledge that right now we feel like a piece of shit and not be squeamish about taking a good look. We can explore the nature of that piece of shit and drop the fundamental hope that there is a better ‘me’ who will one day emerge.”
This is the way towards presence and compassion…and sanity. In dropping the hope that there is a better ‘me’, or ‘you’ or better ‘situation’ out there to be had. Because hope and fear run together. We fear what is here now, and what might change, or what might occur, and so we harness hope as an instrument to keep us from what we fear.
I’m not saying we should collapse. I’m not saying that we should be a doormat, or a martyr, or a victim. My words are not proposing a fatalistic viewpoint. Those mindsets arise from remaining aligned with hope (running from fear), but falling into the bitterness and helplessness of the broken promises of such hope.
Befriending hopelessness is taking a firm courageous stand in what is. It’s standing full-statured, hands and arms open, inside the truth of the fact that life often hurts, is unpredictable, changes, and can knock us sideways.
In this stand, we stop whining. We stop blaming (ourselves or others). And we stand inside life itself.
From that place there is love for all that is right now. There emerges a tender, fragile sacred vulnerability, that lets die that need to control everything and everyone. And from there, you will find that you begin to truly be a part of life, partnered with life, rather than surviving and wrestling with life.
When we walk forward in such trueness (and tenderness), I find that life finds a way to, alongside with us, reveal more wholeness. Paradoxically, in befriending hopelessness, good things happen. Circumstances do become healthier. I become more loving. And from there, I lead, love, mother, relate and live much better.
Giving up hope allows us to get real with what is inevitable, that one day we will die, and all those we love will die too. When we stop kidding ourselves about that, then we stop panicking. We stop running around like clowns with proverbial plates on sticks hoping the keep all the plates from clattering to the floor. And we can finally start feeling that kind of joy that is unconditional of outcomes and circumstances.
Life is best lived when people you trust have your back, and you have theirs. To have people in your corner, though, you need to feel like they really know you—that they know your gifts, foibles, desires, and propensities. This takes equal measure transparency and vulnerability, with a solid dose of candor and honesty.
The word authentic is thrown around a lot these days. Many clients come to me striving to be more authentic. They want to be known for who they really are. They want to show up truly as themselves. No hiding, no circumnavigating, no posturing or pretending. So how does one actually cultivate this?
One of the best tools to develop authenticity in our relationships is by sharing impact. What is sharing impact specifically? Sharing impact is telling somebody what’s going on with you in the moment, in relationship to whatever it is they did. This is it in a nutshell.
You can share impact about positive things, and not so positive things. And both are important. For example, let’s say I had a plan to meet with a friend for a long overdue hike, but the day before they call me and ask if we can reschedule. Instead of just saying, yeah, that’s fine, I can challenge myself to be more real, and say something like, “Well I confess that feel a little bit frustrated; but it’s ok.”
In this way I share more of who I really am. Or let’s say that a colleague takes on a lot of responsibility in a project we are working on together. I could say nothing at all. Or I could say something like, “I want to acknowledge how much you are doing, and the impact on me is that it makes me trust you. Thank you.”
If you think about it, we are all being impacted all the time. If a dog barks outside, I’m impacted by that. If a car crashes in the lane across from me, I’m impacted by that. And while it’s not always appropriate to speak everything out loud, some things do need to be spoken. The more we can speak it, the more we’ll be known.
Sharing impact has the power to regularly and reliably create connection and trust between you and others. It’s a chance to be seen. It keeps relationships alive, clear and current.
It prevents build up from old frustrations. If I don’t share impact, I notice they culminate, and I might eventually explode, shut down, or make up stories about the person or situation.
Normally however, instead of sharing impact, we often do the following (present company included):
• Hide – we don’t want conflict, or are afraid of not being heard, so we cloak our feelings.
• Go numb – since we don’t feel safe sharing who we are, we dull ourselves, even to the point of not feeling anything at all.
• Deny – we may be aware of impact, but doubt it is anything important.
• Run up our ladder of inference – in other words, we start with the facts, but let our mind run amok with assumptions and stories, rather than just being present with our feelings.
• Withhold – we feel it, but we’d rather be passive aggressive and hold it against the other.
• Blame – we take a victim stance and blame the other for the impact we feel.
• Triangulate – we stand at the proverbial water cooler and talk about them to someone else.
• Procrastinate – we say to ourselves we’re going to share our feelings, but we want to wait until the ‘right moment’ and that ‘right moment’ never comes.
