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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.

 

Frédéric Pignon is a gifted horseman, artist and the original visionary behind the world-renowned equine spectacular Cavalia. I recently had the good fortune of learning from him during a clinic here in New Mexico. In poignant serendipity, his US tour was a last-minute solution to the French government’s continued cancellation of large events (including his) in response to terror attacks.

If you watch Frédéric on stage, you’ll see him amidst many fiery horses, freely expressing themselves alongside him in expertly choreographed musical unison—a breathtaking improvisational display of love, passion, reciprocity and trust in action. It is said that most men weep when beholding Frédéric and his equine team. To the audience eye, one might say these horses are masterfully trained.

But if you were to watch him as I did, in a more modest setting— peering through the bars of a dusty round-pen in a Northern New Mexico Indian reservation on an icy cold and windy November day—you would discover something more powerful:

He does not train horses. He inspires them.

Riveted to the edge of my seat for hours, I watched as Frédéric engaged in quiet communion with one humble backyard horse after another. There in the micro-moment between a horse’s ‘no’ and a true ‘yes’, my world gently and miraculously unraveled.

Frédéric and his wife, Magali Delgado, travel the world performing and leading horsemanship and dressage clinics. Magali dazzles audiences with her ability to perform high-level dressage moves without so much as a bridle. Together the duo invite humanity into an altogether different approach to relationship. Their philosophy towards horses is actually a way of life: love, respect and understanding, patience and trust as the basis of connection to all things.

As the hours passed, bundled against the elements in layers of coats and blankets, I began to hear not only some profoundly transformative lessons on optimal horsemanship, but on leading, living and relating in our human world.

With holidays nearing, and our work days intensifying in preparation, and as we immerse ourselves in family and friends, I thought to share these uncommon lessons with you as my seasonal offering.

I’ve distilled 21 for you below:

1. Do not dominate, but guide and inspire – loyalty, trust and co-creation can only truly come from a true ‘yes’ from the other. The key is to inspire the other to want to be their best selves, and to enjoy what you are inviting them into.

2. Remove fear and obligation from your lexicon – neither lead with it, nor be lead by it. Dignity for all parties is the only way to live.

3. Improvise rather than choreograph – think about your time with the other as a blank canvas on which you will both paint. Rather than plow ahead with your plans and agenda, be acutely present to the influences of the other, and co-create.

4. Connection is more valuable than obedience.

5. Take the time needed to build trust – the link between you and the other is fragile. It is built link by link, moment by moment. And creating trust takes time, slowness, and presence.

6. Do not let your dreams and ambitions eclipse your happiness in the moment. The only way to achieve your dreams and ambitions is to see the beauty in the reality of what you have in this moment.

7. Stop being a leader (or partner, wife, mother, father, husband, etc) – your concepts and ideas of what it means to be these things gets in the way of just truly being with others in the moment. It adds stress and tension, and trust is not built with stress and tension.

8. Sometimes let the other ‘win’ – when you listen to and honor the edges and comfort level of the other, you are actually winning too… you are winning their trust and confidence.

9. If the other disconnects, keep your connection with them alive anyway – resist the temptation to disconnect or ‘treat the other as they treat you’ when they disconnect. Someone has to rekindle the connection, and it may as well be you.

10. A task ‘well done’ by you or the other with tension or resentment is not a task well done. Re-assess tasks and accomplishments by how much ease, joy, freedom and happiness are within them.

11. Assist the other to be their best self, that is…more confident, self-contained and beautifully expressive.

12. Ninety-five percent of leadership and loving is your inner state, 5% is what you do or say –the other attunes to what we feel inside, the energy we contain. It doesn’t matter if you use the right tool, or do the ‘right’ thing, if your energy is unclear, or ambiguous or distorted, it will not work.

13. Be masterful with your inner state – be clear and precise with your internal state. Be deliberate about how that inner state is applied to the other. Don’t be sloppy.

