Spiritual reparenting: severed belonging, benefactors, vulnerability & reconnection

Tara Brach's weekly dharma talks and guided meditations have been a consistent source of inspiration and equanimity for me over the past several years. A few weeks ago, she presented a talk on spiritual reparenting to which I've listened four times (thus far), as it resonated on many levels for me. The practice of becoming one's own loving parent is a recurring theme for adult children of alcoholics and other dysfunctional families, and I find Tara's perspective on the topic offers a valuable contribution to my understanding of the hurting and healing processes. I was so moved by the wisdom presented in the talk that I transcribed the entire 52 minute episode. I'll embed the podcast below, and include a link to the unofficial (and unauthorized) transcription, but I also want to share a few highlights here.

One of the themes Tara emphasizes is the wound of severed belonging, which often occurs while we are children, when we get the explicit or implicit message that we are not okay - not good enough - from parents or other authority figures. In the resulting trance of unworthiness, we feel the pain of separation - of being disconnected - from those we love .. and from whom we want to feel love. Separation anxiety can afflict us at any age, in the context of any significant relationship, though we are especially vulnerable when we are young and inexperienced. As I've noted in several of my most recent blog posts - the pain of severed belonging can continue to affect us for many years after the infliction of the wound.

Fortunately, many of us encounter a benefactor, someone who offers us unconditional love and a healing presence at a time when we are in deep pain. A benefactor repairs the severed belonging and helps us feel connected again: loved, and thereby, worthy of love. I am grateful for the appearance of benefactors at different stages of my life, when I was suffering with the pain of disconnection and the trance of unworthiness.

in her talk, Tara asks "What are the qualities in that person that made a difference to you?", and in reflecting on my benefactors, I see that the common qualities were honesty, self-awareness, compassion and vulnerability. Vulnerability is especially relevant to the process of repair and reconnection. Any benefactor who has appeared in my life has been willing and able to relate to my suffering by revealing one or more elements from their own experience that mirrors or closely aligns with my wound and acknowledging that the wound hurts.

I often magnify my suffering through self-inflecting a second wound - what Tara calls a "second arrow" - by judging myself defective and weak, believing that the wound shouldn't hurt so much, that there's something wrong with me. Simply knowing that I have a fellow traveler, especially one that I admire and respect, helps reduce my sense of isolation and restore a feeling of belonging and worthiness.

I count Tara among my benefactors, even though I've never met her. In her books and talks, she regularly shares stories from her own experience that exhibit the kind of vulnerability that creates an opening for connection and reconnection. Her practice of RAIN (Recognizing, Allowing, Investigating and Nurturing) has been an important component in my journey of letting go of emotions. I highly recommend her talks, as the calm, soothing voice through which she expresses her honesty, self-awareness and compassion is an especially welcome departure from the tone of much of the political discourse - and discord - that is arising from the lack of honesty, self-awareness, compassion and vulnerability exhibited by some who have recently come to power in the United States.

I also recommend adopting the practice of financial beneficence (or dana), and joining me in becoming a contributor in supporting Tara's talks and meditations, which she offers for free. I believe dana will be an increasingly important way to support the voices I want to hear, as more voices I don't want to hear are given more prominent platforms, supported at taxpayer expense.

I'll include the abstract for Spiritual Parenting below, since the highlights above only focus on a small portion of the talk. The talk includes references to other inspiriting sources of wisdom - such as a quote by attachment science researcher Louis Cozolino on the survival of the nurtured, Krista Tippett's On Being interview with Ruby Sales ("Where does it hurt?"), Martin Luther King's speech on "Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break the Silence", and the 1998 movie, The Horse Whisperer.

When we are not sufficiently nurtured in childhood, we are inclined toward anxiety, depression, addiction and other forms of suffering. In a deep way, we do not feel at home with others. We are disconnected from our own body, heart and spirit.

This talk explores how meditation offers “spiritual reparenting” as we learn to bring interest, understanding and love to our own inner vulnerability. This process of healing extends to our relationships with others and our larger society – by reaching out to widening circles with interest and care, we bring increasing harmony and peace to our world.

From a place of caring, ask, “Where does it hurt?”

The podcast is embedded below for easy access. Here's a link to my unofficial transcription of Spiritual Reparenting. Namaste.

Letting Go of Blame and Judgment: Emotional Transformation through Zen with Len

LenMany years ago, I experienced betrayal, pain and anger about something that someone did. I did not have the tools or life experience to fully understand my reactions - much less transform them - at the time, and the memory of the episode has resurfaced periodically, re-triggering unresolved emotions. The most recent recurrence began last October, disrupting my ability to sleep and negatively impacting other dimensions of my life over several months. The spell was finally broken during a retreat in January that was organized and led by my good friend, Kensho Len Silverston, promising - and delivering - emotional transformation. I wanted to share some of the insights and experiences that contributed to my breakthrough(s) that weekend.

I went into the retreat filled with blame and judgment: blaming the other person for causing my pain and anger, and judging that what the other person did was wrong. The intensity of my righteous indignation was magnified by the person's unwillingness to admit any wrongdoing or express any regret about the episode. I knew it was up to me to resolve whatever lingering emotions I was holding on to - as Tara Brach so aptly puts it, the boundary to what we can accept is the boundary to our freedom - and it was increasingly clear, after several months of disequilibrium, that I needed help. When the student was ready, the retreat appeared.

Meditation, Yoga and Qigong

Zen_with_len_logoThe Zen with Len retreat consisted of several days of meditation, gentle yoga and Qigong sessions - all interleaved so as to balance our focus on mind and body - as well as special sessions exploring a number of other practices Len has found helpful in his own emotional transformations. Most meditation sessions were a half hour long - a bit of a stretch for me, as I had previously only sat for a maximum of 20 minutes at a time, but not out of my comfort zone - and I found the yoga sessions were similarly within my comfort zone, offering opportunities to gently push the edges.

While I have practiced meditation and yoga (with varying degrees of dedication) before, the Qigong exercises - a type of moving meditation - were new to me. One exercise, in particular, seemed like it was custom designed for what I was seeking at the retreat, and proved to be one of the most significant sources of breakthrough: an invitation to bring into consciousness something we want to let go, and then manifesting the letting go through movement (not just words). I'll embed a 15-minute Qigong video Len made after the retreat below; the letting go exercise can be found around the 9:55 mark.

