When the last light warms the rocks
And the rattlesnakes unfold
Mountain cats will come
To drag away your bones.

And rise with me forever
Across the silent sand
And the stars will be your eyes
And the wind will be my hands.

–--Far From Any Road

History of the Heart

Recent­ly, Louise Alt­man encour­aged me to write about the notion that “we know what we were by what is show­ing up today,” a throw-away line I left in a com­ment to one of her beau­ti­ful posts on The Inten­tion­al Work­place blog. Her inspir­ing arti­cle, about liv­ing with per­ma­nent uncer­tain­ty, evokes the dilem­mas we col­lec­tive­ly and per­son­al­ly face in a world that seems more inse­cure than ever.

To write about this top­ic takes me back to my col­lege days study­ing intel­lec­tu­al his­to­ry — the his­to­ry of broad, cul­tur­al ideas and how they evolve over time. The Coper­ni­can Rev­o­lu­tion, for exam­ple, that moved the earth from the cen­ter of the uni­verse to side­line plan­e­tary sta­tus, is not from the stand­point of intel­lec­tu­al his­to­ry a sin­gle event that per­tained only to views of the phys­i­cal cos­mos. It was also one in a long line of “dis­cov­er­ies” that increas­ing­ly opposed old­er reli­gious orders to emerg­ing social real­i­ties. Struc­tural­ly, that process of dis­cov­ery con­tin­ued with oth­er promi­nent fig­ures of the sci­en­tif­ic rev­o­lu­tion, such as Galileo, the astronomer who was con­demned by the Catholic Church in the 17th cen­tu­ry for being an advo­cate of helio­cen­trism, and can also be traced through to Dar­win and the over­turn­ing of Creationism. 


Then, in a fur­ther incar­na­tion, this same “heresy” that some­how a Chris­t­ian God is not at the cen­ter, invad­ed even the inte­ri­or life of indi­vid­u­als, for exam­ple via the views of Freud and Jung, who saw the human ego as sub­ject to vast and pow­er­ful forces of the uncon­scious, not sim­plis­tic notions of good and evil, sin and inno­cence. Our own selves become ever less cen­tral and pow­er­ful, and one hears strains of this long-term evo­lu­tion of thought through­out twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry phi­los­o­phy, psy­chol­o­gy and soci­ol­o­gy, while human­is­tic pat­terns of choice become ever more impor­tant than some cen­tral, “spir­i­tu­al” author­i­ty in the face of an absurd and threat­en­ing world. 

More recent relat­ed trends in think­ing rec­om­mend self-orga­niz­ing prin­ci­ples that sup­pos­ed­ly make chaos itself a gen­er­a­tive force. One can see in these evolv­ing thought lines deep themes of the loss of insti­tu­tion­al con­trol and order and judg­ment as main­stays of human soci­ety in favor of an “emer­gent,” shared con­scious­ness required to engage glob­al threats. This becomes a more com­mon social truth. As Pogo sug­gest­ed, in our time “We have met the ene­my and he is us” — lit­er­al­ly inside us but also now, per­haps with an anti­dote of glob­al aware­ness and action. Mean­while, no sur­prise, hier­ar­chy in our insti­tu­tions feels like an anachro­nism, a bat­tered one, but it still holds on, a Ptole­ma­ic view that still places the earth at the cen­ter of the uni­verse and pre­tends it is God’s will. Just so, our the­o­ries of peo­ple and how to lead/manage them still derive sub­con­scious­ly from hier­ar­chi­cal sources, some­times still as strong as the Catholic Church’s insti­tu­tion­al hold over minds dur­ing the Mid­dle Ages. 

