Category Archives: Ethics

A Seeker’s Guide to Teaching: A Great Resource

In 2009 I discovered a website called “The Guru’s Handbook”. For a good foUr years this site provided a nourishing influence for my teaching life, and I would drop in on the site from time to time to take in some of the insights on the deeper interpersonal (and perhaps transpersonal) dimensions of teaching practices.

After taking a sabbatical in 2012 to pursue creative writing and music projects, I fell out of touch with the website. When I returned to teaching full-time in 2015, I noticed with great disappointment that the original site was gone.

Though I searched for the author, Asher Bey, I could not find anything beyond 2013, even on the site’s Facebook page. I even searched for the URLs on the Internet Archive Wayback Machine but only came up with the defunct URLs for the individual blog posts -which appeared to be no longer available as actual posts.

By chance, I decided to follow a hunch and to comment with a question on the Guru Handbook Facebook page, expecting no answer, as the page had been inactive for a long time.

And I received an answer -presumably from Asher Bey. It turns out that the site had moved to a WordPress.com format, and, after spending some time with it, I can see that all of the original writings from the other site are included.

Over the years, I’ve come to see that it doesn’t matter how many people are reached. It only matters who. With this in mind, I am delighted to share the site with whomever comes across this blog post.

If even one person absorbs even the vague after-scent of the wisdom  offered in these writings, so much the better for the students who come into contact with them.

And so much better for the world.

https://gurushandbook.wordpress.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Non-Sectarian Principle

When I was 17, I got my first taste of the sectarian mindset when I read this book called “Why I am a Nazarene and Not a….”. The title of this book and its contents went on to bullet point why a Nazarene should not be a… Mormon, Roman Catholic, Jehova’s Witness, Seventh Day Adventist, Christian Scientist, and so on.

This was the beginning of a decades-long interest in studying different systems of belief and thought and a never-ending fascination with the question of how human beings could ever seriously consider that their own ideological framework -with its special language, concepts, practices, beliefs and unique package of enemies to fight against- could be the ONE true secular or spiritual path in history to offer liberation and harmony.

Curiously enough, many movements, including highly structured political movements and their powerful religious cousins, seem to always have a place for condemning heretics, dissidents or simply those who have found a different path or see a different perspective, which suggests a lack of real faith in the system that is being defended.

It is often said in wisdom traditions across the world that transformative change and its outward expression is intimately bound up with our own individual liberation from all forms -including the forms of personal narratives, political systems, socio-political identities, ideological beliefs and even justice work (whatever we take that to be) that we have attached ourselves to and have formed our identities around.

I make no claims here to be a liberated person (anyone who has experienced my hypomanic, passionate outbursts, knows I’m not). And I surely do get caught up in my own paradigms, beliefs, ideas, group loyalties, and unresolved personal narratives.

But, I can’t shake the idea that if we confine ourselves to working for the liberation (or simply for the interests) of only our own individual selves, our own tribes, or our own communities or even nations, we wind up trapping ourselves in a never-ending cycle of self-justification, hatred of an enemy, and the constant pressure of having to check back in with the values that have been handed to us, to make sure for ourselves and prove to others that we are on the right path.

I don’t think we can avoid living in the world without frameworks, communities, principles, beliefs, commitments and individual and collective actions against injustices.

But, I suspect that stepping out from these frameworks and looking at the raw data of our inner and outer experience might lead to a more invitational approach to the world, less hatred against one-dimensional enemies, and the discovery of a natural sense of kinship and harmony.

Bettering in Our Own Time

*NOTE: My friend gave me permission to re-post something  he wrote onto my own social media page. At the time of this posting, I have not yet gotten his permission to post it here. But, I love this and it speaks for me, so I want to share it.

Our country was founded on the radical proposition that everyone is born equal, and should receive equal treatment under the law. Even from the very beginning we did not live up to that ideal in practice and actual governance, but our history has been one of slow, stepwise, painful movement toward it.

Too slow, and too many moments of backsliding, for far too many people who deserve better. But we cannot give up, unless we want to give up on what being America really means.

Certainly the founders had many notions of the limits of equality and citizenship that no longer apply, nor should they. They lived, as we all do, in a particular moment in time, and could no more escape history than a fish can escape the ocean. And the effects of those mental and political blinders were very, very real for the people left out of their limited concept of what equality should mean.