The Qigong exercises were repeated several times throughout the weekend, and for each iteration of the letting go exercise, I alternated between letting go of blaming the other person, and letting go of my judgment of what the other person did. By the end of the weekend, I succeeded in letting go of both. However, I soon found that the blame and judgment were simply redirected toward me: how could I have tormented myself all these years? Fortunately, there were other tools provided during the weekend to help with this.

Mondo Zen

Mondo_zen_logoOne of the special afternoon sessions was on Mondo Zen, a protocol adapted from ancient Zen principles by Len's teacher, Jun Po, to facilitate the awakening of Clear Deep Heart / Mind through a process of koans. The process - detailed in the Mondo Zen training manual - is divided into two parts. The first part, Ego Deconstruction/Reconstruction Koans, is designed to help loosen one's grip on traditional ways of seeing, understanding and acting and arrive at a state of "not knowing". I had worked through similar processes in the Warrior Monk retreat I attended several years ago, and found the refresher helpful. However it was the second part, Emotional Awareness Intervention Koans, that really set the stage for the transformation I experienced.

The resurgence of the episode that brought me to the retreat triggered a number of different reactions at different times: anger, pain, shame and dissociation. In Mondo Zen, I learned that

  • No one can make me angry, shame me or cause me to dissociate / disconnect
  • Any anger, shame and/or disconnection I feel is a reaction to fear and/or sadness
  • Fear and/or grief is rooted in deep caring

I also learned that all of these emotions involve some kind of violence:

  • Anger is violence against others
  • Shame is violence against myself
  • Disconnection is violence against a relationship

Through the 2-hour Mondo Zen exercise during the retreat - a highly abbreviated, but effective, version of what is typically a multi-day retreat of its own - I was able to

  • Understand and accept that I reacted with anger, shame and disconnection to the past episode
  • Take full responsibility for my reactions
  • Recognize and take responsibility for the harm I have caused myself and others through my anger, shame and disconnection
  • Accept that the other person did nothing wrong

All of these new insights reinforced my ability - and willingness - to let go of blame and judgment.

Voice Dialogue

Another practice Len introduced in a special session was Voice Dialogue. We all have a multitude of voices in our heads, each representing different selves or parts of our personality. Each voice serves us in some positive way, and each voice has a different level of prominence in each of us, both in general and in the context of any particular inner conversation. Each voice can be harmful if allowed to commandeer the conversation to the exclusion of other voices. Disowning or rejecting any voice can also be harmful, as the abandoned voice will always find some way to leak out and express itself. We also have a higher self, or "True Nature", that serves as a moderator of our inner dialogues. I like to think of the voices as an inner program committee or board of directors, and my "True Nature" as the chairman of the board.

Selves_in_a_boxAs I understand it, there are a few different variations on the number and specific labelings of voices. The one Len used was from the book - and associated deck of 52 cards (each representing a different voice) - Selves in a Box. I think the most important aspect of the practice of Voice Dialogue is not so much the specific labels that are used for different voices, but the act of explicitly labeling the voices itself, and the way this differentiation enables one to identify and consciously moderate among the voices ... a manifestation of the principle I have heard articulated by several different spiritual teachers (including Tara Brach and Dan Seigel):"If you can name it, you can tame it".

CriticAmong the most prominent voices on my board of directors (in alphabetical order) are

  • The Accommodator
  • The Critic
  • The Judge
  • The Loner
  • The Perfectionist
  • The Romantic
  • The Sensitive
  • The Thinker
  • The Vulnerable Child

I have very loud and strident Critic (inwardly directed) and Judge (outwardly directed) voices. As I mentioned above, when I let go of blame and judgment of the other person, I redirected the blame and judgment toward myself, unconsciously shifting the leading voice of that inner conversation from the Judge to the Critic. Recognizing the rise of the Critic enabled me (or my True Nature) to explicitly call upon The Nurturer to comfort The Vulnerable Child so that I could better practice self-acceptance and self-forgiveness ... a challenging practice that is still unfolding for me.

The Demartini Breakthrough Experience

Demartini_breakthrough_experienceThe final special session that Len led us through was an abbreviated version of the Demartini "Breakthrough" Experience, which is another process that is typically offered in a multi-day retreat of its own.

The Breakthrough process is based on the recognition that all traits have costs and benefits, and so traits I judge as "bad" also offer benefits to me and others. The process involves a sometimes painful investigation into what those hidden benefits might be. During the retreat, I chose to work on the trait of remorselessness in the person I had formerly blamed for my anger and pain, a trait I had previously labeled as uniformly bad.

Through an iterative process of excavation through layers of resistance, I came to recognize that this trait provided me a number of benefits, including:

  • Teaching me how to be unapologetically true to oneself (vs. consumed with people pleasing or accommodation of others)
  • Teaching me that it is OK to do what one wants, without undue regard for how someone else might feel about it, if it does not violate an agreement or directly harm another person
  • Teaching me that one cannot depend on anyone else for validation
  • Offering me an unsought opportunity to accept full responsibility for my reactions, which I can apply to other situations in which I experience betrayal, anger and/or pain

This last point represents a significant and unexpected breakthrough, helping to reinforce some of the other dimensions of transformation I experienced during the retreat. If the other person had expressed remorse, it would have vindicated my feelings of blame and judgment, enabling me to avoid looking any more deeply into my emotional reactions, and thereby avoid taking responsibility for them. The lessons to be true to myself, not depend on others for validation, and take full responsibility for my reaction are lessons that have been repeated at various times, in various ways and at various costs over many years.

I believe the prolonged intensity of pain that preceded the latest course offering was necessary for the breakdown that facilitated the breakthrough, and I am grateful for the timely, multi-dimensional learnings offered at the Zen with Len retreat.

There are no mistakes only lessons; a lesson is repeated until learned; tuition varies

image from www.drcherie.comOne of my principal sources of wisdom is Cherie Carter Scott's book, If Life is a Game, These are the Rules, an elaboration of her Ten Rules for Being Human, which initially appeared (inadvertently unattributed) in Jack Canfield's book, Chicken Soup for the Soul.

