There is a lot of conversation these days in the business world that is recognizing the significance of assessing and addressing organizational internal culture. This is long over-due! Because truth is, culture is one of the most important aspects of an organization that drives everything else--from employee engagement, to productivity, to even the bottom line of financial success.
When you were a kid, did your parents ever give you time-outs? Did it work for you? Well, I imagine it depends on what I mean by "work." Right? The idea was that a time-out punishment was for the purpose of forcing you to think about your bad behavior--what was wrong about your actions and what you should do differently next time. You were suppose to take this "facilitated" time to learn some lessons.
I read last week a fascinating New York Times article titled "Secret Ingredient for Success." The authors interviewed highly successful people about what made them successful and discovered one common element. The discovery was surprising--somewhat even counter-intuitive. Beyond their natural talent and skill, their personalities, their strengths, their passion and vision, how hard they worked, their success came from this quality: intentional, regular, rigorous self reflection. Self assessment. Self evaluation. It's called double loop learning.
"In this mode we question every aspect of our approach, including our methodology, biases and deeply held assumptions. This more psychologically nuanced self-examination requires that we honestly challenge our beliefs and summon the courage to act on that information, which may lead to fresh ways of thinking about our lives and our goals." (Camille Sweeney and Josh Gosfield)
It got me thinking about the way so many people go through life. We just kind of float along, going with the flow, never really reflecting or thinking about life, trying to avoid obstacles as much as possible, taking the easy path as often as we can, the path of least resistance.
And even with our spirituality. We tend to rarely think about it. We just do whatever it is we've always done, never really evaluating or reflecting about it, whether or not we're learning anything new, or whether or not it's actually changing us into better people. We just slide by spiritually.
The ancient Greek philosopher Socrates once said, "The unexamined life is not worth living."
I was especially reminded of the power of this value of self reflection last weekend. I conducted the first of three weekend retreats called "Ignite the Fire of Your Spiritual Life." Our small group spend a total of 10 hours doing rigorous self-assessment and evaluation. The purpose of this process was to give each person an opportunity to take stock of their spiritual life to determine what is working effectively and meaningfully and what isn't.
And we engaged within community--not just doing personal reflection but also sharing some of our reflections with each other. The process of hearing and listening and being heard and listened to is extremely powerful. When people are willing to hold the space for us as we do our work in a way that's safe and affirming and accepting, we are empowered to grow and transform in beautiful ways.
One of the participants texted me the next day and said, "Thank you for a breakthrough life-changing retreat--my spiritual life is already better ... Can't wait to see what more there is to come and I know it will be very good."
That's the impact of healthy and effective self reflection. It comes from being willing to be intentional. To pay attention to your life, your spirituality. To do it honestly, authentically, transparently, participatively.
Most wisdom traditions agree on the process for enlightenment and spiritual wholeness. Confucianism describes it as becoming fully awake, waking up to life, seeing life clearly. According to the Li Chi, the classic Confucian guide to becoming spiritually developed,
"there must be a turning point in life when the maturing individual recognizes that simply being a human is not sufficient to becoming fully human."
Spiritual maturity is not an automatic occurrence. We can't slide into spirituality.
Jesus called that conscious turning point in one's life repentance. "Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." It begins with awareness, waking up to our need. It continues with desire, seeing something better--something more--that we want. It involves an intentional turning around to chart a new path to receive that Life. "Wake up so you can experience the depths of God's kingdom that is right in front of you, indeed, right inside of you," said Jesus.
One of the poignant stories Jesus told was of the ten bridesmaids waiting through the midnight hours for the appearance of the groom. All of them had lamps. Five of them had enough oil for the lamps to keep burning through the night. So that when the groom finally showed up, they were awake to be swept up into the wedding party and join the festivities. The other five missed out. No light. Sleepy.
Light. Wakefulness. Clarity. Awareness.
Some of the markers Dr. David Benner, in his book Soulful Spirituality, describes as identifying a mature spirituality include
"being grounded in reality and alive to the present moment, a personal philosophy that makes life meaningful, the capacity for forgiveness and letting go, inner freedom of choice and response, the capacity for reflection on experience." (p. 35)
These qualities don't just suddenly show up in our lives. They're developed. We awaken to them through reflection, intention, attention. Like the five wise bridesmaids, we stock up on enough oil, we trim our lamps, light them, and use them to become fully awake to what's happening inside us and around us. We repent.
I'm planning two more spiritual retreat cycles this Winter/Spring; one in San Francisco again (April 5-6), and another in Walla Walla, Washington (March 22-23). Here's the link for the details: "Ignite the Fire of Your Spiritual Life." If you want a powerful opportunity to engage in awakening your spiritual life in new and transformational ways, I invite you to check out these events. It could be a turning point for you.
The two authors of the above New York Times article interviewed tennis great Martina Navratilova to find out the secret of her ultimate success:
"[She] told us that after a galling loss to Chris Evert in 1981, she questioned her assumption that she could get by on talent and instinct alone. She began a long exploration of every aspect of her game. She adopted a rigorous cross-training practice (common today but essentially unheard of at the time), revamped her diet and her mental and tactical game and ultimately transformed herself into the most successful women’s tennis player of her era. What we learned from conversation with high achievers is that challenging our assumptions, objectives, at times even our goals, may sometimes push us further than we thought possible."
