“Death is connected to rebirth. The rupture of bardo inevitably leads to whatever is next. If we appreciate these successive deaths and rebirths in our lives, then we can value the bardo for what it is—the pause that makes movement apparent, the silence that makes all sounds more vivid, the end that clarifies what exactly we will now be beginning.” – Pema Khandro Rinpoche
“I don’t think we understand the medicines that are given to us each and every second. And it’s usually one of the ways that we’re given the medicine to understand, is to understand that every moment is innocent. Every moment is innocent, and…you can say it clears the slate.” – Tiokasin Ghosthorse
“Gratitude is what we are without a story.” – Byron Katie (The Work of Byron Katie, An Introduction, 2019)
Among others, Otto Scharmer – co-founder of Theory U, the Presencing Institute at MIT and The Journal of Awareness-based Systems Change – has been profoundly influential on my thinking about the emergent properties of leadership, including how we can lead from the future as it unfolds through the nature of our presence. For good reason, almost everybody’s focus is on the future: humanity has brought all life on this planet to a precipice, and together we’re peering over the edge of we-know-not-what. So, engaging in the inner and outer exercises of concentrating on patterns we can change today in order to influence what happens next makes perfect sense. However, this month in the Leadership Library I’d like to explore how we can lead from the emerging past, as well.
Time = Story
First, let’s consider what little we know about time, the fascinating mystery of which seems to be a hot topic lately in the media. It turns out even Steven Hawking “changed his mind” about the cosmological theory he propounded in A Brief History of Time, and his final collaborator before he died is publishing a book in a few days about their revised theory, which “leads to a new philosophy of physics that rejects the idea that the universe is a machine governed by unconditional laws with a prior existence” but is instead evolutionary. (As one journalist summarizes, “It is looking back to the Big Bang, forcing the universe, by observation alone, to become the universe we now find ourselves in.”) In another branch of physics, Carlo Rovelli and his colleagues, who study loop quantum gravity, theorize that time is so local and unreliable a notion at the quantum scale of things that they literally take the time dimension out of their equations altogether; for Rovelli, time is not a fact but a “deep emotion” generated by meaning we humans create out of the phenomenon which “makes us and destroys us.”
One way of interpreting this quantum gravity theory insight is that Time = Story. What our human emotions and meaning-making tendencies do is narrate our lives (and, you might say, our lives narrate us) so that we can function effectively on Earth. The environmental and circumstantial origins of the languages we are born into – in other words, the cultural assumptions about how the physical and social worlds operate that get instilled in us through the cognitive process of learning communication – co-construct (along with our personal lived experience) the stories that we are each made of. This is a double-edged sword: having a coherent story keeps us alive and sane and adaptive, and yet our thoughts – when we believe them to be true – can be the source of our suffering. While it’s an ancient Buddhist idea (popularized by the adage, “pain is inevitable, suffering is optional”), the contemporary spiritual guide Byron Katie likewise teaches a method that uncovers how believing our stressful thoughts becomes the cause of our pain. Her process, called The Work, is designed to surface our unconscious, ego-driven stories. Without our stories, she says, we are gratitude.
Leadership and the Innocent Moment
According to quantum physics and Indigenous wisdom and philosophies such as Buddhism (particularly the Tibetan Buddhist concept of bardo, the space-time gap between the end of one thing and the beginning of the next), our perception of a continuous reality is an illusion. My rudimentary understanding of the science is that the center of the expanding universe is everywhere and time is relative to the observer. Our brains are wired to narrate time as if it were uni-directional, like the arrow that indeed it is on the scale of our human experience. But not only is time relative, in the quantum realm it is possibly multi-directional, and perhaps no more than a type of geometry between observable happenings. Then there is the philosophical matter of moment-to-moment bardos: we can hardly detect them because they’re so tiny and we’re so attached to our ongoing internal chatter, but there are constant ruptures between happenings. Each one in the succession of little fissures is a window of opportunity to use our presence – or you might call it consciousness or awareness – to tap into story-free possibility. (One of my favorite practical illustrations of what presence to opportunity looks like is what Herbie Hancock explains in this 5-minute video about playing a wrong note in a jazz performance with Miles Davis.) It is also the lever of self-compassion in Sharon Salzberg’s meditation teaching that “healing is in the return.” Tiokasin Ghosthorse – member of the Cheyenne River Lakota Nation of South Dakota and Indigenous activist who serves as guest faculty at Yale University’s School of Divinity – uses the English word “innocence” to describe the regenerative properties of the way time actually works. He says, “I don’t think we understand the medicines that are given to us each and every second. And…one of the ways that we’re given the medicine to understand, is to understand that every moment is innocent.”