14. Start with a mental picture – what ever you want to achieve, start with a clear mental picture. Your body, thoughts, and energy will follow and line up. And you will create from there.

15. It’s not necessary to ‘end on a good note’ – this adds more pressure and tension. The best ‘note’ is in listening to the other, and letting things stop there. The fact that you listened builds trust.

16. Boundaries are essential – your message to the other is always:  ‘be free, be happy, we can be together in that, but there are rules to such engagement and one of them is you cannot harm me in your freedom’.

17. Celebrate small successes more often – everyone loves to know they were successful at something. Have an eye for all the small successes and recognize them warmly.

18. Listen to what the other needs – so when you encounter another, your first question to ask yourself is, ‘what do they need?’. When this is your first question, then your engagement with them is caring and safe. This liberates creativity.

19. Be humble and gracious – this is true empowerment. It doesn’t matter if you are speaking to an important world dignitary, or a homeless person on the street. Everyone deserves the highest regard.

20. Don’t be the best – just be the best human you can be. Sincerity of heart outweighs skill.

21. Forget about work / life differentiation – be a good human in all endeavors, your truest self, your most present self. Why would you be different in your work than in the rest of your life?

May we be closer to our kindest humanity this holiday season. May we listen more, speak less, inspire more and control less. May we be joyful. May we evoke joy in others.

Happy holidays.

 

 

The dark grey pigeon plummeted to the earth, and landed squarely on the asphalt at the intersection of Cerrillos Road and Richards Avenue. His downy body lay lifeless in front of my car at the stoplight. ‘Did you see that?’, exclaimed my friend in the passenger seat. ‘He fell right out of the sky!’  Undoubtedly pigeons must die in mid-air on a regular basis, so this was not necessarily a strange occurrence, except for the fact that this was the ninth dead bird to appear in my life within a week.

The first was a hummingbird, outside our front door. Then a woodpecker in our barn. Next was a robin by the window. A raven under my favorite tree. A bat, a sparrow…

I’m not superstitious. But I have learned over the years in my profession to deeply listen and notice. I’m particularly curious when events conspire to provide numerous messages. What on earth would nine dead birds mean?

I spent the better part of the next few days contemplating the lesson—if there was one. My friend who had, along with me, witnessed the bird dropping out of the sky asked me what birds symbolized for me. I rambled through various meanings, but finally landed on a word that had weight.

‘Flight,’ I said.

She paused for a while. ‘Have you always felt the need to take flight?’ she wisely queried.

‘Indeed,’ I replied ruefully, thinking of my failed marriages, and how I escaped my small-minded town during high school.

‘And so, perhaps the dead birds indicate you no longer need to fly away any more,’ she suggested.

The next day, sitting outside my home on a bench under a window, I began thinking about what my friend said. I wasn’t sure. Was I really safe enough in my life now, so I no longer needed to fly away? I was doubtful. I had always fiercely depended upon my skill to take flight when required.

At that very moment, a small wren collided hard against the window and dropped next to me, stunned. Now I was alarmed. Surely I must not be getting the message, because more birds were dying around me! As I sat next to the tiny creature, I considered the possibility of not flying away anymore, of grounding myself in my life’s circumstances without wings for escape. Of daring to trust my life as it was now, and staying put.

I wept.

At that moment, the bird opened her eyes, and flew away. No more dead birds.

In this way, life is constantly engaging with us. Sometimes it’s subtle, sometimes invisible, and sometimes it drags you by the hair and drop kicks you into waking up. I used to brush it off, but over the years I’ve learned to pay attention to events, scenarios, what shows up in any moment. Life is in concert with us, with all things, as one dynamic fluid expression. My dear friend, Lisa Reagan, journalist, founder of Families for Conscious Living, and executive editor of Kindred calls it the ‘uni-verse’.

