The Path Called I Am

There is a point of learning, a process of “turning the corner” that is evident after receiving negative feedback. For some, defensive reactions wall out learning, but for others who are willing to step forward — something not necessarily very easy — connection, learning and growth open a way to renewal. How does this positive turn happen?

winter

It would be easy to chock this one up to self-esteem or necessity. A person who is strong can make the turn more easily or someone who is forced to by the fear of negative consequences, such as losing a job. But I believe there is more to it than that. It is a mystery of something that happens in the moment and that represents a definitive human capacity. Eventhough, for example, the brain may hold an excess of cortisol, which works against an open response, an option of deeper learning can begin to awaken. This is much more than the old homily: “When the going gets tough, the tough gets going.” It represents a charged spiritual capacity, something that is a product and co-creator of identity, meaning, inner connection and awareness. Imagine two managers who have each received negative feedback about their styles. The first moves into denial and blames others as fight/flight reflexes are triggered. The second notices the fight/flight reflexes at the outset but also quickly sees how neither is appropriate and chooses a different response. This is commonly called, emotional intelligence.

There are countless ways this shift out of fight/flight happen. But thinking about it is rarely enough. It’s not, after all, only one or two moments in our lives at work — it’s many of them, thousands of them happening mostly in very small bits. A person must become adept at noticing these subtle grades of “negative feedback” not just the obvious ones, such as a critical annual review, and not just through the words or actions of others but also through self-induced stressors, such as a habit of making negative comparisons to others’ accomplishments or talents. How then is the cortisol forestalled, especially in those situations where the stakes are high or the sources are so subtle and personal?

From an experiential perspective, I think the inner process looks something like what is described in this diagram:

GroundofBeing1.001

You move initially from feedback to defense, for a moment or longer — or you may get stopped there, shuttling between avoidance and blame, or the multitude of other individual strategies designed to keep self-concept in tact. But if you learn to interrupt these patterns of defense, then you will find you also naturally begin to go deeper, to reflect first hand. It’s this capacity, to allow and even enable a crisis (big or small) that is essential to moving out of the cycles of confining self-protection. In spiritual literature, this is a move into the desert, where emptiness, not knowing, and confusion are the inevitable habitat of inner chimera and pressing realities. The job of the desert is to help us separate the two, and deal with them both, but it takes time. With practice the desert gradually becomes a kind of garden where growth constantly pushes beyond old forms.

GroundofBeing2.001

At its best, the process is one of insight leading to new choices — to which we are drawn as the right ones, and within which we also sense a personal path that “has been given to us” and that touches the ground of being. Each time we touch this ground we are transformed a little more, awakened a little more. This process I call a personal transformation in the capacity to lead.

A critical question, if you are following this path, is how to do better holding on and waiting during the crisis, because we may feel scraped to the bone. It can be an intense experience of loneliness, separation, and difference from others. And this is precisely where the mystery is, I think: holding and sustaining yourself in the midst of discomfort. That has to be done in a certain way. It can’t be forced. It’s not just about control. Instead, you actively choose to unfold. You actively choose something intuitively better and different. And lo and behold, at the right moment, the doors do open and new choices appear. Circumstances and people welcome you. The season changes and at the moment of solstice when the darkness goes on longest, there is suddenly a celebration. You reach out and connect with a new honesty and greater respect. Your capacity to think improves. Serotonin kicks in. There’s synergy. There’s innovation.

In part, I believe the turn comes from practice. Once you’ve been to the desert a few times, it begins to not look so scary. In fact, true self-esteem does have at least part of its genesis, I believe, in becoming an experienced explorer. But the turn also is born from a very simple and honorable faith in the path, knowing that path really does touch the ground of being itself. It’s a path that has no name on it, or to be more exact, it has your name on it. And in this sense it is just the path called “I am.”

Technorati Tags: Reflective Leadership and . Link to blog posting. Link to Oestreich Associates website.

6 Comments

  • Marcy Collyer wrote:

    This is wonderful. I have experienced this unfolding many times. Not too long ago, when I unintentially hurt someone's feelings, I had to move through the process again as they delivered to me a not so positive reflection of my behavior in a specific circumstance. As I move forward in my own growth, I do recognize that I choose more and more rather than respond out of necessity. When the challenge has passed, the recognition of personal growth is extremely fulfilling. When I have more time to share, I will drop you an email about my experience Monday.

  • Dan Oestreich wrote:

    Thanks, Marcy. I'll look forward to hearing from you!

  • I can identify with “emptiness, not knowing, and confusion” and the challenges of “holding on and waiting” during crises.

    Your observation that “at the moment of solstice when the darkness goes on longest, there is suddenly a celebration” combined with your beautifully evocative images reminds me of one of your earlier posts about Washing My Face, in which you talked about Otto Scharmer and “Theory U”.

