Shambhala Day Four: reviving an optimistic worldview.
The blog posts dried up because my evenings were taken in celebration, but here’s day four.
There is a deliberate pattern that unfolds over the week of the Shambhala Institute. Monday is a day of arrival and orientation to one’s personal intention and the building of a collective field of learning. Tuesday and Wednesday, we enter the learning journey that brings us all to challenge and to the very edges of the internal questions we are living with. Thursday and Friday are about celebration and re-entry into the world.
Thursday saw a plenary session that was startling for its content and its process. Adam Kahane, Meg Wheatley and Jim Gimmian presented a keynote plenary about strategy at the edge, and the edge they tried to cultivate was one where everything we believed in might not be true. We began in small groups discussing the question of what we believed at our deep core. A sample of these beliefs were harvested from the the audience and these beliefs were taken to be representative of the general sense of the community. Such values as inclusion and the power of relationships to transform systems and the beliefs around presence and intention were the sorts of things that were harvested.
When these beliefs were harvested, Meg then asked the question “What if these were all false?” There then began a kind of heady conversation on stage between these three rather large presences about hope and hopelessness and the clarity of living without beliefs at all. Adam invited the audience to pull their chairs around the stage in a tight mob, a claustrophobic crowd all facing the three. It was deliberately provocative and controversial and it seemed to have the effect of leaving people either shocked and confused nd in grief, or elated and detached. I was certainly in the latter group.
I was elated, because I guess I just am. My first reaction to Meg’s question was similar to my friend David Stevenson’s reaction: we were surprised that Meg had adopted the assumption that we believe these things are even true at all. We both know that they are simply beliefs. They could just as easily be true as not, and the question “What if these beliefs were false?” was simply pointing at another belief as well. It felt as if we were playing an odd shell game, shifting around emotional centre from one thing to another until people were finally felt either manipulated or above it all. There was a huge mix of reactions to the plenary along a wide spectrum of emotions.
I think the point of the exercise was to help us find freedom from our beliefs and not be addicted to communities and situations that feed unhelpful views of the world. I’ve seen Byron Katie doing similar work and imagine her hosting that plenary, inviting people not only to question their beliefs but also introduce a practice for how we could continue to question them and in so doing find more and more clarity as we design strategies from the edge where our selves meet reality.
At any rate, I had a shimmering moment of clarity about my own sort of permanent state of optimism. It’s obvious that we cannot know the future, even though many of us are certain that some things will surely come to pass or never change. But in the context of doom versus hope it seems clear to me that optimism may actually be the only useful stance. If things are not doomed, but merely hard, then it would seem that optimism would be a useful place from which to work. But if things are truly doomed and we are all about to face imminent death, then we have a choice: optimism or pessimism will have an equally useless effect. So why not learn from those we have seen die beautifully among us, and choose an optimistic and peaceful death. Making peace with our death, indeed, is really the last act that we will ever get a chance to perform, and it may be that this is what our lives are all about.
It seems clear to me now that pessimism (including the “I’m not a pessimist, I’m a realist” stance) is simply a statement of fear that one is not yet friends with. And if one is not friends with fear, then one may actually not be resourceful enough to be of much use in a crisis, or in a moment of chaos and uncertainty.
In my own life I faced one such moment in in 1995 in a mountaineering accident. A group of us were traversing an avalanche slide on the slopes of Mount Seymour in North Vancouver when one of our party slipped and fell 300 feet off a cliff. In the moment that she disappeared, I found myself extraordinarily calm. Three of our party were rather more panicky and were unable to be of much help until we got them to safety, The two of us who remained calm were really living in a state of extreme optimism . The only thing to do was be peaceful and resourceful and get help as quickly as we could. It turned out that our friend survived and in fact the rescue effort was a text book example. I was struck during and afterwards that my adrenal state was actually calm. Of course there have been plenty of times when I have been frightened and useless, but in that deep crisis, my body somehow adopted calm presence as a response. I was fearless and unworried. My friend had gone over a cliff and six of us remained with an overwhelming need to find safety before we could do anything about her. But without that calm, we were in extreme danger.
It seems to me that a pessimistic stance is more about the individual’s fear of inadequacy. If you feel overwhelmed, you give up. But two people in exactly the same situation may react in totally different ways, meaning that there are no givens about any situation or any result.
I sometimes use a juggling metaphor to describe what I think of as my stance that “I’m not an optimist, I’m a realist.” When you juggle you are working with the reality of gravity. Gravity ensures that every ball that drops will hit the ground. That is reality. But juggling is not so much cheating gravity as it is entering a partnership with it – the reliability of balls dropping at constant rate is actually what makes juggling possible.
When I teach people to juggle they generally come in one of two attitudes. A pessimist might generally watch me juggle and say “I could never do that.” Even as they gradually learn to work with one ball and then two and then three, they will deny the possibility that they could ever juggle. Usually what they are speaking is their fear of inadequacy or embarrassment at failing. Perfectionists are often pessimists because the reality never lives up to their ideal. Pessimists often give up on themselves and me, and they never learn the deceptively simple act of juggling three balls.
Optimists on the other hand approach the situation with curiosity and are usually interested in the aesthetic experience of juggling as well. Optimists learn fast because they recognize immediately that the balls always drop, so there is no problem, and their challenge is to gain more and more mastery, producing more and more beauty and living into more and more amazement at what they can do. Once they learn one trick, they hunger for more, they take satisfaction in what they can do and seek to improve and do it better. They are fearless about their learning and this resourcefulness produces results that continue to surprise them. I have taught people with very little perceived natural ability to juggle within three minutes. I have also taught people who don’t believe in them selves as much, but who take so much longer because we have to break through the belief that dropping the ball is wrong.