It’s not woo-woo. Though many might read my words, and name it as such with an exaggerated eye roll. From physics to neuroscience, scientists agree—everything affects everything, because everything is connected. Physicist Fritjof Capra wrote, ‘Quantum theory thus reveals a basic oneness of the universe. It shows that we cannot decompose the world into independently existing smallest units. As we penetrate into matter, nature does not show us any isolated “building blocks,” but rather appears as a complicated web of relations between the various parts of the whole.’

In his letter to a father who had lost a son, Albert Einstein consoled, ‘A human being is a part of the whole, called by us “Universe,” a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separate from the rest—a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness.’

Which brings me to the title of this post. For years I’ve heard my colleagues use the terms woo-woo or kumbaya, mostly with apology or dismissiveness. Ironically, I hear it from those on the front lines of human transformational development, who spend their lives in the realms of the invisible, the poetic and the mystical, opening these doors for others to walk through.

The message we inadvertently spread when we use woo-woo and kumbaya is that seeing holistically is ignorant and naive. We then play into the hands of the dominant paradigm that insists on separation and individualism.

So let’s dig down a little further. The feminine sensibilities of listening deeply, being present, understanding the quieter rhythms and timings of things, seeing between spaces, listening between lines, sensing into events, and recognizing connections, are powerful capacities available to both men and women.

We could argue that these capacities are what are urgently required for the real leadership needed to meet the challenges of a 21st century world. And yet, by saying these sensibilities are woo-woo, we keep its emergence at bay. We disparage the feminine. We perpetuate misogyny.

In the throws of #metoo and Weinstein, it’s time we extinguish all forms of contempt, abuse and prejudice against—not only women—but the feminine, in men and in women, in all its forms. It’s time that we hone our senses to an acuity that recognizes the barely perceptible ways that we keep misogyny alive by teasing, hiding, hassling and dismissing feminine ways of living and knowing.

And when we see people perpetuating those ways, then there’s another means with which to confront it. A more feminine approach. Instead of calling them out—instead of pointing fingers and putting them on the defensive—we can call them in. We can call them in to a way of seeing that is connected, whole and alive.

We can call them in to remembering.

We need to pierce the shame veil that would prevent us from sharing with another how you once heard a tree speak to you, or how you felt the stars move inside you under midnight sky, or how, when you were a child, you knew every animal was your brother or sister. We need to feel rooted in our confidence that when we tell a colleague we just ‘know’ something, we are not being mysterious or weird, but powerful. We need to drop into our magical, mystical, visionary selves without apology.

When I began this post, I hesitated. Do I tell the bird story? Do I risk it? Such is the power of the mindset we live inside. Do not underestimate its pervasiveness, it’s corrosiveness, and it’s toxicity. If we are to create uncommon and innovative solutions to our challenges, we need to call forth the feminine, and her way of being, in all of us. We need to stop saying woo-woo and kumbaya and new age, and any other disparaging term that implies weakness.

And we need to walk out into the night, and hear the stars speak our true name. And the elk bugle to our soul through the crisp fall air. ‘You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves,’ writes poet Mary Oliver, ‘…the world offers itself to your imagination, calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting—over and over announcing your place in the family of things.’

* End note: At the very moment I began to wrap up this blog, my partner Scott came to me with a gift from one of our clients. We opened the small box. Inside was a fetish (a Zuni Indian stone carving) of a beautiful marble moose with turquoise inlay. The card read: Moose represents primal feminine energies. Moose is one of the most ancient of the power totems, associated with instinct, wisdom and feminine strengths.

Go figure.

 

This morning I awoke to an email from a colleague. She had just learned that her teenage friend Heidi, a gifted and sensitive horsewoman, was waiting out hurricane Irma in southwestern Florida. Heidi owns two horses, one whom she rescued and rehabilitated, named Mercy. She had wanted to load up the horses in their trailer, pile the family into their truck, and leave Florida ahead of Irma’s wrath. But her father refused to go.

They live six feet above sea level.

