Breakdown, Chaos, and Emergence

I’ve just come off a retreat I led in Ubud, Bali, that gathered twenty-something people from Indonesia, Australia, and Singapore. My intention was to offer a deep immersion in the way of seeing and thinking that I describe in The More Beautiful World our Hearts Know is Possible.The thing is, I myself do not stand fully or consistently in that state. I don’t know how to administer an experience of that kind. Each time I lead a retreat, I am taking a step into the unknown, and trusting that somehow people will receive the experience they came for, even if, at the outset, I have no idea how to provide it. In other words, I have to trust in something larger than myself to create the experience.

That something includes the participants in the group. Typically, people who come to my retreats are not newbies to such things; many have years or decades of such work. Usually most of the participants are more experienced than I am in “workshops” and things like that. It is this collective intelligence that I rely on to take the group to places I could not plan out myself.

That is what happened big time at the Bali retreat. On the fourth day there was a major breakdown, which would have been a revolution were it not for the maturity of everyone there, their ability to own their projections while speaking honestly about their dissatisfaction. And there was a lot of dissatisfaction on that day - many unfulfilled expectations that were in many cases mutually incompatible. Much of what was expressed reflected the deep unease and despair so many of us feel in the face of the environmental crisis. There we were, sitting in a room together, while the last remaining rainforests in Borneo are being cut down (one of the participants was a biologist who’d spent his life studying those rainforests, now nearly gone).

The dissatisfaction wasn’t only about content and process, it was also about my own leadership: I should be more directive and offer more structure; it seems like I don’t know what I am doing.

I acknowledged what I wrote above: that I don’t know what I’m doing; that I don’t know how to lead people into the territory I myself only haltingly inhabit. (Paradoxically, that conscious unknowing is the one part of the new territory I AM familiar with.)

Then one of the participants spoke out something else that, in the overall atmosphere of expressing criticism and dissatisfaction, had remained unsaid. With evident humility, she said, “There are a lot of egos flying around the room, a lot of hurt, a lot of people thinking they know. I came here to fully absorb whatever Charles has to offer.” Her comment didn’t wipe away anything that came before it, but it recast it all. I didn’t take it as a personal validation, any more than I’d taken the other criticisms as personal attacks. I was simply doing my best to hold all that energy.

Her words catalyzed something. Soon after I led a process that was unbelievably powerful (I call it “Emissaries from the Future” - I’ve led it before, but never has it been this powerful). It was obvious that it could only have been that powerful because of the ferment that came before it, the airing and clearing of so many things that had been hidden. From then on the retreat was amazing. It was the conflict, and our ability to hold it, that caused the group to really come together.

I don’t think there is any substitute for that. I think on a larger, social/political level as well, we are going to have to enter the phase when nobody knows what they are doing, and give up even pretending. At that point, a larger intelligence takes over, and true leadership can emerge.

I have a lot more to say about this but I have to run now. I’ll just add one significant detail. The woman who made the catalyzing contribution had actually decided to leave the space. On her way out, she bumped into one of the hosts, who had stepped out to make a phone call to delay our evening event. He couldn’t get through, which allowed him to have a conversation with that woman in which he encouraged her to return and speak up. If it were not for that lucky sequence of events, the whole thing would have fallen apart. It was hanging by a thread. That’s one way to look at it, but what I perceived was that there was an intelligence holding us, providing what was needed for us to succeed. I am grateful for that, because my personal intelligence is far insufficient to the task.

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