So what does this have to do with leadership? Not only does every moment’s innocence offer a chance to lead from the emerging future but also to lead from the emerging past as we sense into that, as well. This is a similar dynamic to the “descending” or non-linear path of growth and development articulated by Spring Cheng in her enlightened and enlightening critique of how Western theories of adult psychological evolution overly reify ascending, vertical movement. She posits that we become more effective leaders by expanding our capacities in more than one direction: “higher” and “lower” or – to use her terms – “transcending” and “diving.” Moreover, what the both-and of our trajectories allows for, from the neutral perspective of each clean-slate moment, is repairing our personal and ancestral wounds going backward in time. By definition, we are descendants of our species’ survivors: as such, we can pause appreciatively in the depth of resilience and innate intelligence that we carry around today in our very blood and bones. We can notice how previous generations express themselves in our own pyschophysiology in order to see patterns, make healthy decisions and rejuvenate our awareness as leaders now.
Integration, Interdependence and Interplay
And what difference does rejuvenated awareness make? To be clear, it is not about re-writing or revising the past, nor is it strictly about reframing it, but more like throwing the old frames away. It’s about integrating any fresh data we night receive from our bodies, our emotions and intuition, our minds and educations and experiences – and their interdependence with others’ – for the sake of enriching our current context. An increasingly expansive, complex, inclusive and compassionate embrace of the unabridged past, reaching farther and farther back in the entangled stories of our individual ancestors and collective history, puts us as leaders in a position – whenever we are awake and present to it – of more powerfully-informed choice around the interplay of our narratives. It shows up as holding an open place for our inner and outer conditions, past and future, to converse with each other in real time (in this regard, it’s an improv art like jazz, coaching, poetry, dance or quilting, etc.). Another leadership theorist who makes the kinds of distinctions I’m drawing here is Nicholas Janni. In his book, Leader as Healer, he describes the different characteristics – and likewise the different results – of leaders who fully embody presence and availability, in contrast leaders with whose reflexive attachment to thinking and acting signals absence. And now we’re back to Scharmer. (For a concrete example of the effects of Scharmer’s theory of presencing and absencing that has global implications, see his blog posts about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.)
Inquiries for using these ideas right now in your leadership
- What’s an example of something new you learned recently about yourself, or your family, or your ancestry? What did this information change about how you view your personality, identities, social location or other stories you tell yourself about who you are? What did this information not change? How does the new information show up through you at work?
- The last time you felt healthy, content and effective as a leader, what were the circumstances? What were the conditions that gave rise to that feeling? From the place of that feeling, what came to your mind or body or emotions about the past? What opportunities did this perspective offer you? What is the information in that perspective on the past which you can use as a leader in service of what matters most to you going forward?
- What experiences have you had with awareness of the innocent (i.e. non-narrative, nonjudgmental, story-less) moment? Unity within this unbounded, forgiving and rebirthing consciousness is what the world’s great wisdom traditions teach through mindfulness and meditation in their myriad forms. What are your awareness practices? When are you gratitude? If you chose to, how could you experience these states more deeply and/or more frequently?
Pingback: Leadership, Radical Uncertainty and Hope | Susan Palmer Consulting, LLC