So the Heidi spray-painted her name and phone number onto the two horses’ bodies, and wove luggage tags with her information into their mane and tails. Then, with a hug around each neck, she released them galloping into the wild unknown.

In times like these, when missiles are poised hair-trigger at every major city, hate crimes surge to a new high, and mother nature rages against coastlines and floods entire countries, devastating the lives of millions, joy seems an unlikely—perhaps even insensitive—topic.

But I’m not writing about the conventional definition of joy, which implies something one sided, as in happiness or delight. I’m writing about a deeper sense of communion with all of life—from the beautiful to the terrifying—that, should we have the courage to bear, results in a state beyond happiness, or despair. This is what some claim is the real definition of joy.

‘Joy is a measure of our relationship to death and our living with death,’ writes poet David Whyte, ‘[It is] the last breath of a dying parent as they create that rare, raw, beautiful frontier between loving presence and a new and blossoming absence. If joy is a deep form of love, it is also the raw engagement with the passing seasonality of existence.’

In these days of tumult, there seems no other way forward but to practice the art of that raw engagement of feeling everything. As life becomes more complex, invariably there is more to feel. As our country becomes more polarized, as climate change reveals its evidence, as the inevitable cycle of loss and letting go moves like a reliable tide within our lives, the spectrum from happiness, to grief to rage is ours in which to immerse ourselves.

We might be tempted to numb—to binge on a great TV series, swallow another pill, have another glass of wine, or distract ourselves with work and technology. But we do so at the expense of joy.

In my experience, true joy only comes about when I’m willing to open myself to all of the totality of life…the sublime and the truly terrible…that ‘rare frontier’ that Whyte describes.

The ordained Buddhist nun, teacher and author Pema Chödrön articulates well how to live in these times, and as a result, cultivate joy. Imagine…joy, in the darkest of times!

If something lives, it has life force, she says. Without this we cannot lift our arms or open and shut our eyes. This life force, this energy is what connects us to all of life. We are both moved by it and a part of it. But curiously, human beings have a funny concept that they must resist certain energies, and embrace others. We want to welcome all the ‘good’ energies, and reject the ‘bad’ ones.

Those who spend time with our EQUUS horses learn that as animals of prey, to navigate by ‘only being willing to feel certain energies’ would be fatal for them. They must feel and experience all things in order to discern what is their next right move. And so when people walk amidst our herd, our invitation for them is to ‘feel everything as is’ without preference, or without committing the inner violence of trying to change it.

Often people emerge from this way of being with the horses feeling a sense of real joy. It surprises them to discover that it was in the welcoming of all energies—good and bad—that opened the doorway to joy.

‘You are the sky. Everything else—it’s just the weather,’ writes Chödrön.

This ‘being the sky’ brings on the sublime state of joy. When we recognize ourselves as the sky, then we see that negative emotions don’t touch us. They may feel unpleasant. They may actually physically hurt. But they are merely sensations. They are like different weather patterns, some really fierce and stormy, some cloudy, and others sunny.

Much spiritual and new age thought centers on a concept of mindfulness and centeredness as being absent stormy weather. But to me that is way too conditional for the all-ness that is. Rather, open your whole self to everything that is existence. To me, this is true mindfulness. It is the Openness that contains both openness and closed-ness.

And that Openness is you.

My children had a favorite storybook when they were small. It was titled Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. They adored this book. So much so that the cover wore off from constant bedtime reading. Page after page, poor Alexander experienced one major downer after another. And things just got worse and worse.

What was it about that book that brought them so much joy? Did they have a sense that maybe their life was not as bad as Alexander’s? Or that maybe Alexander made them feel lucky? Nope. It was precisely because the book gave them permission to say, you know what? Sometimes life just totally sucks big time. Period.

And there was no ‘making it better’ in the story. No happy ending. The end of the book simply offered a simple, even-handed, shrug of equanimity: ‘Some days are just like that.’

This was a great message for my kids who were at the time living in a community rife with spiritualism and new age thinking. Everything was rainbows, bhajans, and positive thinking. And suffering was a meditator’s four-letter word.

