Learning How To Be (Together)

I learned computer programming in college.  What I liked most about it was that I could create something out of nothing.  It felt very rewarding to be able to do so. One of my best friends was a programming wizard.  He was the guy that could solve anybody’s coding challenge with a handful of rapid keystrokes. He would use a computer so fast that I could hardly keep up with him.  As a result, I told myself that I could never be a great programmer like that. And so I never tried. It would be twelve years before I wrote another line of code.

I’ve reflected on that decision making process over the years and found a simple answer: I wasn’t willing to be bad at programming.  Not knowing how to do something well is uncomfortable. It feels almost shameful. Especially when other people seem to be doing it so well.  I lived in French speaking countries for most of my teenage years. And my French sucks for this same reason – an unwillingness to be bad at something in front of other people.

But on a more subtle level, I can trace this avoidance of discomfort to the deepest recess of my being.  There is an uncomfortable existential unknown at the root of human experience. And it has taken me a lifetime of self-exploration to recognize it as a source of both aversion and possibility.

There is a constant subtle tension between being and becoming.  Nothing is stationary. And reality is ever emerging in new ways.  It is the unknown of this newness that speaks to the discomfort of being.  If something is truly new it implies unfamiliarity and unfamiliarity is uncomfortable.

You could argue that much of our existence revolves around avoiding the existential unknown of human experience.  And yet, if being is uncomfortable and people are naturally predisposed to avoiding discomfort, what does that suggest about the human condition?

Interestingly, I have found that it is this very attribute – the uncertainty of the unknown – that is also the seed of meaningful possibility.  It is the space from which newness is actualized. Without a willingness to be uncomfortable, there can be no growth – we are stuck repeating patterns of the past.

I have found great value in a body of work called Theory U from MIT professor Otto Scharmer.  Theory U offers an iterative and intuitive way of working with the unknown: observe, hold space and stillness for new insight to emerge, take small action steps.  Repeat. It is a simple and effective way of leaning into discomfort while moving towards a guiding intention.

In learning how to be with my discomfort I am learning how to be.  I am learning how to grow; how to be with the intimacy of authentic human engagement; how to be with my own awkwardness and that of others; how to be with all the uncomfortable little moments that ultimately offer me life’s richness.  I am learning how to listen deeply.

And my reflection is this: they don’t teach you this shit in school.

Years of working with and guiding small groups have led me to observe that many people don’t really know how to listen on a deep and embodied level.  I say this in the same way that I might observe that someone doesn’t speak a language. There is no expectation that a person who hasn’t studied Spanish should speak it.  Listening is far more subtle. And being together with other people is more complex still.

It’s easy to assume that seven billion people should just know how to get along. But what if we literally need to learn how to be together?  What does that mean? What does that look like?

For me, the key insight is not that I am bad at something.  Rather it is that everything, even being human, is a learning process.  I find this tremendously liberating and empowering. It allows me to be exactly where I am, knowing that the future holds the potential of whatever I choose to learn.

A few years ago, I decided to relearn how to program.  It was uncomfortable and the first two years were a tremendous uphill climb.  Four years later I lead development on a collaborative learning platform with thousands of registered users.  Am I a “great” programmer? I am good enough. And as I lean into the discomfort of what I do not know, I might even become better.

I invite you to share your own reflections on being.  What have you learned? What insights have helped you grow?  What has helped you in the human journey?

Rosa Zubizarreta – On Holding Space and Listening

I have been exploring the juxtaposition of both expecting that a person be honest and sincere while being forgiving if I realize they are not.  

Just by being with another as they are, without expecting them to be any different, I find the experience of life opens up.  I am able to appreciate a person’s uniqueness or have more compassion for their struggle.  This is, of course, a practice – one that I have to practice a lot.  In my head I can think of so many reasons to be critical.  But in my heart, I can hold space for a person to be just the way they are in this moment.

I was reminded of this quality in my recent conversation with Rosa Zubizaretta.  Rosa shares a Buddhist inspired practice of not just listening, but really holding space for the true nature of another – of approaching each person as though they are inherently brilliant, caring, and capable. And recognizing anything else as just distress.

