By Kathia Laszlo
This blog is a reflection inspired by the active dialogue between Kathia and Alan, as we co-design our retreat Unfolding Wisdom. Alan responded to this piece in his blog “Alienation, Authenticity and the Prophetic Voice.”
Learning, leadership and spirituality are three threads that run throughout my work and life. They are the three components of my “system of inquiry” that guide me and create the conditions for emergence, which translates in a life experience that I can characterize as flow. Don’t get me wrong: I’m neither perfect nor illuminated. Daily, I’m reminded of my humanity by anxiety, fear, insecurity or feelings of inadequacy. It is only in the precious and occasional moments of self-reflection, when I become an observer of my own experience, that I can see the coherence and “rightness” of everything unfolding in my life.
Learning has been my lifelong passion. Even in my schooled experiences as a child, learning was easy, natural, joyful. As a young adult, learning became a choice and the focus of my interest. However, I also experienced the frustration of being part of an academic program that felt rigid and unresponsive to my learning needs and desires. It was about jumping the hoops established by others who “knew better” what I needed to learn. This experience was so painful that set me on a path that began as the exploration on how to transform and redesign the educational system and continues today in my work as a designer and facilitator of meaningful, creative and experiential learning processes.
But learning for what purpose? My love for learning was never in the vacuum, never for the love of learning itself but rather connected to clarifying my purpose. Learning for transforming education was the beginning of an ever expanding inquiry that became learning for transforming organizations and institutions, learning for sustainability and social justice, learning for designing regenerative businesses, learning to evolve human consciousness, learning to reintegrate the sacred feminine into culture... learning as the journey to wholeness.
In other words, learning as a way to heal ourselves so that we can imagine, design, and sustain loving, peaceful, inclusive and collaborative ways of living, working, and learning too. Like Buckminster Fuller, I want to help create a world that works for all.
Much of my research and work for decades has been focused on evolutionary learning communities: the creation of those spaces where we can experience supportive, creative, collaborative learning that truly responds to the needs of the community and enables their capacity to shape their reality. Over the years, I noticed that the self-awareness and leadership capacity of the individuals who were part of learning communities mattered and made a difference in how close we could get to live the values and express the potential of the community. Authenticity, vulnerability, and capacity to engage in true dialogue with the willingness to see things differently and learn new things mattered when engaging in collaboration to create a different future. I explored the leadership mindset, skillset and heartset from an evolutionary leadership perspective and integrated developmental perspectives to connect the process of evolving as individuals to the process of evolving as collective cultures and institutions. Healthy cultures happen through the conscious leadership of safe and brave individuals.
And then the next layer of my work revealed itself: a layer that was always in the background but more as part of my personal and private experience: spirituality. For it didn’t matter how intelligent and self-aware individuals were: the complexity of transforming systems, from personal to planetary, require a kind of humility and surrender to something larger than our own will. Capacity to deal with uncertainty, ambiguity and unpredictability is the scientific way of describing what it takes to work with complexity. This capacity has its equivalent from a spiritual perspective. It is the capacity to quiet the “monkey mind” and listen to the subtle messages in nature and in synchronistic events — a kind of listening with the soul. It is the capacity to discern what is being asked of each one of us or what choice to make even with incomplete information. It is surrendering to a wisdom beyond our comprehension, stepping into the unknown while honoring the intuitive knowing of our heart. Living with awareness of our belonging to something much larger, mysterious, and benevolent — a loving presence that surrounds and guides us despite our self-doubt and fears.
As I try to not lose hope or get overwhelmed by the dire state of our world or by my own life challenges, I’m invited again and again to go inward and pay attention to my inner state, so that I may then contribute to the creation of a social field, an energetic container, where new possibilities can emerge. By new possibilities I don’t mean clever solutions to the problems that afflict us but rather a coherent experience of wholeness that invites new ways of thinking, feeling and being that inspire and support us to “be the change we want to see in the world.” Can experiences of unconditional acceptance, of radical safety, of awe and beauty create the conditions for breakthrough innovations? That’s what I’m out to explore. This is the new learning edge of my work and life.