My two favorite life rules are:

3. There are no mistakes, only lessons

4. A lesson is repeated until learned

I regularly quote these rules - online and offline - and over the years have recognized an important addendum to rule 4:

4b. Tuition varies

In Dr. Cherie's book, each rule is elaborated in a separate chapter that begins with an introduction and is followed by a few sections presenting themes (or perhaps lesson plans) relating to the rule. For Rule 3 - There are no mistakes, only lessons - the themes are compassion, forgiveness, ethics and humor. Here is an excerpt from the introduction for this chapter:

Rather than viewing your own mistakes as failures and others' mistakes as slights, you can view them as opportunities to learn. As Emerson said, "Every calamity is a spur and a valuable hint." Every situation in which you do not live up to your own expectations is an opportunity to learn something about your own thoughts and behaviors. Every situation in which you feel "wronged" by another person is a chance to learn something about your reactions. Whether it is your own wrongdoing or someone else's, a mistake is simply an opportunity to evolve further along your spiritual path.

The chapter on Rule 4 - Lessons are repeated as needed - includes elaborations on awareness, willingness, causality and patience. It begins with an introduction that articulates the following insight:

You will continually attract the same lessons into your life. You will also draw to you teachers to teach you that lesson until you get it right. The only way you can free yourself of difficult patterns and issues you tend to repeat is by shifting your perspective so that you can recognize the patterns and learn the lessons that they offer. You may try to avoid the situations, but they will eventually catch up with you.

I regularly experience the wisdom of these rules, with varying degrees of awareness. It often seems to be the case that I recognize their relevance retroactively. Over time, I have also learned that the lessons have variable costs, which exhibit a general upward trend. The costs can take different forms - money, opportunities, friends - but the most common currency appears to be emotional pain. In a 12-step group I used to attend, we often light-heartedly referred to the repetition of an emotionally painful lesson as another f***ing growth opportunity, or AFGO for short. 

Emotional pain experienced during lessons is often magnified by my unwillingness to practice self-forgiveness - for which two specific lesson plans are highlighted in the chapters on rules 3 and 4 - and my tendency to add a layer of self-criticism when I recognize that I've unwittingly and unintentionally repeated a mistake lesson yet again. But when the lessons involve other people - in either a cooperative or adversarial learning opportunity - the emotional pain also arises from my guilt over the tuition they pay ... fees that, in many cases, my co-learners never explicitly signed up for.

The highest student debt accumulated for my repeated lessons involve my wife and children. The costs in terms of the emotional pain I experience when I fail to live up to my own expectations of being an attentive and effective husband and father are enormous, and greatly intensify each time lessons are repeated. And, unfortunately, the costs borne by them through such lessons can also be considerable.

Marriage vows traditionally take into account tuition costs for partners' lessons, or at least that's my interpretation of "for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health". Marriage, at least in our culture, involves an explicit choice by both partners, and each has the option of dropping the course(s). My wife has been one of my best, most consistent and often unappreciated teachers ... though I like to think at least some of her tuition has been reciprocated through lessons I may have offered her over the years.

Children are typically not offered an explicit opportunity to choose whether to sign up for lessons they learn with or from their parents. My children are also among my best teachers, as they regularly help me recognize hypocrisy or duplicity when I preach one principle but practice another, or when I am otherwise not living up to my - or their - expectations of being a good father. I don't know quite how to account for their tuition costs over the years, but I like to believe the process of micro-evolution will ultimately allow them to reap some valuable rewards from the dues they've been paying.

David Whyte on Feminine Wisdom, Courage and Power

Young_Women_Empowered_LogoDavid Whyte shared his inspired and inspiring wisdom about the feminine embodiments of power last night at Town Hall Seattle. At a benefit event for Young Women Empowered (Y-WE) - an organization co-founded by his wife, Leslie - he guided the audience on a journey exploring the "five forms of female courage" and revealed aspects of that courage through stories, poetry and an articulation of what he calls a philosophy of attention. Whyte suggested that these forms of courage are not restricted to women, but that men typically only arrive at these forms of courage - and wisdom - after they have tried all the more masculine forms of courage. I have often wrestled with an interior tension between the masculine and the feminine - most of my closest friends are women, and most of the artists who inspire me are women - and so Whyte's framing of the masculine vs. the feminine forms offers me a new perspective from which to contemplate this tension.

Whyte described the first form as the feminine relationship to the unknown or to mystery, perhaps best exemplified by a woman's central role in the miracle of birth ... and a man's role as an outsider looking in. After distinguishing a father's relationship with a son, whom he is supposed to teach, and his relationship with a daughter, to whom he is supposed to apprentice himself, Whyte recited My Daughter Asleep, which he composed over a course of several years for his daughter, Charlotte, beginning shortly after her birth. When she was five, he recited the poem for her, and asked what her favorite part was. Charlotte's favorite section is also my favorite ... and I wonder if my own daughter (who I suspect is very close to Charlotte's age) would also find a deep resonance with the lines:

May she find
in all this
day or night
the beautiful
of pure opposites

The_Song_of_the_LarkAs a marine biologist who worked as a naturalist in the Galapagos, and who has always felt and expressed a keen appreciation of the natural world, Whyte introduced another poem by explaining that a collection of larks is called an exaltation of larks, and asserting that he considers the lark an emblem of humans' ability to speak out in the world. He then recited Song of the Lark, another poem that reveals - or perhaps more precisely, revels in - the mystery of the feminine, which was inspired by [a postcard of] a painting by Jules Breton from 1884:

What is called in her rises from the ground
and is found in her body,
what she is given is secret even from her.

The second form of feminine courage explored during the evening was a willingness to ground that mystery in the world. Whyte sees vulnerability as a source of strength rather than weakness, reflecting wisdom I have encountered in words written and spoken by empowered and empowering women such as Oriah Mountain Dreamer (through whom I first discovered David Whyte) and Brene Brown, who also advocate - and model - connection and compassion through courage, vulnerability & authenticity.

