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Seeing Yourself Whole

Flower mandalaWhat is the source of your greatest contribution to the world?

a) My remarkable brain
b) My big, generous heart
c) My beautiful body
d) My enlightened soul

You’re one step ahead of me, aren’t you? Of course, the answer is e) All of the above! As a complex, dynamic human system, your ability to live with purpose and impact here on earth comes not from any one dimension of your being, but from the continuous interoperation of all of them.

It’s easy to forget this fundamental truth when we get caught up in the expectations of a system—work, family, church, community—that seems only to want a piece of us. But when we collapse our sense of self to accommodate the perceived preferences of others, we forfeit much of the creative energy that comes with full self-awareness.

Conversely, when we maintain our awareness of self as a complex, dynamic whole, the rewards that accrue to us and those around us are immeasurable: We expand our options for intervening when we’re stuck or off-track; we gain clarity about the values that enliven us and the purpose that drives us forward; we gain confidence in our capacity for sustained contribution.

That’s why it’s important and courageous work to assert our wholeness on behalf of our own fulfillment and in service to others. In a feature article in this month’s issue of The Systems Thinker newsletter from Pegasus Communications, I offer a few ideas and tools, such as The Round Resume, to help you awaken and sustain your awareness of self as a whole system of power and purpose.

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Don’t Fence Me In

September 9, 2011 1 comment

fence, Brewster, MAThere was no shortage of guffaws and looks of incredulity when presidential candidate Ron Paul absurdly suggested during a recent debate that a border fence with Mexico might well be used—in some grimly imagined future police state—as much to “keep us in” as to keep “all those bad people” out. But isn’t there just a tiny grain of truth in that? No, I don’t mean that we physically would be constrained from leaving the country. But, doesn’t a fence of any kind “keep us in”?

That is, after all, exactly one-half the point of a fence. It delineates what’s us and what’s them, what’s mine and what’s yours, what’s here and what’s there. And once we’ve gone to the trouble of defining space like that, at least part of our awareness shifts to preserving our “in-ness.”

And I’m not just talking about politics. We build fences around ourselves all the time, at home and at work, in our communities, and across the globe.  Maybe it’s wise to pause and listen to the speaker in Robert Frost’s Mending Wall who considers tweaking his tradition-bound neighbor:

“Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.”

Can you think of a fence you’ve made in your life to keep others out? What’s it like inside the fence?

Long Odds

August 1, 2011 3 comments

Pastured horse in sunsetWhen Australian Cadel Evans took to the podium last week as the winner of the 2011 Tour de France, he said, “I just want to say thank you to everyone who’s had faith in me.”

It was a poignant moment for Evans who at 34, became the oldest winner in the Tour’s modern era, rewarding the patience of fans who had been disappointed to see him settle for runner-up status in the race several times over the past few years. But the loyal support he alluded to in his remarks after the victory had an even longer history. When he was eight years old, Evans was kicked in the head by a horse and spent several weeks in a coma, throwing his very survival into question, and making his eventual success at the pinnacle of professional sports truly improbable.

There are few story lines more appealing than the triumph of the underdog. Maybe that’s why so many of us carry around our own version of the tale, nursing along our awareness of the “horses” that have kicked us in the head to complicate our road to success.

But can we all really be underdogs? Don’t get me wrong. I’m not denying that each of us has been kicked in the head a few times. I’m just raising the possibility that from the vantage point of Now, we might find that we’ve been complicit in preserving some vestige of disability to explain why that ultimate prize has eluded us.

What if we had the courage to put those cantankerous old horses out to pasture for good? What’s stopping us from going for the yellow jersey now?

The Words We Use

Word cloud of dream languageA recent item in The Boston Globe entitled Fighting Words described how social media and marketing commentator Crystal Smith leveraged simple technology to illuminate the gender stereotypes that dominate television toy commercials.

Using the free online tool Wordle, Smith generated comparative word clouds of the nouns and verbs she heard most frequently in toy ads targeted to boys and girls.

I have to admit feeling dismayed by the stark picture of gender bias that her informal experiment revealed (although an interesting range of opinion is evident in the comments associated with Smith’s original post). But, at the same time, I was reminded about how useful a tool like Wordle can be in raising our awareness about the language that we use.

Have you tried using Wordle to uncover any hidden emphasis in your resume, or in your online bio, or in your marketing copy?

For example, I generated the word cloud above out of excerpts from my dream journal. I was not at all surprised to see water, car, or my son Matt’s name cropping up with some frequency. But look at how the words “going” and “back” stand out. Until I looked at this image, I hadn’t realized how often my dreams have a theme of travel; how often in my dreams I have the sense that I have gone someplace and I have to get back.

I loved discovering this thread of meaning in my dreams. I have followed it to some fruitful reflections about where I am in my life’s journey.

If you haven’t yet tried Wordle or another word cloud generator, I recommend that you do. You might be surprised to discover what pops out at you from your own words.

Bleeding Hearts

bleeding heartsWhen someone names “Nature” among their core values, we tend to picture Nature in its most endearing manifestations: Tranquil pools, sunny meadows, enduring mountains—environments that lend themselves to reflection or adventure.