But there was, I think, an entelechy to the ideas worked out in the Constitution and other founding documents, that goes beyond that moment in time and its limitations. It was an idea too radical for a bunch of white, male, very well-to-do property owners, whose only model of governance was the divine rule of kings, and whose implicit idea of society was deeply hierarchical in nature, to bring to full fruition. But they wrote something down, and whatever it meant to them, it continued to resonate down through the generations and inspire not only the powerful but also the rest of us to do better.

(Equality is still a radical idea: each time we expand the circle of equality and fairness, we realize there is another circle beyond that. Our grandchildren will probably have difficulty understanding our own mental and societal limits on true equality.)

So, I understand [people’s] objection [to having pride in American heritage], and I think it’s well worth raising. I won’t try to convince [them that they’re] wrong and I’m right. I’ll just say that I believe it’s possible to be both critical of the history of our nation and at the same time see it as something worthy of inheriting and bettering in our own time.

 

Peace for Self, Not The Only Path

Recently I’ve been reading spiritual posts and commentary in various online social media groups.  In these kinds of threads, I am frequently reminded of the conflict between “man of the world” and “man of the spirit” and find myself puzzled about how to integrate the two. Many people who consider themselves to be on the spiritual path will suggest that we learn to allow space for violence, cruelty, social unrest, systems of inequality and preventable suffering. The idea goes that individuals must become enlightened  to the true nature of Existence if they are to have any genuine impact.

Three years ago, I was in dialogue on a social media site about the issue of police brutality (which at the time was an issue I was strongly interested in). The commenter I was speaking with suggested that people stop reading the media stories about police brutality and learn to be peaceful within themselves, instead of getting too preoccupied with injustice. The commenter when on to state that withdrawal and meditation was the way towards peace and “raising the collective consciousness of humanity.”

The idea that personal peace and enlightenment must be reached before we seek any meaningful change in society is an old and stubborn one. Looking within and not getting involved in the outer world is said to be compassionate because it can be transformative for the individual. I can appreciate this view and to some degree I think it’s useful to become aware of our patterns and not to react automatically to outer circumstances or events. Even more, I appreciate the healing and insight that comes from meditation and learning to be open-heartedly present to our immediate experience.

But, I think the form of “transcendental stewardship” where we disengage from the world’s problems and go deeper into the impersonal, spiritual realms of consciousness is only one of the ways in which we can contribute to healing, wholeness and the relief of suffering. Without recognizing, addressing, and alleviating the traumatic conditions we have the power to influence, it seems to me that we abandon fellow sentient beings to conditions that are not favorable to the “awakening” of consciousness or spirit. Traumatizing events can hold people back from the luxury of even considering the possibility of a benevolent underlying spiritual force. This is especially true for people who experience the ongoing traumatization of being held in captivity in abusive situations such as tyrannical governments, relationships with violent intimate partners, and the slow inner death of working in a toxic workplace environment.

Trauma in all its forms keeps people far away from the spiritual aspect of things. Being peaceful, watching one’s thoughts, and merging with the lovely one-ness of it all is a far-away fantasy for victims of violence and cruelty, and it’s fair to keep that in perspective when we want to remind people of the ultimate and fundamental goodness of reality and the illusion of the life of ego.

I think if we are serious about the project of raising the “collective consciousness”, we would want to do our part to relieve the traumatizing circumstances experienced by other people, so that they might be able to sit down and be with themselves and allow their minds to let go into the present moment. We would want to participate in changing systems that systematically cause harm to people. We would want to at the very least acknowledge the circumstances people are in and hold back from criticizing people for not being spiritual enough.

A question arises. Should we expect ourselves to not have emotional reactions to external phenomena? Is that somehow an indicator of the level of a person’s enlightenment? If I can watch the graphic depiction of police brutality in the video below with non-reactive awareness, I can imagine that my actions in the real world will be more proportionate, efficient and unclouded by messy emotions. Perhaps, my actions might be objective and not volatile.  Then again, there may be a place in within transcendental awareness for experiencing -and not rejecting or judging- outrage, anger, anguish, grief, and interpersonal empathy when darkness and violence arises in our experience.

Not to participate in necessary change may be the right choice for spiritually enlightened individuals who have come to transcend human worldly concerns, having come to identify completely with Spirit, or Consciousness, etc. But, for those of us still hanging on at the sides of the mountain, the choice to participate in alleviating the dark circumstances of other sentient beings is a choice that is as right as rain.