By Alan Briskin
This blog is a reflection inspired by an active dialogue between Kathia Laszlo and me, as we co-design our upcoming retreat Unfolding Wisdom scheduled for April 16th – 19th at the Mercy Center in Burlingame, CA. This piece is a response to Kathia’s blog “Learning, Leadership and Spirituality.”
Reading Kathia’s posting on the threads woven through her life gave me pause to consider my own. We are made up of these threads and their weaving gives shape to our lives. Consciousness of how we weave and re-weave these tangled strands reveals that the narrator of events is as critical as the events themselves. We create the narration and the narration shapes who we are, and then we forget. Remembering our wholeness is recognizing the co-arising nature of both narrative and narrator. The poet Rumi says it with a most clever twist: “Do you remember how you came into existence? You may not remember because you arrived a little drunk. Let me give you a hint: Let go of your mind and be mindful. Close your ears and listen.”
My listening occurred in the dark womb of alienation. I was sixteen with no language for having a felt sense of beingother. I felt little connection with my family or lineage; Jewish immigrant parents from Lithuania observing customs and rituals from a religion that bore no resemblance to my experience of the world around me. Nor was I inspired by the professional aspirations that surrounded me in the working class/middle class neighborhood of Queens, New York where I grew up. Seared into my brain was the image of the accountant who lived across the street, trudging home at the exact same time every evening, head down, shoulders slumped, an advertisement for the fatalism of conformity and the despair of successful assimilation. Dramatic responses to desperation were woven into this world, but ones I could not foresee at the time. And not just for me: one classmate would become a famous playwright, another a porn star legend, and a third, director of the C.I.A..
In 1970, I left the country.
I left with a powerful intuition that there was something beyond the confines of what I knew. Somehow, and I have no idea how, I felt a deep knowing that feeling other was a calling card for meeting others like myself. But it was not rebellion or individualism or a new religion that I sought. Rather, it was others who shared a belief that there were better ways to form community, create life affirming settings, and delight in a radical freedom of thought and connection. The road would not be straight or easy or painless. I would have to meet myself in the guise of strangers, adversaries, and false prophets. Alienation would heighten my awareness of pretense and force me to look deeper into myself.
I recall weeping one night, during the first months I was away from home, frightened that I would be rootless and aimless for many years before anything became clear to me. It was an early, if challenging, foreshadowing of a voice deep within that spoke honestly to the egoic narrator who wanted to be in control of his destiny. I learned to befriend this voice, quieting my monkey mind enough for it to be heard. I not only learned to listen but to regard this voice as authentic.
THE SECOND THREAD
Authenticity is a perilous word for me as I resonate with the wisdom of comedian George Burns who spoke of the importance of sincerity, saying “once you can fake that, you’ve got it made.” Sincerity, and its cousin, authenticity have the same shadow side - appearing to be something you are not. We are inexorably drawn to what others project onto us or want us to be for their own needs. Why not? We understandably want to be liked, respected, admired and receive all the rewards that come with that. If you are a teacher, minister, humanistic manager, consultant, spiritual mentor, or thought leader, there are ways to talk and behave that win approval and suggest you are an authentic person. And once you can fake that, your goose is cooked. The small voice inside, the one that brings up uncomfortable truths, is told to take a hike.
This doesn’t mean authenticity has no legitimacy or that one must distrust all positive or metaphysical thoughts as deception. But there is something more to authenticity than wanting to appear honest, enlightened or of higher consciousness. One of the leaders of humanistic psychology, James Bugental, offered guidance for this search. It begins with an understanding that internal experience cannot be reduced to mechanistic parts, psychological, social or neurobiological. And it continues with a conviction that we are intentional creatures seeking meaning, value, and creativity. If we are truly to be authors of this search for authenticity, we will encounter shadow, error, joy, grief, as well as an intuition that we are not separate from others, nature, or the larger Cosmos. If this doesn’t thrill you and terrify you, then faking it might actually be prudent. On the other hand, the search entails finding compassion for oneself and others, knowing that loving others and oneself is the medicine for healing the coarseness and wounds of the body and soul.
