It was Christmas Eve. I called my husband to see when he’d be home from a lunch party with his co-workers. He answered the call and said that he was OK, but four of them had been in a car accident. He was still in the car, in the backseat - which was unusual since he’s 6’3’’ tall. Apparently, he had graciously offered the roomier front passenger seat to a young woman in the group. He couldn’t have known that that would be the point of impact. As we spoke, someone else in the car was holding the phone up to my husband's ear while he held the head of that young woman. She seemed to be badly injured. They were waiting for the rescue workers to rip the car open.
As I rushed to the scene of the accident, I was in a numb daze of fear, gratitude and acute awareness of the fragility of life. And then something very strange happened. As if a switch had been flipped, it suddenly seemed that my body was something distinct from me, something that I inhabited. Similarly, it seemed that the lens of my personality was separate from me, something that I could observe with interest. As I pondered this feeling of being me but also somehow other than me, I felt grateful for the opportunity to inhabit this body and this personality for all these years - and for this day in particular.
The sensation was disorienting, but also fascinating. This must be the ‘witness’ perspective philosophers talk about, I thought. Cool. And just in time.
Just in time for the New Year, that is. My new year’s resolution was to get on some kind of fast track to enlightenment. And the witness perspective would surely come in handy, arriving conveniently just a few days before the end of the year.
What prompted such a grandiose resolution is that I’ve spent the past several years presenting compelling evidence that organizations are living systems within the integral living system that is the whole of life. One implication of this perspective is that, in our organizations (and, indeed, in any realm of our lives), we can sense what life needs or wants of us at any moment, if we try. And with this knowledge, we can then move forward without fear or hesitation.
The problem was that I struggled to practice what I preached. I felt fear and hesitation on a regular basis, and it showed. This was maddening to me. So I resolved that 2012 would be the year that I would do whatever it took to fully embody my message.
A few hours after the car accident, we learned that his co-worker would be fine. And so we headed out of Montreal to spend the holidays with our two young children and my mother at a small cottage in the mountains. The setting seemed ideal - after all, everyone knows that the most likely place to find enlightenment is in the woods.
Plus, I had brought along a copy of Joseph Jaworski’s book, Synchronicity: The Inner Path of Leadership. It describes “the fundamental shifts of mind that will enable leaders to ‘listen’ to realities that want to emerge in this world and acquire the courage to manifest them.” Perfect!
By night, I’ve been devouring this magnificent book. The prescription it seems to offer (vastly oversimplified) is that I need to find a group of thoughtful peers with whom I can be in rich, authentic dialogue. And I probably also need a solo wilderness retreat to “feel the energy field... as if I were participating in divinity itself”... to be “in awe of the sheer wonder and beauty of it all”... to recognize that I am “in the presence of something larger than the human dimension,” as Jaworski describes it. Sounds good to me.
The challenge is that, by day, I’ve spent most of my time in this very small cottage with four other people whose ages range from 6 to 65, who have different assumptions about what it means to be on vacation together, who are comfortable with different levels of cleanliness and order, who are often noisy, and who sometimes struggle to communicate effectively (as do I). And between cooking, cleaning, grocery shopping, playing with new toys, and taking the kids skiing, the extended time alone in nature just hasn’t panned out.
By this morning, I was feeling more and more convinced that I need that solo wilderness retreat as soon as possible. If I could just get away from these people (as much as I love them, of course), then I could find enlightenment.
What I managed, though, was a long walk alone through the snowy woods this afternoon. Along the way, I asked the trees what advice they had for me. This is what they said (or at least, this is the thought that came to mind):
Anyone can find enlightenment sitting alone in the forest all day. That’s the easy path. But can you find it in the clutter and chaos of your family? Can you see the divinity in them, and in yourself? Can you sense and respond to what’s needed, even amid distraction? That’s the real challenge.
I smiled and laughed out loud at those trees. Yes, that’s the real challenge, I thought wryly.
I shared the trees’ advice with my mother when I came back. “Mmmm”, she said thoughtfully. “You have to find the wilderness within.” I love that. And I think it’s connected to my earlier sensation of being me and also other than me.
I still want that solo retreat in nature. Until then, though, I’m going to practice looking differently at my family, and then at my colleagues and clients when I get back in Montreal. It feels like a good start to the New Year.