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“Going Nowhere” and the Importance of Stillness

My friend Martha recently sent me Pico Iyer’s little book The Art of Stillness.

For me it was a timely and important read just as I was heading out to a rustic campsite off the grid for a personal retreat. Iyer not only makes the case in a new way why regular times of “going nowhere” are important, but shares some ideas about how people do so amidst busy lives.

pico-iyer-art-of-stillnes“These days in the age of movement and connection, space …has been annihilated by time; we feel as though we can make contact with almost anywhere at any moment. But fast as geography is coming under control, the clock is exerting more and more tyranny over us. And the more we can contact others, the more it seems, we lose contact with ourselves.

~ Pico Iyer, The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere

The irony is not lost on me that in my role leading the Center that I must constantly tend to cultivating the connection to myself amidst that flurry of demands and connections. Inspired by this book, I used my retreat to strengthen three practices that help me connect to self.

First, I reflected on the deeply encouraging idea that I have/I am all I need. I sometimes fall into the trap of thinking there’s some new bit of knowledge or a new answer out there that I lack. Then I remember that the greatest gift I can bring to my work (to my friends, my family, my community) is myself, warts and all. I have/I am all I need.

IMG_7239Second, I’m reminded that I ought to meditate, sit faithfully each morning, bringing my attention back to a point of focus for 30 minutes. It never fails to transform my day, particularly in moments when the going gets rough.

Finally, Iyer gave me a new twist on just letting my mind wander playfully without direction and focus. I realized how seldom I allow myself to do this during very full and busy weeks. I rediscovered how such times not only refresh my mind but unleash creative thinking that shifts my view of the problems I face and the solutions. Doing so this week reminded me of those times as a child when I’d be lost in creative play for what seemed like endless hours.

Today, I’m back at work. The flow of demands is a strong as ever but I’m facing it a bit more connected to myself than when I left the office.

How do you cultivate the connection to yourself amidst the flurry of demands?

terry-catalystWith gratitude and best wishes,

Terry
Terry Chadsey
Executive Director

P.S. Reconnect to your true self at a Courage & Renewal program.

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Teachers Need Self-Reflection

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What does a good teacher look like when doing her job well? This image resonates with me: Imagine a teacher who has just said good-bye to her last class of the day. A smile still lingers on her face from her last interactions with her students, perhaps one final suggestion about preparing for tomorrow. As she walks across the room to her desk, the smile fades and is replaced by contemplative look, then a quizzical look. She starts thinking about the goals for tomorrow and adjustments to make based on how individual students reacted today, about what she knows about her students’ lives that might impact tomorrow’s plan, about an article she read with new ideas to consider, about the new district assessment plan she will be judged by. She drops into her chair exhausted but cocks her head to one side and says softly, “I wonder if it would work better tomorrow if I…”

Parker-Palmer_Courage-to-TeachI have the best job I could imagine at the Earlham College Master of Arts in Teaching program. I get to work with a group of teaching candidates who have come to our small program intentionally. They come to us wishing to learn how to teach in a way that is consistent with our guiding principle of “Awakening the Teacher Within”. Our candidates come to us knowing that they will begin their journey as educators by reading The Courage to Teach by Parker Palmer, exploring who they are and how they will develop the personal relationships so key to good teaching. I get to teach in a program that explicitly blends theory with practice and focuses on helping individuals grow into good teachers by stressing a culture of inquiry around teacher standards. Learning how to be a good teacher means learning to live one’s life guided by questions.

My colleagues and I were interested in the extent to which reflection continued to be important to our graduates even after they left our program so we asked graduates to respond in writing to survey questions and interviewed area graduates in a focus group meeting. We began with the premise that reflection is crucial. We decided to examine what they had written and said, to listen to their voices. What we learned was truly impressive.

By embedding reflection into both the classroom and clinical parts of our program, we try to make reflection a systematic part of what teachers do, a habit. Our graduates’ voices clearly expressed the extent to which reflection had indeed become a part of who they are. Several graduates wrote about trying to improve their teaching by looking both within and without. One person wrote that

The answers are hidden, bit by bit, in each class I teach. They are in my experiences with my students, my colleagues, and with my own inner teacher. They are in my ability and willingness to reflect on myself as a teacher and my own performance in the classroom. The information exists with my colleagues in their hundreds of collective years’ of craft knowledge. The answers I seek are in my students, if I will only humble myself enough to ask them.

Other graduates expressed that the program did more than help them shape their identity as a teacher but helped them grow personally as well. For instance one person said that “What the M.A.T. program has given me is more than my identity as a teacher; it has helped me develop my identity as a young woman in society and define my beliefs.” Another young woman said that throughout her time in our program, “I began to explore the inner workings of myself, reflecting on why I want to teach and what qualifies me to do so. During this search for myself I successfully awakened the teacher within me and developed into an educator who recognizes the value in lifelong learning, reflection, and relevance within the classroom.”

