“When all hope for release in this world seems unrealistic and groundless, the heart turns to a way to escape beyond the present order.”
Howard Thurman (philosopher, theologian, educator, civil rights leader, author)
“The entire self-generative process is supported by compassionate acceptance extended through the relational field. This requires the felt experience of the heart, as distinct from compassion as an idea or an ethical imperative.”
“The longest journey you will ever take is from your head to your heart.”
Attributed to various sources, including the Sioux people
About five years ago, my dear friend and colleague Melinda Weekes-Laidlow turned me on to the writings of Father Richard Rohr, and in particular his book Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life. As Melinda and I are of a similar age and stage, I think we were both contemplating in our own ways what life held for us during what felt like a time of significant transition. The timing of this gift ended up being quite auspicious, as I would then spend the next number of years (up until now) going through something of an unraveling, precipitated by work burnout that revealed unaddressed patterns in my psyche and body that were begging for attention. It was not a complete breakdown, but something of a slow crash. Control freak that I have often tended to be in my life, I spent a fair amount of time trying to direct the descent.
All my efforts to manipulate and steer really did was make a bit more gradual what has been at times an excruciating experience. That said, it has also been very rich, putting me more deeply in touch with my feelings, my body, and (as hard as it is for me to use this word sometimes), my soul. Interestingly enough, about a year after starting the book, Melinda and I (along with Jen Willsea) found ourselves working directly with Father Rohr and his staff at the Center for Action and Contemplation (CAC) in New Mexico, guiding an internal equity learning and change process. If you know anything about the nature of this work, and especially in these times, you will not be surprised that this only added more fuel to what was at best a “cool burn,” not because of CAC in particular, but because it is a fractal of the hurting whole that is the broader culture, and because that process dared to approach this work from a deeper contemplative place.
This was a blessing in many ways. Melinda and I, and other IISC colleagues, discovered that there is a crucial need to put in place certain structures and supports for the organizations with which we work, as well as for ourselves, as we undertake this kind of learning and change facilitation process (see this post “An Ecosystem of Resourcing for Racial Equity Culture Change Work”). During one of our early trips to New Mexico, Father Richard gave us a copy of his book Just This: Prompts and Practices for Contemplation, which I received gratefully and with intention to put straight to use as a part of our support ecosystem. During the plane ride home, after completing a silent meditation, I was skimming through the last half of the book, when I came across what might otherwise have been a throw away line. It mentioned that doing contemplative work was not meant to be heady, and really needed to be centered on the heart. Heart-focused. “Heartfulness practice.”
I tucked this away and then a few months later found myself in a situation that I would say is the closest I have come to a “mystical” experience (another word that does not come very easily to me). I will spare the details here, but essentially what happened was that for the first time in my life I understood what my heart is, to have a direct experience and view of the world through it. I don’t remember ever having that feeling of being so unconditionally held, enveloped in love. Not to say that I was instantly transformed. The experience passed and my body memory faded. But not completely. It has been rekindled by a few other experiences, not quite as intense, and also through my own ongoing practice.
What I’ve found in doing heart work is that it brings me warmth in varying degrees, an actual physical feeling, as well as something emotional. This often leads to a subtle smile, if not an outright grin. And with that comes a sense of softening, letting go, loosening my grip. I’m reminded of what Barbara Fredrickson, who runs a research lab dedicated to the power of emotions (including love), once wrote, that love constitutes “moments of warmth, connection and openness to others.” Fredrickson and her colleagues have discovered that when love is in effect:
“Your outlook quite literally expands as you come under the influence of any of several positive emotions. With this momentarily broadened, more encompassing mindset, you become more flexible, attuned to others, creative, and wise. Over time, you also become more resourceful.”
While I cannot claim wisdom (another one of those words), I can vouch for the others when I am tuned into my heart – a sense of being renewed, that has implications not simply for how I feel personally, but how I see others and interact with them. It feels, in many ways, like a more right way of relating. See, in this vein, the short video below for some thoughts about how support for the regeneration of our oceans might link to the heart, and love.
It turns out that this is all very much in alignment with longstanding wisdom traditions and what those who are dedicated to contemplative practice experience. Father Rohr has defined contemplation as “a long loving look at what is real.” That long look is not simply about time, but also depth. It is about sinking below the neck, into the heart and other regions of our bodies. Without that sinking, Father Rohr says, we can simply fall into “stinking thinking,” addictive repetitive thought that is more circular than anything and often leaves us more disconnected and unreconciled – split, at the mercy of overly analytical and fractured thinking. When we come from the heart, we come from more of a place of wholeness or natural inclusion (to borrow a phrase from Alan Rayner).
