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?

Spiritual Activism and Liberation Spirituality: Pathways To Collective Liberation

by Aerin Dunford May 12, 2006

by Claudia Horwitz and Jesse Maceo Vega-Frey, 2006

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There is a new culture of activism taking form in the world–a new paradigm for how we work, how we define success, how we integrate the fullness of who we are and what we know into the struggle for justice. Activists are being asked to examine our current historical moment with real intimacy, with fresh eyes, fire, and compassion. Many of the once-groundbreaking methods we know and use have now begun to rot. Many of our tactics are now more than simply ineffective- they are dangerous.

For agents of change, and all those who we work with, the detriment is twofold. We are killing ourselves and we are not winning. A life of constant conflict and isolation from the mainstream can be exhausting and demoralizing. Many of our work habits are unhealthy and unsustainable over the long haul. The structures of power have become largely resistant to our tactics. Given the intensity of our current historical circumstance it would be easy for us to rely on what we know, to fall back upon our conditioning and our historical tendencies, in our efforts to create change under pressure. Many lessons of the past carry wisdom; others are products and proponents of dysfunctional systems and ways of being in the world. A new paradigm requires a complex relationship with history; we must remember and learn from the past, but we cannot romanticize it.

Neither do we presume that the answer lies only in the new, the innovative, and the experimental. We carry the hearts and minds of the ancient ones of many traditions, across time and continents, while also connecting to the resources that surround us.  Our intention is to survive and flourish in the landscape that we find ourselves living in. A new philosophy and practice of social change is emerging, one that grows out of an ethic of sustainability, spirituality, and a broader understanding of freedom. We are weaving old threads together in new forms and new ways of being.

spiritual activism and liberation spirituality

At its best, this new paradigm, which some of us are calling “spiritual activism” or “liberation spirituality” is revolutionary.  It provides us with deepened competencies and tools to go forward in this tangle of conditions history has prepared for us and to assume the roles we’re being asked to play.  While the field growing up around this new paradigm is varied and vast, we are beginning to see each other and understand what we share:

  • a deep commitment to spiritual life and practice;
  • a framework of applied liberation;
  • an orientation towards movement-building; and
  • a desire for fundamental change in the world based on equity and justice.

We are moving toward a doing that grows more deliberately out of being; an understanding that freedom from external systems of oppression is dynamically related to liberation from our internal mechanisms of suffering.  It provides us with a way to release the construct of “us versus them” and live into the web of relationship that links all. Instead of being limited by the reactions of fight or flight, we encounter a path that finds fullness in presence. The humility of not-knowing allows truth to appear where fear once trapped us. We recognize the pervasive beauty of paradox, the dynamic tension between two simultaneous truths that seem contradictory. We enlarge our capacity to hold contradictions and to be informed by them.  And our movements for change are transformed as a result.

swimming in the dominant culture

The culture of activism in the United State is like a fish swimming in murky waters. It lives and breathes in the dominant culture and it is greatly impacted by its nature. Even as we are attempting to change this culture, we easily overlook how it has impacted us and how we recreate it. As we begin to understand and reckon with these attributes, we start to unravel their influence. Like anything, the more we invite and allow ourselves to notice and name what is, the more space, opportunity and permission conditions have to change.

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.

Listening as Healing

by Aerin Dunford December 15, 2001

By Margaret Wheatley, 2001
First published in the Shambhala Sun

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You are reading this in December, but I have written this just a few days after September 11th, 2001. I have tried to imagine what the world feels like now, two months later, what else might have happened, what has changed, how each of us feels, if we are more divided or more connected. In the absence of a crystal ball, I look to the things I believe to be true in all times and for most situations. And so I choose to write about one of these enduring truths: great healing is available when we listen to each other.

Listening is such a simple act. It requires us to be present, and that takes practice, but we don’t have to do anything else. We don’t have to advise, or coach, or sound wise. We just have to be willing to sit there and listen. If we can do that, we create moments in which real healing is available. Whatever life we have experienced, if we can tell our story to someone who listens, we find it easier to deal with our circumstances.

I have seen the healing power of good listening so often that I wonder if you’ve noticed it also. There may have been a time when a friend was telling you such a painful story that you became speechless. You couldn’t think of anything to say, so you just sat there, listening closely, but not saying a word. And what was the result of your heartfelt silence, of your listening?

A young black South African woman taught some of my friends a profound lesson about listening. She was sitting in a circle of women from many nations, and each woman had the chance to tell a story from her life. When her turn came, she began quietly to tell a story of true horror–of how she had found her grandparents slaughtered in their village. Many of the women were Westerners, and in the presence of such pain, they instinctively wanted to do something. They wanted to fix, to make it better, anything to remove the pain of this tragedy from such a young life. The young woman felt their compassion, but also felt them closing in. She put her hands up, as if to push back their desire to help. She said: “I don’t need you to fix me. I just need you to listen to me.”

She taught many women that day that being listened to is enough. If we can speak our story, and know that others hear it, we are somehow healed by that. During the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings in South Africa, many of those who testified to the atrocities they had endured under apartheid would speak of being healed by their own testimony. They knew that many people were listening to their story. One young man who had been blinded when a policeman shot him in the face at close range said: “I feel what has brought my eyesight back is to come here and tell the story. I feel what has been making me sick all the time is the fact that I couldn’t tell my story. But now it feels like I’ve got my sight back by coming here and telling you the story.”

Why is being heard so healing? I don’t know the full answer to that question, but I do know it has something to do with the fact that listening creates relationship. We know from science that nothing in the universe exists as an isolated or independent entity. Everything takes form from relationships, be it subatomic particles sharing energy or ecosystems sharing food. In the web of life, nothing living lives alone.

