When I was in my early forties, I had the good fortune of participating in a women’s intensive retreat with one of the world’s renowned women’s empowerment leaders. Her approach was intense, radical and unconventional, and not intended for the masses. Some of the most powerful moments of my life were inside that small circle of women who came together to dive deeply into the multi-layers of womanhood – physical, emotional and spiritual. And I can tell you that the places our venerable facilitator invited us to go, took way more than just courage to enter.
But go we did, and to this day I remain astonished that she was able to take us there. Due to the confidentiality of the work, and the participants involved, I cannot share the details. Suffice to say it made Burning Man look like Sesame Street.
In later years she and I became friends, and we spoke a lot about her work, and what physics were at play in order to create a safe enough space for us all to have such a definitive encounter with our highest feminine selves. She was adamant that the work itself was only as good as the container that is was held in. ‘Everything must be absolutely and completely perfect,’ she would insist to her, often frazzled, retreat assistants, pointing out a fork left askew, or a tissue left on the floor.
In my return to her retreats, I became not only a student of her work, but more importantly a keen observer of the skill of creating an impeccable container so the impossible could be made possible.
The mastery of container creation is not purely for the domain of intensive retreats and workshops. Though sadly, so many of them neglect this aspect. It is also for leaders and family members, couples, friends, volunteer groups and anyone who is in a position to shape outcomes of something they deem important. For whatever it is that wants to be done, learned or achieved, it is best supported by creating an intentional container for it.
What is a container exactly? I define it as the purposeful and skillful creation of an environment, through agreements, communication, structure (physical and organizational), physical beauty, order and safety (emotional, psychological, spiritual and physical) that holds a body of work.
A container is based on the concepts of Systems Theory, which basically states that anything we do as individuals impacts others around us. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. And more interestingly, the parts are profoundly affected by the whole.
W. Clement Stone said, “You are a product of your environment. So choose the environment that will best develop you toward your objective. Are the things around you helping you toward success — or are they holding you back?”
In the early 1970s, a team of researchers dropped hundreds of stamped, addressed letters near college dorms at an East Coast college and recorded how many lost letters found their way to the right mailbox.
The researchers discovered that students in some of the dorms were more considerate than others, and noticed a marked trend towards the students’ environment that shaped such thoughtfulness.
Nearly all of the letters dropped near less crowded dorms — residences where comparatively few students lived on each floor — reached their intended recipients. In contrast, only about 6 in 10 of the letters dropped near crowded dorms completed the journey.
Apparently, the students in high-density housing, where everyone was packed close together, felt less connected to their college companions and this apparently dampened their benevolence.
Since then, many other experiments have illuminated the same phenomenon. Neighborhoods with broken windows attracted more vandalism, and litter attracts the habit to toss more trash on the ground.
In one study, social psychologists placed paper fliers on over 100 cars in a large parking lot and watched to see what the car owners would do with them.
Again, the environment appeared to shape the response.
When drivers discovered a parking lot littered with scattered fliers, candy wrappers and coffee cups (arranged by the researchers, of course), nearly half of them removed the fliers from their cars and tossed them on the ground.
In contrast, when the researchers swept the same parking lot clean before the drivers returned, only 1 in 10 tossed the flier. Unwittingly, the drivers adopted the behavior of the area’s apparent prevailing norms.
Put succinctly, ‘You get the vibes of your surroundings and it rubs off on you,’ wrote Gordon Lightfoot.
This is why creating a deliberate environment is such an essential part of leadership in an organization. I would argue that it is important in all settings where more than one person is included—families, couples, volunteer groups, church circles. Because when ‘two or more are gathered’, there is a system. And systems need to be shaped. And they need to be shaped with both the ‘care of the whole, and the individual’ as the intention.
Often leaders (and parents, group coordinators, partners in relationship) conceptualize leadership as a set of strategies, skills and directives to create an outcome. But this is linear, and therefore limited, thinking. It fails to recognize the collective soup within which the leadership is foisted.
The best strategies fall over at worst, and limp along at best, when implemented within a toxic or unconscious environment. Exceptional leadership includes the creation and maintenance of a correct environment in order for the outcomes to manifest.