“Facing the sorrows of the world requires that we remain intimate with the world.”
Francis Weller (psychotherapist, author, specialist in grief work)
And the heart is not all. It turns out there are other seats of intelligence and wisdom in our bodiesthat can also be easily neglected, including our guts. Over the past couple of years, I have become more familiar with the power of tuning into my lower abdomen through practices taught by Joe Weston and The Weston Network. Just before the pandemic locked things down in March of 2020, I attended an in-person Respectful Confrontation workshop with Joe in New York City. It was a profound experience. Through the use of different techniques, including the “core exercise” which centers our attention and breathing on the Taoist energy core in our bodies – three inches below our bellybuttons and a third of the way into the body – I was able to ground myself in ways that feel, well, very grounding. From that place, and breathing into that part of the body, we were then invited to explore our selves (sensations, emotions, thoughts), our relationship to our surroundings, and our relationship to others. Even on Zoom, I have experienced how re-charging this is, that my energetic batteries fill up, and I am able to engage with a fuller sense of self and of boundaried presence.
In a particularly powerful moment during the in-person training, Joe invited us to face some of our articulated fears, represented by other people in the workshop physically approaching us. We experimented with standing in our “strength pillar” by concentrating on our abdomens, stamping our feet and saying out loud, “No!” This was initially a bit awkward, and slowly I got the hang of it. That said I did not expect the visceral shaking that then happened and took over my whole body. It sent wave after wave through my esophagus and solar plexus, each time I spoke more solidly from the gut. While initially a bit unsettling, I realized that it was actually a long overdue release and reclaiming of what Joe would call our authentic personal power.
As outlandish as this all may sound to some, those more familiar with the intelligence of our amazing bodies will not be surprised. As one of Bessel van der Kolk’s trauma book title states, our bodies know and keep the score, and are incredibly intelligent at protection and expression. Science is showing us that a stable and solid sense of self is in fact rooted in our hearts, our lungs and our bellies. A recent article in the Psyche Newsletter points out:
“An important limitation of contemporary psychology and neuroscience is that scholars replaced the old Cartesian dualism – mind versus body – with a new dualism: brain versus body. The new dichotomy was even cruder than the old one, and certainly no less rigid. Experimenters refused to take note of whatever happened south of the neck because the scientific picture of the day dismissed what previous ages had carefully noted – the wisdom of the heart the power of breathing, and the intelligence of the gut. Now, thanks to a wave of new research findings, with more to come, we know that these intuitions can be fully reconciled with a scientific outlook on the self. Your consciousness really does have deep, rich roots in your bodily feelings.”
Of course, this is validating what many spiritual traditions and indigenous peoples have honored for a long time. I continue to be very influenced by my reading of Tyson Yunkaporta’s Sand Talk: How Indigenous Thinking Can Save the World, which I finished about 18 months ago, during the first pandemic summer in the US. Yunkaporta is an academic, arts critic and researcher who belongs to the aboriginal Apalech clan in Queensland, Australia. Towards the end of this book, Yunkaporta sums up what he and a number of other indigenous people with whom he “yarns” see as an indigenous approach to engaging and being in right relationship with living systems – respect, connect, reflect, direct. Interestingly, he offers corresponding embodied centers for doing this work as: gut, heart, head, hands. He also makes the point that Western colonizer cultures tend to reverse this progression, leading with action and control (direct/hands) and intellect (reflect/head), and only perhaps later capitulating (connect/heart, respect/gut), if at all. More rooted cultures suggest that right relationship begins in our guts, not our heads!
Renewal, revival, restoration; spiritual transformation; an aspect of living systems without which there would be no life; a process through which whole new organisms may be created from fractions of organisms; an adaptive and evolutionary trait that plays out at different systemic levels.
All of this to say, that in many places people may be approaching the work of regenerating and renewing ourselves, one another, and the larger living systems of which human beings are a part in the wrong (or certainly an incomplete) manner, if they are trying to at all. Case in point, I was once in a weekend workshop with a long-time teacher of so-called “regenerative development” and was joined by my wife. During one of the exercises, my wife began to cry, and this made the workshop leader very uncomfortable. Em (my wife) was essentially told to get herself under control, as this was not in the spirit of the disciplined approach we were learning. Now if you knew my wife (a therapist who does a lot of work around trauma), you would know how amazingly embodied she is and attuned to her environment and to other people. This regenerative “guru” was in essence asking her not to be herself, not to access a crucial part of her wisdom and intelligence, which is a wisdom and intelligence our species shares. That did not sit well with either of us.