I wonder why so many of us fail to engage in this kind of rigorous self reflection and self evaluation in such a vital area of life, our spirituality? Maybe it's because we simply don't know how to go about doing that. Maybe we're afraid of failing or not achieving anything different than what we already have. Maybe we just don't think about it--we're simply too busy or distracted by the rest of life. Or maybe it's just not that important or appealing to us.
But maybe it is time to shine the light. Time for the secret ingredient. Time to awaken. Fully alive instead of sleepwalking. The best way to success and joy!
When I went shopping last week for my wife's Christmas gift, I realized something important about me (and, it turns out, about a lot of us). I walked into one clothing store and was immediately assaulted by the endless racks of clothes--they're hanging on the walls, standing on the floors, piles everywhere. The picture on the right is what I see when I walk into any clothing store!
The way clothing stores are being set up these days, it reminds me of airplanes--more and more seats with less and less leg room and aisle width. I stood there for a few moments glancing around the massive store with its seemingly infinite variety--and to be honest, I got overwhelmed. Too many choices. I just didn't have enough head space and bandwidth, not to mention patience, to start rummaging through every rack. I didn't even know exactly what I was looking for, which made the variety of choices even more paralyzing.
So as a shopper in those moments, I always resort to the easy way: looking for the mannequins--I have to see complete outfits. As a visual person, mannequins are my best friends in navigating so many choices. So I walked around surveying all of the mannequins and never saw anything I liked. I left.
I went into a smaller store in the mall, and in a few minutes, I saw a complete outfit hanging out in plain view, and I liked it. Very much. And 40% off helped make the decision easier. In a matter of minutes I was standing in the check out line, excited with my purchase and hardly able to wait Christmas Eve for my wife to try it all on.
We live in an age of excess and choice--an overabundance of both. And spirituality isn't immune from this challenge. There are so many options available to explore. We're inundated with books, DVDs, CDs, seminars and workshops, religious organizations trumpeting their truths, nonprofits vying for our attention to support their good causes, all describing different ways of believing, thinking, and acting. Our temptation is to either ignore all of these options (we're too overwhelmed, not enough bandwidth to consider everything) or to simply keep adding to our lives--after all, it's all good, right? We can never have too much good in our lives, can we?
But the truth is, we cannot live our lives based only on the law of addition. Effective spirituality is as much about subtraction as it is about addition.
In his book The Laws of Subtraction, author Matthew E. May makes the observation that "at the heart of every difficult decision lie three tough choices: What to purse versus what to ignore. What to leave in versus what to leave out. What to do versus what to don't. I have discovered that if you focus on the second half of each choice--what to ignore, what to leave out, what to don't--the decision becomes exponentially easier and simpler...This is the art of subtraction: when you remove just the right thing in just the right way, something good usually happens." (p. xii)
I think he's dead on! All spiritual traditions consequently emphasize this significant principle and provide practices and ways to learn this art of subtraction. The season of winter is often used as a time to reflect on this second half of the equation: What do I need to let go of in my life? What isn't serving me any more that I should release? What do I need to de-clutter in order to make room for the new? What am I holding on to too tightly that might be keeping me from spiritual growth and renewal?
We were not created with infinite head space or bandwidth. We cannot be healthy spiritually or otherwise if we only live by the laws of addition or even attraction. We are called to take the counter-intuitive approach from time to time to learn the art of subtraction.
So what space are you creating in your life to have this intentional reflection and self-evaluation? The new year is a perfect time for this experience.
For these reasons, I have developed a cycle of three weekend retreats for 2013, starting January 25-26, to carve out this significant personal space for these reflections. This first of the three weekends will be stepping into the law of subtraction. Winter. Letting go. De-cluttering. Making room for the new. Healthy spirituality necessitates spiritual subtraction.
I invite you to consider participating in these retreats starting next month. Here is the link for the details. Feel free to pass it along to friends and family. https://www.gregorypnelson.com/Retreats.php. The deadline for the early bird discount is in 48 hours, and it's limited to just 20 people, so check it out soon. I would love to have you experience this transformational journey.
One of my favorite classical composers is Claude Debussy. I still enjoy playing "Claire de Lune" on the piano. Debussy once wrote, "Music is the space between the notes."
If you know his music, you know that he is a master at spacing--intervals--when no sound exists--even if only briefly. That silence and space between the notes serve to enhance the musicality and power of the notes. Imagine listening to a pianist or vocalist (or even speaker, for that matter--I've endured too many of them) who never stops--they play/sing/speak incessantly--with no breaks--no silence--no pause. How do you feel or react? It's simply exhausting, isn't it? Overwhelming. Easy to ignore and tune out. Our bandwidth gets used up before they're even done so we check out. Effective composing is not just adding more notes to be played without rest or pause. It's learning how to subtract strategically, thoughtfully, emotionally.
I encourage you as you face a new year to give yourself the profound and transforming gift of subtraction. Carve out sacred space to reflect on what needs to be let go of, ignored, left out in your life. Create more space between the notes of your life. Engage in this difficult, counter-intuitive, but I guarantee you, rewarding work of making room for what is yet to come.
Dr. May has it right: When you remove just the right things in just the right way, something good always happens."