Whyte recited poetry exemplifying strength through vulnerability, including  a poem by the courageous Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva, I Know the Truth, remarking how much more authentic such a bold assertion seems when it comes from a woman vs. a man. He also recited his own poems The House of Belonging and Start Close In, the latter of which suggests a step-wise approach to grounding the mystery in the world:

Start close in,
don't take the second step
or the third,
start with the first
close in,
the step
you don't want to take.

Meerabai_paintingThe third form of feminine courage is a willingness to say "no" to anything and everything that is not a full "yes". This courage is illustrated by Meera (aka Mira / Meerabai / Mirabai), an ecstatic Hindu poet and singer in 16th century India, and her poem, Why Meera Can't Go Back Home, which articulates firm boundaries:

Approve me or disapprove me;
I praise the Mountain Energy night
and day.

Whyte also recited Sweet Darkness, a poem with particularly deep personal resonance that helped me re-frame and re-interpret a misconstrued defeat during a period in which I was moving toward belonging, freedom and coming alive again after a period of soul-squelching darkness:

Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet
confinement of your aloneness
to learn
anything or anyone
that does not bring you alive
is too small for you.

After an intermission, Jamie Rose-Edwards, the Executive Director of Young Women Empowered, and two of its recent graduates shared their hopes for and experiences with the program. The mission of Y-WE is to "empower young women from diverse communities to step up as leaders in their schools, communities, and the world." There was clear alignment between the kinds of courage and power Whyte was expressing and the characteristics modeled and cultivated by the staff and mentors of the program.

David_Whyte_English_Lake_DistrictWhen Whyte returned to the stage, he articulated the fourth form of feminine courage, a willingness to live in different forms of beauty. The forms of beauty that a woman will exhibit and experience will change throughout her life, and the transitions will often involve disappointment and heartbreak, but the courage to work through the transitions open doors to new forms of beauty (and wisdom). Whyte recited Shakespeare's Sonnet 29, his own poem to (and, in a way, from) his mother, Farewell Letter, and a poem, Weathering, by New Zealand poet (and librarian), Fleur Adcock, composed during her year-long, late mid-life sabbatical in the English Lake District (one of the places through which Whyte leads tours):

But now that I am in love
with a place that doesn’t care
how I look and if I am happy,
happy is how I look and that’s all.

At the end of the evening, Whyte shared the fifth form of feminine courage, the courage to accept the invitations of life and step out beyond yourself, noting that the most courageous conversation is the one we don't want to have. Throughout much of his prose and poetry, Whyte advocates adopting an investigative vulnerability in exploring the frontiers of experience, and his poem, The True Love - with which he concluded the event - is one of this most penetrating articulations of this truth, drawing upon the biblical account of Jesus inviting Peter to find the faith and courage get out of a boat amid stormy seas and walk on water toward him. A passage in the poem is especially poignant for me now, as I wrestle with my own vulnerable sense of power, worthiness and faith:

I am thinking of faith now
and the testaments of loneliness
and what we feel we are
worthy of in this world.

David_Whyte_River_Flow David_Whyte_Clear_Mind_Wild_HeartMost of the poems Whyte read - both his own and those by other poets - were from his collection, River Flow, a book I have read cover-to-cover dozens of times, and probably represents the closest approximation I have to a bible, serving as a personal perpetual source of wisdom and inspiration. I've also listened to his entire 6 CD set, Clear Mind, Wild Heart [also available in MP3] dozens of times, a series of recordings with a format similar to the event of last night: an intermingling of poetry, prose and philosophy. Although I was already familiar with most of the poems (and the stories behind them) shared last night, it was still a thrilling experience to see him live. This was my first poetry reading, and throughout the event, I experienced the same kinds of "goose-bump moments" I've often felt (and written about) during music concerts, perhaps most notably during the Indigo Girls Zoo Tunes concert that Amy and I attended a few years ago. What was qualitatively different between the poetry reading last night and music concerts I have attended was the frequent, collective sighs and other spontaneous shared expressions of recognition of deep truths that were articulated during Whyte's recitation of poems. I often experienced a double jolt of goose bumps, first from my own personal resonance, and shortly thereafter from the awareness that I was not alone in feeling that deep resonance.

I'll finish off this post with a passage from a poem that Whyte did not read last night, Revelation Must be Terrible, but which exquisitely captures the notions of shared resonance and aloneness:

Being far from home is hard, but you know,
   at least we are exiled together.


Giving thanks for my 'speed dial friends'

I am grateful for all of my circles of family and friends, offline and online, but on this day of Thanksgiving, I want to express my special appreciation for a small subset that I often call my speed dial friends: the set of my closest friends whose phone numbers I have programmed into the single-digit speed dial keys of my mobile phone (though now, with my iPhone, they are listed on the "Favorites" menu). These are the friends who I can - and do - regularly reach out to during my highest and lowest moments, who reliably help me regain a more balanced or centered perspective. They are friends who are there for me when all I need is a witness - someone will listen with empathy, and withhold judgment - or when I need an active adviser - someone who will share his or her insights, experience, strength and hope.

In some speed dial friend phone calls, I am able to discover solutions myself, simply through the act of articulating the challenge(s) I am facing, an adult version of a parent's exhortation to a toddler who is acting out to "use your words", or an oral version of the therapeutic value of writing about emotional experiences. Other times I need more active facilitation, and these friends are able to skillfully and compassionately help me elicit the hidden fears and needs that lie beneath the surface problem(s), and to separate out the data, judgments, feelings and wants. Many times, the revelation of the underlying causes of my pain shines a light on a clear path to move forward, but at other times, when the true way remains wholly lost, they are able to offer additional guidance toward the right path, or at least a path with heart.

My speed dial friends are diverse in some ways - the set includes both men and women, whose work spans different professions, and who live in different places - but most are close to my own age and socio-economic class. Many of my speed dial friends have gone through various forms of spiritual training, and all have experienced significant physical, emotional and/or spiritual crises. I suppose many people my age have experienced significant life challenges; what separates my speed dial friends may be the way they have worked through these challenges, and the wisdom they have gained through the process.