Sounds fun doesn’t it?
So how do you start to create an ‘impact-sharing culture’ in your relationships? It’s important not to just barge ahead and start sharing impact without first setting up a good foundation and context for yourself and others. Otherwise it can come across as quite insensitive, and you’ll sabotage yourself.
Here is what I recommend:
• Get open – decide you are willing and open to being impacted. Allow yourself to feel how things, positively and negatively, impact you.
• Get present – start a deliberate practice of being self-aware. Don’t even try to start sharing impact until you start getting really good at noticing sensations, emotions, stories, and your beliefs behind those stories.
• Get responsible – establish a deep understanding that your experience is yours, and that you own it. No one can ‘make’ you feel a certain way. The impact others have on you is a direct result of your unique conditioning and held beliefs. This is a big one and deserves more than lip service.
• Slow down – slow down so you can pay attention, and slow down with others so you make time to have this kind of communication with them.
• Inform others – Let significant others in your life know that you want to start being more transparent and real by sharing impact, and express why this is important to you.
• Start with positives first – spend some weeks practicing sharing impact about, and just exercise that muscle. This helps others to learn that sharing impact is not always going to be just bad news.
• Get out of limbic – Whenever you share impact in more difficult and stressful situations, wait until you’ve both calmed down, and you can feel some compassion and care for both you. If either one of you have ‘gone limbic’ (meaning you are in fight or flight response) then what you are saying won’t be heard.
• Check your agenda – are you sharing to be known, vulnerable, and increase connection? Or are you sharing to change someone, prove a point, push someone away, or make someone wrong?
• Set context – tell your person what you are doing, and why you want to do it, i.e., “I’d like to clear something with you because it’s affecting me and my work and I want to move forward together in a good and connected way.” And then…
• Get buy in, “Would this be ok for you?” In this way you are finding the right timing and asking if the other is available.
• Own your experience – be non-blaming, for instance, don’t say, ‘You made me feel…’ or ‘You always do…’ But instead try, “When you used that tone of voice towards me, the impact it had on me was that I felt embarrassed.”
• Stay with the facts – ie, say, “When you used a loud voice”, or “When you were not there” instead of “When you screamed at me” or “When you blew me off.”
• Stay with your experience – ie, “When you were not there at the airport, I confess that felt as if I didn’t matter to you,” … be specific about impact. Use this time to reveal yourself and your vulnerability, i.e., “I’m actually really sensitive and I’m learning all the time. And I shut down when I feel yelled at,” (instead of, “Stop yelling at me!”).
It’s all about supporting expansion, and alleviating contraction — in both of you — thereby cultivating a field of authenticity for both parties. From there, all kinds of great things can happen. You can check out your assumptions, fears and concerns by practicing curiosity. For instance, you could say, “When you said you didn’t have time, I felt that the project wasn’t important. So I want to check it out with you…is it really true that the project doesn’t matter to you?”
If all goes well, you can then use the situation to create new agreements, and get buy-in, i.e., “I’d like to propose that we have an agreement that we never yell at one another when we are in conflict. How does that sound to you?” instead of “Don’t ever yell at me again”. You can engender collaboration and reciprocity by asking them what things they need, or what agreements might they want.
With luck, you’ll also be on the receiving end of hearing how you affect others. I say ‘with luck’ because it means people trust you enough to share impact with you. When done right, it is a really generous way of giving feedback. It is a gift when someone tells you how you are showing up. Our intentions may be great, but we may be unwittingly undermining ourselves by not understanding how we impact others. There is never a need to be defensive, particularly if impact is shared with you in a skillful caring manner.
For example, I was never very good at setting boundaries. When I first learned to use them, I was quite anxious about it. So my boundaries came across as abrupt and scolding. It created a negative perpetual loop whereby people gave me a lot of pushback, and so in response I increasingly feared setting them. Then one day my daughter gently pointed out to me that the tone of voice I used, not the boundary itself, sounded scary to her. What a gift! I used the feedback to work with my issues around boundary setting, so that I could set them without shutting people down. Now my boundaries are better at creating closeness, not separation.
It takes courage to show up transparently. It takes patience and self-awareness to do it in a way that others can hear you. But you will probably find over time that you create scenarios where you feel fully and truly met. Maybe for the first time ever.
