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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.