Rosa is the author of “From Conflict to Creative Collaboration: A User’s Guide to Dynamic Facilitation,” and teaches Dynamic Facilitation internationally.  She works with engaged empathy to evoke collaborative sense-making, group flow, and energetic alignment within highly diverse groups.

You could say she’s an expert in listening.  The first time I met Rosa was a joyful download of her immense academic understanding of all things inter-human.  This interview is less academic but equally full of wisdom gleaned from decades of study and practice.

We unpack specific techniques that Rosa uses in her listening workshops, discuss the sometimes sensitive subject of deep listening vs therapy, and explore facilitation skills that anyone can apply to navigate challenging conversations.

Please enjoy.

On Humility

I often reflect on humility.  Of all the developments in my life, this is one I am most grateful for.  Yet, it is a virtue that remains ever elusive and unfolding.

The dictionary definition of humility is “a modest or low view of one’s own importance.”  This always gave me a sense that humility was somehow related to the estimation of my capabilities and that to be humble was to somehow downplay myself.

Occasionally, I encountered explanations where people alluded to some life changing aspect of humility.  Although I vaguely connected with this idea intellectually, I struggled to bring its meaning into my own life.

My first entry point into humility came a few years ago while I was on a ten day silent retreat.  Between meditations I reflected on a particular person that often triggered me, trying to understand the root cause of my frustration.  At one point I had an epiphany that has affected my life ever since.

I realized that I felt triggered because the person was assertive about something that I felt strongly about but ultimately experienced uncertainty around.  In truth, my actual orientation to the subject at hand was one of not knowing.  My reactivity was an avoidance of the discomfort of that position.  As I acknowledged that I didn’t know and embraced that not knowing, my attitude transformed from defensiveness into openness and curiosity.  I didn’t realize it at the time, but that moment was my first genuine experience of humility.

For me, humility has come through recognizing the subtle ways in which arrogance permeates my life.  It is the arrogance of needing to be right, of projecting my worldview on to others, of all the judgements and predispositions that I carry with me all the time.  It is a filter between my self and the experience of life as it actually is.

Zen Buddhism has the concept called beginners mind – a state of experiencing each moment as if for the first time.  For me, humility has been the root of such aspiration and simultaneous acceptance of just how far I often feel from any such mastery.  Yet I consider this very recognition to be the seed of humility – what could be more arrogant than thinking that I can be free of judgement and bias as a human being?

The paradox of this experience is that while it has enabled me to create space between my judgements and the world around me, it has also enabled me to be more forgiving of myself as I am, with all of my judgements as they are.

I find the practice ever elusive.  As soon as I think – ah, I have found it! – immediately I observe some new facet of my life lacking in humility.  My experience has been subtle and paradoxical.  Humility is not something that I have attained.  Rather what I have attained is a lasting awareness of my own arrogance.  This has gradually opened my mind to the possibility of experiencing the world more directly.

How can I perceive the majesty of life when I am continuously projecting my beliefs on what I experience?  My desires, my fears, and my assumptions obscure the actuality of what is there.  They make it smaller.  They make it something that fits into my conception and comfort zone.

The significance of this nuance is that it is not me that is limited.  It is the filter through which I process my experience.  And, without that filter, who am “I”?  This puts an entirely different spin on the dictionary definition shared earlier.  It puts into question the importance of my worldview, not my self.  But it also opens an inquiry into the very nature of that self.

Interestingly, the word humility originates from the Latin word humus, meaning earth or ground.  The word is related to the word homo, meaning human.  Perhaps the virtue’s original significance implies humanness or humanity.

As I continue to unpack the many layers of this experience, I wonder how does one learn or teach humility?  Is it possible to precipitate an awareness of genuine humility within another?  

There is the mythology of master and student.  The master engages the student in endless mundane tasks while the student boils over in frustration, waiting to learn the “real” lessons.  Perhaps the real lesson is humility and the mundane exercises are there to break down resistance to something that can only be experienced directly.

I invite you to share your reflection on humility.  How have you experienced it and what does it mean to you?  Is there a pedagogy for this attribute?