In an instinctual move towards sanity, my kids, at the ripe old age of four and six, embraced one of the deepest wisdom teachings of all…Everything Is.

Milan Kundera in The Unbearable Lightness of Being wrote, ‘Anyone whose goal is ‘something higher’ must expect someday to suffer vertigo. What is vertigo? Fear of falling? No, Vertigo is something other than fear of falling. It is the voice of the emptiness below us which tempts and lures us, it is the desire to fall, against which, terrified, we defend ourselves.’

May we together be willing to fall into, and completely feel, that which we are all facing right now. May we be courageous enough to feel with those who have had to set their dreams free into the winds of the unknown, perhaps never to see them again. May we, in that courageousness, be the bearers, and bringers, of joy.

 

When I was a child, adults and teachers seemed to agree on one thing: make kids afraid and they will perform better. My second grade teacher, Mrs. Baughman, hung a two-foot long wooden paddle on a hook near the chalkboard for her own easy access, and a stern warning for the rest of us.

Humiliation, threats, embarrassment, shaming and bullying…these ‘educational’ tactics laced the locker-lined halls, silently embedded into the brightly colored construction paper façade of a public elementary school.

One day I watched—incredulous—as Mrs. Baughman, grabbed a can of Lysol from the cupboard, and began to spray around a boy named Claude, in an act of utter frustration with his perpetual dreaminess. Claude was European, and vastly misunderstood. He dressed differently; his thick German accent sounded odd to us, and his hair matted together in a tussle atop his head. The class laughed nervously. My heart felt heavy. After that day, no one played with Claude at the playground. And the boys began to tease him.

We all wanted Mrs. Baughman to love us. We enjoyed her humor, her robust passion of multiplication tables, her strident opinions about race and class, and the way her thick southern drawl would fill the room with an irresistible authority. But we were also afraid of her. We never wanted to be the one at the end of another random disinfectant assault.

I remember her well. I remember how she looked, how her stern eyes peered over her red bifocals, her matching polyester pant suits with big gold buttons. I remember mostly how she made me feel. But I don’t remember a single lesson taught by Mrs. Baughman, except for maybe that when people are afraid, they don’t learn.

Later in my early twenties working for an oil and gas company, I found the same culture of fear-based leadership still existed. People were expendable, and motivated by the fear of failure, more than any kind of intrinsic reward. Things haven’t changed much. Just look around at all the sectors, public and private.

But there’s a sea-change happening on the front lines of leadership development and education that reveals there’s a much better way of doing things, and it’s guided by the latest findings in neuroscience.

The fields of neuro-psychology, neuro-plasticity and neuro-cardiology is giving us clues into how to create the optimal conditions for people to transform into exceptional, innovative and enthusiastic contributors. Bringing out the best in people is more a matter of brain function—and deliberately creating environments that support that functioning—than pressuring individuals to tow the proverbial line.

So rather than moral ideologies of right and wrong or good and bad, these evidence-based approaches are rooted in rigorous research into our nervous system, and how we can positively (or negatively) influence one another. In effect, empowering others is a scientific endeavor, rather than a motivational or inspirational one.

Why is this important? Because even in the most benign professional and educational environments, there still lurks a subtle but powerful assumption that outstanding productivity lies solely in will power, and commitment. And when people fall short, we tend to resort to the old conventional approach of fear, intimidation, scolding and manipulation.

So what are these optimal conditions that foster creativity, innovation, motivation, collaboration, trust, adventure, and loyalty? In a word – safety.

Safety is a mild and very much overlooked little word that is in fact a lion in the leadership development realm. When we first introduce this concept to participants in our workshops, people often look at us in confusion. ‘Safety?’ they query. ‘What do you mean by that?’ Some even roll their eyes…“Safety is for wusses,” some retort. Others assume we mean mere physical safety.