In an open-ended response one graduate noted that it seemed natural to reflect on her practice when she became a full time teacher. She said, “I think the MAT gave me the skills I needed to be a reflective teacher in several ways…before, during, and after actual teaching of students in the classrooms… My principal told me that I reflect more on my own teaching than any of my coworkers and she praises me for it. I know I still have my faults and weaknesses as a teacher, but I know reflection will keep me grounded and rational too, making choices to benefit my current and future students.” This was one of several statements that drove home the fact that our graduates continued to use reflection both to grow personally and to do their jobs well.

Randy teaching 3

To what extent was reflection embedded in their teaching? During a focus group, one veteran teacher responded to a request to define reflection by saying, “That is hard to answer. That is like asking us if we breathe! How now can any of us ever think about teaching without reflection?” Yet another veteran teacher added “It’s not something you do in addition to… it’s organic.” Even when noting that current issues in schools were causing changes in school culture that put a very low priority on reflection, our graduates insisted that their ability to reflect was helping them put a more positive spin on the challenges. They emphasized that although they were disheartened by a culture of negativity that has crept into many school cultures, with the focus shifting to be more on numbers for accountability and less on the individual students producing those numbers. They maintained that the process of reflection helped them to look behind or beyond the numbers on a report, seeing reflection as a “…helpful process, inherently proactive and optimistic and one that values students in a different way.”

Anyone who would be a good teacher must develop a wide array of skills and become well-versed in several interconnected bodies of knowledge. We know that our focus on teaching reflection comes at a cost of teaching other things. It’s a compromise we embrace. Becoming proficient in the art of reflection helps teachers make sense of the many elements they must juggle as they continue their journey toward excellence.


randy-wisehart-portraitABOUT THE AUTHOR
Randy Wisehart is currently the Director of Graduate Programs in Education at Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana. He teaches and supervises teaching candidates in the Master of Arts in Teaching program after spending twenty-nine years as a secondary English teacher and high school administrator. He lives in Richmond with his wife Tammy and retired greyhounds Zane and Maggie.

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Joan Halifax on Compassion and Complacency

What is compassion? How does compassion serve us? And how can we make compassion a priorityfor ourselves, our children, our communities and places of work?

In the video below, Roshi Joan Halifax, a world-renowned Zen Buddhist peacemaker, shines the light of her wisdom on these vital questions.


This talk was filmed at the Wisdom 2.0 conference on March 1, 2015.

Joan suggests that when we’re constantly flooded with images of violence, aggression and suffering, it’s tough to develop resilience and character. Our society has become alienated from human experiences, producing the sense of complacency that stymies our ability to feel and act compassionately.

But compassion is vital to our wellbeing and the wellbeing of others, and there’s plenty of scientific evidence to prove it.

dalai lama on compassionIn an oft-cited experiment conducted by a Harvard Business School professor, people were given a sum of money and were told to either spend it on themselves or on others. Those who spent money on others felt significantly happier than those who spent it on themselves. Another experiment at the University of Virginia showed that witnessing acts of compassion creates an elevated mood. And many studies suggest that people who help others live longer, healthier livestake, for example, Nicholas Winton, who saved 669 children from the Nazis (and told no one about it for decades). He lived to be 105 years old. Even Charles Darwin , whose “survival of the fittest” theory usually brings brutal competition to mind, believed that concern for the welfare of others was an important trait for species survival.

Knowing what we know about the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual benefits of compassionate behavior, the question becomes: How do we encourage more compassion?

First, we must understand what compassion means. Joan defines compassion as the capacity to attend to the experience of others, to feel concern for others, to sense what will serve others, and to be able to be of service to others. Compassion, at its heart, revolves around connectedness and relationship. And it’s not just emotional resonance (empathy), but a desire to benefit others. Compassion demands attentional balance, intention and insight, embodiment and engagement. It demands grace and G.R.A.C.E.

G.R.A.C.E. for Cultivating Compassion

Gathering our attention – get focused, be present

Recalling intention – understand the ethical foundation of our humanity

Attuning to self/other – tune in to our biases and sense the needs of others

Consider what will serve – using wisdom and knowledge to inform our actions

Engage and ending – take actions that support others

Joan concludes her talk by inviting us all to take on a new mantra. “Compassion is a sane, healthy, collaborative, radical necessity.”

Will you find the courage to engage compassion today?

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Born Baffled: Musings on a Writing Life

artistic-300097_640Every now and then, someone asks me for advice on how to become a writer. I aspire to live by the insightful words of theologian Nelle Morton, “Our job is to hear people into speech.”[i] So instead of offering a dozen do’s and don’ts, I ask questions meant to evoke my conversation partner’s inner teacher, the best source of guidance any of us has. If he or she presses me, the best I can do is draw a few lessons from the story of my own writing life. Call it “advice lite.”

The urge to write first dropped in on me in my early twenties and soon made it clear it was here for the duration. Nearly two decades passed before my first book was published, and yet I never stopped writing—my daemon would not let me go. But, truth be told, that first book had less to do with persistence than with dumb luck.

In the fall of 1978, I taught a class about Thomas Merton at an adult study center. For our final session, I’d planned to show a film of Merton’s last talk, given in Bangkok an hour or two before he died. At the last moment, I learned that the copy I’d ordered had been mailed to the wrong address. No, young people, you couldn’t stream or download videos in the olden days!

