What really, really, really matters? Final day



Here’s my final reflection from my retreat in Hawaii. In writing these reflections I’m not wanting to suggest I have the answers. I think of these insights more as questions to ask myself daily. As someone who has lived a lot of my time in my head I’m reminded of the helpful advice from Richard Rohr of the dangers of writing too much, hence my pausing on further blogs for the moment:

We do not think ourselves into new ways of living, we live ourselves into new ways of thinking.” Richard Rohr

That said, here’s a few final reflections!

Acknowledge your thoughts and feelings, be curious about them but don’t get hooked by them. One of my favourite practices introduced by Joel & Michelle Levey is one where you consider in turn the different dimensions of your experience, with an attitude of compassionate awareness. You start with the realm of the five senses, then vibrations and pulsations in the body, including the movement of the breath, then the dimension of thoughts and feelings, and finally resting in the field of pure awareness out of which the experience of our senses, bodily sensations, thoughts and feelings arise.  In this practice, we fully acknowledge the thoughts and feelings that arise, noticing them and what I find helpful, naming them. For a few seconds I give the thought or feeling my full compassionate attention, welcoming it as a visitor to my Guest House, as Rumi said in his well-known poem. This is different from going into a story about the thought or feeling, or feeding it or giving it a bed in your Guest House. I am neither judging the feeling bad or good, just being present with its arising and passing. If you know the poem, you will remember Rumi invites us to welcome and entertain ALL the visitors to our Guest House. What I found illuminating on the retreat is seeing which visitors I want to ignore (irascibility) , usher through quickly (sadness), or feel awkward around and want them to move them along quickly (joy & bliss).  Acknowledging the presence of all the visitors allows us, over time, to embrace the whole of our human experience.

Why go on an extended retreat? My reason – to wake up to the fullness of my life, at a key transition point, turning 50. As a young man in my mid-twenties I remember reading Walden by Henri David Thoreau who went to live alone in the woods in Concord for two years. Thoreau’s words then (1854) speak to my own motivation now: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life and see if I could not learn what it had to teach and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” As a student of the human condition all my life, and as someone who earns my living by helping leaders creating the conditions to release human potential, it made sense to me to take this deep dive through an extended retreat.

The importance of wise guides: some people are fussy eaters. I’ve always been fussy about finding good teachers and wise guides. I’ve been blessed to have found many good teachers and mentors over the years. On the long flight back from Hawaii, I had a long layover at Los Angeles airport. I met a young man from the U.S., who was just returning from a year in Asia, whilst he had had an interesting year he had also been chastened by joining workshops and living in communities which were dominated by groupthink, manipulation and egotistical people.

Creating the conditions for exploring the territory of the soul. People argue about what is at the core of our humanity and many books have been written naming, and arguing about what this core essence is, and how we name this territory. I like the word soul but as I noted in an earlier blog this mysterious territory is known by many names: integrity, inner light, true self, pure awareness, divine spark. There needs to be safe and healthy spaces for us to explore this core of our being, however we might name it. Safe spaces that invite the soul to show up are rare in our current world. Parker Palmer is the person who has written most cogently and wisely about the conditions needed for the soul to show up in his book A Hidden Wholeness, The Journey Toward An Undivided Life. I was blessed in Hawaii to find two wise guides in the persons of Joel and Michelle Levey and the fellow retreatants who showed up from across the world and were prepared and able to create those conditions.

Where does spirituality meet leadership? There’s a crisis in modern organisations:  Who are they serving? What is their essence? How should they operate? Just look at the chapter headings from some bestselling business texts, for example Gary Hamel’s What Matters Now includes the chapter heading: Values Matter Now – Reclaiming the Noble. Spirituality is ultimately the search for meaning and purpose and leadership is the practical exercise of the fruits of that search and inquiry. Let me finish with a quote from Parker Palmer as a final lesson learnt and one which describes my journey over these three weeks on retreat and my return to family, work and community in the UK:

Spirituality, like leadership, is a hard thing to define. But Annie Dillard has given us a vivid image of what authentic spirituality is about: “In the deeps are the violence and terror of which psychology has warned us. But if you ride these monsters down, if you drop with them farther over the world’s rim, you find what our sciences cannot locate or name, the substrate, the ocean or matrix or ether which buoys the rest, which gives goodness its power for good, and evil its power for evil, the unified field: our complex and inexplicable caring for our life together here. This is given. It is not learned.”

Here Dillard names two crucial features of any spiritual journey. One that will take us inward and downward, towards the hardest realities of our lives, rather than outward and upward toward abstraction, idealisation and exhortation. The spiritual journey runs counter to the power of positive thinking.

Why must we go down? Because as we do, we will meet the darkness that we carry within ourselves – the ultimate source of the shadows that we project onto other people. If we do not understand that the enemy is within, we will find a thousand ways of making someone “out there” into the enemy, becoming leaders who oppress rather than liberate others.

But says Annie Dillard, if we ride those monsters all the way down, we break through to something precious – to “the unified field, our complex and inexplicable caring for each other”, to the community we share beneath the broken surface of our lives. Good leadership comes from people who have penetrated their own inner darkness and arrived at the place where we are at one with one another, people who can lead the rest of us to a place of “hidden wholeness” because they have been there and know the way.”


I’ll be incorporating these lessons into my next public workshop on 19 May in London which will also introduce people to Barry Oshry’s systems leadership work. Please feel free to highlight the May workshop to colleagues and friends. And of course join me if you haven’t experienced this workshop already.


%d bloggers like this: