Listening as Healing

Retreating Inward

Over the last few years (throughout COVID), I’ve found myself retreating inward, isolating as a form of protection of my loved ones, but also a deepening of a retreat into my own cocoon of comfort. The more I didn’t have to physically relate to other beings on a regular basis, the more peaceful I began to feel. In some ways I felt peaceful because I spent more time walking in the woods than driving or flying from place to place. But, I also noticed, in myself and in those I’ve been connecting with in-person lately, that many of us began to retreat into our own inner comfort zones and into a smaller and smaller circle — to only the areas we felt we could control.

Of course, any real feeling of control is an illusion, but for a time, that illusion felt very real. We felt, ‘we can control the virus if we wear masks, if we keep a distance of 6 feet, if we wash our hands and groceries and every surface…’ While in many respects, those actions were important for managing a public health crisis, the manifestation in our personal and inner lives became a deeper part of how we started operating in the world, both in individual, one-on-one connections and as a collective.

Recently my dear friend and colleague, Otto Scharmer, founder of the Presencing Institute and Senior Lecturer at MIT, wrote an article, a 12 point reflection on the current moment. In his analysis, he shared one of the blindspots of Putin as being the power of collective action from shared awareness. What he pointed out is that in many of the pictures of Putin we see him isolated at a head of a table or on his own, a clear picture of how Putin operates, in his own echo chamber, his own world. What Scharmer shares is, “this isolation (from your team, from people who think differently, and eventually from reality), is obviously at odds with the increasingly volatile complexity of our real-world challenges today.” The behavior exhibited by a world leader, is a very exaggerated way of how many of us have been operating.

The Tangle of Fear Thinking

So many of us have been experiencing a fractured, polarized reality in small and large ways in our own lives. The desire to grasp onto an illusion of control, or to hold onto the idea that the ways we know, or the way things have been, are the only “right” ways to operate, is what keeps us separated and isolated from each other. The 13th century poet, Rumi says, “move outside the tangle of fear thinking.” In a volatile world, a lived experience in which moment after moment we face crisis after crisis, how could we not move into a tangle of fear thinking? That tangle of fear thinking begins to feel comfortable and even safe. Rumi continues, “Flow out and out into ever widening rings of being.” Fear thinking pushes us into the walls of our own armored citadels, comforting and safe — so much so that we cannot see the outside and if someone shouts over the wall, we perceive it as a threat and feel provoked to attack. “Flow out and out into ever widening rings of being.” So, how do we move outside that tangle? How do we move back into flow?

What happens when we get stuck in the tangle of fear thinking is that we begin to shut down. We stop seeing each other as human beings, we stop sensing our own bodies (we see ourselves as little boxes in Zoom), we stop feeling our feelings and even become numb to sensation because we don’t want to feel the hard things. We start closing off to each other and to ourselves, and we can start cycling into a spiral of despair. What small step can we take in that moment to shift our awareness? How can we operate from a shared awareness if we can’t seem to break down the walls that live between us?

What’s required of us is a pause, what Arawana Hayashi calls a ‘Ma’. The full stanza of the Rumi poem is, “Why do you stay in prison when the door is so wide open? Move outside the tangle of fear-thinking. Live in silence. Flow down and down in ever widening rings of being.” Live in silence. When we live in silence, we begin to listen.

Photo by Gian D. on Unsplash

Walking Our Humanity

Earlier, I, along with a few other wonderful facilitators, hosted a group of leaders across business, government and civil society, as they stepped into a practice referred to as Dialogue Walk (Presencing Institute Tools). The dialogue walk is an invitation to step outside of the normal way of conversing with another person and to let them speak their story — sharing a bit about their origins, two or three big events or turning points in their lives, and where they are now in their life and/or work. The invitation is to let them speak for 15 min, uninterrupted. The listener stays in silence, holding space for the other person to share. They do not offer advice, they don’t push the conversation by responding and, as Arawana Hayashi reminds us, you don’t even use the body to affirm (head nodding etc) — just listen. Then switch. They are invited to do this outside — walking side by side (or on phone rather than video) so they have a focal point that is ahead. In total, it’s a 30 minute experience. What happens when we open up our ears, our minds, our hearts, to another being? We begin to tune into that super power Scharmer referred to — we begin to gain new perspective.

As we listen we feel. As we listen, we heal.

First, we remember our humanness. We see a glimpse into the life experience of another, the adversity they have had to face, a glimmer of all that they have survived, and who they have become. We sense into the possibility and pure potential that still lies ahead of this human being, and, with our hearts cracked open, we step into their shoes and feel. Our perspective is opened — even just a little bit, into the world of another. As we listen we feel. As we listen, we heal.

Scharmer shares the key, or a superpower of humanity we are seeing being activated now. He calls it Collective Action from Shared Awareness (CASA) and describes it as “when a group of leaders begins to act from a shared seeing and a shared awareness of the whole situation — rather than from a multitude of abstract and narrowly defined national agendas.” Our narrowly defined agendas may feel solid and controllable for a few moments, but they only take us so far. How do we allow ourselves to see the whole and develop a shared awareness?

Gaia as CASA

In Spanish, Italian and other languages, the word “casa” means house. The word is derived from the latin and the etymology spans other earlier languages. When I first read Otto’s description, I felt, What if we saw planet earth as our casa? In 2020, Otto, I, and the Presencing Institute team, opened the GAIA journey, a Global Activation of Intention and Action that proved crucial for thousands around the world in responding to the early stages of the global health crisis. Gaia, of course, also refers to the name for earth and at the time, it felt like a moment to step up into offering a holding space for the carers of earth and her people. This moment is quite different, but on a personal level, the choices we face in this disruption are the same — as we see the humanitarian crisis in Europe and the evolving volatility of our world, do we stay in the tangle of fear thinking, or do we step into our CASA — the power of collective action from shared awareness?

To start operating from shared awareness means continuing to stay open — to open the mind, even when we think our way is the right (or only) way, to open the heart, even when opening the heart has gotten us hurt before, and opening the will, even when actions we have taken before haven’t worked out or gotten us as far as we may have wanted. When we stay open, we begin to uncover possibilities we may never have thought existed.

Thank you to Priya Mahtani and Sheila Klatzky for your review and comments.

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Antoinette Klatzky

Antoinette Klatzky

Executive Director, Eileen Fisher Leadership Institute. Host/Co-Producer, Women Together. antoinetteklatzky.com