450px-Maslow's_Hierarchy_of_Needs In fact, one of the common characteristics of all my speed dial friends is that they are uncommonly wise. Having recently revisited and reviewed some material on Maslow's hierarchy of needs (for my last post about Starbucks and community), I believe each of them is self-transcendent, e.g., they each "perceive unitively or sacrally" and are "much more consciously and deliberately metamotivated" and "more holistic about the world" than most of the people I encounter. I hope some of their wisdom is transmitted to me through each of our interactions.

I like to think of myself as being authentic, open and vulnerable in my face-to-face interactions as well as my online interactions with many people. I have worked out many issues simply through blogging about them, often aided by comments posted by others, and I sometimes find myself unexpectedly working out my issues while posting comments on others' blogs - a theme I blogged about in a post inspired by Don Miguel Ruiz's second agreement, don't take anything personally: commenting on commenting. I can't say, however, that I've worked out any significant issues via Twitter ... the 140-character limitation doesn't seem to allow for sufficient depth.

Speaking of depth, I feel like I've been going off the deep end on several of my recent posts, so I'm going to end this one here ... which may be a relief, and perhaps even a cause for giving thanks, for anyone who takes the time to read my blog posts. I'll note, with some sense of irony, that as far as I know, while all of my speed dial friends have mobile phones - in fact, I think nearly all of them now have iPhones - and computers, most of them don't read my blog with much regularity. So, on this day of Thanksgiving, I also want to extend my thanks to anyone who does take the time to read my posts, with special thanks to those who take the additional time to share their wisdom, insights, experience, strength and/or hope in comments on - or tweets about - the posts.

Contradictory ridges, self and Self

Continuing with the themes of poetry, inspiration and great friends, another great friend, Dan Oestreich, bought me a book of William Stafford's poetry, "The Way It Is", a few years ago - one of many ways he helped me navigate a dark time filled with shadows.The other night, I picked up the book - which is always at my bedside table - and randomly selected a page, which had exactly the right poem I needed at that moment, "Representing Far Places":

Representing Far Places
by William Stafford

In the canoe wilderness branches wait for winter;
every leaf concentrates; a drop from the paddle falls.
Up through water at the dip of a falling leaf
to the sky's drop of light or the smell of another star
fish in the lake leap arcs of realization,
hard fins prying out from the dark below.

Often in society when the talk turns witty
you think of that place, and can't polarize at all:
it would be a kind of treason. The land fans in your head
canyon by canyon; steep roads diverge.
Representing far places you stand in the room,
all that you know merely a weight in the weather.

It is all right to be simply the way you have to be,
among contradictory ridges in some crescendo of knowing.

I re-read the last verse several dozen times that night, as I was struggling with a decision in which my thoughts were leading me along one contradictory ridge, and my feelings were leading me along another. As luck - or synchronicity - would have it, the previous day, I'd shared an insight with someone I'd just met about how, as I grow older, I trust my heart more than my head when it comes to decisions of great import ... and, as I grow older, I increasingly recognize that any insights or experiences I share with others - with the initial intention that they may be of benefit to them - are always things that I really need to read / hear again myself.

Anyhow, I sent Dan a quick note thanking him for the gift that keeps on giving, and he magnified the gift by turning it into a motivational poster entitled "Among Contradictory Ridges", accompanied by one of his fabulous photos:


In addition to being a great friend, Dan is also a great leadership coach (and a great photographer), and he followed up his "Among Contradictory Ridges" motivational poster with another one reflecting one of the central themes in his work (with his self, other selves and Self) - an Unfolding Leadership Poster - in which he observes "The problem is self. The answer is Self":


Around the same time, I serendipitously encountered a related source of inspiration - possibly via a chain of links starting with Dan's blog via a retweet by @merubin (who I discovered via @KathySierra) - on the blog of Pastor Brandon A. Cox, who recently posted the "10 Reasons Why Humility is Vital to Great Leadership", in which he champions the humble practice of self-oblivion. I'm including the entire post below for context:

Quickly think of five common traits of high-impact leaders… good time management, assertiveness, drive, energy, charisma, etc. Humility rarely lands in the list when it comes to our modern, top-down management systems. But Jesus (the greatest leader ever) and Moses (perhaps the second) had this one thought in mind – great leaders don’t have power over people, but power under people by way of humility.

Humility may be a forgotten virtue in conversations about leadership today, but I believe it’s absolutely essential to having long-term, broad-range impact. Here are some reasons why…

  1. Until you can be managed well, you can’t manage well, and being managed definitely requires humility.
  2. You’re not leading well until you put the needs of others before your own, which requires humility.
  3. You won’t invest time into others until you realize you’re not the center of the universe.
  4. You won’t be a learner without humility, so you’ll stagnate and die on the vine.
  5. You can’t be a listener without humility, and when you don’t listen, you’ll miss some vitally important feedback.
  6. Receiving and making the most of constructive criticism definitely demands humility.
  7. Being concerned about the personal welfare of others requires humility.
  8. You won’t improve unless you realize your need for it, which requires humility.
  9. You can’t be sensitive to what’s going on the behind the words of others unless you’re paying attention, which requires humility.
  10. The respect you think others have for you will merely be an illusion unless you’re humble enough to see the reality of your own weaknesses.

Humility isn’t feeling bad, down, or low about yourself. Rather, humility is having a realistic picture of who you are and becoming oblivious to self. This self-oblivion characterizes the greatest leaders of all time, and if you want to rise to greatness, you need to stoop.

Thinking about self-oblivion as a feature, rather than a bug, is a provocative new dimension to consider as I travel among contradictory ridges in some crescendo of knowing.

Direction, by Len Silverston

Len The following poem was composed by my great friend, Len Silverston, a spiritual teacher and database guru. I am posting it here with his kind permission ... and can't help thinking "When the reader is ready, the poet appears".

(Where I go, matters less than where I come from)
by Kensho Len Silverston

It matters less which direction I head,
Or even where I start,
What matters more is that the path I choose,
I follow with all my heart.

It matters less what direction I journey,
If it’s north, south, east or west,
What matters more is that I walk strong and tall,
And do my absolute best.

It matters less which site I pick,
And whether it suits my so-called “needs”,
What matters more is that I fully appreciate,
All of its qualities.

It matters less if it rains or shines,
Or if it’s overcast,
What matters more is that I be with what is,
Cause whatever it is won’t last.