With thanks to Jayson Gaddis
Our start up company has been starting up for over three years now. I guess you could say we had version 1.0, 2.0 and now we’re starting 3.0. Every version gets better, thanks to all the mistakes we’ve made. And I am grateful for all the mistakes I’ve made in particular.
Making mistakes is underrated. Some of the best work I’ve done has come on the heels of, and resulting from, some spectacular mistakes. The key is in framing mistakes and failure within a context of experimentation, learning and growth. A mistake made without learning is a mistake wasted.
Most of us fear failure. We’ve been taught to avoid it at all cost. Many organizations inject fear into their culture through intolerance to failure. They value results over discovery and invention. Such rigidity allows little room for curiosity and creativity, which in turn limits innovation. Successful people and organizations strike a balance between performance and learning cultures to obtain the optimal opportunity for innovation.
Woody Allen said if your not failing, then you’re not doing anything innovative. Honda’s founder, Sochiro Honda, said, “Success is 99% failure.” And golfer Tom Watson states, “If you want to increase your success rate, double your failure rate”. These are people who’ve befriended failure, and turned it into an ally.
Mistakes take us into unintentional territory, where other influences are available to participate in something altogether unexpected. The book Happy Accidents shows that over half of the medical breakthroughs had an accidental origin. And what chef hasn’t created something fabulous from an unexpected pairing of elements.
There is a way to engage with failure that gets the most out of it, and turns it into productive failure:
• First, you have to leave shame and guilt at the door. Neurologically speaking, those headspaces take you out of the creative and learning centers of the brain, and into fight or flight (and blame) reactions.
• Allow yourself to actually feel the pinch of failure. Don’t run from it. Just imagine it as ‘time released success’. Breathe. Don’t allow the pain and discomfort of making a mistake drive your mind into blame and self-blame thoughts. It’s useless and counterproductive.
• Next, you have to slow down mentally and physically. Allow yourself to pause and reflect on what happened. Do so with the sense of being an explorer or a scientist seeking a discovery.
• Journaling is really helpful at this point. Writing things down expands learning and discovery.
• Talk about it with others who share the ‘productive failure’ mindset. Access their wisdom and experience.
• And lastly, capture what you have learned. Again, journaling is the most effective way to do this. Or use a vision board. Or a white-board.
• If it’s appropriate, share your experience with others.
There, that is my ‘Seven Step Process of Productive Failure’. I came up with it because I make a lot of mistakes. I mess up all the time.
Otto Scharmer, senior lecturer at MIT, and co-founder of the Presencing Institute calls this way of productive failure prototyping. Prototyping allows us to experiment, test, fail, learn, and try again with the new information. It establishes a sense of ‘let’s try this’ so that many small, inexpensive attempts may be made, feedback from stakeholders received, ultimately leading towards better outcomes.
Seizing the wisdom of failure is not just a leadership, organizational opportunity. It’s a relationship one too. The other day I blew it big time with a significant person in my life. At first I felt so much guilt and shame. And it got in the way of my connection with them, and myself. It prevented me from being present with what the situation was offering to teach me.
After taking time, and space, and engaging with what happened, I learned something really valuable about myself and discovered a particular aspect of an unconscious relational blueprint that had previously driven many relationship dramas—something I’d never seen before.
I was able to emerge much wiser, and even be profoundly grateful for the experience, as uncomfortable as it was. Even better, I was able to share it with the other, which built deeper trust.
So, live a life rich with prototyping, experimentation and exploration. And don’t forget to make mistakes…I dare you. Fall off the map. Blow it. Mess it up. Screw the pooch. Jump the shark. SNAFU. TARFUN. FUBAR. Fail and fail fast.
I hate business plans. I’ve written at least four, and of those four, I’ve rewritten each one at least two or three times. That’s about twelve business plans.
I love it when some expert tells me that business plans are useless. I get a huge sense of relief. Because that means I won’t have to write another one.
‘Your business always changes over time. So why write a plan? It’s just going to be obsolete in six months.’ someone usually asks rhetorically, to which I would nod in hopeful agreement.
Then I met with Alan Webber, former managing editor of the Harvard Business Review, and co-founder of the way cool business magazine Fast Company.
“We wrote and rewrote the Fast Company business plan hundreds of times,” he told me over a breakfast of huevos rancheros.
In 2000, investors sold the magazine for $360 million, which was at the time the second highest price ever paid for a U.S. magazine. That’s enough to make me rethink my attitude about business plans. So I asked Alan if he would help me and my business partners with our rewrite of our latest plan.
Without skipping a beat he said yes. And he did.
I thought that rather than keep all of his words of wisdom to myself, I would share them with you. Then you too can write your one hundredth version of your business plan for your way cool company.
Here’s what Alan says (excerpted from conversation and emails):
Much of my thinking is the same stuff we talked about at breakfast—which I characterize as not much more than common sense, a few basic principles and a sense of perspective: Try to see your business through the eyes of the reader, the client, the potential investor.
Ask yourself: What do any of these folks really need to know? What are the questions they’d want me to answer? How can I best serve their interests and curiosity?
While there isn’t any absolutely agreed upon template for a business plan (and there are lots of samples and examples that you can download from Inc and business schools and web sites for accelerators and incubators) in general, I believe in using simple questions to guide the writing of a business plan—matched by short, simple answers.
Imagine that Ernest Hemingway were writing your business plan: short, simple sentences, straight to the point, easy to understand, packing a punch.
What are some of the questions? Try these:
- What’s Our Big Idea?
- What Business Are We Really In—What Are We Selling and What Are People Buying?
- Who Is the Competition?
- What Makes Us Faster, Cheaper, Better Than the Competition? (Or Just Different?)
- Who is Our Target Audience/Client?
- How Big Is the Market/Where And How Will We Find Them?
- Who Are We and What Have We Done?
- What Are Our Ancillary Products and Services?
- What Is Our Growth Strategy?
You get one page per question (more or less) to answer these. The longer you write, the more it feels like you don’t actually have the answer figured out.
You can fiddle and diddle with these questions, but you get the idea. A business plan is mostly your chance to push your brain through the eye of a needle and have what comes out on the other side be clear, smart, direct, easy to understand and compelling.
It’s your chance to lay out your theory of the case: Why does the world need what you’re selling—and why does it need it now?
How do you know that the world is waiting to buy something it doesn’t even know exists—but won’t be able to resist once it see it?
How much work have you done to refine your thinking so you know exactly what you’re selling and exactly who you’re selling it to and exactly how you’re going to find them and get them to buy it?
And why are you the only people on the whole planet who can pull this off?
A few last tidbits:
- Simplify, simplify, simplify! Channel your inner Ernest Hemingway. Faulkner is your enemy!
- Banish jargon. Speak English.
- Push toward being definitive.
At three years old, my daughter MacKenzie became best buddies with a little blond boy named Jacob. Jacob was blind. But MacKenzie was unphased, and embraced Jacob into her world without hesitation.
It never occurred to MacKenzie that Jacob’s condition could be limiting in any way. She saw no handicap, and no label. So they played, swam, caught bugs, and ran around outdoors just as any two children would do.
Some years later, MacKenzie met Annabel, a rough and tumble child with twigs in her hair and a wildish glint in her eye. ‘He’s coming over later,’ she announced one day through a mouthful of peanut butter and jelly. I was confused but tried to be subtle. ‘Annabel? Isn’t she, er… a girl? ’
‘No,’ she replied. ‘He’s a he.’
‘Oh,’ said I nonchalantly, secretly congratulating myself for being so cool and progressive. ‘You mean he thinks he’s a boy.’
MacKenzie tried to be patient. ‘No, mama. He is a boy.’
I was struck how MacKenzie honored Annabel’s identity, not only in front of him, but also when speaking about him in third person. If someone made a disparaging comment about Annabel, MacKenzie would boldly come to his defense. If someone called him a ‘her’ behind his back, she’d quietly yet firmly correct it.
At seven she had not yet been exposed to the politically correct approaches to gender identification. She’d not been formally taught about ‘diversity’. So her attitude was natural, not learned.
Yesterday I asked her more about this. ‘All things are different. That is just a fact,’ she said. ‘But it’s not for me to say what is ok and what is not ok,’ she paused while considering her words. ‘See, I can hate the taste of beans. I can say beans suck as if that were the ultimate truth; or I can realize that beans suck for me, not for you. Who am I to say what beans really are?’
She is describing what LinkedIn executive and Conscious Business author Fred Kofman coins as the ‘knower vs. learner’ mindset. The knower mindset aligns with fear, and holds opinion as fact. The learner mindset navigates through curiosity, and is grounded in what Kofman calls ‘ontological’ humility.
