From meditation to organisational transformation
Susan Basterfield and Lisa Gill share reflections from a two-day workshop with Tergar Asia, a meditation programme non-profit organisation, about transitioning to “teal”
It’s a misty January morning in Kathmandu and my colleague Susan Basterfield and I are in the rooftop function room of a traditional Nepalese hotel. We are sitting in a circle with a group of sangha (Buddhist monks and nuns) and core team members, who have travelled here from the monastery and various hubs across Asia, as well as Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, an esteemed Tibetan Buddhist meditation teacher. It it he who has brought us all here to explore the possibility of Tergar becoming a teal organisation. Susan and I begin the session by leading the group in one of our most sacred practices: the check-in. One by one we share our intentions for the two days we have together and what we hope to leave with.
Tergar’s mission is to make the ancient practice of meditation accessible to the modern world and the organisation was founded to develop and manage these trainings. Rinpoche felt a tension right from the start between what he wanted the organisation to look like and how people in the organisation were used to working. “I knew there were top-down, Western-influenced organisations,” he told us, “and I also knew about organisations like Dhamma Centres which are highly independent. But I knew there must be something in the middle…” Then he read “Reinventing Organisations” by Frederic Laloux. Enter Susan and I. What follows are some of our reflections from the workshop we led with around 30 Tergar Asia members.
Holding the space
When Susan and I went to the monastery to meet Rinpoche for the first time, he told us a touching story about the first retreat he had been asked to lead. He was the youngest ever monk to lead such a retreat and was nervous about how to command a group of people much older than him. When he asked his father for advice on how to lead, his father replied: “No need to lead. Just hold the space.” And that’s what he did. Coming from the world of facilitation, Susan and I were very familiar with the concept of holding space and marvelled at the perfect parallel between these two worlds.
In the workshop, we were struck by Rinpoche’s full participation in the group as an equal – many leaders we’ve encountered over the years don’t navigate this nearly as gracefully. Susan told me that in Maori culture, some people possess mana, which is almost a supernatural force conveying wisdom, power, influence. We talked about how great leaders in self-managing organisations are able to recognise their mana and take responsibility for it. This doesn’t mean abdicating, but rather being mindful always of how you are being, when to speak up and when to be silent, when to step in and when to step back. Rinpoche certainly had mana and yet he was a generous participant, often speaking last (if at all), and also embracing a playful, schoolboy persona from time to time.
In this video, Laloux talks about the CEO or top leader’s role in holding the space. He says when you’re taking a small boat from the shore onto the sea, it needs some help getting over the first few waves. This means sometimes it’s necessary to be “forceful” about the why and the what of the transition, but flexible on the how. In our workshop with Tergar Asia, sometimes people became uncomfortable with ideas that would mean radical steps in terms of trust and openness. Rinpoche would gently but firmly call attention to this discomfort and remind the group what this teal journey was about and what it would take from the group in terms of courage.
Towards a symphony
In Rinpoche’s book, The Joy of Living, he makes connections between what Western science has discovered about the brain and what Eastern practice has intuitively known for thousands of years. He quotes the American scientist Robert B. Livingston who compared the human brain to “a symphony, well tuned and well disciplined,” made up of groups of players. This became a perfect analogy for our workshop, too. How can Tergar Asia become groups of players all working together to create a symphony?
Susan and I used Liberating Structures to guide the group through an exploration of what Tergar Asia could look like as a teal organisation and what was most energising for them to pursue first. A highlight for both of us was leading the group through a structure called Mad Tea, which is something like the Mad Hatter’s tea party from Alice and Wonderland with people in two concentric circles rapidly sharing answers to a series of questions.
In our group (where some people spoke only Cantonese or Tibetan), we suddenly realised people were frequently going to find themselves in front of a partner that didn’t speak their language. We asked people to speak their answer anyway and be present with each other, even if they couldn’t understand. It turned out to be extremely powerful and in the reflection afterwards, people commented on how they were able to understand and be truly present with each other despite speaking different languages.
Something that has stayed with Susan and I is how willing and engaged the group was with the reflection and “what did you notice?” rounds we did at the end of each activity. When, for example, we asked people to be silent for two minutes to reflect, we remembered that this was a group of committed meditators. We’ve never seen a room so still and yet so charged with focused energy.
Since the workshop, Susan and I have been checking in with the group in monthly web calls and supporting them to coach each other in the face of new challenges and opportunities. The experiments that got started in the workshop are up and running. And we find ourselves confronted with the age-old question of: how do you keep up the energy and momentum of a retreat experience after it’s over? The added challenge here is that many of these volunteers have their own “day jobs”, as well as the work they do for Tergar.
Often in our check in calls I’m reminded of another passage in Rinpoche’s book, The Joy of Living, in which he shares that the Sanskrit word for human being is “purusha” which you could translate as “something that possesses power.” It strikes me that the journey towards becoming a teal (or self-managing, or participatory) organisation is reminding ourselves that we possess power. The power to be the authors of our lives, to act when we see challenges and opportunities. We’re excited to see how Tergar Asia’s teal journey continues to unfold and the symphony that they create.