Less likely to leap to mind are ferocious tsunamis, tornadoes, and floods of the sort that have caused so much destruction and loss across the globe over the past few months. Those storms, though, are no less Nature than the flowers and breezes we associate with its more docile expressions.

Similarly, we—being of Nature, and not something apart from it—are as capable of tempestuousness as we are of tenderness. That’s not necessarily a bad thing if we can, as Aristotle counseled, “…be angry with the right person, to the right degree, at the right time, for the right purpose, and in the right way….”

But, too often, we resort to storminess when gentler behavior might be the better course. At those times, aren’t we are lucky to have Nature’s most exquisite handiwork to turn to for instruction? How can I look at the bleeding hearts that I planted in memory of my father a few years ago and not be called to honor my better angels?

When do you choose to persuade by violence, and when by love?

Honor the Brick

Ancient brick arch in Petra, JordanIs it permissible to treat people poorly in the name of artistic vision? Most of us would offer a resounding “No,” because we hold human relationship as our preeminent value. For the late architect Louis I. Kahn, as for many artists, musicians, and performers, the question was more complicated.

In the graceful and provocative 2003 documentary, My Architect, produced by Kahn’s son, Nathaniel Kahn, we discover an aesthetic innovator destined to live with the human collateral damage that results when the vision comes first.

Historians call Kahn one of the most influential architects of the mid-20th century, noting that he inspired successive generations of designers with his “uncompromising pursuit of formal perfection and emotional expression.” In the film, we get a taste of that singular focus: “To express is a drive. When you want to give something presence, you have to consult nature. And that is where design comes in. If you think of Brick, for instance, and you say to Brick, ‘What do you want, Brick?’ And Brick says, ‘I like an arch.’ And you say to Brick, ‘Look, arches are expensive, and I can use a concrete lintel over you; what do you think of that, Brick?’ Brick says, ‘I like an arch.’ It’s important that you honor the material you use. You don’t say…‘We have a lot of material around; we can do it one way, we can do it another.’ That’s not true. You can only do it if you honor the brick and glorify the brick instead of just shortchanging it.”

Honoring the brick of his own nature could be seen as the central theme of Kahn’s life. Small and physically awkward with an odd voice and extensive facial burn scars sustained as a toddler, Kahn was as true to surface imperfection as he was to purity of form.

And though his enduring masterworks reflect an evolved artistic—or even spiritual—consciousness, his behavioral imperfections also left their mark. He fathered children with three women while maintaining relationships with all of them, he drove employees to the brink of collapse with his excessive demands, and he alienated potential clients with his rigidity.

Yet, some of those lovers, employees, and clients still weep with affection and admiration as they recall their time with Kahn. Shamsul Wares, who worked with the architect on his signature Bangladeshi capital building, suggests that far from being a misanthrope, Kahn’s aesthetic was deeply humanist. “He loved everybody,” says Wares. “To love everybody he sometimes did not see the very closest ones. And that is inevitable for men of his stature.”

I’m not sure I agree with that as a general rule. But I do see the wisdom of reserving judgment and giving each individual the space to know and live his or her own purpose. The most touching thing about this film is the courage with which Nathaniel Kahn approaches his father’s life story. Neither grinding an ax as victim, nor polishing his credentials as celebrity son, he creates an unflinching portrait that comes from a place of genuine curiosity about this architect of his. In the process, he teaches us something about being human and about the importance of recognizing the values that drive our choices.

Poets as Coaches

April 25, 2011 1 comment

book cover, Eating Her Wedding DressThis coaching business is nothing new. Helping people shift their perspectives, question their assumptions, follow their hearts—poets have been doing this for millennia.

In fact, metaphor, one of the tools that coaches find most useful in moving clients forward, is borrowed straight from the poet’s pen. There is magic in the way that metaphorical imagery can draw us out of our heads into a full body awareness of our challenges and dreams.

So, on those rare occasions when your coach isn’t available, you might consider consulting a poet who can guide you to new ways of sensing and thinking. And of course, continuing with the celebration of National Poetry Month, I have a recommendation for you.

The poets represented in Eating Her Wedding Dress, A Collection of Clothing Poems, from Ragged Sky Press, deliver joyful and poignant insights about what it means to be human as revealed through what we wear and what wears on us: How do we present ourselves? How do we connect with each other? How do we change?

How, for example, do we inhabit the experience of being laid off? You might read a thousand news reports and human interest stories about the effect of the recession on individual lives, and still something surprising clicks when a poet reflects on it:

My First Pink Slip
by Mary Langer Thompson

Not a lacy half or whole
silk of lingerie, but
a sheer missive
delivered today, needing
my unfashionable signature
saying I received it, not
that I agree not to cling
to a position gone.

The smooth Board decided
in private session,
secret even to Victoria,
taking action pursuant
to code section 44951
to unclasp me.

Four a.m. I awake
under a rusty moon
in a cold-hot sweat,
neglected in my negligee
drenched in worry.
I’ve finally been noticed.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Poets, like coaches, help you do the noticing. What are you noticing now?