The truth is that the balls always fall to to the ground. The beauty of juggling is simply the ongoing possibility that the balls might not drop.
When we partner with reality it doesn’t matter what beliefs we carry. They are all false. And so, taking the advice of my mentor and hero and partner Caitlin Frost who is a deep practitioner of Byron Katie’s work, we need only question the beliefs that cause us suffering and not worry about the ones that don’t. If we can think of a peaceful reason for keeping a thought, we should do so. If not, work to shed the thought and make friends with reality. I can see this work now as terrifying optimism, a fierce sharpening of our own edges where we meet the world with resourcefulness, power and care.
This week I was reaffirmed in my belief that my work is to continue to be in the world living and working at every turn with the possibility that today the whole thing just might not fall apart.
What a lovely, affirming, and inspiring post.
To me Meg’s question is sort of an exercise about our attachment to outcome and the feelings around them. I think to be “fully present” we need to examine this place. Our values and attachments, and judgements effect how we listen and act. Another thougth would be “If I devoted my life to this cause and it didn’t happen, how would I feel about my life? How would I feel about the world?
A wicked question to hold space for is What is the space beyond hope and fear?
Perhaps as part of Meg’s spiritual practice, she examined that space when those fears appeared. It would be a wonderful story
Great questions Martin. I think that is probably true about Meg’s practice as well, and it’s a great practice.
It is great to hear so many folks exploring the edges of fearlessness and what it can mean for us in our lives at this time – individually and collectively. It is very alive for me at the moment as you know.
In my experience, the route to developing a deeper experience of fearlessness and an increased liklihood that it will show up for me, is a consistant practice of questioning my stressful thoughts. It is not somthing I can make happen in the moment for myself or for anyone else, but arises out of an ongoing practice of inquirey.
I experience fearlessness as my natural state of wisdom and aliveness, and the stressful thoughts as what keep me from accessing that core of myself, and take me instead into fear.
An ongoing practice on this kind of inquirey – predominantly through the Byron Katie Work and meditation for me – continues to lead me on a journey through these stressful thoughts and into the deeper beliefs that anchor the fears that limit me. In the light of inquirey these beliefs always turn out not to be true for me – or certainly not true in the attached way I am holding them.
The energy and experience of fearlessness for me are in a different realm than pessimism and optimism – both of which still require some kind of projected future or outcome whether we experience that projection as positive of negative. For me fearlessness is a profound experience of the present moment that has no future projection at all, which seems to leave all of my energy and awareness available to the moment. It surges with energy, love and resourcefulness, and comes with a shift in my perception of time and space. The dropping away of any attachmet to outcome for me is a deep experience of what I now understand for myself as faith. An absence of any sense that I can even know what the outcome even should be. This space is what I experience as fearlessness which also turns out to be the same space I experience as unconditional love, which turns out to be the most powerful, connected, wise and active place I have ever found myself.
Unlike courage (and optimism) – fearlessness requires nothing of me in the moment – I suspect because it is what I already am. I am not projecting anything to overcome and so there is no summoning of my resources required and nothing to consider fleeing. I am not knocking courage (or optimism) – I find them very useful when fearlessness does not appear – which is a lot of the time. I would take them over fear or pessimism any day. I just notice that fearlessness leaves me much more peaceful, loving and wise in the moment and available to so many more options.
I had a pretty deep belief that letting go of all of my projections of a future would leave me without purpose and integrity. Without a call to action or a helpful bit of fear to push me forward. I imagined myself lolling about doing nothing – lazy, uncaring, greedy, selfish and deluded.
It turns out not to be true for me. It turns out that in my most lazy, uncaring, greedy, selfish and deluded moments – I am more likely to be engaged with my fearful future thoughts and trying to avoid them. It turns out that when I really sat with it in some deep honest inquirey, asked myself and looked more closely at my life experience, fear was not taking me where I wanted to go – ever. Certainly not in a peaceful way.
That day on the mountain with you and our friends I was shaking like a leaf. My mind was playing alternating movies of us all plunging to our deaths off the cliff versus a herioc rescue of us all. The death plunging movie was definately stronger – embelishing itself with the children we would never have, our sobbing parents and friends, the newspaper headline. I was summoning all my resources to replace it with the heroic rescue movie and not having a lot of success, humming a tune to try to drown it all out. I didn not have my inquirey questions alive in me at that time, but at least managed to pull up enough of my courage energy to get off the slope and get my legs working to hike out and get help but I can`t say that I was in that clear space I know as fearlessness where I could see multiple options and access all my energy. I was pretty attached to the belief that we all needed to live, which in some ways fueled my courage, but in other ways I think drained my energy and awareness and created the need for the courage in the first place. I was afraid that letting of of the belief that we needed to survive, would somehow mean literally `letting go` and either flinging myself off the cliff or at least not bothering to help myself or the others get to safety. It can sound a bit shocking (even as I am writing it) to think that it is helpful to let go of such a basic belief as needing to be alive- but I have had experiences now of not attaching to that belief in other situtations and the resulting resourcefulness, energy and love available were really amazing and I was actually more available to the situation than with my fearful thought. I think that kind of clarity would have been helpful that day on the cliff, and is certainly for me the most profound energy to cultivate for wisely and fully living my life in in this world, wherever it is all going.
Thanks for the food for thought.
Thanks Caitlin…you’re fun to live with! Can’t think of anyone else with whom I would rather be suspended perilously from a cliff.
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