Hoping to bring the class to a proper close, I burned the kerosene lantern late into the night and wrote a lecture.

One of my students liked the lecture so much she asked for a copy to send to her uncle. He called me a few weeks later and said he was an editor at a small publishing house. He and his colleagues liked my piece, and wondered if I’d written others like it. Knowing that I had twenty years’ worth of writing interred in my file cabinet, I replied, “I might be able to dig something up.”

So I relit the kerosene lantern, spent much of that night exhuming my files, and early the next morning mailed off a dozen pieces. My accidental editor chose six and said he’d make a book out of them. Nine months later I was holding a copy of my first book, The Promise of Paradox. I remember gazing at it with a bit of the wide-eyed wonder I’d felt when I held my first child.

Today—thirty-six years and nine books after that sweet moment—the writing scene has changed big-time. There’s much I don’t know about blogging, e-books, and self-publishing. But when someone asks me how to become a writer, I can still share three eternal (so far) truths from my own experience.

book

First, you need to figure out whether your chief aim is to write or to publish. Two decades of rejection letters would have shut me down if I hadn’t decided early on that my primary goal was not to be published but to be a writer—a person who, as someone sagely observed, is distinguished by the fact that he or she writes! Once it became clear that I wanted to write even if the publishing fairy never left a contract under my pillow, I could declare success as long as I kept writing. That’s a doable goal, and it’s under my control.

Second, you need to lust after dumb luck. When people think I’m joking, I remind them of a simple truth: the more often you get your voice “out there,” even in a venue as small as a fifteen-student course on Thomas Merton, the more likely it is that dumb luck will strike. Be Jennie or Johnny Appleseed, scattering your words hither and yon, and a few may fall on fertile ground. But here’s the deal: this often means giving your work away free for nuthin’. In addition to being its own reward, this kind of generosity maximizes the chance of dumb luck by giving you more exposure than you get by trying to monetize everything. (And if you want to be respected as a writer, never, ever use words like “monetize.” Seriously.)

Third, and most important, allow yourself to be baffled, which shouldn’t be hard to do. I mean, what’s not baffling about ourselves, other people, and the world we co-create? The problem is that some of us (read “the person writing this sentence”) make the mistake of writing in an effort to pretend we’re smarter than we are. Take my early writing…please! When I go back and read some of that schlock, I don’t know whether to laugh or cry as I watch this pathetic fellow slogging through page after page of multisyllabic muck, making his case with “academic rigor” and nary a drop of uncertainty, playfulness or humanity. I was writing to impress rather than express, always a bad idea. And what I regarded as rigor turned out to be rigor mortis.

Eventually, I managed to come to ground with a few moderately successful books, which confronted me with my next challenge as a writer. In this society, people who write passable books—and even books that aren’t—tend to get pegged as “experts” on their subjects. My ego loves to absorb and massage those projections of expertise. But my soul knows it ain’t true: I’ve never written a book on something I’ve mastered. Once I master something, I get bored with it, and writing a book is way too hard to take on a subject that bores me.

writing-in-nature

I write about things that feel to me like bottomless mysteries—teaching, social change, spirituality, democracy, etc.—and I start writing from a place of “beginner’s mind.” For me, writing does not begin with reaching for expertise by gathering facts, wrapping them in lucid thoughts, then downloading all of that from my mind to the page. It begins with making a deep dive into something that baffles me—into my not-knowing—and dwelling in the dark long enough that “the eye begins to see” what’s down there.[ii] I want to make my own discoveries, think my own thoughts, and feel my own feelings before I explore what conventional wisdom says about the subject. That’s why I’m not so much a writer as a re-writer, most of whose scribbling goes through eight or ten drafts.

As a writer, my most critical inner work is to fend off projections of expertise—whether they come from without or within—that would allow my ego to trump beginner’s mind. The moment ego takes over, I lose the main gift I bring to my work, the fact that I was Born Baffled.

Novices are often advised to “Write about what you know.” I wouldn’t call that bad advice, but I think it needs tweaking: “Write about what you want to know because it intrigues and baffles you.” That’s the hunger that keeps me engaged with a craft I find endlessly challenging, of which Red Smith famously said, “There’s nothing at all to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.”

Evocative questions always trump advice. But for whatever it’s worth, my advice lite boils down to this:

  1. Care more about the process than the outcome.
  2. Be generous in order to maximize the chances of dumb luck.
  3. Dive deep, dwell in the dark, and value beginner’s mind no matter how loudly your ego protests.

Hmmm… The same counsel might apply to things other than writing. Who knows? Maybe there’s a book in that!

[i] http://biography.yourdictionary.com/nelle-katherine-morton
[ii] Quote from Theodore Roethke’s poem, “In a Dark Time” <http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/172120>

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Authentic, Trustworthy Leadership Means Naming the Shadows of Our Insecurities

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There is a deeply hidden place within me that I don’t think I have visited in a long time, and may not have visited ever if synchronicity hadn’t led me there. When I picked up the Leading from Within excerpt of Parker Palmer’s Let Your Life Speak, I knew something interesting was happening. I began to read about the “shadow casting monster” of insecurity about identity and worth, and was reminded of my journal entry from a week earlier. I had noted a revelation that most of my problems over the last few years stemmed from a deep sense of insecurity and not being “good enough.” How did he know?