    I like – and want to adopt – your perspective about seeing the desert as a garden, and trust that my current darkness is just more seasoning to aid my next exploration.

    Meanwhile, though, I do have a question: at the end of this post, you note

    It’s a path that has no name on it, or to be more exact, it has your name on it. And in this sense it is just the path called “I am.”

    You’ve also written earlier – several times – about self vs. Self. In touching the ground of being, I start thinking of Self, and yet asserting “I am” seems more like self than Self. Can you offer any guidance on an appropriate interpretation of whether we emerge from touching the ground of being with a greater sense of self or a greater sense of Self?

  • Joe, thank you for writing and sharing your profound question. I want to respond in a way that perhaps begins in a less direct way, so please bear with me. Suppose someone, a wanderer, came to you out of the desert and asked you to clarify the distinction between the two: self and Self. The wanderer’s question would define his desert, wouldn’t it? So how could someone else respond? Trying to give an answer, especially an abstract one, would only be tearing a picture of a garden from a magazine and giving it to the wanderer as “his answer.” It wouldn’t be the real thing at all. As the Zen Buddhists say, the finger pointing at the moon isn’t the moon itself.

    Using the other metaphor of light and dark, I am also reminded of the Zen story of the student who asks for light. The master passes him a candle but just as he accepts it, the master blows out the flame.

    These stories highlight how the desert (or the darkness) belong to and are representative of the struggle with self.

    What I mean by the path called I am is the path that leads down into the middle of that desert, into the middle of that struggle. However, I believe that what actually calls a person there and helps the person stay until insight comes is a magnificent mystery, and, attending to that call, there is not much distinction between self and Self at all. This is a way in which I can relate to your question.

    In a recent struggle of my own, referenced in my post “On Competition,” I noticed a desert. This was not a big one, not a major emptiness like so many people are experiencing these days, but maybe its structure will help. Anyway, it’s about the best I can do at the moment!

    I found I had a choice. I could try to compete in the MIX contest. I could do battle, subtly (or otherwise) hacking away at others’ accomplishments through argument and challenge. Or I could follow an alternative path — which was more reflective, generous, connective, and synergistic. It wouldn’t be a way of “winning” at all, and it couldn’t even be done with the secret hope that “not winning” would be a way to personally “win” in the end. In that desert I felt angry and I felt sorrow and I felt alone — not in a great way — as I say, the event was relatively minor — but just enough to get me going and feel the choice and the alternative call toward generosity that had “my name written on it.” I could allow the anger and sorrow to compel me to fight or flee as defensive/aggressive tactics or I could talk with the desert as desert, stay put, and stop trying to avoid reality. Pema Chodron calls this the wisdom of no escape.

    I found myself repeatedly saying, “Crap! the desert again!” and “oh yes, exactly where I am meant to be.” And at such moments I also began to notice myself following an instinctive path. As I did so, the desert became gradually more garden like. Touching the mystery offered and confirmed this direction. Why was I here? What was I to do? How should I approach the problem? Desert. Night. Waiting to the point of giving up and surrendering. Feeling all kinds of things, and underneath the struggle, increasingly perceptible, an impulse, more generous to myself and the others trapped inside the competition, an impulse, “an answer” that put ego aside for the moment. Not more self, more Self. And what one small thing then did I do in that moment? I simply made a comment on someone else’s contest contribution that was generous, supportive, and congratulatory, without any attempt to compete at all or compare myself, something genuinely honoring of someone else’s intelligence and effort and knowledge. That’s what I was meant to do. Later, the person wrote to me on the side and told me how it had touched her. That was a signal in return.

    I’m not saying by way of this story that some kind of sacrifice is the only way. I think there are at least four ways in which a person might move from self toward Self, and of course this is over-simplifying things, too.

    To me, as always, self is the problem, the desert, the darkness. And we must all get to the heart of it. Self, capital S, is always the answer, the garden, the light…which can’t be forced. It just comes.

    I know this about you, Joe. You hold a deeply generous and appreciative nature. Your gifts to me over time have been extraordinary. Self, capital S, is strong in you. Right now the darkness may be deeper. But to use a different metaphor, you are wrestling with an angel, and the angel will win. I believe your path is there, and the news of it? Well, what do I know? Except, you must be on the way.

  • Marcy Collyer wrote:

    This is wonderful. I have experienced this unfolding many times. Not too long ago, when I unintentially hurt someone’s feelings, I had to move through the process again as they delivered to me a not so positive reflection of my behavior in a specific circumstance. As I move forward in my own growth, I do recognize that I choose more and more rather than respond out of necessity. When the challenge has passed, the recognition of personal growth is extremely fulfilling.

  • “…I do recognize that I choose more and more…”

    Yes, that resonates for me, too, Marcy!

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