Everyone you see, you say to them, “Love me.”
Of course you do not do this out loud, otherwise
someone would call the cops.
Still, though, think about this, this great pull in us to connect.
Why not become the one who lives with a
full moon in each eye that is
with that sweet moon language,
what every other eye in
this world is
As the New Year began, several inter-related questions were very alive for me with a fresh intensity that has only grown stronger with 2022’s poignant surprises, both domestic (e.g., the U.S. Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision curtailing women’s rights) and international (e.g. the Kremlin’s war on Ukraine). In the fall season, I am inquiring more urgently about the intersections among polarity theory, the role of love in my professional work as a leadership coach, and what it will take at this point to save the planet.
What we’re eyeing
As I understand it, polarity theory – first propounded by Barry Johnson – is the idea that many of the seemingly intractable issues we encounter in our individual, societal and global experience are not problems to be solved, but polarities to be navigated. Polarities are pairs of apparent opposites. On the surface, the poles can be easily mistaken for either/or choices. However, the two poles represent two interdependent things that – when inquired about more deeply – reveal themselves to both be necessary for bigger-picture success over time.
For example, common polarities that leaders in my coaching practice grapple with include Confidence and Humility, Task Focus and Relationship Focus, attending to the organization’s Inward-Facing and Outward-facing needs, communicating with Candor and Diplomacy, and Learning from the Past and Sensing into the Future. Once you’ve identified that the dilemma is a polarity (rather than a problem), you can map it out to find breakthrough insights that involve some kind of transcendence and fusion of the two poles. When I do this with a client (I employ the process outlined by Johnson’s students Brian Emerson and Kelly Lewis in their book, Navigating Polarities), the client eventually lands on an idea, image, mantra or way-of-operating that resolves the tension at a higher level of effectiveness than either pole can do alone.
What does this look like? One of my clients and I identified that a challenge she was facing was not a problem but a polarity: she knew she needed to carve out more time for self-care, yet she kept repeatedly prioritizing care for her staff while the team was rapidly expanding. So, we mapped it out, and she came up with the unifying motto “Self-Care for Others.” This leader realized that taking care of herself in general – and specifically improving her mental and physical health by increasing exercise – would boost her energy and stamina for steering her division through a major growth period. It also served as powerful role-modeling for her direct reports. Suddenly, it was no longer an either/or proposition about how to spend her time; she had found a magical “and” that helped her to further maximize her already-formidable leadership talent.
To see is to love
“When we can see a person, group or country completely, love is a natural result,” says Johnson in a compelling essay on American racism entitled “Proud AND Critical.” Complete seeing – a.k.a. unconditional love – of others (which, speaking of paradox, requires the healthy boundaries that enable unconditional self-love) is hard! Unconditional love necessitates a courageous letting-go of beliefs that are defining yet limiting to us, which is a vulnerable feeling. We have to find enough safety in our minds and bodies to unlearn stories we thought were “right,” and loosen our grip on ideas that make us feel secure or special. It might show up as curiosity, at first. But when we are able to gradually awaken to this more expansive consciousness, unconditional love transmutes alienation, separation and marginalization into a profoundly liberating sense of connection. We slowly move from a constricted, scarcity heart-set to one of creativity, spaciousness and generosity – including toward ourselves. We see more completely, with a full moon in each eye.
Ever since I read Emerson and Lewis’s Navigating Polarities shortly after it came out, I’ve been kind of obsessed with a footnote in it about the “Transformational Third Way,” which is their particular innovation to Johnson’s polarity mapping process. The footnote cites a newsletter from the Center for Action and Contemplation in which the progressive Franciscan monk Richard Rohr writes about dialectics, polarities and the power of the Trinity (Christianity’s “Third Way”). Rohr, in turn, quotes modern mystic Cynthia Bourgeault observing this provocative thing:
The interplay of two polarities calls forth a third, which is the “mediating” or “reconciling” principle between them. In contrast to a binary system, which finds stability in the balance of opposites, the ternary system stipulates a third force that emerges as the necessary mediation of these opposites and that in turn (and this is the really crucial point) generates a synthesis at a whole new level. It is a dialectic whose resolution simultaneously creates a new realm of possibility….Third force is there because the Trinity is real, and if you are alert to it, you will be able to find it….The problem is that most of the world is third force blind.
This concept exists in other Western and Eastern wisdom traditions as well, perhaps no more succinctly than in the Taoist yin-yang symbol. The duality of darkness and light are in perpetual flow, each containing a bit of the other, depicting infinite emergence into a Third Way: wholeness.
As a leadership coach, I have a favorite polarity-invoking question that can sometimes hack directly into seeing the Third Way: “In this story/belief/conclusion you’re sharing with me, how is the opposite also true?” As ridiculous, woo-woo or even offensive as this question might sound at first blush, it’s backed up by science! Consider physicist Niels Bohr’s famous statement that in the quantum field, “the opposite of a profound truth may well be another profound truth.” I had a CEO client who feared that his dysfunctional board of directors was about to force him to resign, “which is the worst thing that could happen to my career,” he added. When I asked him how the opposite of this truth was also true, he released a little chuckle of epiphany and observed, “Well, it could be the best thing that ever happened to my career.” In this illuminating moment, he took a wide-open perspective on the arc of his decades of work, and landed with clear-eyed equanimity on a “let the chips fall where they may” attitude toward his commitment to keep using his leadership in service of the same cause, regardless of organizational context. He had entered “a whole new realm of possibility.”
I don’t know whether life on this planet will be saved from modern civilization’s pathological addiction to destroying animals, forests, deserts and oceans under the myopic delusion of short-term gain (of profit, territory, power-over dominance, etc.). But I’m a realistic optimist, and believe humanity can still wake up to a healthy enough perspective on itself to change this pattern at scale. If we do pull it off, it will be an accumulation of tiny love-centric actions we choose take every day – towards ourselves, as well as everything and everyone else entangled in this gorgeous web – that delivers us to that omni-nourishing place. Are you willing to practice seeing with a full moon in each eye?
To learn about the latest research on how love, nervous-system regulation, connection and belonging can effectuate individual and collective healing, check out Thomas Hubl’s global Collective Trauma Summit, currently streaming free of charge, through October 6th here. (Photo: Samer Daboul, Pexels.)