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When Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev were locked in the most critical period of the Cold War in 1986 they arranged for a summit in Reykjavik, Iceland. Reagan had been developing the “Star Wars” project and the ante was upped on the nuclear game. Gorbachev, for his part, knew that fighting the Cold War was costing him the opportunity to make economic reforms at home. Gorbachev came to Iceland wanting to go deep into the relationships between the two superpowers and he was prepared to make Reykjavik a watershed event. To the surprise of many, apparently Reagan got on board with that intention too.

The summit had all the makings of the typical Cold War summit, with some kind of arms reduction treaty at the end of the day. But Regan’s advisors were worried that the USA would give up ground just for appearances. Indeed, a treaty did come out of the summit, and it was a treaty that was further in scope and range than anything either side had been prepared for. It saw the elimination of all short and intermediate range nuclear weapons, and it began to address the deeper implications of fundamental change to the strategic relationship between the United States and the USSR.

Gorbachev later said that the Reykjavik was the turning point in the Cold War. And when asked why, he said it was because the two leaders had a real conversation, and not just talk about stuff they had been told to talk about, but about the core things, the things that mattered.

This morning I ws listening to an excellent little podcast from The American Experience about this story, and I was reminded of a post at Doug Germann’s blog earlier in the week where he simply asked “When have you even got anything significant done without a conversation?”

It is not just that significant things require conversations, but that significant things can also arise from conversations. We need to be open and listen deeply into that space, but we can nonetheless find generative dialogue to be the thing that unlocks even the tighest knots we tie ourselves into.

This is also a story about connecting with core purpose, opening to possibility/impossibility and stabilizing the core. Gobachev could not have swayed Reagan without being completely confident in his thinking.


 About seeing

About Seeing, Part 1

In Presence, one of the core pieces of clarifying purpose and moving to action is basing your work in deep seeing and sensing skills. I have been experimenting with various strategies to deepen seeing and find the core truths that form powerful purposes and visions. This is the first of a few posts on this topic. It recapitulates a story I posted last week to the OSLIST about working in Open Space with a client and friend of mine, and sometime commenter on this blog.

Last week Dave facilitated his first open space (he did great) and this gave us an opportunity to talk deeply about what it was like to manage from a position of “holding space.” We did a little exercise together once the groups were meeting. I asked him to look very hard at what he was seeing in the room and tell me what he saw. I wrote down the list as he noticed things: the groups are all engaged, there is lots of space in the room and only some of it is being used, there is activity at the edges and emptiness in the middle, people are using technology that is appropriate to the task and so on.

I asked him to step outside the room and tell me what he saw. From outside he said that it was hard to tell what was going on. When he got right inside, sitting in with a group, he was interested in how engaged they were and how there didn’t seem to be a world outside of the conversation.

I asked him how he felt and he talked about the struggle with control he was having as a facilitator, identifying where it hurt, where his buttons were being pushed. He noticed that his role was very different from the one he occupies at work where he is supposed to be in charge of the process. Most profoundly he noticed that, although his organization back home was known as “an authority” the actual authority in the room lay with the participants.

At the end of this 30 minute exercise in seeing and sensing, I gave him the list of the 40 or so things he had noticed and wrote at the top “A vision for my organization in ten years.” He immediately recognized that what we were seeing in this small 3 hour OST event was exactly the kind of organization he wanted to being working towards. He recognized his role in the vision too, and realized that the emotions he was feeling holding space were those he was blocking by exerting a little more control at work. We talked about the list a little more and discovered some questions that we could ask his stakeholders back home, questions that would propel the system forward to an evolving, emergent Open Space.

I’m beginning to use this technique to coach sponsors and clients into noticing what is truly working in the system around them. By helping to guide their experience of really seeing an OST event, questions arise that propel thinking towards manifesting the feel and spirit of the event in the institutional setting later on.

Today Dave Pollard reprints a recent speech by Bill Moyers in which he implores the world to use its heart to see what is unfolding around us. Moyers ends the speech thusly:

"On the heath Lear asks Gloucester: ‘How do you see the world?” And Gloucester, who is blind, answers: “I see it feelingly.’”

I see it feelingly.

The news is not good these days. I can tell you, though, that as a journalist, I know the news is never the end of the story. The news can be the truth that sets us free - not only to feel but to fight for the future we want. And the will to fight is the antidote to despair, the cure for cynicism, and the answer to those faces looking back at me from those photographs on my desk. What we need to match the science of human health is what the ancient Israelites called ‘hocma’ - the science of the heart..the capacity to see, to feel, and then to act as if the future depended on you."