Warning: The video below depicts NYPD officers throwing a pregnant woman onto her belly and shoving another woman hard enough to hurl her across the concrete, breaking her arm. As an exercise, I watched the video, breathed calmly and took note of emotional reactions as they arise in different parts of my body.

The Postmodern Fallacy of Dominance

I wrote this on a social media thread, and chose to use ALL CAPS as a metaphor for the theme of domination and power that I was exploring. I have been influenced to use ALL CAPS in a non-angry way by another writer whose writing on philosophy and spirituality is superb. Somehow his capitalized expressions do not come across as yelling but as emphasizing (as if italicized).

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So, this philosopher Derrida is very popular with the young activist crowd (and some old ones, too). He’s the guy who made an IDEA extremely popular… the idea that all systems, relationships and momentary exchanges are hierarchical in nature and are rooted entirely in POWER dynamics and the drive to DOMINATE.

Derrida went on to exhort us all to FLIP the hierarchy at every possible turn. In other words, we are called to reverse the power dynamics at all times… moment by moment… individuals and systems.

With this premise, it’s perfectly understandable why entire frameworks are created with a straight-out-of-the-gate adversarial stance against “the other” and the feverish drive to “dismantle” all things created and to win back the power that was stolen.

But, a question arises.

What if the original premise is incorrect? What if some -or perhaps many- people simply interacted with us out of the desire to connect? What if some -or perhaps many- people recognized differences in wealth, fortune and status between them and us and desired to share at least part of what they have with us? What if some -or perhaps many- people are simply not AWARE of these differences or how they fail to SEE us or our suffering and oppression?

What if the central premise of POWER and domination being at the root of all systems and relationships is not entirely accurate? What if this premise is just an INVENTED position based from painful personal experience and not a DISCOVERED pattern based on objective observations over time?

I ask this, because I have seen so many other premises (or operating PRINCIPLES) driving the behaviors and creations of individuals, communities and even entire systems…. lust, desire, longing, existential despair, desire for comfort, winning, striving for excellence, creating beauty, new discoveries, the seeking of justice, intentional ignorance of unpleasant realities, fear of death…. turning away from abuses…. and so forth.

Then there is the wondrous delight of building, innovating and creating….. and the ancient, universal and natural patterns of loving, belonging and nurturing…. so, so, so, so, SO much more to all of this than the Game of Thrones.

At least that has been my experience.

In recent years, I’ve seen relatives killed with bullets by law enforcement, dear friends lost forever to addiction, abuse and cruelty, students stabbed to death and shot outside their homes, liars getting away with lies, and the emergence of a culture of ridicule that demands that we diminish the all too real suffering of those whom we stand against.

And, yet I still cannot get behind the idea that life is all about domination, oppression and control. I believe in the goodness of people, even now.

What if re-designing and re-purposing lazily and selfishly designed systems for the betterment of all involved at least some degree of kinship with “them”… if only in the secret chambers of our minds?

What if a person who writes out ideas and questions like these doesn’t have any answers or solutions at all?

What if the answers we find in writers and thinkers lead us further away from ourselves and from one another?

What if this is all just an addiction to “the fight” to escape ourselves?

The Gentle Art of Verbal Self Defense at Work

I want to review a very useful book today. It’s called The Gentle Art of Verbal Self Defense at Work. To my great fortune, I was turned onto the works of author Suzette Haden Elgin, Ph.D about five years ago by a close friend. This is one of Elgin’s greatest works, and should be included among the greatest  contributions to the healthy workplace movement.

Elgin, a linguist, goes into great detail about the ways in which language can be strategically employed to both undermine and enhance the mission and culture of the workplace. She begins by examining the power of language and the importance of “cleaning up” the “language environment” in our workplaces, and goes on to explore the concepts of semantic features (the unique impact on different individuals of specific word choices) and recognizing and responding to what she calls Verbal Attack Patterns (VATs).

The most powerful chapter in the book is titled “Malpractice of the Mouth.” In this chapter, we are introduced to the importance of recognizing “verbal violence” and the responsibility we have to recognize and neutralize verbal violence whenever it surfaces in the workplace, especially if we find ourselves the target. The overarching goal in verbal self defense is to navigate the hostile mode of workplace aggressors towards the mode of “Leveling”. In Elgin’s description, Levelers are people who are straightforward and sincere, even if this sometimes involves a critique of the performance or views of a colleague.