And even better, Parker takes me a number of steps further into the journey than where I’d gotten to on my own, so it was like running into a mentor that knew exactly what I was experiencing in life, and was able to offer expert guidance.

To add to the weirdness of it all, each question I answer for the course that brought me to Parker’s writings brings me back to the monsters deep within myself. It’s like being jolted awake and realizing that I am not a helpless participant in how I interact with my life and other people, I actually have an ability to influence and change it. If Parker did one thing for me more important than anything else, he affirmed that the dive I started is the one I really need to take if I want to be a truly authentic leader (in all areas in my life).

Over the course of the readings and related writing, I came to understand that somewhere along the line, I shifted from operating from the joy of what I was learning to operating out of an obsessive need to be the best. Although my job had originally provided a sense of self-worth at a point when I didn’t have any, it had slowly morphed from a positive experience to a desperate pursuit of perfection and proving myself worthy.

And the harder I tried, the worse things got. The more hours I spent at work, the more I was told my performance was declining. The more frantically I worked at home, the less actually got done. It didn’t make any sense! I started randomly bursting into tears at work and was sent home a few times in near-hysterics. No matter how much I tried, no one valued anything I did (or at least it felt that way). I was confused and angry at everyone who was making me feel this way. It came to a head when I was asked to leave my position and take a demotion back down to a lower level.

As I went about trying figure out whether this was a big conspiracy against me or if I had some play in my going from a star manager to the bottom of the barrel, I asked a couple of people at work to provide honest feedback about their level of trust in me. One person, who worked with me during my good days, replied that she trusts me in all areas. The more recent employee had a significantly different viewpoint, with much less trust and an overriding message that I had held everything too tightly to myself for any of it to be effective.

If anything validates that I was operating out of insecurity that was it. I was so afraid of failure that I stopped trusting people to do things on their own. My lack of trust in others resulted in them having far less trust in me. This is the “shadow casting” that Parker talks about, and now I know it is real!

And I also know that depression contributed to the downhill tumble, but it is something I very much fear admitting or sharing. Parker’s openness about depression is encouraging and makes it just a little bit less scary. I think by naming some of the monsters that I’m uncovering – insecurity, fear, depression – I am able to make them into something describable and much less baffling.

I was so energized by concept of the deep dive inward and facing of shadows that I had to share the excerpt with others. After reading it, a work colleague began to open up about her own problems with depression and that sparked an even larger conversation about advocacy in the community and finding our future.

This is the starting point to what Parker refers to as community – it’s a deep empathy and appreciation for the experiences of others. And sometimes it transcends appreciation and becomes a connection – where seemingly random experiences suddenly tie together. These connections compel a person to ask the questions of themselves and of others that are the catalyst for true change and enlightenment. If more of us found ourselves inspired to dive in and face our darkest monsters, would the bigger shadows covering humanity as a whole start to lighten?


kristin-trumbleKristin Trumble is a graduate student at St. Mary’s University of Minnesota. This blog was inspired by her studies of Parker Palmer’s writings during a university course called “Authentic and Courageous Leadership,” taught by Professor Heather Durenberger.

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Finding True Self on Your Travels

I’ve just returned from a trip to Iceland with my wife and our 14-year old nephew. When I was 13, my grandmother took me on a similar trip. It’s a tradition in our family that an elder takes a younger relative on a journey so together they might see the world with new eyes.

Traveling through unfamiliar lands can awaken us to the hidden aspects of humanity, both unkind and beautiful. This is true not only for travel in the physical world, but also the journey we take when we read a story, or when we embark on an inner journey to know ourselves.

girl-before-a-mirror
Pablo Picasso, Girl Before A Mirror (1932)

That’s why I love the piece below from a children’s book about a girl who falls into a completely different world and learns much about others and herself along the way.

“She did not know yet how sometimes people keep parts of themselves hidden and secret, sometimes wicked and unkind parts, but often brave or wild or colorful parts, cunning or powerful or even marvelous, beautiful parts, just locked up away at the bottom of their hearts. They do this because they are afraid of the world and of being stared at, or relied upon to do feats of bravery or boldness. And all of those brave and wild and cunning and marvelous and beautiful parts they hid away and left in the dark to grow strange mushrooms – and yes, sometimes those wicked and unkind parts, too – end up in their shadow.”
~ Catherynne M. Valente, The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There

This passage reminds me very much of the “divided life”–the concept Parker Palmer uses to describe the way we sometimes fail to live in congruence with our truest inner selves.

“Afraid that our inner light will be extinguished or our inner darkness exposed, we hide our true identities from each other. In the process, we become separated from our own souls. We end up living divided lives, so far removed from the truth we hold within that we cannot know the ‘integrity that comes from being what you are.'”
~ Parker J. Palmer, A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life

What are you learning through your recent travels?