It matters less in relationships,
If I confront or just let go,
What matters more is that I come from who I truly am,
And let my love and authenticity show.

It matters less to prove anything to anyone,
Or whether I accomplish or succeed,
What matters more is that I love myself,
Enjoy, and serve those that are in need.

It matters less to try to change,
Anything outside of me,
What matters is to really be the change,
That I truly want to see.

It matters less in my vocation,
If I’m a Zen priest or a database guru,
What matters more is that I follow spirit,
In whatever I choose to do.

It matters less that I have a precise direction,
Or know exactly where to go,
What matters more is that I’m perfectly fine,
Even if I just don’t know.

[Update, 2009-09-11: Len has created a new web site to support his spiritual coaching and guidance practice, Spirituality In Practice. His poem, Direction, can now also be found on the articles page on that site.]

Dark Nights of the Soul


Maureen McHugh, a science fiction writer (who also enjoys "not science fiction" books), has written about the challenges of writing novels (and battling cancer) on her blog, No Feeling of Falling. She augmented her words - which unfold with exquisite openness and vulnerability - with a graphical depiction of the soul work involved in rising to meet these challenges, which is inevitably preceded by a descent of some kind. The image, appropriately entitled Dark Night of the Soul, is shown above; it first appeared in a post entitled Episode 1: Begin Anew, which offers a wonderful perspective from which to view new challenges.

Yogi sent me a link to this image, after a recent guest presentation I gave at a UW Tacoma course on Social Networks, taught by Ankur Teredesai [the presentation was on how proactive displays bridge gaps between online social networks and shared physical spaces]. Yogi had encountered the image in yet another course, on Interaction Design, an area which also offers a set of challenges, though the image and the ideas it represents were more related to our broader conversation after the class about work, soul, passion and happiness. I wanted to continue that rumination here, because it brought to mind (and heart) a few strands of inspiration I've encountered elsewhere.

Theheartaroused David Whyte, in his book, The Heart Aroused: Poetry and the Preservation of Soul in Corporate America, invokes the epic poem of Beowulf - in which the hero descends into a deep well to battle a monster, Grendel, who has been attacking King Hrothgar's men, and then descends again to battle Grendel's mother - to illustrate some of his insights and experiences into creativity in the workplace. Whyte notes that:

[H]uman existence is half light and half dark, and our creative possibilities seem strangely linked to that part of us we keep in the dark.

and goes on to share the steps he sees in the story - and throughout work (and life) - that are required for unleashing our creativity:

  • dropping beneath the surface
  • disclosure and vulnerability
  • disappearance and return

Whyte draws an analogy between Beowulf's battle with Grendel mother and each of our individual battles with the mother of all vulnerabilities: "the deep physical shame that we are not enough, will never be enough, and can never measure up".

He finishes the chapter with a quote from The Man Watching, by the German poet, Rainer Maria Rilke:

Winning does not tempt that man.
This is how he grows: by being defeated, decisively,
by constantly greater beings.

Or, perhaps, one might say, by facing, repeatedly, darker and darker nights of the soul.

In an earlier post on an unfolding series of peak and pit experiences, I'd written about how inspired I was by Dan Oestreich's insights into and applications of Otto Scharmer's ideas about "Theory U". I want to repeat - again - what Dan had to say:

We all want to know where the point of transformation lies. I would say it is in “no space,” the place we come to after exhausting everything we know…and everything we are, a point of pure meditation. The current theory base, exemplified by Oscar Scharmer’s “Theory U”, suggests exactly this process of emptying ourselves of everything known so that we can listen to a best future Self, a source of deep intuitive wisdom... Scharmer describes the bottom of the U as where we touch a larger field that goes beyond our present awareness, a place of new insight and new consciousness that enables us to solve the problems we have been stuck by using our current, more limited awareness.

I also want to include a larger version of the image Scharmer uses to illustrate Theory U, as it closely relates to the image of the Dark Night of the Soul I started with at the beginning of this post:


I still have not read Theory U (yet), but revisiting this image reveals another dimension of connection (for me (and my work)), with respect to the inspiring ideas of co-sensing, co-presencing and co-creating - not to mention open mind, open heart and open will - so I've ordered a copy of the book.

Meanwhile, based on what Dan has written (and what I've experienced), I suspect the process of descending and rising from the depths of our selves and our work is an ongoing educational journey ... leading through a series of dark nights of the soul(s) ... and, hopefully, some bright days, as well.

Oh, I almost forgot to add that the image also reminds me of stories I've heard about "thesis hill", a visual representation that Roger Schank (my academic "grandfather") employs - or employed - in his meetings with graduate students. Thesis hill, as I understand it, was depicted using an inverse geometric representation - climbing a hill vs. descending into darkness - but in my experience, and in the experience of many people I know (including many of Roger's former students - my "uncles" and "aunts"), working on a Ph.D. thesis often requires persevering through many dark nights of the soul ... and Rilke's quote about repeated, decisive defeats by greater (or, at least, more powerful) beings is one of the best, short verbal characterizations of graduate school - and especially, a thesis defense - that I've encountered ... rivaling the visual characterization of the Dark Night of the Soul. And, I suppose, writing a science fiction novel has many characteristics in common with writing a Ph.D. [scientific] thesis, just with varying intentions - and interpretations - with respect to the relative use of fact and fiction.

[Update, 2008-04-01: I just stumbled upon this relevant quote - from one of my heroes, who certainly had keen insights into darkness and souls - on Aaditeshwar Seth's home page:

"Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand."

- George Orwell, 1946.]

Celebrating the Future Within ... Everyone?

Jubilee_logo Amy and I attended the Jubilee Women's Center's 10th Annual Benefit Breakfast on Wednesday, which had the inspiring title "Celebrating the Future Within" ... and a correspondingly inspiring program that included several women recounting their challenges, and now the Jubilee Women's Center helped them rise to meet those challenges. Our good friend, Mary, is on the Board of Directors for the organization, which is why we were there.

Jubilee is a transitional housing facility that offers homeless single women from ages 21 thru 60 a safe place in which to live and renew themselves. Women pay $250 / month for rent - the rest of which is subsidized through donations (such as those that are made during the annual breakfast) - and are offered a variety of training classes to help them become more self-reliant, both personally and professionally ... as Meeghan Black, of KING 5 TV, the MC for the event noted: these training classes sound like something everyone could use.