The mode of Leveling does not involve aggression -especially covert aggression- and is the preferred communication mode for those who wish to make the workplace more productive and harmonious. Covert aggression, on the other hand, is the preferred mode of those who wish to “get under the skin” and undermine the confidence of their colleagues. In situations involving covertly aggressive verbal attacks, Elgin offers a way out. First, she instructs the reader in how to recognize the tactic of hiding “buried presuppositions” in verbal attacks. A crass example of this can be seen in the following sentence:

“When did you stop starving your parakeets?”

Three “facts” are presupposed in the previous sentence. 1. You have parakeets. 2. You began starving those parakeets at one point in time; 3. You ended the practice of starving the parakeets at another point in time.

If in fact you own parakeets (but have never starved them in the first place), according to Elgin’s strategies for verbal self defense, you will need to respond to the most important presupposition (that you began starving your parakeets) in order to neutralize the attack. She offers several strategies for accomplishing this task in ways that preserve the dignity of both the “verbal attacker” and the target.

I will be presenting hypothetical scenarios in future posts, in which I will explore the various strategies for handling covert aggression in workplaces, social communities, and group projects.

I want to end the post with a final thought.

It only takes a one or two individuals to compromise the mission of an entire organization, and this compromise is almost always built upon the consistent use of covertly aggressive tactics. Most of us care about the work we do, and it would be wise for us to hold these individuals in check. Whether we name the tactics workplace bullying, covert aggression, manipulation, or verbal violence, we need to learn to recognize them and de-fang them if we hope to do great work in a mission-driven atmosphere.

This excellent book will go a long way in that endeavor.

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The Gentle Art of Verbal Self Defense at Work

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What I’ve learned about “positive politics”

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I miss graduate school.  The UMASS Boston program’s training in pedagogy was excellent, but the dual degree also focused on organizational change and dialogue, which I fell in love with.

The following list is a guide for managing the political aspects of effective management and community organizing.  It was developed during my graduate work, and the original title was “The Key Elements of Effective Representation”.

I adapted the title and language to include the broader domain of both formal and informal leadership in communities, projects and organizations.  The basic point is that leadership requires the consistent quality of trustworthiness and the intentional effort to maintain healthy relationships with colleagues, subordinates, superiors and all other stakeholders.  Some organizational scholars have called this approach “positive politics.”

KEY ELEMENTS

1.  Adopt a healthy attitude about “politics”

Politics is a neutral word. It means nothing more than a group of three or more people negotiating the ways and means for distributing resources (money, time, people) and determining who gets to have influence and how much. Positive politics, if played fairly and ethically, can create mutual respect and harmony. Without active and positive political management (see elements below), the politics of any community or project can descend into defensive maneuvering and unproductive conflict. So, adopt a healthy attitude towards your political role. It is needed.

2.  Maintain collegial relationships with all stakeholders

Even if you are not actively seeking support for something or gathering input, informally check in with colleagues, managers, subordinates, partners and other stakeholders in your community.  Most importantly, treat all with equal respect and dignity -even those who have disagreed with you or have opposed ideas and/or initiatives you have proposed in the past (see number 5). Please keep in mind that those with a lower-status position in your organization could one day be a huge resource for an initiative, so try not to slight them or exclude them.  Of course, they matter in their own right, so treat them respectfully for its own sake.  Finally, try not to adopt the anger or hardline stance of any particular faction in difficult situations (even if you share their point of view). You will need to keep your relationship with the offending party intact during these challenging circumstances, so try to remain as neutral as possible.

3.  Circulate, circulate, circulate!

Simply put, try to circulate throughout the  organization on a regular basis.  This is especially important when trying to generate support for a project or when you need input from colleagues, manager/directors or other stakeholders. But, it’s important not to feel entitled to anyone’s time. If someone is obviously occupied, politely stand aside and wait for the right moment or return at a later time.  People will appreciate it when you respect their time and space and will more readily give you their time when you come back.

4.  Distribute leadership and responsibilities

“Power” and influence are neutral energies. Over time, if they’ve been at it long enough, individuals or groups could come to acquire one or both. It is well known that power can corrupt, but the softer version of “influence” can cause burnout (people of influence are go-to people, which can take up a lot of their time and mental space). To avoid corruption and burnout, distribute leadership and responsibilities as much as possible. Share the tasks of writing letters and emails, facilitating meetings and circulating. The added bonus of sharing these responsibilities is the increased investment of others in the organization.