Flash forward a few years … During the March 2020 Respectful Confrontation workshop with the Weston Network that I mentioned earlier, we engaged in deep somatic/embodied work, individually, in pairs and in the group as a whole. This was done with great care, consideration and skillfulness by the facilitators, and also with a spirit of encouraging us to push on the edges of our physical, psychological and emotional resistance. There were moments of great energetic release throughout those few days. I remarked at how rare this is in a group setting, how uncomfortable it felt to many, and also how liberating it seemed to be to everyone- tapping into fuller and more resilient sources of power, connection and expression. What is more regenerative than that?!
A quote I am known for by some of my colleagues at the Interaction Institute for Social Change is “we are not simply brains on sticks.” And yet for many, this image seems to be the dominant vision and sense of who human beings are. As a result, many people are disconnected from a fuller sense of belonging to themselves, others, and the rest of Life. Social and cultural dissociation. In her book How to Be Animal, Melanie Challenger chalks this kind of dissociation up to a false belief in “human exceptionalism” that attempts to separate us from our basic animal nature. Having a category of “non-human” allows animals to be objects for disgust and victims of mistreatment and control. The same goes for parts of our selves (our “disgusting bodies”) and humanity (“the unclean”, “bad others”). This is literally and figuratively rejecting our roots and appendages.
All of this considered, questions I lean into in some form each day, at times with others, include …
What do I/we need to reclaim and repair?
How can I/we practice re-spect (looking again) for who I am and others are?
How can I/we ground in our guts, orient to our hearts, and align our brains with that more ancient foundation?
What might I/we re-member that has otherwise been forgotten?
“I need love Not some sentimental prison I need god Not the political church I need fire To melt the frozen sea inside me I need love.”
– Sam Phillips
Image by Luke, Ma, “Love by Nature,” shared under provisions of Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0.
I started this year with a post focused on love, and this idea that 2018 would be the year of love. This thinking wasn’t offered through rose-colored glasses, but from a shared sense and conviction that love would be required to see the year through. And not just any kind of love. In that original post there were a few definitions and quotes that we have been playing with at IISC, including these:
“All awakening to love is spiritual awakening… All the great social movements for freedom and justice in our society have promoted a love ethic.”
– bell hooks
“Justice is what love looks like in public.”
– Cornel West
“To show compassion for an individual without showing concern for the structures of society that make him [sic] an object of compassion is to be sentimental rather than loving.”
– William Sloane Coffin
“Love is seeing the other as a legitimate other.”
– Humberto Maturana
“The ultimate act of love is allowing ourselves and others to be complex.”
Image by Graylight, used under provisions of Creative Commons Attribution license 2.0.
As I was just starting work at IISC, back in 2005, our founding Executive Director Marianne Hughes, introduced the staff to the work of John Paul Lederach, and specifically his book The Moral Imagination. As I recall, she did this as a result of a sabbatical during which she explored the power of networks and of art in social change. These two things show up centrally in Lederach’s work. Lederach has spent years doing peace and reconciliation work in some of the most intense and entrenched conflicts in the world. And he writes not really as a master technician, but as a poet, which is very much by intention.
I thought of The Moral Imagination a couple of months ago, when I began to realize how starved many people I meet seem to be for alternatives to what we currently have as mainstream systems in this country. Many are speaking up against and resisting what is not working, has long been unjust, and is fundamentally sustainable, which is crucial. And in the absence of clear alternatives (see “reimagine” and “recreate” in Spirit in Action’s image below), what can ensue is … conflict. Entrenched conflict, with no creative point of release.
I also thought of Lederach’s book, because he writes how central networks, human webs, and authentic human connection is to the work of peacebuilding and reconciliation. Up until recently I had thought about peacebuilding as a field as having more to do with what goes on in “other places” like Ireland, Sudan, Colombia, Tajikistan. If nothing else, these past couple of years have provided a need to adjust that understanding – peacebuilding is needed at home.
So I’ve been scouring Lederach’s writings, and there is a lot that resonates. Lederach was recently featured on a powerful program of On Being with actress and activist America Ferrera (no doubt another reason he has been on my mind). There is much to say about The Moral Imagination, but for now I am offering some passages and quotes that struck a chord and I’m curious to hear what reactions those reading have … Read More
At Passover, there is a song about being thankful for each thing we are blessed with. Dayenu means “it would have been enough.” It is a call to appreciate the small things and to recognize that they are enough. And yet, within the “enough” there is a simultaneous recognition that the first gift or step is not enough without the next one.
In a world where racism is rampant, and where the impacts are real – often deadly, even – is there an “enough” in terms of being collaborators for change? It feels like it is never enough when lives are at stake.