Deacon Steve Wodzanowski from St. Joseph Parish led the invocation, which was - synchronistically (for me) - based largely on a poem, The Journey, from Mary Oliver, a portion of which I'd referenced in my last post (on Blessed Unrest (which was based largely on Paul Hawken's book of the same name)), though he recited the full version, which I'm going to include here:

The Journey

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice -
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles. "Mend my life!"
each voice cried.
But you didn't stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice,
which you slowly recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do -
determined to save
the only life you could save.

This, in turn, reminded of some of my earlier ruminations on Ralph Waldo Emerson's writings, which brought into focus my conflicting views on self-reliance vs. interdependence, inherence, adherence and coherence - essentially, the self vs. society. There does seem to be a conflict, or at least tension, between teaching self-reliance (independence) and yet preparing women to re-enter society (which is, by definition, highly interdependent). One of Emerson's observations closely aligns with Mary Oliver's poem (and the overall theme of the event):

Trust thyself: every heart every heart vibrates to that iron string. Accept the place the divine providence has found for you, the society of your contemporaries, the connection of events.

Getting back to the event, it turns out that the average age of the women residents of Jubilee is 45. That fact, together with the unexpected events along their unanticipated path toward homelessness - for which I kept thinking "there, but for the grace of God the flying spaghetti monster, go I" (leaving aside, for the moment, the gender issue) - got me thinking about Dante, and his observation at the outset of The Divine Comedy:

In the middle of the road of my life I awoke in the dark wood where the true way was wholly lost.

Susan Fox, the Executive Director of the organization, noted the stigma often associated with women who are victims of domestic violence and/or homelessness, and stressed the importance of the positivism that pervades all aspects of Jubilee's programs. She encouraged us - and everyone - to look for (and celebrate?) the essential goodness within each of these women, a perspective I try to adhere to ... and, yet (as with so many things), often feel conflicted about.

I suspect that Susan would extend this suspension of negative judgment and appreciation of essential goodness to all women, not just those whose paths happen to lead to / through Jubilee. Returning to the gender thread I suspended earlier, this got me to thinking about whether we draw the line at women, or whether we ought to suspend negative judgments and appreciate the goodness in all people, men and women alike.

Pushing further along this edge, I wondered whether / how we can offer the same graciousness to the men who perpetrated violence on the women residents of Jubilee (not that I mean tot imply that all residents there are victims of domestic violence). Can we - ought we to - celebrate the future within every person (not just every woman)?

I find this to be an immensely challenging proposition. Philosophically, I cannot justify the drawing of lines of demarcation - this person is essentially good, that person is essentially evil. However, in practice, I do this all the time (I've noted several times before my personal challenges with seeing the essential goodness in George W. Bush, who, in my judgment, is one of the biggest perpetrators of violence - scaling back social programs, reducing protections for our environment, supporting capital punishment, war and [other forms of] torture - on the face of the planet). Who knows, maybe more obvious expressions of goodness lie in his future ...

As usual, I don't have any good answers ... just good questions ... or, at least, questions about goodness.

Blessed Unrest: Environmental and Social Justice for All … or Bust!

Blessed_unrest In his latest book (and video), environmentalist, entrepreneur, journalist, and author Paul Hawken achieves a remarkable balance between breadth and depth in arguing that in order to restore environmental and social balance on this earth, we must strive for both, or we will achieve neither. Noting that "we are nature", and thus however we treat the earth affects its people and however we treat one another affects the earth, Hawken presents a systems approach in which recognizing our interrelatedness, taking advantage of our interconnectedness, and acting with greater consciousness may allow us to save ourselves and our planet from the brink of disaster.

The title of the book, Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Movement in the World Came into Being and Why No One Saw It Coming, is based on Hawken’s estimate of somewhere between one to two million organizations worldwide – many of them very small and narrowly focused (hence their relative unremarkability, from the point of view of major media) – that are acting to improve environmental and/or social conditions. Although many of these organizations (some of which are listed at WiserEarth.org) are acting independently, an increasing number are linking together with other organizations – in the non-profit, government and commercial sectors – to achieve greater progress ... think globally, act locally, link laterally.

The Unrest in the title presumably describes the motivations of people in this Movement – what moves them to take risks in challenging commercial rights on behalf of the rights of the planet and its peoples. I was deeply moved by the book – it is searingly provocative on an intellectual and emotional level. I’m not sure how much risk I’m willing to take on in order to join this movement … but I’ll at least write about it (Hawken notes that the key attributes to success in fighting for environmental and social justice are "gumption and persistence", so this is at least within scope for [the name of] this blog), and perhaps writing will help pave the way toward further action, by me and/or others (socio-neuro-linguistic programming?).

I found myself feeling physically ill during some passages, such as when he described a single day in the 15th century during which Spanish conquerors raped and beheaded 3,000 people in front of a [presumably complacent, if not condoning] priest. Other passages moved me to tears of sadness, as when he recounted the desecration of The Mother of the Forest, a 363-foot sequoia cut down and transported to New York to parade in front of audiences in the mid-nineteenth century, or the horrendous mistreatment of children by industrialists in England during the latter part of that century, such as the teenaged girls typically employed as benchgrinders who lost the ability to sleep, to stand, and eventually, to breathe, often dying before reaching adulthood.

Hawken highlights the history of economic fundamentalism – in which commercial rights have consistenly trumped human (and environmental) rights – perhaps most starkly exemplified by the Frame Breaking Act of 1812 in England, whereby people who destroyed machinery could be executed, while corporations running machinery that destroyed people were unaccountable. This primacy of business interests over environmental and social interests extends back through thousands of years of slavery and indentured servitude, and is still very much alive and well today, as exemplified by the “rights” of the World Trade Organization, which imposes sanctions on countries that seek to impose restrictions on commerce due to the environmental and/or human costs incurred in the production of "goods". In fact, I believe that it is the nearly unfettered ability of corporations to externalize such costs – to exclude them from any financial accounting, and thereby excuse themselves from any moral or civic accountability – that has led us to the brink of planetary and humanitarian catastrophe.

