The Place Beyond Hope and Fear

by Alexis Schroeder March 1, 2009

By Margaret Wheatley, 2009
First published in the Shambhala Sun 

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Hope and fear have been in the news—and in our experience—a great deal of late. We had watched for years as the future disappeared under disabling clouds of fear. Then suddenly, we again could see the sky, bright with hope and the possibility of change.

President Obama’s election was heralded as the triumph of hope over fear. But since that glowing dawn of last November, the world’s dilemmas and terrors have again cast their long shadows. We continue to be confronted by the complexities of our interconnected fates, resisting solutions. Our hearts continue to be challenged by the terrible things that humans should not be doing to other humans. Our Western worldview of material ease and endless progress has been shaken. Economic failures have worsened life not only for ourselves but everywhere in the world, among those who knew abundance and those who knew only poverty.

Many of us have worked hard for many years to create a better world. We have worked for a world where more people would be free from suffering—the physical suffering of poverty, disease, and loss, and the emotional suffering of ignorance, mis-perception, and invisibility. In this time of rekindling hope, we must also acknowledge that suffering everywhere, both material and spiritual, has increased.

For me and most of my colleagues, life these days is a roller coaster ride between hope and fear, oscillating wildly between what’s possible and what is. Like all roller coasters, this one is both exhilarating and terrifying, often simultaneously. We are fully engaged in being part of the solution, and then we plunge into despair at the enormity of the challenges and the fear that our efforts will fail.

And yet, such a wild ride between hope and fear is unavoidable. Fear is the necessary consequence of feeling hopeful again. Contrary to our belief that hope and fear are opposites where one trumps the other, they are a single package, bundled together as intimate, eternal partners. Hope never enters a room without fear at its side. If I hope to accomplish something, I’m also afraid I’ll fail. You can’t have one without the other.

Those of us raised in Western culture were never taught that fear is the price of hope. Rather, we can’t envision life without hope. Hell, according to Dante, is the place devoid of hope; he warned Christians condemned there to “abandon all hope, ye who enter herein.” The Hebrew prophets warned that without vision, the people perish. Hope is what propels us into action. We’ve been taught dream of a better world as the necessary first step in creating one. We create a clear vision for the future we want, then we set strategy, make a plan, and get to work. We focus strategically on doing only those things that have a high probability of success. As long as we “keep hope alive” and work hard, our endeavors will create the world we want. How could we do our work if we had no hope that we’d succeed?

Motivated by hope, but then confronted by failure, we become depressed and demoralized. Life becomes meaningless; we despair of changing things for the better. At such a time, we learn the price of hope. Rather than inspiring and motivating us, hope has become a burden made heavy by its companion, fear of failing.

So we have to abandon hope, all of us, and learn how to find the place “beyond hope and fear.” This is a familiar concept in Buddhism, yet little known in Western thinking. Liberated from hope and fear, we are free to discover clarity and energy, but the journey there demands behaviors we’re not familiar with or have actively avoided. Here are a few markers of this journey, blessed wisdom gleaned from the experiences of those who have persevered and maintained steadfast focus even when their efforts have yielded little or no results.

Rudolf Bahro, a prominent German activist and iconoclast, describes the first step: “When the forms of an old culture are dying, the new culture is created by a few people who are not afraid to be insecure.” Bahro offers insecurity as a positive trait, especially necessary in times of disintegration. Yet is it conceivable to think that feeling insecure would increase our ability to stay in the work of creating something new?

Can I Be Fearless?

by Alexis Schroeder September 21, 2008

By Margaret Wheatley, 2008

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Fear is the cheapest room in the house. I would like to see you living in better conditions. —Hafiz

Human history is filled with stories of countless people who have been fearless. If we look at our own families, perhaps going back several generations, we’ll find among our own ancestors those who also have been fearless. They may have been immigrants who bravely left the safety of home, veterans who courageously fought in wars, families who endured economic hardships, war, persecution, slavery, oppression, dislocation. We all carry within us this lineage of fearlessness.

But what is fearlessness? It’s not being free of fear, for fear is part of our human journey. Parker Palmer, an extraordinary educator and writer, notes:

“Fear is so fundamental to the human condition that all the great spiritual traditions originate in an effort to overcome its effects on our lives. With different words, they all proclaim the same core message: “Be not afraid.” . . . . It is important to note with care what that core teaching does and does not say. “Be not afraid” does not say that we should not have fears—and if it did, we could dismiss it as an impossible counsel of perfection. Instead, it says that we do not need to be our fears, quite a different proposition.”

If fear is this fundamental to being human, we can expect that we’ll feel afraid at times, perhaps even frequently. Yet when fear appears, we don’t have to worry that we’ve failed, that we’re not as good as other people. In fact, we’re just like other people! What’s important is to notice what we do with our fear. We can withdraw or distract or numb ourselves. Or we can recognize the fear, and then step forward anyway. Fearlessness simply means that we do not give fear the power to silence or stop us.

In my own experience, I think there’s an important difference between courage and fearlessness. Courage emerges in the moment, without time for thought. Our heart opens and we immediately move into action. Someone jumps into an icy lake to save a child, or speaks up at a meeting, or puts them self in danger to help another human being. These sudden actions, even if they put us at risk, arise from clear, spontaneous love.