But true safety means to feel safe and secure in all aspects—spiritual, emotional, physical and psychological. And why is safety so essential? I’m going to deliberately oversimplify here for the purpose of illustration:

Our brains are made up of three distinct parts: the primitive reptilian brain, the newer mammalian brain, and the newest neo-mammalian brain. The reptilian brain, also known as the amygdala, is designed to keep us alive. It’s in charge of the fight-flight-freeze-appease response when we feel under threat. The mammalian brain is in charge of our emotions and feelings. And the neo-mammalian (or neo-cortex) is our ‘wise’ brain. It is the center of empathy, reason, compassion, wisdom, learning, innovation and intuition.  In other words the mammalian brain is where all of our creative genius lies.

For our purposes, I am going to focus on the two brains at either end of the spectrum—the reptilian brain, and the neo-cortex.

Our reptilian brain is constantly scanning for, and activated by, four specific things:

  • the unknown
  • physical or emotional threat
  • ‘shoulding’ on ourselves
  • incongruence in our surroundings (things not really lining up or making sense)

As soon as that reptilian brain picks up any of these signals, it goes straight to work. The first thing it does is shut down most of the neo-cortex, so that all hands can be on deck for rapid-fire reaction. Unfortunately, the reptilian brain shoots first and asks questions later. Formed during our most primitive stage of evolution, its purpose was to keep us from being eaten by a pterodactyl, not to provide us with nuanced response to a grumpy salesperson. But to the reptilian brain, there is no difference. At all.

So, regardless of the signal—whether it be a stressful deadline, or a real tiger in your driveway— your reptilian brain for all practical purposes shuts down your other, more resourced, more creative brain. This is called an amygdala hijack. It literally hijacks your ability to respond mindfully.

Enter politics, the medical industrial complex, the 24-hour news cycle, social media, the military industrial complex, religion, environmental and economic stress, and corporate life in general, and now you have a recipe for chronic fear, anxiety and panic—a veritable reptilian totalitarian state.  Yep, we are basically living in a wisdom-bereft environment every day of our lives. And frankly, as a result, we are collectively about to hurl ourselves over a cliff.

This begs the question—with so much anxiety in the air, does this create conditions that facilitate real change, innovation, and creativity? Hardly. Curiously though, the response to this reptilian mindset is more reptilian responses—create more rules, threaten with more bombs, tighten our belts, finger wag the poor productivity, and call out all the bad behavior.

Neuroscience says there is a better way. Create safety. When people feel safe the outcomes are many—collaboration, learning, excelling, inspiration, connection, peace, maturity, openness, responsiveness, ingenuity…just to name a few.

In our work at EQUUS, we talk about ‘connection before task’, in other words, there is no sense in trying to push towards a task or outcome, until an authentic connection between people is made first. When connection is primary, the tasks automatically transform into optimal actions and outcomes. So how do we create connection? By providing and creating safety.

When we look around at the carnage that is mounting in the name of right and wrong, and good and bad, holy and unholy, it becomes apparent that what we are confronting is not a political party, or another country, or that people are just selfish and ignorant. What we are confronting is a mindset. Fear, shame, mistrust…signaling a reptile is at work.

Given the challenges we are all facing, whether it is as global as climate change, or shifting to a more conscious culture at work, or something as personal as having a deeper and more meaningful connection to a partner, the invitation is the same: create safety first, and everything else will line up.