Look inside any system, let’s take for example a family, and notice the impact that system has on each individual. Often parents will send a child to therapy imagining the child’s issues to be independent of the family system, unique and personal to that child. The best therapy in that scenario is one that takes the entire family into account, and treats the system as a whole.
Dutch motivational speaker Alexander den Heijer said, “When a flower doesn’t bloom you fix the environment in which it grows, not the flower.”
Recently I participated in a retreat that I had felt I had searched for my whole life. It took an enormous about of resources to attend. And I was open, excited and vulnerable in that way that all steep learning curves evoke.
Sadly the experience was mis-held. There was no container. Some common symptoms of a group absent any intentional container are: drama, negativity, gossip, creating ‘proxies’ for projecting stress, vying for position, silo-ing and anxiety. Additionally, people are denied their ability to show up as their truest and best selves.
The impact on me—regardless of clear my intention, enthusiasm and desire—was that my learning was compromised, my attention distracted, and my ability to show up as a fully contributing participant was reduced.
Event organizers do participants a huge disservice when containers are ill-made and poorly maintained. It is nothing less than an imperative to create a container of safety for all participants. Without such a container, people are subjected to uncertainty, stress, isolation and it compromises their ability to be vulnerable, to connect to one another in any capacity, let alone deeply, and to truly learn.
In our work at EQUUS we have a mantra —everything matters. Scott Strachan, CVO of EQUUS, states, ‘We know that everything we do has impact, and we take that responsibility very, very seriously. We create space filled with trust that allows for people to reflect on the environment that may have sent them to us in the first place and to view from the balcony the influence it has on them.’
Through careful container creation, we endeavor to give our clients permission to show up as their best, empowered selves, to acknowledge their courageousness so they are confident in showing up differently, in ways more true to wholeheartedness.
How do you create a good container? The details vary depending upon the context. But here are just a few broad pointers:
Physical space – the physical space in which work is done shapes a sense of belonging, respect and ease. Attend to elements of order, structure to support efficiencies, and beauty. Natural light, flowers, symmetry in a circle of chairs, enough boxes of tissues, the feng-shui of how a room flows, can all be considerations.
The emerging field of innovative office space creation is very exciting. And you’ll find and abundance of resources out there on how to create great workshop / retreat / meeting spaces, and great family spaces too.
Agreements – agreements outlined to all group members helps everyone to feel safe, heard, and accountable. They form the backbone of creating a positive atmosphere and alleviating drama. Here are some of ours:
- Treat everyone with respect
- Cell phones off – your presence matters, for yourself and others.
- Please arrive on time
- No putdowns even the joking kind – we differentiate between humor (which is essential) and joking at someone’s expense.
- Share group space – This largely related to how much people speak – some can tend to take up too much space, and others not enough.
- No FRAPP-ing (Fixing, Rescuing, Advising or Protecting, or Polling) – polling is when you illicit agreements from others to support a story you are holding.
- No cross-talking – let everyone speak without interruption or commentary.
- Share only your own story – Share using the word ‘I’ rather than a generalized ‘you’ or ‘we’. For example, ‘I often forget how privileged I am,’ instead of “We often forget how privileged we are.”
- Observe confidentiality
- You have the right to pass – It’s not ashare or die circle.
- No triangulation or gossip
- Expect a lack of closure – there’s a lot to cover in any workshop / meeting / retreat and consequently there may be some things left to resolve over the arc of time.
Similar agreements can be crafted for family environments (ie, no cell phones at the dinner table, no name calling, etc) and office environments and meetings.
Upholding Agreements – it’s not enough to just proclaim them. The real work is in upholding them in real time.Particularly early on in the workshop we remind people quite frequently about the agreements in a light-hearted non-threatening manner. We revisit the group agreements at the start of each day.
My kids had a swearing jar, not for them, but for me! Whenever they heard me swear, I had to put a dollar in the jar. After the jar was full, I would take them out for a treat. It was just one of the ways we maintained a commitment to our agreements.