How is your own journey calling you to reveal and acknowledge more of your true self?

terry-catalystWith gratitude and best wishes,

Terry
Terry Chadsey
Executive Director

P.S. Explore your identity and integrity at a Courage & Renewal program.

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Leading Through the Blizzards

snow

There’s a Leonard Cohen song, The Future, which refers to “the blizzard of the world” crossing the threshold and overturning “the order of the soul”. Leaders experience this blizzard in many forms, including an ever-increasing volume and velocity of challenges and complexity. The blizzards faced by business leaders can cause them to lose sight of what matters most and to lose their sense of orientation.

Author Parker J. Palmer describes how: “…farmers on the Great Plains, at the first sign of a blizzard, would run a rope from the back door out to the barn. They all knew stories of people who had wandered off and been frozen to death, having lost sight of home in a whiteout while still in their own backyards”.

The Center for Courage & Renewal, co-founded by Parker Palmer, encourages leaders to explore and enquire into their inner and outer worlds. In an approach that is rare in leadership development settings, the Courage to Lead® retreat explores important topics metaphorically, using poems and stories that embody the topic. Palmer calls these embodiments “third things” because rather than representing the voice of the facilitator or participant, they have “voices of their own, voices that tell the truth about a topic” and evoke from us what our authentic or deeper self wants us to pay attention to.

Highlighting the potential and challenge of this approach, Palmer cites T.S. Eliot and notes that what Eliot said about poetry is true of all third things: “(Poetry) may make us… a little more aware of the deeper, unnamed feelings which form the substratum of our being, to which we rarely penetrate; for our lives are mostly a constant evasion of ourselves”.

For example, in response to the subject of “The Blizzard” and the Leonard Cohen lyric you might take 15 minutes to reflect and write in a journal your answers to the questions (NB: If you don’t think you have time to do this, that very response highlights the potential value for you of this reflection):

  • What is the nature of the blizzard(s) in your life and work?
  • What contributes to it?
  • What does it feel like to be in it?
  • What does the blizzard obscure?
  • What gets “lost” when you’re in it?

A companion exercise, about tying the rope to the barn, is to work with the poem “The Way It Is” by William Stafford:

RopeThere’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.

Questions for reflection on this poem are:

  • What are some threads – personal beliefs and convictions that you try to hold onto in your life and work?
  • What helps you hold on to them?
  • What makes it difficult to hold on?
  • Have you ever had to explain about your thread? How have you talked about it?
  • What might it mean to “follow” your thread, rather than pull or push it? How does that change things?
  • What does it feel like to be separated from your thread? Say, by losing something, or choosing a path that isn’t really yours?

I began a recent Introduction to Courage & Renewal with these exercises then explored a range of related authentic leadership subjects drawing upon the work of the Center for Courage & Renewal. Participants at the introductory session said this approach: “Provides the opportunity to reflect on what courageous steps need to be taken to align your outer life with your inner values – excellent”; “Excellent workshop – an opening of the doorway to explore myself in a reflective and deeper way. Highly recommended. The use of poetry contributed to the strength of this workshop”; and “Rodger created a rich and safe holding space to explore living authentically. The day was very well-crafted, facilitating new depth of understanding and awareness”.

The introduction was a preview of the Courage to Lead® retreat that starts at 5pm Friday August 28th and runs to 1pm Sunday August 30th at Houchen House Retreat & Conference Centre, Hamilton, New Zealand. You are warmly invited to this rich opportunity to reflect on and revitalise your leadership. This could be one of the best leadership investments you ever make. For further information see http://www.couragerenewal.org/events/couragetolead-retreat-2015-houchen.

(This blog originally appeared here.)


Rodger-SpillerABOUT THE AUTHOR
Rodger Spiller, PhD, MCom (Hons) has researched and taught leadership since 1984 and applied this wisdom as a pioneering leader in ethical and responsible investment and business. He is widely published, including in an international book on Authentic Leadership. He is a trained tertiary teacher, certified coach, enneagram teacher, and current Facilitator in Preparation with the Center for Courage & Renewal. http://rodgerspiller.com

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Backsighting and Current: Reflections on Moving Forward with Grief

sunset_ferry

My beautiful younger brother Darren died a few weeks ago.

As I ponder about the ancient practices of wayfinding, I have become newly aware of some of the currents that affect the direction of my travel…

Up until his death, I must admit that I have tended to be much more of a future-oriented planner. If I have trouble living in the present- and I do- it is because I am thinking about the next shiny event ahead. I have not been one to dwell on past events. I am not prone to nostalgia or regret. I do tend to get ahead of myself.

Yet, I now find myself drifting in grief… thinking much more about memories from childhood. Especially in the mornings, in that moment just before full wakefulness, I notice the pull to remember. I find myself daydreaming: recollecting events with Darren and also with my aging parents. The family cabin at Neskonlith Lake… our backyard on Rosewood Ave… hiking trips into Bachelor Heights… As though I am still trying to understand something valuable that is obscured in these memories. As though I am trying to orient my identity and my present from these early signposts.