On the one hand, there is never enough until we have envisioned and called into being the liberated and equitable and pleasing community that allows us all to thrive. This reality requires a commitment that is bone deep. It is the kind of commitment that requires constant thinking and action to live into new ways. It is held knowing that upending racism and racist systems is something to die for.
On the other hand, each action, each change to the individual and to the system, needs to be celebrated. For that one moment, it is enough. As long as we know that a new moment emerges when more is needed, and the past action is certainly no longer enough.
What is the first step and what is the next one? For many white people striving to be collaborators, the work begins with learning and knowing and then shifting awareness, then teaching, then ultimately embodied anti-racism practice in relationship with other white people and people of color. Perhaps a move from external to internal; from pointing out the faults of others to seeing how, despite best intentions, we are each implicated in racist systems; from tight vigilance to looser living and correcting.
Reading books and learning by black artists and intellectuals who have created parts of the world we want Dayenu
Understanding the history of racism and how it got institutionalized in the US and globally Dayenu
Bringing a new consciousness to my actions as I walk through the world Dayenu
Naming racism in all-white spaces Dayenu
Building authentic relationship across difference Dayenu
Helping other white people along the journey through openness and kindness Dayenu
Showing up as a vulnerable person who can acknowledge my mistakes and own my racism Dayenu
Ongoing learning through books, workshops, conversation, community Dayenu
Contributing to and investing in multi-racial community at work and at home Dayenu
Putting my life on the line Dayenu
The work of a white ally or accomplice is never ending, to be sure. It requires a lot of effort. And yet, it should not be a slog. We are doing this for ourselves as much as for anyone else. We recognize that ending white privilege and white supremacy allows us to be full human beings as we disrupt the notion of superiority on which this country was founded.
In my work in trainings and coaching, I encourage both the ongoing effort and the need to celebrate.
Maybe this is one way to be gentle and joyful in our work for liberation – to celebrate each small step as if it were enough while also knowing that it is never enough until we are all free and that we need to want and to create more.
What does it mean to you to do equity work with both insistence and gentleness, step by step?
“Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world all at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach… What is needed for dramatic change is an accumulation of acts, adding, adding to, adding more, continuing.” – Clarissa Pinkola Estes
I am becoming pretty good at compartmentalizing – focusing on the work that is right in front of me, even as more tragedy surrounds us and more outrage wells up within me. It’s certainly functional to be able to do that. But I don’t know that it’s always good. Part of me despairs. How many more people – and especially children – have to die needlessly? How is it that in other countries, people experience mental illness, firing from a job, expulsion from school, and all manner of personal tragedy without turning to mass killings? I want to be in the streets. I want to raise my voice with others in ways that will make a big and immediate difference. I want an end to politicians offering “thoughts and prayers.” I know there is power in prayer, and I also know that powerful prayer motivates powerful, compassionate action.
In a workshop the other day, we were exploring the ways that collaborative leadership practices support organizations and networks in pursuing broader diversity, deeper inclusion, and expanded equity and justice. Someone asked me if I really thought we would ever get closer to justice in this country, given the recent sharp turn we’re taking in the opposite direction. I offered two thoughts in response: (1) I think things are getting much better and much worse at the very same time. There is an expanding consciousness of the sacredness of human life and the interconnectedness of people and the planet; and many people who suffer under oppression are finding ways to resist and to build alternatives. That is all advancing and it’s good. And, the forces of racism, sexism, homophobia, zealotry, and more are also advancing, most recently with tacit and explicit support from the White House. (2) As a woman of faith, what keeps me going is anticipating that in 50 years, when people look back on this era, they will see it as the last moments of flailing by a dying beast. May it be so!
This is a slightly edited version of a post from about 3 years ago, and it feels more timely in light of current events. Many groups with whom we work at IISC are trying to find a way to stay resilient amidst onslaughts and uncertainties. I have found my own need for personal practice to have grown accordingly.
When I take time to slow down my interest is always refueled in practices that support my and others’ ability to maintain perspective and a sense of effective agency in the world. My line of inquiry is not simply focused on what can keep me energized, pull me back from the edge, or deal with burn-out, but also how I can align my internal state with external aspirations in an integrated way. My thinking and reading often takes me back to the work of Barbara Fredrickson, the emotions scientist based at the University of North Carolina, as well as to others in the fields of positive and social psychology. Having revisited some of these writings again recently, here are 10 recommended practices for personal and social resilience: Read More
Watching intermittent coverage of the Democratic National Convention my heart softened when I heard New Jersey Senator Corey Booker remind those listening that “Patriotism is the love of country, but you can’t love your country if you don’t love your countrymen.” He went on to define love as ‘being there for each other…empowering each other…finding common ground…and building bridges across differences…’ in pursuit of a common goal. He articulated a beautiful and hopeful vision of a nation of love as a free people, living interdependently. Later on during the convention, Broadway stars gathered on stage to sing the American classic, “What the World Needs Now is Love.”