THE THIRD THREAD
I was fortunate in my own journey to meet a wisdom figure who I viewed and still view as authentic, in part because he was so clear he was an unfinished work. I first met him at his home and found him a bit disheveled, rummaging through his refrigerator like a very large Yoda. Sitting together in his study, I was excited to be with him. He looked at me intently and asked, “Remind me again, why are you here?” His name was Reb Zalman Schachter Shalomi, co-founder of the Jewish Renewal Movement.
I had come to interview him about collective wisdom. What was it about groups that held healing and magic? He went into a riff about the past three hundred years of Western thought, a tale woven together by theories of separation. I attempted diplomatically to interrupt him and bring him back to the subject at hand when he read my body language and lifted up his own hand. “Wait!” His rebuke startled me. Sitting directly across from him, I had the insight that if I wanted to learn something new, I would have to keep my mouth shut. And I did.
But we weren’t finished. Later he asked me to experiment with him, practicing finishing each other’s sentences. He compared this to jazz, each person taking turns leading, listening and supporting each other. Individuals in a group, he explained, could become synchronized to each other, “a way in which people just looked around, saw what needed to be done, and pitched in at the right place and in the right order.” Beyond achieving better group dynamics or enhancing individual development, this form of ensemble work could bring something new into existence. I was hooked.
In our final conversation, many years later, and shortly before his death, Reb Zalman described to me that, as a society, we were entering a 4th turning. This would be a time of integration of male and female energies, guided by the work of the divine feminine. The task was to turn from triumphalism, a belief that one’s vision of divinity was superior to others, to a real engagement with and understanding of other traditions. And it included not just mental engagement, but embodied commitment. He recalled with delight a time when Tarthang Tulku, the Tibetan teacher, joined him in synagogue and together they danced with the Torah.
I owe him a final debt for bringing forward a third thread in my life that I was reluctant to acknowledge, let alone share with others. We each have a direct connection to the divine, an openness to a divine will. The Hebrew root for this concept is navi, translated into English as prophet. In English, this has come to mean one who foretells the future. But its Hebrew origins are more subtle and complex. In Reb Zalman’s mystical tradition, we each have capacity for an openness to something larger than human consciousness. Navi suggests just this kind of openness or hollowness, as a reed flute functions as a hollow instrument for musical sound. Prophecy is the result of this openness; the sound we make from opening, hollowing ourselves in order to speak something from beyond that needs to be heard in the here and now. We each have this capacity, call it deep intuition if you like, but it’s a skill we need to cultivate. And we need each other to harmonize, so it is not simply a lone cry in the wilderness.
The threads of one’s life are woven together in a tight knit of paradoxical qualities. For me, I learned to reach out to people from the experience of alienation. To seek authenticity from the deceptive nature of pretense and find what is good in people. And with prophecy, I found a way back to my lineage, but without the insularity or implicit triumphalism. What is it that T.S. Eliot said?
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
By Kathia Laszlo and Alan Briskin
Note from the authors: We, Alan Briskin and Kathia Laszlo, have been in deep exploration on Unfolding Wisdom as part of the design process for the retreat on this topic. The retreat is meant for leaders, facilitators, consultants and change agents who are curious about the tension between intuitive knowing and its practical application in organizations and society.
Our rich conversation has become fertile ground for our future time together. The following article will give you a glimpse into our dialogue. We invite you to participate in it by sharing your own feelings and thoughts as comments to this post. The post begins with some initial reflections from Kathia, followed by a response by Alan.
Unfolding Wisdomis the experience of not being in control and yet knowing in my bones that everything is well. That even when my mind can’t understand and my ego experiences fear, I can trust in a larger benevolent pattern that informs my life — because I have chosen to listen and to be in alignment with it.
For me, this pattern is the pervasive consciousness of the universe that I experience as a gentle loving presence throughout my life. As an adult, I can now recognize that it was particularly alive when I was a child. Because of my Catholic religious upbringing, I am comfortable associating it with God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit and Mary. And through my spiritual expansion, I can also call it Goddess, Great Spirit, Mother Nature, Sophia. In all of those names are cultural references that reflect sparks of Divinity in the attempt to grasp it. They are fractals of interpretation, conditioned by our human ways, that belong to the unnamed luminescent totality.