New insights have been arising from my pondering traditional open-ocean navigators of the Pacific Island- in practices that predate the use of a magnetic compass, maps, charts and GPS. These wayfinders used a variety of practices to maintain an awareness of location and direction.

One practice is described as ‘navigating from astern’.

Navigating facing backwards was contrary to the navigational practices of most of the voyage, in which the wayfinder faced forwards to take in the sensory data. The conventional perch of the navigator was near the back of the boat and facing ahead. This allowed a wayfinder to use the ocean canoe as a compass needle. One could make reference down the side of the boat for noticing speed and direction. This constant data collection and analysis- taking in the boat’s speed and noticing the direction of swells, waves, winds, birds, sun and clouds and the moving star compass and moon of the night sky- helped inform a wayfinder’s sustained internal map and helped provide for a consistent bearing.

sailing-away-with-wakeHowever, in the first hours of any voyage, as the boat moved away from the land, there was a reverse skill. Essential information was available to a wayfinder by facing not forwards, but backwards. In the midst of moving forward to new waters, it was facing backwards towards the fading land and to the boat’s wake that provided accurate direction.

At the start of the voyage, the most reliable flow of information came from what was being left behind… from the past.

Looking backwards, a wayfinder used a set of references to create a line or trajectory. It might be a few dominant trees, a cliff or another feature. It might be a deep valley that ran away from the shore and provided a line of deeper shadow. A wayfinder needed at least two objects on the land, or the shadow of a valley, to then extend a line out in the ocean. This imagined line extended through the boat and all the way to the destination island. Imagine the sights on a gun to help understand this practice. In some navigational descriptions, navigating from astern is indeed called ‘backsighting’.

This line was the known path to the intended island. It pointed out to sea and to where the boat was going. Facing backwards and keeping in alignment provided the necessary starting direction to orient the navigator. This information of what landmarks to use for which island was passed on from elder navigator to younger. It became known voyage after voyage by paying attention. The home island might provide several of these lines of reference to various islands nearby and far away.

As the boat moved away, the visible drift of the current could also be recognized. This was essential information to find an accurate bearing. A constant pull to left or right indicated the presence of current: current that changed and shifted in both direction and strength throughout the year. If the wayfinder noticed that on what should have been a consistent bearing that the landmarks were drifting out of alignment, there was an active current.

As a wayfinder noticed this current, an internal compensation came into play. The bearing was adjusted for what current was evident. If the current was moving the boat towards the left, the wayfinder adjusted course to the right to average out the effect of current.

Of course, backsighting ended when the land was too far away to see the alignment markers. The wayfinder would move to the forward position and continue the voyage on this determined bearing by looking ahead, now that it was no longer possible to backsight.

I think I’m backsighting.

My memories of Darren, moments with my parents, and related recollections up to this present moment are somehow aligning themselves. There is a line of landmarks from which I am moving away. I sense this line continuing through my body and into my life ahead.

I am not ready to return to facing forward- perhaps a glance of orientation is all.
I sense I must remain true to the alignment of memories- to this bearing. And this course takes me out to the deep ocean. The land is still visible to me in these precious weeks of remembering… yet I know that soon it will fade from view.

I have detected current as I look back. I can see in my earliest memories of my family, my school experiences and into young adulthood… I see the curve of my wake and this noticeable deep flow of energy for which I need to learn to compensate. I sense this current in my body. It will take me off course- it pushes me off my true bearing- unless I learn to adjust for it.

Some of the current I have noticed:

  • An inherited fatalism- not a powerful current of victimhood or the intensity of a martyr-complex… but a more subtle flow of ocean around me… made up of what?… a resignation to the powers-that-be… a powerlessness in the face of these forces… a corrosive cynicism inherited in a shrug and the question not seeking an answer of ‘what can I do?’;
  • Developed guilt from my evangelical religious heritage- this current has been stronger in the past;
  • My temperament and personality… I am an intuitive thinker who spends much more time and is more at ease in my head than in my heart or my body;
  • And just yesterday, in a courageous encounter with a dear friend- I once again detected the old current of racism, colonialism, and fear of the other… and the constant current of my white male privilege.

Years ago, I first noticed these currents.
I had hoped to voyage to an ocean in which they were not at work.
I thought they were weeds in my garden that I could eradicate with diligence and hard work.

Backsighting is revealing to me that my ocean is my reality.

The currents are not going to go away. I do sense less force from them.

My wayfinding is no longer a hope to live current-free… rather, navigating well involves a simple practice of noticing. Grief is teaching me to stand and look back and notice the wake. And as I become more fully aware of the currents, my practice is to update my inner map. I readjust and compensate and continue to find the true course… a line passing through me and extending out to the world I am sailing towards- within me and around me.


Dan Hines bio picABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dan Hines is a Courage & Renewal® facilitator. Dan is a leadership consultant for business, educational, and religious organizations, a coach and speaker, and an ordained priest in the Anglican Church of Canada. He also consults and mentors church leaders in association with his colleagues at Companion Way. He also consults about intentional communities and co-operative living from his ongoing experience with the RareBirds Housing Co-operative. Read more reflections like this on Dan’s blog: Breathing Like Stone.