On Truth and Identity

A few years ago I created an art collection inspired by an experience I had while on a ten day silent meditation retreat. At one point, I had a vision of a nuclear mushroom cloud with the words SAT NAM overlaid on it.

Sat Nam is the main word that appears in the Sikh sacred scripture. The word Sat means “everlasting truth” and the word Nam means “name”. Translated loosely, it means “who’s name is truth” or “truth is my identity”.

In that moment I considered that all of life is part of truth. Whatever concept of God we might have, it surely embodies all of reality as it is. The light and the dark. The good and the bad.

It’s easy to become disillusioned or righteous. But how do we maintain an equanimous perspective – seeing the entirety of reality as interconnected?

I was inspired to translate this vision into physical art. The first piece came together within a few weeks and I felt called to expand on the concept with additional imagery beyond the nuclear explosion. What was most striking to me was this idea of using challenging imagery not to criticize but to create dialogue.

Each piece is a social mirror calling us to stop and reflect on how what we see has somehow informed who we are. The goal being to approach the subject matter not with judgement, but with acceptance as we endeavor to see our own reflection in whatever is being depicted.

Though the things we see may not be agreeable to us, they are nonetheless part of our reality. A reality of which we are also an expression. By acknowledging this we can consider that shifting our global situation requires a holistic approach that involves all participants in the system.

Today, for the first time, I share a slideshow of these images with a corresponding spoken word poem that I wrote to accompany them.

For me, much of this approach revolves around deep listening. When Guru Nanak, founder of Sikh Dharma, came out of samadhi, he spoke 36 stanzas of which four were about listening. Each stanza concludes with: “Deeply listening, sorrows and errors depart”. The implication is that when we listen deeply enough we cultivate an understanding of all things based on the interrelatedness of life – thus all sorrows and errors depart.

For the last five years, my partner and I have been exploring listening as a discipline combining research from Harvard and MIT with yogic tradition and our own work with online group process through Sutra. This weekend we’re piloting one of our first workshop experiences around this theme. If you’re in New York City and you feel called to join us, please do. You can register here.

We’ll also be offering an online course in deep listening and awareness based communication soon. Please email us if that is of interest to you.

Tyler Mongan – On Heart / Brain Communication

I sometimes feel tension when metaphysical concepts are presented in scientific ways. Part of me wants to believe that such things can be measured and documented. And yet I often find the presentation of such evidence lacking in substance.

Perhaps the science of it is less important than the resulting experience. There is something very humanizing about tuning into the body and literally listening to your heart. This in itself creates a level of presence conducive to more harmonious interaction. There is a literal “listening to oneself” that occurs – with sensitivity to the heart, there is sensitivity to a wide array of other emotions and experiences in the inner landscape.

My guest this week is Tyler Mongan. Tyler is a Ph.D. candidate researching the application of neuroscience and heart-brain communication in the global business landscape. He has facilitated over 100 innovation and strategy experiences around the world and he consults high-growth start-ups, fortune 500 companies, and government agencies on how to apply human physiology to innovation and strategic planning.

Much of our conversation revolves around Tyler’s application of research from the Heartmath Institute – one of the more seemingly legitimate sources of metaphysical documentation. We get into some of the research and specific practices that Tyler uses to facilitate heart centered collaborative workshops in the corporate world.

Please enjoy.

Piero Formica – On Creative Ignorance

I have been reflecting on a thought that my mother shared with me years ago – to be a true master you learn everything there is to know in a field and then let it go.  There is a moment of releasing yourself from the confines of the way things have been done so that you can create something new.

Increasingly I find this philosophy applicable to everyday life – walking the fine line between experience and openness.  I’ve read so much literature about how things should be done: how to start a company, how to be productive, how to be creative, how to be successful, how to be spiritual.  And yet, there’s a part of me that feels that much of this literature exists for the sake of the writer, not the reader.  There is, of course, a subtle balance.  Perhaps being informed and ignorant at the same time, and at any given moment, is the true mastery.