My perspective is that even though MacKenzie’s attitude feels like ‘no big deal’ to her, it is an enlightened way to live in the world. It’s not that she is inclusive—which requires acknowledging differences, and then embracing them. It’s that she recognizes difference is inherent to the whole. In other words she is not buying into separation.
MacKenzie now attends an amazing interdisciplinary arts boarding high school. The school touts a student body representing over 30 countries, and dozens of languages and religions. As a community of highly creative students, they naturally respect diversity in sexual orientation and gender identification.
One of MacKenzie’s hometown friends is a transgender girl, meaning she was born into a male body, yet identifies as a girl. Another left the country, had a sex change, and is now happier than she’s ever been. Another has just come out. Mac tells her friends’ stories and victories with the same equanimity as when speaking of their summer vacation.
She has been a stalwart teacher to me about the real meaning of diversity and inclusion. In her world, and in the world of those like her, identifying differences (if even to celebrate them) is less important than living inside a world view that accepts difference as a basic existential fact, just like gravity. Difference is not something to ‘grapple’ with.
Yet even with her impeccable modeling, I’ve been slow to catch up. Last week seven transgender women entered the horse paddock to experience the work of EQUUS. While MacKenzie instilled in me a commitment to examine my own prejudice, I had to admit that the transgender population ‘perplexed’ me — a judgment cloaked in intellectualism. I had little curiosity. I was in effect being a ‘knower’.
So what the horses and the women showed to me was profoundly humbling.
I’ve learned over the years that horses know so much more than I do about who people really are and their inherent gifts. I’ve grown to trust their assessments above my own. As animals of prey, their biological imperative is that they strongly sense intention, congruence and trustworthiness.
Of particular interest is their pull to congruence and authenticity. Horses read their world as either congruent (things being as they are) or incongruent (things pretending). This is because a predator, when hunting, will shift from congruency (I’m just here, I don’t need to eat you), to in-congruency (I’m not really here, you don’t see me, I’m hiding and pretending not to be here so that I can hunt and kill you).
It’s not the predator per se that feels dangerous to a horse, it is his shift to incongruency that alerts them. And it’s not our negative emotions that unnerve them (as in fear or anger), but our masks we place over those emotions.
This is an amazing teaching to a culture that fears difference, and therefore promotes mask-wearing.
So when the women entered the paddock and the horses immediately moved towards them, circled around and embraced them into the herd, I knew without a doubt that not only were these women deeply authentic, but were so authentic that they attracted even our most reserved, nervous and aloof horses.
In response, the women lit up. Some began to weep. How did it feel to be so unconditionally met, I asked. I pointed out that the horses respond to authenticity, that they experience it as safe, and that together their group created—according to the horses—a powerful field of trustworthiness. So tangible was their shared authenticity, I said, that it managed to inspire an entire herd to circle around, and then remain with them.
This started a passionate dialog about being trusted, and therefore a safe and reliable source of advocacy for all transgender people. Then someone else spoke up, ‘We can be a source advocacy for all disenfranchised people, not just transgender.’
The horses were, as usual, sublimely accurate. Here was a group of people, some of them people of color, who live on the front lines of our society’s most entrenched intolerance, discrimination and bigotry. Not only have they had to show up as who they authentically are in the face of unspeakable danger, some have even been willing to alter entire body parts, have multiple surgeries, take medications, and lose everything they love in order to do so.
As we all remained there, immersed in the deep acceptance and validation of the horses, a visceral sense of love began to pervade the space. It shook me, and I began to cry too. Where we found ourselves was a realm beyond diversity and inclusion. We were in the space of no separation. Love.
There’s a lot of pop psychological talk about being authentic. Authenticity ends up like a kind of commodity, something you pull out of your hat when you’ve grown tired of faking it.
But the horses, and the women, and my daughter, have taught me something else: authenticity is the willingness to be different, knowing you are part of the whole. It is the expression of, the trust in, the vehicle of, and the channel for, love. I will even go so far as to say that authenticity is the holy spirit—that which moves through us as divine expression.
If we knew that our difference—our authenticity—was sacred, would we honor it more? Would we cherish it, and protect it from distortion and compromise? If we could all, each one of us, find and have as much commitment to our authenticity as these women had to theirs, then we might discover that there are over 7.3 billion different expressions, orientations, identities—all as unique aspects of the whole—of love. All in need of inclusion. Or better yet, no separation.
I’ll leave you with this quote —
In times of change, the learners will inherit the earth while those attached to their old certainties will find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists. Eric Hoffer (in Kofman, 2006)