In rivers and streams across the globe lives a tube-shaped carnivore. It paralyzes and captures prey with a crown of tentacles, then draws it in through its mouth (which also serves as its anus).
What is “cosmic mischief”?
To be candid from the outset, I do not know what I am talking about in this essay. For at least ten years now I have been at the beginning of a learning journey which I am sharing here because what I’m observing is astonishing, and because it may be of service to you as a companion on this nutty pilgrimage (unless you’re one of the many readers who are already way ahead of me down the trail!).
But what I do know is that I have had some strange and wondrous experiences, including in my professional work, when I am in certain states of clear consciousness. Sometimes these glimpses – which have mostly been brief – are spontaneous and unbidden, and sometimes they are induced by an intentional letting-go of egoic “Susan-ness.” When ego falls away enough, it can be followed by a receptivity to what reveals itself to be pre-existing “awareness of awareness,” which I’m guessing is what babies’ minds are like, and perhaps other animals’. (Sufficient dissolution of Susan’s identity does not always happen in the letting-go! Most often the thinking, strategic, striving Susan is still attached. Notice the capital S!) Anyway, these occasional awakening states carry with them a heart-based feeling of pure presence. By presence, I mean the energy vibrating through the field that is us and includes us, which is doing its thing, being What Is. That energy is cosmic mischief.
Is this crazy-talk, or is there something practical about it? (Answer: Yes!)
A very effective teacher of pragmatic techniques to “unhook from the thinker” is Loch Kelly, who asks: “What is here now when there is no problem to solve?” I like his approach because I’ve intuited versions of it on my own. For example, when I’m in a coaching session and I am able to fully give over to total presence with my client as she is sharing what matters most to her, and therefore Susan is entirely laid aside (“no-problem-no-ego”), an empty but alive awareness or witnessing takes over. Time is irrelevant, sensations arise and subside in my body, and although the coaching questions pop right out of my mouth, they are not “my” questions. Unmistakably, the questions are coming from elsewhere, but if my mind actively inquires about their source, the inquiry itself (because it is coming from Susan) closes off the flow, at least momentarily. The “elsewhere” feels like Love: a calm nowhere place, beyond myself, from which the client is – and I am – being held and viewed. (The wisdom traditions teach that we are Love.) When that mysterious – some would say sacred – thing happens, I’m just a willing, appreciative conduit of its grace. My client and I are utilizing cosmic mischief for her purposes.
To reiterate: I’m not special or enlightened, I don’t “live” in this attunement, and I watch myself get reactive on a regular basis (sometimes all day long)! Learning to soften into stably embodying awareness of awareness for longer periods – especially when I have feelings of anxiety from resistance to What Is – is the territory of my ongoing inner game of hide-and-seek.
What does cosmic mischief have to do with leadership?
My research into the subject so far suggests there is both a scientific and a spiritually artistic basis for the transformative possibilities of the kind of presence I just described. Both the scientific and the artistic perspectives point to the concept that what we take to be our continuous encounter with “reality” is an illusion (which isn’t to say we aren’t having a real, human experience of it). The illusion is made of cosmic mischief at play with us, and us with it. When we are able to be awake to observing this dynamic illusion in a non-attached way through eyes of Love, that’s emergence – and it’s magic.
Cosmic mischief is the Universe’s way-of-being, and as such, is neither inherently positive nor negative. Cosmic mischief is afoot in stars exploding, the violent aspects of childbirth and typhoons and lions savaging gazelles, as well as in our ordinary human suffering from illness and aging – natural processes which our fearful minds tend to label in negative terms. But as an all-pervasive energetic field of infinite potential, the condition of cosmic mischief resides within an invisible Wholeness bigger than any either/or, including: either good or bad, destructive or generative, particle or wave, receptivity or agency, intellect or intuition, red or blue, parts or systems, stillness or motion, feminine or masculine, matter or energy, and even life or death. (If predominant physics theories are correct that universally everything in all states of existence arose from a singularity, e.g. the “big bang,” then everything is inextricably entangled and unified in every dimension.) That said, when we are in our clearer states of consciousness and able to artfully choose “who to be” while channeling the energy in this field of potential by entering into a back-and-forth exchange with it, we can relax into a maestro’s ability to synergize it.
How, exactly? In practical terms, the tonal quality of attention – i.e. whether it is based in love, worry, imagination, boredom, curiosity, sadness, control, compassion, anger, play, pessimism, joy – with which a leader observes what is unfolding within her purview determines the future that emerges. What I notice from my own career, plus many years of working with scores of leaders, is that when we are willing to be in a playful, trusting, cooperative “dance” with cosmic mischief it produces results that skew intelligent, healthy, integrated, adaptive and impactful in the world. Moreover, these refined states of consciousness can be intentionally nurtured by sincere pursuit of any number of authentic integration or awakening practices (psychological, indigenous, somatic, neurobiological, spiritual, creative, etc.). There is one catch, however! Opening up to this type of leadership/human/consciousness development is not for the faint of heart. It requires from us a core commitment to something that’s more important to us than our own safety. Decentralizing ego, giving up control, feeling our painful vulnerabilities, engaging with our shadow parts, and risking our (false) sense of security for the sake of something much bigger than ourselves – often in public! – is an uncomfortable and messy adventure that is relentlessly humbling.
Where else can I learn about this stuff?
For a Zen Buddhist take on the physics of leadership, connection and emergence, see this amazing piece by Ginny Whitelaw in Forbes: “When a leader exactly matches in thought, word, deed and relationships, who they would be when a creation they’ve imagined is realized, that creation is brought into the present, because that’s where the leader exists.” For more about this idea on living “as if” the imagined state has already come to pass – specifically in the social justice context – check out Krista Tippett’s On Being interview with the late Congressman John Lewis entitled “Love in Action,” as well as this Guardian story about the origins of “Sesame Street.”
For scholarly research on leadership development using an awareness-based approach, see the captivating work of Jonathan Reams at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (his personal website is here). Regarding the spirituality of emergence in group process, a la Otto Scharmer, see “Presencing with Soul” by Jessica Bockler in the brand-new Journal of Awareness-Based Systems Change. Also, an introductory workshop on “Emergent Leadership” is periodically offered by the folks at Pacific Integral; I took it in spring 2021 and thought it was superb in both content and delivery.
For more about literal artistry and cosmic mischief, consider this: as a reviewer of M.C. Escher’s both/and drawings summarizes, “looking can be a magical kind of thinking.” (One last fun thing: it’s possible that cosmic mischief has a current hue! Check out Pantone’s “veri peri,” the color of 2022.)