My guest today is Professor Piero Formica.  He writes at length about this subject in his book, The Role of Creative Ignorance.  Piero started his career as an economist at the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development in Paris, then moved to academia. He was Professor of Economics with a special focus on innovation and entrepreneurship at the Jönköping International Business School in Sweden and is a Senior Research Fellow at the Innovation Value Institute at Maynooth University in Ireland.  He is also Adjunct Professor of Knowledge Economics, Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the University of Tehran, Iran, and a Guest Professor at the University of Tartu in Estonia.

Piero’s many historical anecdotes give life and texture to the underlying exploration of creative ignorance in our conversation.  We touch on education reform, the history of conversational innovation, and Piero’s personal approach to teaching innovation and “not knowing”.

Please enjoy.

Richard Mollica – On Trauma, Healing, and the Sacredness of Life

I often reflect on the woundedness of the world.  It has been the blessing of my adult life to come into contact with my own woundedness and thereby create space for healing and wholeness.  By that same token, I have become more receptive to the suffering around me.  Trauma is often spoken of on a grand scale, in the context of things like PTSD or domestic violence, but it exists in small ways around us and within us all the time.

Years ago, when I first encountered The Four Noble Truths of Buddhism, I took issue with the first truth that suffering is a fact of life.  I found the assertion dark and pessimistic.  Now I understand it to be full of hope and freedom.  There is a subtlety to the human experience that is fraught with the discomfort of being.  It is by coming into contact with that discomfort and being with it, that the experience of life emerges in its fullness.  In the dim reaches of that space I have found empathy, compassion and much deeper acceptance for myself and others.

My guest today is Dr. Richard Mollica, a pioneer in the field of trauma and healing.  Richard speaks of empathy as a naturally occurring and collective phenomenon inherent in the neurobiology of the human organism:  “When you go down into the deepest, biological sub straight of the mirror neurons, you find your universal relationship with your ancestors, with living organisms, with plants and animals.  You’ve entered into a new zone of spirituality, a kind of new spirituality that comes out of healing.”

Dr. Mollica is the Director of the Harvard Program in Refugee Trauma (HPRT) of Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School and a faculty member in the Counseling Psychology and Global Mental Health program at William James College.  In 1981, Dr. Mollica co-founded the Indochinese Psychiatry Clinic (IPC). Over the past two decades HPRT and IPC have pioneered the mental health care of survivors of mass violence and torture. HPRT/IPC’s clinical model has been replicated throughout the world.  He and his team have cared for over 10,000 survivors of extreme violence worldwide. Through his research, clinical work and trainings he is recognized as a leader in the treatment and rehabilitation of traumatized people and their communities. 

I met Richard through our work with the Global Mental Health Certificate Program (Sutra runs the online component).  Each year they bring together professionals working in the field of trauma and recovery worldwide to learn and share best practices.  He has received numerous awards for his work and has published two books, Healing Invisible Wounds: Paths to Hope and Recovery in a Violent World and A Manifesto: Healing a Violent World.

Richard is one of a kind and our conversation is wide ranging.  Please enjoy.

Paul K Chappell – On Teaching Peace

I am consumed by the question of being.  What does it mean to be?  How do we be with ourselves, fully and honestly?  How do we be with others – and what is the potential of that inter-being?  Is the capacity to truly be with another a skill set that some are naturally endowed with and others not?

The human condition is infinitely varied and complex in its expression.  In my own experience, evolving my way of being has been an intentional and subtle process that has taken time and humility.  What I’ve observed in this work is that deep listening and empathy are learned skills.  Their apprehension is not necessarily a clear cut path, but rather a continuous process of self reflection and practice.

My guest today is Paul K Chappell.  Paul makes a powerful point that while listening and empathy are natural human capacities, so is, for example, language.  We don’t assume that because children already know language, there is no reason to teach it.  Even though it is a natural ability we teach language through school and college.  Yet empathy, listening, and related attributes of peaceful being are not taught – we have to figure them out for ourselves.

Paul is an international peace educator who serves as the Peace Literacy Director of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation.  He is a West Point graduate who served in the Iraq War, leaving active duty as a captain.  Today, he lectures across the United States and internationally, teaching peace leadership and literacy.  He is the author of the seven-book Road to Peace series about ending war, waging peace, the art of living, and shared humanity.