Fearlessness, too, has love at its core, but it requires much more of us than instant action. If we react too quickly when we feel afraid, we either flee or act aggressively. True fearlessness is wise action, not false bravado or blind reactivity. It requires that we take time and exercise discernment. Zen teacher Joan Halifax speaks about the “practice of non-denial.” When we feel afraid, we don’t deny the fear. Instead, we acknowledge that we’re scared. But we don’t flee. We stay where we are and bravely encounter our fear. We turn toward it, we become curious about it, its causes, its dimensions. We keep moving closer, until we’re in relationship with it. And then, fear changes. Most often, it disappears.

I’ve heard many quotes from different traditions that speak to this wonder of fear dissolving. “If you can’t get out of it, get into it.” “The only way out is through.” “Put your head in the mouth of the demon, and the demon disappears.”

Some of my best teachers about fearlessness are part of a global network of younger leaders (in their teens, twenties and thirties) with whom I’ve worked for several years. They call themselves “Walk-outs.” They walk out of work and careers that prevent them from contributing as much as they can, they walk out of relationships where they don’t feel respected, they walk out of ideas that are limiting, they walk out of institutions that make them feel small and worthless. But they don’t walk out to disappear–they walk out to walk on. They walk on to places where they can make a real contribution, to relationships where they’re respected, to ideas that call on their strengths, to work where they can discover and use their potential.

From these younger leaders, I’ve learned the importance of asking periodically, “What might I need to walk out of?” It’s a big question and it demands a lot of bravery to even ask it. By posing this question, we’re being brave enough to notice our fears and see them clearly. We’re being brave enough to recognize where we’re called to be fearless in our own lives. This powerful question helps us discover the places, the work, and the relationships that we need to walk on to in order to realize and offer our gifts.

I hold a vision of what’s possible if more of us are willing to practice non-denial, if we look clearly at what frightens us in our personal lives and in our society. With clearer vision, we could walk through our fear and say “no” to what disturbs us. We could walk on and take a stand. We could refuse to be cowed or silenced. We could stop waiting for approval or support. We could stop feeling tired and overwhelmed. We could trust the energy of ‘Yes!’ and begin to act for what we care about.

Journeying to a New World

by Aerin Dunford March 29, 2006

by Margaret Wheatley, 2006

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Twelve years after preparing the Second Edition of Leadership in the New Science, I’m still trying to come to terms with the experience of seeing, feeling, tasting and working earnestly from a new paradigm while living in the old one. And I’m more concerned than ever that we understand how crucial it is that we stay together and support one another.

I was in this work a few years before I was able to identify its real nature. I realized that I and others weren’t asking people simply to adopt some new approaches to leadership or to think about organizations in a few new ways. What we were really asking, and what was also being asked of us, was that we change our thinking at the most fundamental level, that of our world view. The dominant world view of Western culture–the world as machine–doesn’t help us to live well in this world any longer. We have to see the world differently if we are to live in it more harmoniously.

Once I understood the nature of the work, it helped me relax and be more generous. I learned that people get frightened if asked to change their world view. And why wouldn’t they? Of course people will get defensive; of course they might be intrigued by a new idea, but then turn away in fear. They are smart enough to realize how much they would have to change if they accepted that idea. I no longer worry that if I could just find the right words or techniques, or describe multiple case studies, I could convince people. I no longer expect a new world view to be embraced quickly; I don’t know if I’ll see it take root in my lifetime. I also know that people are being influenced from sources far beyond anyone’s control. I know many people who’ve been changed by events in their lives, not by words they read in a book.

These people have been changed by life’s great creative force, chaos. One of the gifts offered by this new world view is a clearer description of life’s cyclical nature. The mechanistic world view promised us lives of continual progress. Since we were in control and engineering it all, we could pull ourselves straight uphill, scarcely faltering. But life doesn’t work that way, and this new world view confirms what most of us knew–no rebirth is possible without moving through a dark passage. Dark times are normal to life; there’s nothing wrong with us when we periodically plunge into the abyss.

Over the past years, nudged by the science, I have come to know personally that the journey of newness is filled with the black potholes of chaos. The science has restrained me from trying to negotiate my way out of dark times with a quick fix. But even though I know the role of chaos, I still don’t like it. It’s terrifying when the world I so carefully held together dissolves. I don’t like feeling lost and emptied of meaning. I would prefer an easier path to transformation. But even as I experience their demands as unreasonable, I know I am in partnership with great creative forces. I know that chaos is a necessary place for me to dwell occasionally. So I have learned to sit with these dark moments–confused, overwhelmed, only faintly trusting that new insights will appear. I know that this is my only route to new ways of being.

The more I contemplate these times, when we truly are giving birth to a new world view, the more I realize that our culture has to take this journey through chaos. The old ways are dissolving, and the new is only beginning to show itself. To journey through chaos, we must engage with one another differently, as explorers and discoverers. I believe the passage is possible only if we claim these roles. We need to realize that no single person or school of thought has the answer, because what’s required is far beyond isolated answers. We need to realize that we must inquire together to find the new. We need to turn to one another as our best hope for inventing and discovering the worlds we are seeking.