Our natural state is to be together. Though we keep moving away from each other, we haven’t lost the need to be in relationship. Everybody has a story, and everybody wants to tell their story in order to connect. If no one listens, we tell it to ourselves and then we go mad. In the English language, the word for “health” comes from the same root as the word for “whole”. We can’t be healthy if we’re not in relationship. And “whole” is from the same root word as “holy.”

Restoring Hope to the Future Through Critical Education of Leaders

by Aerin Dunford March 30, 2001

by Margaret Wheatley, 2001
First published in Vimukt Shiksha 

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This is a dark age, when everything must justify its existence in terms of how it benefits the economy. The economy is no longer seen as the means to create just and good societies; it has become the end in itself. Nowhere is this clearer than in the field of education. We educate students so they can get jobs; we collect statistics that demonstrate the monetary benefits of education to the individual; we increasingly focus schools and higher education on training, teaching those subjects defined as important by the workplace. As with all other aspects of modern life in the era of globalization, education has become just one sector of the economy.

But stretching back over millennia, education has always been the means to change society, to create new ideas and practices, and therefore new futures. And in the 20th century, the practice and theory of Critical Education emerged as a powerful demonstration of how education, used with the poorest, could develop the skills and understanding needed to change their world. Quite recently, as I’ve been increasingly distressed over how education everywhere is being usurped by the economy, I have returned to the work of Paulo Freire, Cesar Chavez, and other Latin American revolutionary thinkers. They have helped me determine what I can do to try and reverse the destructive and dehumanizing trajectory created by the New Economy. I would like to describe how their inspiration has materialized in the work that I now do.

When I feel brave enough to say it (which I do now) my new work is to create a populist revolution among leaders everywhere. I, with many talented and exceedingly dedicated colleagues around the world, are working to establish leadership circles in local communities everywhere. We believe that as leaders meet regularly and talk about their practice, their concerns, their hopes, that they will develop enough clarity and courage to stand up to the pressures of globalism and act as leaders who support and nourish the human spirit and all life.

It’s important for me to state at the outset that we have a rather revolutionary definition of “leader.” We believe that a leader is anyone who wants to help at this time. We meet these people everywhereof all ages and in all communities and professions. It can be a mother who wants her children’s school to change; a local nurse who wants clean water in the many villages she serves; a teenager who refuses to wear the clothing of a corporation that uses sweat shops; a corporate executive who wants to stop unethical practices or the day-to-day disregard of the needs of employees; a farmer who wants to preserve traditional farming methods.

These new leaders are appearing at an increasing rate in local communities around the world. They each are motivated by a desire to change some aspect of their world. They are not motivated by self-interest or greed. They want to help others. But they often feel isolated and alone. Few of them realize their concerns and generosity are shared by an increasing number of people. And it is difficult to act with courage when you feel you’re the only one.

Disturb Me, Please!

by Alexis Schroeder August 1, 2000

By Margaret Wheatley, 2000
Fi
rst published in The Works: Your Source to Being Fully Alive

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If we are people exploring the unknown, if we are to be the pioneers and discoverers of the new world, then I’d like us to notice the presence of some essential but unusual companions. One of our greatest friends on this journey of discovery is a very strange ally–disturbance. It feels important to me to highlight disturbance’s role as a friend because I have come to see certainty as a curse. This was not a realization that came easily to me. I, like most of you, was raised in the traditions of Western schooling. Knowing the right answer was always rewarded. Intelligence was equated with how well I did on tests, and most tests were about knowing the right answer. Later, as a leader, I was promoted for my certainty–I had the vision, I knew how to get there, and people would follow me based on how well I radiated that certainty, how well I disguised my fears.

But everything has changed since those sweet, slow days when the world seemed knowable and predictable, when we actually knew what to do next. The growing complexity of our times makes certainty about any move or any position much more precarious. And in this networked world where information moves at the speed of light and “truth” mutates before our eyes, certainty changes and speeds off at equivalent velocity.

But in spite of these new realities, it is very difficult to surrender certainty-our positions, our beliefs, our explanations. These things lie at the core of our identity-they define us as us. Yet in this strange new world, I believe we can only succeed in understanding and influencing this world if we are able to think and work together in new ways. Our most cherished beliefs, our greatest clarity must be offered up. We won’t necessarily have to let go of everything we believe and know, but we do have to be willing to let them go. We have to be interested in making our beliefs and opinions visible so that we can consciously choose them or discard them.

There’s another reason that our certainty needs to be surrendered. We live in a dense and tangled global system. Inside this complex and interconnected world, everyone has a different vantage point. It is true biologically that there is no one else exactly like us. But we are less sensitive to the fact that we each see things differently. Because everyone sits in a different place in the systems of work, community, and individual lives, we will each see the world from a unique vantage point. As complexity grows, we need more colleagues, not fewer, to describe to us what they see, what it looks like from their perspective.

The very complexity of life ensures that no one person can explain what is going on to everyone else, or assume that their point of view is the right one. We can look at this complexity as a new Tower of Babel, where we can’t hear each other because of so much diversity. Or we can look at it as an invitation to come together and truly listen to one another-listen with the expectation that we will hear something new and different, that we need to hear from others in order to grow and survive.

The need to relinquish our certainty lies at the heart both of modern science and ancient spirituality. From the science of Complexity, Ilya Prigogine tells us that, “The future is uncertain. . . but such uncertainty lies at the very heart of human creativity.” It is uncertainty that creates the space for invention. We must let go, clear the space, leap into the void of not-knowing, if we want to discover anything new.