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Bursting the Bubble and Weaving Real Connections

subway_station

Excerpt from Journal entry, June 20 Saturday ~ New York

The screeching of the J train is jarring to my ears, reminding me that I am not quite ready to wake up and be in this world of New York’s hustle and bustle. My daughter and I are on the subway heading to meet up with my son and daughter-in-law in the heart of New York City. Masses of people are everywhere. I notice a young woman with heavy make-up sitting to our left on the bench. With earphones in, she is sitting there cryingmuddy tears tainted with mascara flowing down her cheeks.

Having lived in Brooklyn for a few years, my daughter begins to educate me in correct subway conduct. She explains “subway voice”meaning it is considerate to lower one’s voice when talking in a subway car. Then there is the backpack issue. Once, I almost took someone out by turning too quickly, my backpack swinging around to hit the person right behind me. Thus I am reminded, it is vital to sit with things on my lap or between my legs.

And then there is the big ruleyou don’t engage. Perhaps a quick flash of a smile as a thank you for someone moving to create space for you. No words, no eye contact, no engagement. Questions are okay, as New Yorkers proudly enjoy sharing knowledge on how to get around this vast city. Otherwise, engagement pops the bubbles of space that surround each person. This bubble of silencea space suit of sortsis what allows everyone to live in this crowded, demanding city. People thirst for privacy and a few moments of solace before moving out into the mass beehives on the street above.

Carefully creating our standards based on what we enjoy and don’t enjoy around communication, we create an invisible bubble. The list is long and narrow. We talk about politics only if we agree, it’s okay or not okay to share feelings, one is suppose to ask about your family first or be direct in asking for a favor, talk about sports or the weather, it’s okay to text while talking, it’s not okay to text… the list goes on and on.

Of course there are many cultural, racial, and regional differences that are important to be honored. But I am speaking more of the bubble we put up during an encounter with a stranger. If someone crosses the line, we are quick to judge. Glancing away to ignore someone’s comment or a delivering few sharp words put them back into their placethat is how we let someone know there is a line and YOU JUST CROSSED IT.

How is it that we have individually and collectively created such a long list of rights and wrongs about how we communicate? Although the stereotype of a New Yorker is that they are rude and distant, this image is only a reflection of our dominant society where we are increasingly putting barriers between “us” and “them”.

NYC_subway_riders_with_their_newspapers

Healing the Heart of Democracy: Now available in paperbackParker Palmer in his book, Healing the Heart of Democracy, invites us to back up and revisit engagement with each other in more life-giving ways. “We are all in this together” is his first habit of the heart. What does this mean if we truly understand that we are interconnected and not separate beings?

People continue to come in and go out, changing the count on the bench at every stop. At this moment, there are three people between me and the woman crying. Stop after stop she continues to crythe type of tears that seem to come from the depths of one’s soul. Wiping them off with a briskness, she seems to put a stop to them. Yet she continues to cry, quietly and freely, for many more stops.

I begin to watch people watching her. Though not directly, some steal a look and then become even more focused on their own book, newspaper, or music. Eventually, she stops crying.

What vulnerability to cry in this crowed vessel. I find that I am deeply touched by her tears and extraordinary courage to show this depth of emotion on the ordinary subway route. Doesn’t she know about the rules? And yet, how many times have I been so moved and touched, crying from the depth of my soul with those same big, sloppy tears? Plenty, but not on a subway car with 80 other people.

Our stop is next. My daughter gets up, moving skillfully out the door next to our seats. A look of surprise comes across her face when I tell her I am going out the other door. With only a split second before the unforgiving doors close, I gently bend down, and lightly touch the crying woman’s upper arm.

“Many blessings on you,” I whisper to her. Taken off guard, she looks up with a surprised expression. I repeat my words. Time stops with a pause. She smiles a lovely smile, one that I’ll never forget, as she looks deeply into my eyes. “Thank you,” she whispers. Next thing I know I have stepped out as the train door closes behind me.

My daughter is curious why I went out the door farther from our seats. My attempt to explain is mixed now with my own tears. I still can’t say completely what it was, this engagement with this stranger. My tears came down my cheek, as they do as I write this. There is something so deeply touching to be present to someone elseto just be with them in whatever they are experiencing. And that is all I did.

We are all in this together and I am so grateful for these moments when I feel my humanness and connection to others. That’s itjust a simple interactionbreaking the implicit rules of engagement. I am reminded of the phrase from Marge Piercy‘s poem, “The Seven of Pentacles”:

“Weave real connections, create real nodes, build real houses.
Live a life you can endure: Make love that is loving
Keep tangling and interweaving…”

This is a life I can endurepracticing a habit of the heart that brings me back to myself.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Susan Kaplan is a trainer, coach and consultant. She is a Facilitator for the Center for Courage & Renewal and for the Rocky Mountain Compassionate Communication Center, providing personal and professional development and leadership support. She is an Adjunct Professor for the Graduate School of Social Work, University of Denver, teaching community practice and mind-body connections. Check out Susan’s upcoming retreat – Leading From Within: The Gifts of Abundance and Scarcity, August 21-23, 2015 in Denver, Colorado.