It turns out we have our own pri­vate intel­lec­tu­al his­to­ries, too, an inte­ri­or process of per­son­al the­o­ry-build­ing with sub­se­quent break-downs and build ups about who we think we are. I would say this is, how­ev­er, a his­to­ry of our hearts as much as our minds. Time and again what we think about our­selves des­tines us to expe­ri­ence in our per­son­al lives the very things that don’t fit our most recent the­o­ries about our­selves. You find your­self in a great job with­out try­ing, blow­ing your neg­a­tive self-expec­ta­tions. You screw up a key project that you worked your­self to the bone try­ing to avoid. You write a book on a lark. You lose a part­ner unex­pect­ed­ly. Your life sud­den­ly becomes a Coun­try West­ern saga and you are the star. You don’t think it so much as feel these things all the way through. They can be painful or exhil­a­rat­ing — and dis­ori­ent­ing, and when they hap­pen our being is often first tuned and con­di­tioned to shout “Heresy!” but this may be the exact point when the urge to grow in the face of real­i­ty final­ly takes us out beyond the range of our most famil­iar echo chambers. 

It’s a scary moment when the trapeze swings, and things change, but is to be hon­ored. As long as our old par­a­digm is in con­trol we remain afraid, threat­ened, urgent in our need to defend, to make an old view work no mat­ter what. But old iden­ti­ties reify, hard­en into stone and final­ly sink to the bot­tom in favor of new ways of think­ing and feel­ing. We imag­ine the threat has come from the out­side, from cir­cum­stance, from a VUCA world of volatil­i­ty, uncer­tain­ty, com­plex­i­ty and ambi­gu­i­ty — or so we tell our­selves. But more to the point is the sense of threat we actu­al­ly hold onto, keep­ing pro­jec­tions onto the envi­ron­ment intact, allow­ing our­selves to be herd­ed (and also herd­ing our­selves) into illu­sions that stymie the process of long-term per­son­al growth. It is the old inter­nal order, the inner hier­ar­chy and pow­er struc­ture of our ideas about who we think we are as indi­vid­u­als, act­ing up and act­ing out before it dies — and is rein­car­nat­ed in some new form.

Of course, there is a con­nec­tion between the his­to­ry of the out­er and the inner heart. What we think of the world and how the world thinks of us is a ¶bius strip which, decep­tive­ly, only has one side. Only when that strip is cut — break­ing a par­a­digm — can we untwist the thing into two cat­e­gories of being and make our own truest voic­es heard as sep­a­rate, dif­fer­ent, transformed. 

It’s in this regard that I com­ment­ed, “we know what we were by what is show­ing up today.” Today, we talk about self-orga­ni­za­tion because we’ve been haunt­ed for so long by what’s been orga­nized for us rather than let­ting what is nat­ur­al arise. We talk about glob­al con­scious­ness and mind­ful­ness because where we’ve been is sep­a­rate­ly asleep. We talk about com­pas­sion because our his­to­ry as a race has been one of self-jus­ti­fied vio­lence. We reach a new lev­el of think­ing and feel­ing the moment the knife cuts through the one-sided thing that has pre­vi­ous­ly engulfed us. That’s the beau­ty of our his­to­ries, per­son­al and col­lec­tive. One day you notice the face of a child on the street or you are lucky enough to view a rare night-bloom­ing cac­tus or you hear a song whose haunt­ing tones fill you up, and you know things have changed and you are open and, maybe, final­ly, see some­thing you thought you knew in a new way, such as for­give­ness or friend­ship or love. Look­ing back you see who you were, you know what you were because of what has just shown up, here and now, in that raw, undi­vid­ed moment called “expe­ri­ence.”


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  • What an amaz­ing piece Dan — that jux­ta­pos­es the inner and out­er, the near and far, the free and bound in all of us — and in our world. Thanks for sharing! 

    Just adding final touch­es for a lead­er­ship Sum­mit talk on the brain — host­ed by AU Lead­ers on Mon­day night — and am par­tic­u­lar­ly struck by your words, “It’s a scary moment when the trapeze swings, and things change, but is to be hon­ored. As long as our old par­a­digm is in con­trol we remain afraid, threat­ened, urgent in our need to defend, to make an old view work no mat­ter what.” 

    So much for reflec­tion — as always — thanks! Best, my friend — Ellen

  • Sim­ply Bril­liant, my friend. 