It gave me a feeling of hope, not necessarily in the Party per se, but in the power of love to captivate the collective imaginations of millions of people who believe that another world is possible, and we can make it a better one for all of us.
This weekend I attended CommonBound 2016, the bi-annual conference of the New Economy Coalition (NEC), “…a [160-member] network of organizations imagining and building a future where people, communities, and ecosystems thrive. Together, we are creating deep change in our economy and politics—placing power in the hands of people and uprooting legacies of harm—so that a fundamentally new system can take root.”
As one might imagine given the mission, the conference was attended by people working on a wide range of projects from public engagement, participatory budgeting, and environmental sustainability to cooperatives, reparations, community land trusts, fossil fuel divestment and more. The 900 attendees were all in some way engaged in doing the very important work of organizing, shifting culture, developing alternative institutions and creative solutions, writing, resisting, and fundraising. All towards a goal of a society that is more just, more democratic, and more sustainable. NEC itself is fast becoming a network of networks engaging groups in the cooperative movement, movement for black lives, labor movement, student divestment network, environmental movement and more. Held in Buffalo, NY, the conference had all the makings of a pivotal moment in movement history, where a true intersectional approach to changing society for the better could be nurtured. The opportunities for significant connections and collaborations to develop were endless.
In times of anger and grief and sadness, it is easy for me to retreat or to read endlessly or, worse, to tune out as if lives are not at stake.
There is much to depress us this week and, if we are awake, most weeks. I remembered this week that it is also possible to have joy during these hard times. In fact, as a colleague said to me, perhaps it is not just possible but necessary. We need to connect and celebrate because of all the craziness, not in spite of it. Perhaps it is a way of creating the world we want for ourselves and our children while in the midst of the world we need to drastically change.
Here are some moments of connectivity that brought me comfort or joy this horrible and regular US/global week:
Last week at the Institute during an internal training for our new cohort of Associates, my colleague Alia introduced a practice called ‘Secret Angels’. For those who are familiar with the Secret Santa idea, it is quite similar. You begin by randomly choosing a piece of paper with someone else’s name written on it. Then, for the duration of your time together, you must show appreciation and affection for this person, material or otherwise. You cannot reveal who you are throughout the exercise and you are allowed to elicit the support and collaboration of others. On this occasion the Secret Angel activity lasted three days and we were not allowed to spend money. Rather, we had to think of creative and resourceful ways of showing love for each other.
Some colleagues gave gifts, homemade items, drawings, written poems, chocolate and more. Others offered backrubs and massages. Some offered to do favors. Others arranged and delivered statements of appreciation, acknowledgement and sweet words of poetry. For those three days there was quite a LoveFest in the office! And this of course felt right at home since love is an integral component of our collaboration lens.
Tonight, Cynthia Parker will present “Race Talk” at an intercultural dialogue co-hosted by Fire, Grace Chapel’s young adult ministry. Parker explores racism through key moments of personal and professional insight.
“There are many useful guidelines for productive race talk,” Parker says, and many practical tips are included in the talk. Yet even with best practices, some moments of race talk do harm or feel unresolved. Parker shares her personal tips for connecting with her faith, and her faith in humanity, to continue moving forward with love.
Last year, in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon Bombing, I was facilitating a group of students and faculty at MIT reflecting on the impact and meaning of the bombing. The participants ranged from people who had been at the marathon site to those who witnessed it on TV. All experienced the lock down that occurred in Cambridge and felt the impact of the death of eight-year-old Martin William Richard, and many of them shared something deeper, the trauma of being an unwilling victim and sometimes perpetrator of planned, unexpected, unwarranted or thoughtless violence. From a former Israeli solider, who asked “do I kill these 4 men in my line of sight because of the threat they may pose?” to a woman who survived a brutal rape, the bombing made visible the deep trauma so many people live with from day to day.
But something remarkable happened that evening. As we sat in circle listening to each story a young veteran spoke up about his experience with violence in the streets of LA and the deserts of Iraq. He spoke with a deep passion that disrupted the quiet reflection of the group. “We can’t just sit around and talk about this. If things are going to change we have to shift something fundamental in ourselves in order to stop the massive violence in our world.” He continued, “For me it is the following commitment I have made to myself and that I tell each person I am engaged with I Will Not Harm Your Children.” Then he stopped.