How to create safety for others? It’s nuanced, and so putting it in bullet point form feels a bit stilted, however our reptilian brains relax when things are simpler and more succinct, so here goes:

  • Be succinct and clear in your communication – short, brief and to the point.
  • Use a warm, calm and open tone of voice
  • Listen, with openness and genuine curiosity
  • Be curious
  • Be present (and don’t multitask while engaging with someone)
  • Use eye contact
  • Use an open style of body language (no arms crossed, etc)
  • When possible, meet in person (rather than engaging on the phone or email) so that you can practice the above when communicating.
  • Be accountable – own your stuff, without excuses
  • Be transparent
  • Be vulnerable
  • Stay away from good / bad, right / wrong mind states
  • Share your feelings and thoughts with ‘I’ statements
  • Be congruent – in other words, stop wearing a mask and be yourself
  • Do not ‘should’ on others (or yourself)
  • Work towards what you and others can do, rather than emphasizing what you and they cannot (or should not) do.
  • Use levity
  • Be kind
  • Spend time in nature, or with animals
  • Validate the other’s feelings
  • Walk your talk
  • Be appreciative
  • Stay away from gossip and triangulation
  • Allow for people to be themselves, respecting their values, opinions and beliefs

If you work towards cultivating the above skills and practices, you’ll start to notice something wonderful happen. Things will become easier, and events will begin to turn in the direction you’ve hoped for. Situations previously mired in the logjam of opinions and inertia will begin to clear.

When you create safety as a leader, you bring those around you to wisdom and collaboration, and you become the kind of 21st century leader this world could use.

 

I’ve hit another wall, he texted, at 2 a.m.  I didn’t respond. I was sleeping. The next afternoon I finally texted back, Good, you are on the right track.

One of my favorite ways to work is with people who are taking that 12,500 foot leap out of their office cubical and into the abyss of their own passion and calling. Texts like the one I received at 2 a.m. come frequently when people are in that soul-calling free-fall.

Like my big brother did when I was learning to ride a bike, lightly holding back of my seat while I wobbled ahead at what seemed warp speed, I run alongside my clients shouting breathless encouragements. Invariably there is a curb, a bush, a misplaced tree. And in that moment between letting go of the seat and eventual impact, a calm knowing overwhelms me—this is exactly how it needs to go.

Few have shared the complicated terrain of a creative, purposeful life. Partly because a lot of us are introverts, and partly because the terrain is rife with self-doubt, so who are we to announce confidently the road map of creativity? But also, let’s face it, there are few who take that 12,500 foot leap. Most prefer the climate controlled plane ride with free wi-fi and movies at the touch of a screen.

Now don’t think that what I’m implying here is that a creative life means dumping your day job, though it could if that was what your passion demanded (and if that is the case, by God, you’d better listen). I mean that regardless of circumstances, that leap requires letting go of predictability, and falling into a whole new dance with the very essence of life force.

Inspire / Inspiration – the word comes from the Latin root “immediate influence of God or a god,” “with spirit,”  to “infuse animation or influence,” thus “affect, rouse, guide or control,” especially by divine influence. So, my friends, when one surrenders to the creative life, one let’s go to All That Is. And that’s some pretty big stuff you’re waltzing with now – just ask Joan of Ark or Mary Magdalene.

Whether you are night-owling it while writing a book, or waking up at 5:30 a.m. to map out a new idea before the household awakens, or taking on a side-gig teaching children how to meditate in underserved schools, the creative life is that which emerges from the unknown, summons your deepest intrinsic gifts, and calls them out for expression in the world.

Follow your bliss was Joseph Campbell’s famous rebel yell to all those tempted by inspiration. “If you do follow your bliss you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living. Follow your bliss and don’t be afraid, and doors will open where you didn’t know they were going to be,” he said. “We must be willing to let go of the life we planned so as to have the life that is waiting for us.”

When I first starting reading Campbell in the 80’s, I thought that following my bliss would be, of course, blissful. Ok, so I’m slow on the uptake…it’s follow your bliss. Which is altogether different from being bliss. When one is a follower—that is, a disciple—of their bliss, then one is put through an endless stream of tests, trials and tribulations. Forever. Period.

If you’re going to take that leap, consider this very carefully: you must befriend hopelessness, doubt, despair, darkness, terror, betrayal, emptiness, walls, frustration, disappointment, and setbacks. You must get to know these phenomena intimately. Know their ins and their outs and everything in between.