    Near­ly every day for awhile now I’m faced inter­nal­ly with the real­iza­tion that so much of the world and peo­ple are try­ing so des­per­ate­ly and in vain to con­trol via labels, con­cepts, and ideas…the very things that we sim­ply have very lit­tle to no con­trol over. Every mod­ern days attempts to ‘think good thoughts’ or you are con­sid­ered to be a neg­a­tive pessimist…something to be shunned or you might CATCH what ‘they’ have. Like a disease. 

    As if…pain is avoid­able. Option­al. That regard­less of what you are fac­ing, be it a death of a loved one.…being the sur­viv­ing vic­tim in a car acci­dent, the chal­lenges we all face just for being alive… it is some­how ‘con­trol­lable’ if you just keep that smile on your face and watch your attitude.…

    Our lives, world, and uni­verse can­not be con­trolled and ordered with­in such stark black and white ‘con­ve­nient’ terms. 

    We wake up swim­ming in a sea of ‘labels’ and our most dif­fi­cult task is to drop the very labels we have learned to iden­ti­fy with or to pre­vent them from attach­ing in the first place. 

    I real­ize what I’m shar­ing is mere­ly cap­tur­ing a sin­gle thread from the tapes­try you’ve wove for us in your post. How­ev­er, it’s the part that seems most impor­tant to me in my per­son­al life at the moment. 

    A sig­nif­i­cant thread. A chal­leng­ing thread. 

    Thanks again for shar­ing. I always look for­ward to your posts.

  • Dear Ellen~

    As always, much grat­i­tude to you for your love­ly, kind com­ments. I am so glad you res­onat­ed with my post. I wish the very best with your Sum­mit talk!


  • Dear Saman­tha~

    I think you’ve got the essence exact­ly — that we search for some­thing to cling to, the labels, and when they no longer seem able to car­ry the full freight of what’s real, we try even hard­er to make them work, to the detri­ment of human con­nec­tion. This is a denial of life and it risks no longer being able to empathize and “see” what is beyond or out­side of the the­o­ries, rules and lim­it­ing lan­guage we set up. This may be a safe way to think but life is very like­ly to catch up at some point. Kar­ma happens.

    All the best

  • Dan, what can I say? First, thanks. Your appre­ci­a­tion is such a gift. 

    In a world marked by too much over­state­ment (and too much under­state­ment in oth­er ways) praise can some­times get lost. But this piece is so rich and deep ~ quite amaz­ing as Ellen wrote.

    Think­ing about all the won­der­ful points you make here — I’m remind­ed of a friend’s response to my arti­cle on uncer­tain­ty. She (a wise and lov­ing teacher) points out that while uncer­tain­ty is a giv­en — the calm in the cen­ter accom­pa­nies it — always and in all things. 

    Ulti­mate­ly this is about beliefs — what do we believe about ideas like emer­gent order and con­scious­ness? Deep in the heart of expe­ri­ence are our beliefs. Some say, shap­ing and form­ing what comes next.

    Imag­in­ing for exam­ple that our role in this order is not only not to dom­i­nate (which seems prim­i­tive now) not to lead but to co-cre­ate with it. Nature does not need us to do any­thing but to live in har­mo­ny with her unfoldment. 

    Imag­ine if we reframed our con­cep­tion of “chaos” from that of a neg­a­tive force to the con­stant­ly emer­gent and unfold­ing process of all of the nat­ur­al world? This would require us to let go of our resis­tance in all of its vir­u­lent and stuck-state forms. 

    The nat­ur­al world just needs us to get out of the way. And it’s thought that opens the door or attempts to keep it closed. 

    Thanks again Dan,

  • Dear Louise~

    Thank you! You, too, are a “wise and lov­ing teacher,” if I may say so.

    Much grat­i­tude for inspir­ing this piece and your thought­ful answer to it. I, too, am deeply attract­ed to the idea of liv­ing in har­mo­ny with Nature’s unfold­ing. If we are to “lead” at all, it has always seemed to me it would be toward home.

    All the best to you — and here’s to the ongo­ing conversation.


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