This capacity to see from the heart lies at the core of what it means to sense the emerging future. And seeing from the heart means sensing the patterns of our emergent future in the grains of sand that are our present, right now, right here.

Johnnie Moore put it nicely yesterday when he asked “is your future in your present?”

In talking with Sonny Diabo last week, I learned that recovering this capacity to see may well be the one emerging Aboriginal leadership capacity that distinguishes 21st century leaders from those who have gone before. The utter domination of scientific materialism (along with the empirical measurement craze of the last couple of centuries) has relegated this ancient skill to the bargain basement bin of divination and idealism. The result has been a civilization where we shut off our human responses to the world and trust our senses only if they are confirmed by some mediated third party

Seeing the future in the present consists of two parts I think. It first means “seeing feelingly” or apprehending the truth of the world as it appears in front of us. All of the forces and the obstacles and the obfuscations that stand between our eyes and what is really happening. Seeing with the heart is the only way through this mess, to truly sense what is upon us.

Second, the capacity for seeing involves what Sonny describes as “getting my foot in the door.” In other words, there is a subtle ability to discern opportunity in all of the mess of the world. Sonny’s work these days consists of being and Elder to several processes across Canada that are purporting to make a difference for First Nations people. Among his two pet projects are Aboriginal Head Start, and long term care. He decided to throw his commitment into these projects because being born and dying are our deepest connections with the spirit world and the experiences of the first and last years of life are the most important for defining what it means to be Aboriginal. He sees this clearly, and sees the processes he is working on like doors that are opened a crack. He sees those cracks as potential, which he can help realize by supporting them as an Elder. And for him, once he has sensed this “”rightness” he sticks his foot in the door and does not let it go. For to simply witness these opportunities coming and going is not his game. He is there to extract the most he can for Aboriginal people. There is no decision to be made - he simply stays in the knowledge and belief that holding space and keeping it open allows the potential he sees to become manifest for everyone.

At the Art of Hosting workshop last week, my dear friend Toke Paludan Moller had a realization that he shared with us. It is that at every moment we are together as humans, collaborating, creating and enjoying ourselves, we are embodying something of the future we want to see. In our very act of being with one another, we are saying “this is how it should be.” Toke asked the question “what if the way we are together is the future?”

Questions like that force the eyes and heart open to seeing the world feelingly, in a way that allows us to see where we are and to seize the future contained in the Now, to seed it and grow it.

"…most of us live as if we are seperate from nature. Whereas a deer is fully in its body, we have retreated into our minds. By thinking, we have set up parameters that divide the universe into things that can be categorized, and we call that understanding. This gives us a sense of power and control. We look at a forest and say, “That’s a white pine. That’s a white oak. Over there is a sugar maple,” and we think we know the forest. But we have no real contact with those trees. We miss the details - the subtle curves of the branches, changes in the texture and colour of the bark as the light fades or the wind blowing on the dying leaves. We do not embrace the forest with our whole being; instead we label it with our minds…

…Our security does not lie in the control we have over nature, but rather in the quality of attention we bring to our lives. If we care about our relationship with nature or our relationship with other human beings, that caring demands our attention. Caring is attention. When we really care about another person, we want that person’s needs to be met. We are present and attentive. That person’s needs are our needs. We pay attention to them. There is then the possibility of sensitivity, initimacy, communication, and harmony. The tracker in the forest is in love with his or her surroundings. In nature, we are open to a larger perspective of self. We learn to walk carefully on this planet. We learn to see it."

– from Tracking and the Art of Seeing by Paul Rezendes pp. 21-23 passim

When I was in university, I researched and wrote a paper on the James Bay Cree and their efforts to negotiate a deal with the governments of Canada and Quebec in the early 1970s. The deal, which became the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement was negotiated between communities of largely traditional indigenous peoples and two levels of Canadian government, with a very sophisticated industrial utility, Hydro Quebec, watching in the wings.

In the paper, after doing scads of archival research at McGill? University, my co-author Gary Heuval and I discovered that the Cree negotiators, all of whom were hunters, had actually viewed the entire exercise as a hunt for unfamiliar game in strange territory. To prepare, they readied themselves as they would have for a hunt, including consulting with the community about its needs, dreaming the territory, equipping themselves with the right tools and becoming familiar with this prey they were seeking. By adopting a traditional approach, they were able to negotiate a treaty and bring home what the community was requesting, as if they had spent a winter out on the land dreaming up moose and fish, and harvesting enough to support everyone.

This is what seeing is. As Rezendes points out, seeing is a process of becoming unified with one’s environment so that you understand yourself as a part of it, rather than as an aloof observer. Becoming wholly integrated with your environment means that you can begin to dream the opportunities that are inherent in it, much as a traditional hunter dreams about the place where he or she will meet the deer that will become food. Only with the utmost care and attention, does seeing, in this deep sense, result in this integration.