Nutrition – the consistent availability of a variety of fresh, healthy and nourishing foods and snacks helps peoples brains stay on line, and prevents low blood sugar crashes. When people are learning, they burn large amounts of glucose and often need more food, at more frequent intervals, than usual. Attend to the various needs required such as gluten free, vegetarian and vegan options.
Flow – cramming way too much into a day is stressful, and compromises the ability to learn. Create a flow inside hours, days, weeks that includes breaks, down time, and integration time. Negative space is generative.
Details – the smallest things can make a huge difference between people feeling stressed, or feeling terrific. Good maps to important locations (do not rely on everyone’s GPS working well), welcome letters, ‘what to pack’ emails, in case of emergency phone numbers, are all details to include.
Feedback – the best way I’ve learned to create containers is through the direct and honest feedback of our clients. I’ve learned if the maps aren’t right, the day was too crammed, and if I overlooked elements of importance to them. So we treat feedback as a sacred, important offering from our clients. Create a safe space where feedback can be given, and received, wholeheartedly.
For me, container building is an active, constantly evolving, creative way to show care in form and in action. I am constantly learning how to refine and improve the various environments in my care. Have fun thinking of ways you can create deliberate containers for your team, or family. And enjoy the journey!
“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.
Improvisation means coming to the situation without rigid expectations or preconceptions. The key to improvisation is motion — you keep going forward, fearful or not, living from moment to moment. That’s how life is.
– Bobby McFerrin
This time last year, on the heels of a severe hiking accident, I lay awake in the middle of the night in a cold sweat. It was January 15th, we had just moved to our new property in Tesuque, a gracious yet neglected 11-acre horse farm left uninhabited for eight years.
It was a gamble. There were burst pipes to fix, over 5200 square feet of roof to re-surface, five-and-a-half acres of fence to mend, and 50 dead trees to fell and cart away. And that was just the beginning. Every day revealed another urgent and necessary repair. Our savings were pouring out the accounts as fast as the water was pouring into our house through yet another crack in the wall.
The hiking accident had left me emotionally fragile, unable to drive for a time, and scared. I could no longer rely on my sheer willpower to get things done, nor my ability to multi-task from dawn to midnight to ensure success at anything.
I tossed the blankets off my body, and pressed my hands to my forehead in a state of panic. Tomorrow I had a car payment to make, but there was hay to buy, and only four cans of tuna fish in the pantry, and our funds were not covering the total. I quickly calculated which of the three was a priority — keeping the car, feeding the horses, or feeding us. I chose the horses.
Dear God, I thought. What have we done?
What had we done? We had leapt together, a relatively new couple, into our calling. ‘Vocation does not mean a goal that I pursue. It means a calling that I hear,’ writes Parker Palmer in his book Let Your Life Speak. ‘Before I can tell my life what I want to do with it, I must listen to my life telling me who I am.’ Well, Scott and I were listening, and we were stepping together into a calling not willfully manufactured, but vulnerably received.
The next day I did what any sane person would do, I got up and kept going. The 280 bales of lush green certified-organic hay arrived via a semi-truck-trailer, a veritable vision of abundance contrasted against the brown dusty construction site that was our home. Its arrival mocked my internal state of envisioning Scott and I as bedraggled bag-lady and bag-man, with our starving dog Molly in tow.
I wrote the check, feigning confidence with academy award-winning theatrics. ‘See you in three months,’ I shrilled, just a little too optimistically, as I waved our hay guy down the driveway.
Later that day, while walking through our paddocks, we received a call from a friend. They wanted to express to us how much they believed in EQUUS. They had a horse to give us, a perfect equine facilitator. His bloodlines were impressive. His training, impeccable. He’s all ours without condition. Could we pick him up next week?
Without pausing, we said, ‘Yes.’
We hung up from the call and looked at each other, incredulous. I’ll never forget Scott’s words. ‘Well,’ he said squinting Clint Eastwood-like into the distance, ‘we are either geniuses or we are dumber than a bag of hair.’ I was imagining what we both looked like as two burlap bags of filled with hair, tied off with a string. He smiled. It was his smile that kept me going.