I have experience unfolding wisdom when I have been willing to go to the edge of my knowing and take one more step… that one risky step into the mystery. I have experienced unfolding wisdom when I had to stop listening to external sign posts and rely primarily on my own heart, my inner knowing, and trust that the embodied felt-sense of “yes,” even when it is soft and muffled by my critical mind and fear, is the guidance that I was hoping for. I have learned to lean more and more into this inner knowing because, regardless of the hesitation, I am consistently rewarded by a feeling of peace and joy resulting from my willingness to listen and follow it.
I experience unfolding wisdom quite often in my work. For example, I had a meeting with a client. I sat across her at a coffee shop, and as both of us sipped our cappuccinos, I felt the sacredness of the encounter. The context was mundane; the purpose was holy. I recently learned from a friend that sacred also means sole focus or single purpose. Full dedication. And in that moment, I was fully present with her, fully listening with all my senses… it was a moment of connection, of communion, that enabled my capacity to assist her. Her life experience, her struggles, her dreams became entangled with mine. Or rather, I recognize that our stories are connected, that we are one, mirror images of each other.
From that communion, I can become a conduit for the wisdom that goes beyond our two minds and that can only unfold in that moment, in that place, with her, for her. Everything I know, everything I have learned, my history and life experience, everything becomes relevant and informs what I am able to offer in the now. I sat at the edge of my chair, experiencing deep empathy and love, and ideas flowed through me. Her eyes had a spark, she was excited, she could sense the potential. It was as if many doors opened in front of us and they opened because, together, we created the key that unlock possibilities; the key that connects past and future, child and adult, mother and daughter, personal and professional, masculine and feminine; the key to wholeness.
I am challenged by the premise I believe lies behind Unfolding Wisdom. The premise being that there is an implicate order, in the words of David Bohm, and what unfolds is already present, waiting to be manifested. If so, what underlying conditions help determine what emerges? How does one encounter the light and dark aspects enfolded within ourselves? How might the noise and rumble of the outside world (and our own minds) drive us away or bring us closer to an innate intuitive knowing.
There is an intriguing legend of a Jewish Hasidic Master, the Baal Shem Tov. In the language of the Bible, the term Hesedis understood as loving kindness, directed toward a Creator as well as between fellow humans. Hasids were those who cultivated this loving kindness, opening themselves to be loved by an infinite force and to reflect that love back into the world. The Baal Shem struggled his whole life to embody this kind of grace, how to live with the felt sense of YES beautifully described by Kathia. The only problem was he was somewhat of an arrogant fellow, with temper tantrums and anger directed at those who didn’t deserve it. What distinguished the Baal Shem was his willingness to face his shadow side and shortcomings, to ask for help.
And this is where the legend takes a sharp turn. For who does he summon for help but Satan himself, the dark angel, an outer manifestation of the shortcomings we have within. And Satan is not pleased, summoned from Heaven where he has access to God and free to engage in lively debates. “How dare you” Satan bellows. “How is it you do not fear me?”
“I do not fear you,” the Baal Shem replies, “I stand in awe of Creation.”
Satan is furious and refuses to help. But then something happens that changes everything. There is a moment of exquisite presence, a look of such compassion in the Baal Shem’s eyes that even Satan found himself drawn in, and he whispers to the Baal Shem secrets of how to transform one’s lower nature. These secrets, of course, cannot be revealed in a literal or prescriptive way because they are the result of an inner transformation.
Baal Shem’s tale reminds us of the circuitous and often paradoxical forces that must be held in tension. Kathia reminds us that there is a fabric of meaning we are woven into and a social field we create that acts as a conduit of wisdom. The time is now to take this perennial wisdom out into the world, to be bearers of compassion and willing to call down, with less fear, the daunting forces from within and without. And we are more likely to do that together. The call is to create communities of practice, to live into emergent spaces that are both safe and brave.