First off, a confession: I’m a harmony junkie, a conflict-avoider of monumental magnitude. At the first sign of raised voices or differing viewpoints, my dorsal vagus nerve automatically goes on high alert, dousing most of the transmission fibers in my body and brain required for social engagement. Needless to say, this method of being in the world doesn’t optimally serve either me or other people in my closest circle. My inability to effectively respond has cost me good jobs, drained creative collaborations and ruptured intimate relationships. It’s challenging to stay connected to someone who inexplicably and unpredictably goes AWOL. It’s hard to feel like you really matter.
Intro to the Unholy
Years ago I recall working at a nonprofit service agency in Bridgeport, Connecticut. A woman co-worker repeatedly said things intended to get a rise out of me. I deliberately avoided engaging with her, even when some of the things she said clearly triggered me emotionally. “Until we actually have our first fight,” she finally told me, “you’re not someone I can really feel comfortable trusting.”
In the moment, I thought that was a strange way to engage in relationship. But over time, I’ve come to a different understanding of what Gina was trying to accomplish: She wanted people to engage her with emotional honesty, intelligence and authenticity.
Nevertheless, there are several significant challenges with that desire. One is: it requires trust to be emotionally trusting. Kind of Catch-22, double-bindy there. Another is that frequently, all open conflict does before trust is established (and often, after) is open up emotional distance between people that rarely gets worked through to closure and reconnection again. It mostly adds hard or soft traumatic memories on top of trauma already existing. Why would anyone deliberately want to do that?
In addition to those challenges, the world often presents itself much like my brain, Gina’s brain and your brain – chaotic, confused and enormously complex. New experiences and awarenesses arise and emerge from that chaos and complexity every day, both in our own individual lives and collectively across the globe. It’s a lot to skillfully manage at every level. Even for Superheroes. What to do?
Change Your Brain…Change the World
Here’s one possibility: There’s a wisdom story that leadership facilitator, Adam Kahane shares at the end of his book, Solving Tough Problems. It goes like this (regenderized for my readers):
There once was a woman who wanted to change the world. She tried as hard as she could, but really didn’t accomplish much. So she thought instead she would try to change her country, but she had little success with that either. Then she tried to change her city and then her neighborhood, still unsuccessfully. Then she thought that she could at least change her family, but failed yet again. So, finally she decided to change herself. Then a surprising thing happened. As she changed herself, her family changed too. And as her family changed, her neighborhood changed. And as her neighborhood changed, her city changed. As her city changed, her country changed and as her country changed the world changed.
Standing Sentinel Over the Thought Creator
So, one way into, out of and through chaos, confusion and conflict is to change myself. And how best might I go about that? Inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil has an idea. It’s expounded upon in his new book, How to Create a Mind. For Kurzweil, change begins with self-observation, that is, observing the mind generate thought after thought after thought. Ouuu, that’s scary. The thoughts I generate contain more than their share of chaos, confusion and conflict already. They are also the result of a LOT of old, conditioned neural connections. Fortunately, there’s a Step Two: make room for new, innovative thoughts.
Unlearning. Easier said than done, of course. Here’s what disruptive entrepreneur Dee Hock once observed: “The problem is never how to get new, innovative thoughts into your mind, but how to get the old ones out. Every mind is a building filled with archaic furniture. Clean out any corner of your mind and creativity will instantly fill it.”
Attention Must Be Paid
Now this is where my left brain likes to try to convince me that things begin to get really difficult. My brain secretes thoughts all day long, and all night, too. Last night they made up a story while I was sleeping in which two accomplices and I collaborated in murdering and burying a good friend in the cold, cold ground out in the driveway and then cementing over the grave. I woke up pretty disturbed about what I had done in the dream. Until I realized that, even though it was chaotic, confused and filled with conflict, murdering a friend was a pretty innovative action/thought – certainly one with a low probability of showing up in waking life. I decided to work a bit to unpack it.
The friend in the dream I murdered has a very active right brain which takes her on extreme flights of creative fancy in pursuit of the Enlightened Divine. The result is that much of her life is spent struggling to survive in the material world. It’s no great stretch to find a similar active right brain in me. It sounds like my Night Guide might be inviting me to ice that part of myself as a start to dancing with chaos, confusion and conflict. To spend more time in the material world focused on actual “grounded” enlightened acts, rather than on the pursuit of enlightenment for enlightenment’s sake. At least until the Authorities show up and excavate the corpse and bring it back to life to testify against me.
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