How Solitude Can Offer Greater Clarity
By Mike Erwin and Ray Kethledge
“The first step on the road to experiencing true awareness is the cessation of noise from within.” — Jane Goodall, Reason for Hope
In 1960, few people would have predicted that Jane Goodall would change the way that humans view their cohorts in the animal kingdom. She was then twenty-six years old, with no undergraduate degree, no scientific training, and little scientific experience. But time alone in the jungle assigned to study the behavior of chimpanzees would give Goodall the clarity and sense of intuition she would need to make groundbreaking discoveries about our ancestors and assert her revelations in the scientific world.
Goodall had been sent with several local escorts to the Gombe Stream Chimpanzee Reserve, in what is now Tanzania. The project presented massive difficulties. Whenever Goodall and her escorts approached the chimps to try to study them, they instantly fled. But Goodall’s intuition was to approach them openly, rather than by stealth as a predator would and as her unsuccessful predecessors had; she also sensed that the chimps would be less afraid of one observer than a group.
Early one morning, Goodall hiked up a nearby mountain alone, perhaps partly to test her own intuition. Within fifteen minutes, she saw three chimpanzees on the bare slope directly below her, only eighty yards away. The chimps stared at her and then calmly moved away into some undergrowth. Soon a larger group of chimps appeared, then another. Eventually the chimps moved off, but Goodall had observed more of their behavior in a few minutes that she had for weeks. By following her own intuition — by positioning herself, alone, in plain view of the chimps — she had made her first meaningful observation of their behavior.
That day, Goodall later wrote, “marked the turning point” in her study. Eventually she came to recognize scores of individual chimps, and to see precisely the variations in temperament, motivation, and behavior that, among humans, we call personality.
In the months of “solitude” that followed — in her spiritual memoir, Reason for Hope, she devotes a chapter of that name to this period — Goodall found herself “getting closer to animals and nature, and as a result, getting closer to myself and more and more in tune with the spiritual power I felt all around.” She perceived with new clarity the forest world around her.
In moments like these — moments she could experience only in absolute solitude — Goodall came to realize that, even as a human being, she was not set apart from nature, but entirely a part of it, just as the chimps were. Reflecting upon these experiences afterward, she realized that her empathy with the chimpanzees, borne of this feeling of unity, had guided her intuition as she observed them. This empathy and sense of unity became the foundation for Goodall’s effectiveness as a leader. In later years, she was able to persuade millions of people, all over the world, to embrace her understanding of chimpanzees — and indeed all animals — as mankind’s companions, rather than subjects, in the animal kingdom.
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As Goodall’s story shows, the foundation of intuitive clarity is an uncluttered mind. Often our minds are caught up in a cycle of stimulus and response, sometimes about things worth thinking about, other times about trivialities. This cycle creates a mental dialogue of its own, which during times of constant inputs or stress is more like a din. So long as the dialogue continues, our attention is consumed by it.
A leader who silences the din not only around her mind, but inside it, can then hear the delicate voice of intuition, which may have already made connections that her conscious mind has not.
Bill George, the author of the bestselling True North, is the former CEO of Medtronic Inc. and now teaches at Harvard Business School. “A critical element of effective leadership is not to let the immediate take precedence over the important,” George says. “Today’s world puts too much emphasis on the immediate. That’s a perpetual danger for leaders.” George emphasizes that reflection is not only for introverts. “I’m a very active, extroverted person who likes to get a lot done,” he says. “In my thirties I was going strong, doing well in my career, with one child and another on the way.” But in those days his energy was spent before he came home each day. Around that time, however, George began a daily meditation practice, specifically transcendental meditation. He says, “TM allows you to slow down, to reflect. As a relaxation process, and a process for introspection, it couldn’t be better.”
The process of transcendental meditation is simple. The practitioner ideally meditates for two twenty-minute sessions per day, one before the workday and one near the end of it, though even one session is vastly better than none. During each session, the practitioner seeks to focus exclusively on a “mantra” that he repeats over and over in his head. What the practitioner usually finds, however, is that his mind repeatedly slips away from the mantra, to focus instead on different thought streams that spring up seemingly on their own. These thoughts usually concern events that recently evoked some response from the practitioner: contentment, pride, joy, but more often feelings like anxiety, worry, or fear.
During those more negative thought streams, the practitioner’s heart rate might increase and he might literally feel nervous energy coursing through him. But that process — of focusing on the mantra, and then having it displaced by thought streams that are themselves driven by pent-up nervous energy — is a way of dissipating those thoughts and the nervous energy that goes with them.
This process — which practitioners call “purification” — might take more or less time during a meditation session, depending on how worked up the practitioner was when he began. George says his “thoughts usually settle out around ten to twelve minutes in.” When the process is done, the practitioner feels a serenity, and a stillness, in which solitary insights — intuitions, really — sometimes stand out in stark relief, often before the meditation session is over.
Afterward the practitioner is able to focus on what he wants to focus on, without a lot of background noise. That enhances a leader’s ability to analyze problems. “Things seem to be clear when I’m done,” George says of his meditation sessions. “Then I grab a piece of paper and start writing down ideas.”
From Lead Yourself First: Inspiring Leadership Through Solitude by Raymond M. Kethledge and Michael S. Erwin. Reprinted courtesy of Bloomsbury Publishing, © 2017 Raymond M. Kethledge and Michael S. Erwin.