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 Möbius 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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