After that day, something extraordinary happened. The phone started ringing. We started getting large bookings, and a lot of them. Opportunities began opening themselves to us. Miracles were happening. That one yes, spoken squarely into the headwinds of impossibility and terror, opened a powerful door to infinite possibility.
Fast forward to a year later, and EQUUS is a thriving and robust organization. And the life that we feared might shatter us as a couple, has made us stronger. Over those months, there have been many yes’s in the face of fear. And I credit a large portion of our success to those yes’s—those improvised responses to the present moment, sensing into the emergent future, in co-creation with life.
It’s like being on a trapeze, legs hooked over the bar, and sensing the hands of another are out there somewhere in the arc of your swing. So you reach in their direction, and let go into the infinite with total faith those hands will catch you mid-flight. And they do.
‘By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail!’ my father used to say to me during my middle school years, in that omniscient chest-puffed father-knows-best kind of tone. He prepared for everything. From how many cracker crumbs I was allowed to drop on the car seat, to how loud my brother and I could speak, to the fact that we could not ‘afford’ my $6 piano lessons (but we could afford his Cessna 172).
In some ways he was right. Preparation gave me an edge for final exams. And it’s always wise to know what to pack for an overseas trip, or to prepare for a keynote. The trapeze artist prepares through body building, strength training, and cultivating acrobatic mastery. But nothing, absolutely nothing, prepares you for the moment you let go of your swing and fly through the air. Nothing prepares you to say yes when all of your conditioning would have you say no.
‘Start with a yes and see where that takes you,’ says Tina Fey in her rules of improv. This is an altogether different approach than the ‘let me make sure I have my ducks in a row, and my retirement in the bank, and my family agrees, before I really live my life’ version of living. The overly planned life throws us in the purgatory of ‘the divided life’ as Parker Palmer describes it. ‘…afraid that our inner darkness will be exposed, we hide our true identities and become separated from our own souls,’ he writes, ‘The divided life comes in many and varied forms. It is the life we lead when [for example] we:
- make our living at jobs that violate our basic values, even when survival does not absolutely demand it;
- remain in settings or relationships that steadily kill off our spirit;
- conceal our true identities for fear of being criticized, shunned or attacked.
Where preparation and planning leave off, improvisation begins. And that is the art of living. And that is what it takes to follow your calling. ‘What improv does for an actor is help him find the life; it’s the life that an actor’s after,’ said actor Giovanni Ribisi of the art form.
When we dance with life, as our partner, we find the realness. We tap into something larger than our idea of things. And we leverage a force vastly greater than our own will. Circumstances that would take years to create with our own hands, happen almost miraculously within days.
Some might say we were reckless. I can tell you the feeling tone was anything but that. At the precise moment of any yes, it felt present, grounded, quiet, curious and, well, mysterious. What felt reckless was ignoring the fact that life was actively engaging with us in the manifestation of our calling.
Sometimes, in fits of doubt, we would contract and pull in. We would tighten the old belt. And what happened in response? Our world got smaller. The phone rang less. Things got harder. After a while of this pattern, it was staying small that felt reckless. It felt like spitting right into the face of Destiny herself and saying, no thanks you stupid jerk, I’d rather have my tiny safe compliant subdued fear-based life.
If I’ve learned anything this year, I’ve learned that unequivocally life co-creates with us. It doesn’t matter to life what we co-create…it can assist us to live small, or live true. When you contract and pull in, life pulls in with you, when you expand and lean out, life expands with you…and when you move forward in the face of utter and complete failure, fueled by your belief and trust, life gives back big time.
Is there failure in saying yes? Of course. But it’s failure forward. And it leads to the next moment, now more informed, now wiser, which leads to the next yes, until at some point there is a sublime conspiring of events. And when you look back you see your entire life has been leading you to this. This calling. This journey. This manifestation of the reason you took birth.
Right now, in the wake of many global challenges, a dramatic change is on the wind. People are waking up. Like Scott and I, people are listening to their life telling them who they truly are, and how they are truly called. We’ve been preparing our whole lives for this. We can trust we are duly prepared. Now it is time to reach towards the infinite, and fly.
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.
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.
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.
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.