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The Magic of Easy-Bake Oven Brownies (Or, How I Accidentally Became an Educator)

“Real isn’t how you are made,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.’

‘Does it hurt?’ asked the Rabbit.

‘Sometimes,’ said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. ‘When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.’

‘Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,’ he asked, ‘or bit by bit?’

‘It doesn’t happen all at once,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

Margery Williams, The Velveteen Rabbit

(*Note: names and identifying information in the following story have been changed in this essay to protect privacy and confidentiality)

brownies

It was my birthday. I was turning 28 years old, and had been a school social worker at a K-6 elementary school for two years. Other than the fact that it was my birthday, it was an ordinary morning. Students were coming and going from the office where I worked, and the sounds of chattery children filled the air. As I made my way down that main hallway, I was stopped by a girl I’d been working with for a few weeks. Her name was Sherry, she was in 4th grade, and was having difficulties at home. When she saw me, her face lit up and she called my name.

“Mrs. Bondioli! Here, I made you these. Happy Birthday!” Sherry said.

She took something out of her ripped backpack, unwrapped it from the napkin she’d used to protect it, and handed it to me. It was a small plate of Easy-Bake Oven brownies, the kind that you make from a mix and bake in a child’s oven. They were covered in pink sprinkles, and presented themselves in a variety of shapes and sizes. The plate was smudged with chocolate smears, and the hands that held the plate were dirty.

But I’d never seen a gift so beautiful.

“Thank you so much!” I gushed as I accepted her gift, touched that she’d remembered my birthday. I offered her one of her own brownies, and we stood in that hallway together, on an ordinary October morning, eating those brownies. In that moment, I was changed.

Working as a school social worker, in a school setting, had never occurred to me. I was an Undecided major at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire for as long as possible, and was the queen of every “Introduction to…” class. I really didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I did know that it needed to involve helping people.

I finally landed on social work. My first job post-graduation was at a county human services agency; I was a case manager for children and youth who were involved with juvenile court for delinquency charges. It was a fulfilling job, always interesting and stimulating, but incredibly stressful, and burnout was high. After 4 years, I had the most seniority on my unit, and I was feeling the burn. While I definitely felt like I was helping these kids, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I wasn’t getting to them soon enough, that I could have done more to help them and their families if I had intervened earlier. My work felt insufficient. It was time to try a new approach.

At the UW-Madison Graduate School of Social Work I was once again unsure what concentration was right for me. Among the choices, I decided that school social work would be best. I had always liked school, hadn’t I, and besides, the work schedule sounded great (no “on-call”! summers off!). I thought, “I can give this a try for awhile.”

Little did I know that this was all Before Brownies, and that I’d just made a decision that would lead me to my true self.

After being hired at Wisconsin Rapids Public Schools, I quickly realized how different a school setting was than my previous agency. I was not ready for the pace and focus and I felt “out of my element.” I was slow to react to teachers’ calls for help, I was more focused on establishing my own practice than being in a classroom, and most critically, I felt separate and isolated from the “real teachers”. I didn’t feel like my voice was equal with theirs.

Parker-Palmer_Courage-to-TeachIn his book The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life, Parker Palmer states, “If we want to grow in our practice, we have two primary places to go: to the inner ground from which good teaching comes and to the community of fellow teachers from whom we can learn more about ourselves and our craft.”1 Not only did I not see myself as an educator, but I certainly wasn’t going to admit that to any of the other staff in my building. I felt clumsy, inferior, fraudulent. Could I even be effective in this environment?

Then, I got the brownies.

After Brownies, I began to see myself differently. Like the Skinhorse in The Velveteen Rabbit, I started to feel Real. Somehow, I had reached that girl, a very difficult, stubborn, defiant girl who was a victim of so many circumstances that were out of her control. I had gotten through to her heart and opened it even the tiniest crack, and that’s when I realized that I was an educator too.

I might not teach children to read or write, but I was certainly able to teach them to love themselves and others, to positively cope with the chaos that existed all around them, to embrace their friends in appropriate social play, to find and rely on trusting adults, and to help them leave my school a little stronger and more resilient than they were when they came. I began to realize that I indeed had an educator’s heart.

As my confidence as an educator grew, so did my effectiveness. I became more open and more connected to students and parents. With regard to my colleagues, I finally felt like one of them. I leaned in and listened to professional development conversations, and I chimed in at staff meetings. Going into classrooms to support student behaviors felt more comfortable to me, and was also more helpful for the student. With each situation, I felt more confident to bring my skills and expertise, meeting difficult students and parents where they are at and guiding them to find their own skills and strengths. I began to hear the hum and feel the heartbeat of the school, and to find my place within it.

I am now proud to call myself an educator. I have a purpose in a school setting, and I feel like I belong here. Every day is not perfect, and I know that there will be bumps and fumbles along the way. But I truly believe that I am doing the work I was meant to do. What’s more, I can’t wait to see what I’ll learn next. Hand me a brownie – I’m home.

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