If everything and everyone is truly connected – an "Ecology 101" perspective that Hawken argues for repeatedly and convincingly throughout the book – then there are no externalities, and the sooner we (and I use the term with intentional ambiguity) adopt accounting and accountability systems with greater integrity, the better … and if we wait too long, we may give new, planetarily posthumous meaning to the cliché "he who dies with the most toys, wins".

Any kind of fundamentalism is dangerous, and, I believe, ultimately disastrous (I'm reminded of the slogan "all isms lead to schisms"). All fundamentalists are, consciously or unconsciously, promoting totalitarianism, and so all fundamentalist movements represent pathologies of power. The world would be a better place if everyone were a Muslim / Christian / capitalist / communist / etc., and so any means of shifting the balance in the “right” direction – through "expirtation, genocide and colonialism … cultural cleansing for the supposed benefit of the victim" – are justified. James Carse's observation that "all evil is the result of trying to eliminate evil" (e.g., "the only good Indian is a dead Indian") - and, for those more familiar with his insights into finite and infinite games, "evil is not the inclusion of finite games in an infinite game, but the restriction of all play to one or another finite game" - offers an interesting perspective on the fundamentalist perspective.

A quote from Bertrand Russell, from his aptly named Unpopular Essays, and reminiscent of sentiments expressed in and James Ogilvy’s Living Without a Goal, helps explain why fundamentalism is so popular:

Man is a credulous animal and must believe in something. In the absence of good grounds for belief, he will believe in bad ones.

Richard Dawkins’ book, The God Delusion, offers further insights into these fundamental human tendencies as they apply to the religious dimension. Hawken’s recounting of the attacks on Rachel Carlson, author of Silent Spring, a 1962 expose on the harmful effects of the chlorinated pesticides (DDT), highlight a relatively newer, secular dimension for bad grounds for belief, also known as corporate junk science, in which corporate funded "think tanks" sow seeds of fear, uncertainty and doubt about any scientific discoveries that may harm their economic bottom line. This tactic of assimilation through dissimulation is promoted implicitly and explicitly by corporations, governments and their partners and co-beneficiaries, the mainstream media, more recently exemplified by reactions – or lack thereof – to threats of climate change and Weapons of Mass Destruction Delusion  … though, as Hawken observes, “any finger-pointing is inevitably directed back to ourselves" (reminiscent of my own recent revelations regarding seeing what I want to see).

Hawken notes that fundamentalism is, fundamentally, about ideology, and any fundamentalism – whether it is capitalism, socialism, capitalism or terrorism – is based on uniformity rather than diversity, and thus more inclined to justify and dictate than to question and liberate. Diversity, along with self-organization and self-regulation, are among the hallmarks of an effective immune system (or what Fritjof Capra, in his book, The Web of Life, calls an immune network), and Hawken suggests that "the widely diverse network of organizations proliferating in the world today may be a better defense against injustice than F-16 fighter jets".

Although much of the focus in the book is on how small organizations are working to improve the lots of the planet and its peoples, Hawken also includes some larger scale initiatives, such as The Nature Conservancy, which has US$4.4B in assets, the Clinton Global Initiative, which recently raised US$7.3B in pledges to combat global warming, injustice, intolerance and poverty, and the Gates Foundation, with US$29B in assets (and an annual budget that is twice that of the World Health Organization), dedicated to the eradication of disease in the developing world.

While I hope these initiatives are successful, I have to note that I think it’s ironic that Bill Clinton, who, despite his purported commitment - in the past and present - to environmental and social causes, was an ardent proponent of some of the foremost tools of promulgating environmental and social injustice, through his support for NAFTA, GATT and welfare reform (and even his former Labor Secretary, Robert Reich, who I had previously thought was more populist than corporatist, has recently been defending the gross inequity of the gross pay given to many CEOs).

Toward the end of the book, after cataloging a broad range of environmental and social injustices suffered in the past, present and possible future(s), interspersed with examples of organizations that are making some progress in addressing or even rectifying some of those injustices, Hawken offers an optimistic vision about how this movement might unfold. One passage, in particular, triggered a “goose bump moment” for me, where I experienced a strong visceral reaction to the words on the page:

We cannot save our planet unless humankind undergoes a widespread spiritual and religious awakening … What if there is already in place a large-scale spiritual awakening and we are simply not recognizing it?

As is often the case (with me), this positive feeling was soon followed by some self-critical reflection (perhaps because I was reading the book on an international flight during which, according to Atmosfair,  I was personally responsible for the emissions of approximately 3270 kg of C02 into the atmosphere): we I may be experiencing a spiritual awakening, but what are we am I doing about it?

This emotional and intellectual trajectory was then reinforced by another moving passage, in which Hawken quotes one of my favorite poets, Mary Oliver:

One day you finally knew what you had to do, and began, though the voices around you kept shouting their bad advice.

So what am I going to do? How much gumption do I really have? Is the work I do really serving to promote environmental and social justice? Is it having impact on a scale that is commensurate with my abilities? [By definition, I suppose, it’s having impact on a scale that is commensurate with my willingness.] Can I really help to empower people to achieve greater environmental and social justice in my role(s) at Nokia? I’m not sure about the “blessed” dimension, but Hawken’s book has clearly created some unrest in me.

While I have written about environmental and social issues in the past, I believe I can do more to take part in this movement … and I am taking small steps in that direction. Although not directly related to the main focus of my research, I will be participating in a session at Pop!Tech 2007 in which I will be joined by Katrin Verclas and Nathan Eagle in giving presentations and leading discussions about broad visions and specific examples of how mobile technologies are serving to empower people throughout the developing world to develop solutions to the local environmental, social and political challenges they face. It’s a small step (for me, especially when compared to the steps taken by my cohorts in the session), but it does lie along a trajectory that seems to increasingly beckon me, including my recent awakening to the enormous challenges in Africa, and my recent exposure to the ways that communities and technologies can be used to address those challenges.

I can’t say that a clear path has emerged for how I can (or will) do more yet, but as long as I keep taking even small steps in the right direction, I believe I am contributing in positive ways to this movement.