5.  Embrace the opposition

Every “battle” comes to an end. Sometimes a project or initiative you have proposed fails or never gains ground. Sometimes you win. Sometimes you lose. Don’t make anyone your permanent adversary. Someone who opposed your idea(s) in the past could one day become your greatest ally for an even better idea in the future. The most valuable thing about embracing the opposition, however, is not limited to maintaining a politically viable relationship for future endeavors. The simple fact is that sometimes the opposition is right. Listen carefully to the opposition in all circumstances. Even if you decide to stick to your position, their views will help inform you about the best way to proceed.

6.  Provide framing in difficult situations

As a manager/director or a community organizer, you will have developed relationships with a number of people from different sectors of the larger community.  At times, you may find yourself navigating divergent views and representing the entire spectrum of opinions around an issue, procedure or policy.

Because of your many relationships, you may be in the unique position to provide the framing around an issue or decision because of the fact that you have access to the information and perspectives provided by the various parties that you have maintained a relationship with. It is important to bear in mind that bringing these various perspectives to light  can help to move things forward, which is why the framing you provide is key.

Of course, it’s always helpful to keep in mind that it may not be YOU who needs to be provide the framing (see number 10).

Whether you choose to take sides or to remain neutral about something, try to find a way to respectfully surface each point of view in an open forum. You can do this during meetings or in the writing of letters, proposals or memos. However you choose to proceed, frame all points of view in a clear narrative and connect them to the shared values, goals and vision of the  community.

7.  Gather input to make buy-in unnecessary

If you want a project or initiative to be successful, your colleagues and other stakeholders will need to know that you have consulted them every step of the way. Gathering information and input is the best way to generate support. People love to support projects in which they have served as one of its architects. This goes for writing, too. Jot down the phrases, metaphors and tidbits that you gather from those you’ve consulted and include them in the writing associated with the project. However small, staff input in the writing and framing goes a long way in shoring up support.

8.  Tell the truth always, but know your audience

Lying will get you nowhere and will erode your informal authority and influence in a New York minute. The fact that you were untruthful can circulate very quickly no matter how sophisticated you are in presenting a favorable image. If you have formal authority (such as a CEO, manager or administrator) you might have some more leeway here, but, in most cases, it is best to avoid deception and trickery.  Once you lose trust with people, it’s difficult to get it back.

However, be strategic about who you share information with. A gossipy colleague who enjoys ridiculing others may not be the best person to communicate with in certain situations. While maintaining transparency and stating your intentions are laudable goals, use caution, discernment and balance in your communications. Not everyone is an honest broker.

Always remember, too, that there will be circumstances that require confidentiality. Never repeat anything told to you in confidence. It will be regarded as a betrayal, and if word gets around that you betrayed someone’s confidence, nobody will trust you.

Finally -resist, resist, resist the temptation to ridicule others or to gossip about them. A “juicy” or entertaining piece of information might offer the satisfaction of one-upping a potential adversary in the short run, but it will sully your professional reputation in the long run. Besides, it’s mean, petty, and just plain wrong.

 

Tell the truth and be respectful always. As a leader with formal or informal authority, your reputation around issues of honesty and trust is the highest political capital you have. You don’t want to squander that.

9.  Respect that politics is often about perception

Five words. How will this be perceived?

The following bullet points will help you to navigate the stormy waters of the perception game.

  • Use language strategically and constructively. Avoid making absolute statements when possible by using the following words and phrases: might, may, could, possible, possibly, potential, potentially, commonly understood to be, general consensus that… When possible, make general statements about issues that commonly surface in the arena in which you are operating.
  • Connect your ideas and concerns with the organization’s mission as much as possible.  Try to avoid confusion by being explicit about your intentions in all matters.  When possible, connect those intentions with the intentions (purposes and goals) of the organization.
  • Share the credit and tasks of writing emails, letters, action plans and reports. This will help to maintain the collective spirit of personal investment among the organization’s leadership, workers and stakeholder partners.   It also keeps the focus on the organization and its goals, rather than on any single person.

10.  Don’t make it about “you”

Don’t take anything personally. You could be lionized as a hero, maligned as a phony, or tolerated as a nuisance. You might even  be ignored. No matter what, don’t make it about you and try not to let others make it about you. Of course, if someone expresses gratitude for something you’ve done, graciously accept it and walk on. Remember, everybody loves a hero, but not nearly as much as a fallen one. Don’t buy your own press. And make it about others.