Paul opened my eyes to some unique perspectives in this conversation.  Having been a student of war, he emphasizes that we cannot cultivate a peaceful society if we are not serious students of peace.  And he demonstrates how, ironically, it is the very qualities of empathy and love that serve as potent battlefield motivators.

Paul’s work in peace literacy spans 20 years and he has a unique gift for analogy and explanation.  Please enjoy.

Jerry Streets – On Universal Love in Practice

I find there can be a wide divide between theory and practice.  Using words like love, empathy, and understanding is one thing, but actually putting them into practice can be challenging.  Jerry Streets recently introduced me to a book by Howard Thurman called Jesus and the Disinherited.  One of the most interesting thought exercises in the book is the exploration of Jesus as a person living in the context of his social situation and how that likely influenced his teachings and behavior.  The book emphasizes a difference between the teachings and the institution around them concluding with an exploration of the practical application of universal love.

In my personal experience, I find universal love to be a practice of seeing the interconnectedness of all things.  Somewhere in that process there is an acknowledgment and respect for the common source of all phenomena.  What to do with that respect for the “beingness” of another could be the subject of a much longer write up, but the cliff notes would allude to compassion and inner freedom.  Compassion because I see that the other person is a product of a long chain of universal conditions that have brought them to this point.  And inner freedom because true compassion is much more constructive than anger.  In a sense, the energy of that compassion is the transformed product of the original anger.

In my last conversation, Jerry and I unpack the philosophy and practice of universal love.  Frederick “Jerry” Streets is an adjunct Associate Professor of Pastoral Theology at Yale Divinity School, and a visiting professor in the Department of Social Work and Latino Community Practice at the University of Saint Joseph. He previously served as the Carl and Dorothy Bennett Professor in Pastoral Counseling at the Wurzweiler School of Social Work, Yeshiva University. From 1992-2007, he served as the Chaplain of Yale University and Senior Pastor of the University Church, in which role he established a model of multi-faith campus ministry. From 1975-2007, he served as Senior Pastor of the Mount Aery Baptist Church in Bridgeport, CT, in which role he led the congregation through significant growth, oversaw the building of a new church edifice, and developed social services and outreach ministries.

We cover a lot of ground ranging from practical love to modern societal issues such as racism and empathic failure.  Jerry shares a moving story of his own experience with and response to discrimination in his life that puts Thurman’s theology into practice.

Gaea Logan – On Courageous Conversation

I often have a hard time concentrating in a cluttered environment. Somehow the disorganization of my space reflects itself in the state of my mind.  The dynamic flows both ways.  The very act of organizing my space tends to focus the mind.

In some ways this quality of symbiosis is reflected in interpersonal interaction.  Two or more people absorb and reflect each other’s state of being.  Deep listening is both an outward function towards the speaker and an inward function observing self as reflection of other.  In my own practice, I have been learning to navigate this fine line with attentiveness and a curiosity towards the very subjective nature of my experience.  My next conversation continues to unfold the vast depths of this domain.

This week I explore group process and deep listening with Gaea Logan.  Her integrative trauma work sits at the intersection of neurobiology, contemporary psychoanalytic psychology, somatic awareness and Buddhist meditation practice. For over 35 years, she has worked as a clinical consultant on the frontlines of trauma bringing group trauma training to wounded communities in both international and domestic settings. Her model, Contemplative Based Trauma and Resiliency Training, has been adapted for implementation in the UN Peace-Keeping Missions throughout the Middle East and in refugee settlements in Africa.  She is founder and executive director of the International Center for Mental Health and Human Rights. She is also the creator of one of our most popular courses on Sutra, the Portable Calm, a mindfulness awareness program for professionals working with trauma.

Our dialogue explores group experience as a three fold process occurring inter-psychically, inter-personally, and as a whole.  Gaea speaks about courage in conversation and the group as sacred space. She shares a simple exercise that she uses to teach listening and we briefly touch upon why listening offers a path towards healing and wholeness.

Gaea offers a lifetime of practical insight into contemplative and compassionate listening and it was a true joy exploring this subject with her. Please enjoy our conversation.