The creative life could come with a warning label, to scare away all those who are only half-hearted: will cause depression, heart palpitations, insomnia, and the strange and sudden desire to cut off an ear.  But here’s the secret….enter this world whole-heartedly, and the joy and fulfillment completely outweigh it’s challenges.

In Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert writes, ‘I was no stranger to disappointment and frustration. But I remember thinking that learning how to endure your disappointment and frustration is part of the job of a creative person. If you want to be an artist [or innovator] of any sort, it seemed to me, then handling your frustration is a fundamental aspect of the work.’ She continues wisely,  ‘Frustration is not an interruption of your process; frustration is the process.’

One of my favorite bloggers, Mark Manson, says it more directly on finding one’s life purpose, ‘What’s the flavor of your favorite shit sandwich?’ In other words, what do you love so much that you are willing to eat all the shit that goes with it?

He writes, ‘Because here’s the sticky little truth about life that they don’t tell you at high school pep rallies: everything sucks, some of the time.’ You just have to decide what sort of suckage you’re willing to tolerate. So the question is not so much, “What are you passionate about?” The question is, “What are you passionate about enough that you can endure the most disagreeable aspects of the work?”

‘If you want to be a professional artist, but you aren’t willing to see your work rejected hundreds, if not thousands of times, then you’re done before you start,’ says Manson. ‘If you want to be a hotshot court lawyer, but can’t stand the eight-hour workweeks, then I’ve got bad news for you.’

Most of my real work with people is not in the “what are you passionate about” bit, but the, “oh my God I’ve made a terrible mistake, I’m a fraud, and I’m going to go broke” bit. This is where things get really sweaty. And where many try to turn around, clamor back up the parachute lanyards and scurry right back into the plane.

Recently a friend of my partner, who is a master coach, a veteran of 30 years, indicated that out of all the people who invest tens of thousands of dollars to get certified as executive coaches, only about fifty percent of them are still coaching within one or two years. My hunch is that no one told them about the shit sandwich.

If you are a creative….wait a minute….let’s reword that. If you are allowing your natural, god-given, available-to-everyone, creative energy to express itself in one form or another…as a coach, a yoga teacher, a CEO, an entrepreneur, a singer-songwriter, a poet or an actor…then start to warmly acquaint yourself with your own unique personal hell realm.

‘Ah, yes,’ I’ve learned to say when I hit a snag with a particular project I used to be in love with, ‘This is the part where I watch way too much television, and eat lots of sugar.’

‘Oh yeah, here’s that “you are such a fake” week that happens right before a breakthrough.’ And, ‘Yep, about now is when I sabotage everything by spending too much money on unnecessary plastic objects.’ Or, ‘Oh, hello wall-of-hell, where I feel dead, morose and exhausted.’

And my favorite, after the project successfully comes to completion, ‘This is when I beat myself up for not doing it sooner, and imagine that as punishment God is going to deprive me of any kind of creative endeavor for the future, AND I’ll be a bag lady, AND my kids won’t love me.’

I’ve learned to befriend these dark places, and help others befriend theirs. When you see them as part of the process—the necessary contractions that herald a birth—you learn to surf them. My business partner Scott quickly responded to one client after she declared, panic stricken, that she had hit “that wall! That wall that has ruined everything in the past”,

‘Great!’ he said, ‘Once you get through this old familiar one, there will be a brand new shiny one awaiting you!’

Gilbert encourages, ‘Over the years of devotional work, though, I found that if I just stayed with the process and didn’t panic, I could pass safely through each stage of anxiety and on to the next level. I heartened myself with reminders that these fears were completely natural human reactions to interaction with the unknown.’

So. You out there slumped up against that same ol’ wall, bemoaning your bad luck, and how this is proof that you really are a fraud. Get yourself up and dust off those sweatpants. Pull out the picnic blanket, cast it across that well-worn place right in front of that wall, and smooth out the creases. It’s time to dine on sandwiches, the shit kind, that you just can’t get enough of.

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