As Rezendes says in this interview:

“It has more to do with stillness than with movement. It is about slowing down and blending in. It is the ability to melt into the forest,” he says. Tracking allows people to drop their everyday personae, until the forest no longer realizes that you’re there. When you become the forest, when you’re silent inwardly and outwardly, the forest starts to wake up, to move. “It’s amazing what can happen,” says Paul. “And we become more sensitive to what usually goes unnoticed. This kind of intimacy then naturally begins to manifest in our everyday life. By seeing, feeling, and following without threatening or disturbing, we discover that everything we encounter is what we’re looking for.”

We can find that field of practice in the forest or in the office. Organizations are nature too, as are the environments in which organizations operate. But to bring this capacity of deep seeing to those settings, we need the same degree of care and attention as the tracker does: we need to be able to “become sensitive to what usually goes unnoticed.” Simply running numbers, doing surveys and conducting consultations will not make clear the opportunities that are inherent in the chaos of the present. We must practice a little deeper, take all the information and sit with it until the future emerges into our sight, like a deer track in the jumble of forest litter.

From a conversation with Krishnamurti, on the art of listening:

"Sir, what is seeing, and what is listening, and what is learning? I think the three are related to each other: learning, hearing and seeing. What is seeing, perceiving? Do we actually see, or do we see through a screen darkly? A screen of prejudice, a screen of our idiosyncracies, experiences, our wishes, pleasures, fears, and obviously our images about that which we see and about ourselves? So we have this screen after screen between us and the object of perception. So do we ever see the thing at all? Or is it the seeing is coloured by our knowledge, mechanical, experience, and so on and so on, or our images which we have about that thing, or the beliefs in which the mind is conditioned, and therefore prevents the seeing, or the memories which the mind has cultivated prevents the seeing? So seeing may not take place at all. And is it possible for the mind not to have these images, conclusions, beliefs, memories, prejudices, fears, and without having those screens just to look? I think this becomes very important because when there is a seeing of the thing which I am talking about, when there is a seeing you can’t help but acting."

David Bohm, after many conversations with Krishnamurti, developed the concept of Dialogue in which seeing and suspending were intimately related. Krishnamurti here points to suspending biases and conditioning that allow us to both see to the root of things and listen deeply to one another.

I’m curious about how people might do this is daily life. It’s one thing to enter a deeply reflective state in a retreat and practice seeing and listening, but in daily life, when these practices are critical, how do we quickly enter that state where real seeing is possible? What do you do to set aside your biases, prejudices, assumptions and conclusions? How do you suspend in the moment?


I want to riff off the comment on the ‘Free Speech’ post by zenmaenad: In my experience, when the issue seems to be free speech, the deeper issue usually has to do with responsible *listening*.It surfaces a significant distinction between free speech disconnected from listening and free speech that flows from listening.

I’ve been thinking about this in a variety of contexts, but the one that comes to mind is the kind of listening we do when we are receiving a teaching. Traditionally, in First Nations communities and in other traditional settings, when Elders are teaching, listeners engage in a kind of deliberate discernment. The point is to hear the underlying truth of the story being told, to believe not the truth of the story’s “facts” but the truth of the myth itself.

This came up elsewhere this week with a post at Anecdote as well, about the truth contained in narratives. I think this arises largely because in the west we have forgotten these practices of listening to stories and observing the world as interpretational acts, in which we see everything around us as a teaching. The history of the past 500 years has been the history of trying to figure out how to reach an objective consensus about things. This weighty cultural thread has created a situation where conversations about stories, if they are conversations at all, seem to be about clarifying the facts.

The deeper truths, the embedded teachings, are lost if we put too much weight on this. That’s important because if you are setting out into the world to learn something, whether it is a personal quest, or with a group, on behalf of an organization or as a member of an inquiry team, simply getting at the facts does nothing to propel your trajectory to a new level. Instead, you are left solely with the facts and very little else to suggest how one might transcend the situation that gave rise to those facts. Developing the capacity to hear all stories as teachings is an incredibly valuable practice.


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Last edited May 5, 2006 6:48 pm CentralTimeUSA by ChrisCorrigan
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© 1998-2017 Michael Herman and www.michaelherman.com, unless signed by another author or organization. Please do not reprint or distribute for commercial purposes without permission and full attribution, including web address and this copyright notice. Permission has always been granted gladly to those who contact me and say something about themselves, their work, and their use of these materials. Thank you and good luck! - Michael