Candles in My Closet

We were at Kim’s house for book club, our first meeting since a few of us went on a mindfulness retreat at Copper Beech Institute.

“So, tell us, how was it?” Anne asked.

“Life changing,” I said and smiled as I thought back on the weekend. “Everyone’s life changed, not just mine.”

I found myself wanting to share more, so I continued. “Everyone there was so real: the other guests, the Copper Beech staff, Cheryl Jones our facilitator.

“You know, I went there thinking that mindfulness was about having a clear mind and yet mine was filled with thoughts. Cheryl taught me having a busy mind is okay. What some call ‘headspace’ is my goal. To get there, I want to meditate daily, but for now I’m aiming for three times a week. Meditating is not easy, but it’s so worth it. I’m already finding so much more space in my day.

“I used to rush through tasks, always wanting to get on to the next thing. Now, I’m trying to live more in the moment. When I worked in the restaurant industry the pace was crushing. It was all about getting food on the plate. Now I enjoy the process in making a nice dinner for my family. When I’m folding laundry, I’m just folding laundry. Maybe for the first time, I feel like I’m here in the present.

“We created vision boards with Cheryl, as part of our New Year, New You retreat to help us visualize where we are going. I keep mine in my closet so I can look at it and stay on track. We practiced different kinds of mindfulness exercises and at the close of the weekend, Cheryl taught us walking meditation. She asked us to see what would come, to see what we wanted most, to let it surface from within.

“All along, even before going on retreat, I thought there was just one thing in this world that I wanted. But during the walking meditation another realization emerged so clearly. It’s not at all what I expected, but how true it is – and to think I had the answer inside me all along.

“After we were wrapping up the retreat I shared my experience with one of the Copper Beech volunteers. We talked about my vision for what I want in my life and how I could help make it a reality.

‘Send out your love and light every day,’ the volunteer said.

“So I do. In front of the vision board in my closet I have two candles, which I light every day. I stand over the candles and I send out my love and my light.”

by Carol D.

Copper Beech Institute Guest

For more information on a transformative Copper Beech Institute retreat weekend visit http://www.copperbeechinstitute.org/.

Waking Up

I got home about an hour ago from my weekend work at the John Dear and R&R retreat at Copper Beech. A weekend spent in presence and service is powerful stuff.

I have the honor of facilitating the closing circle for the R&R (rest & renewal) retreats on Sunday mornings. The folks in attendance have just spent a quiet weekend learning about mindfulness, practicing yoga, eating nourishing food, self-guiding themselves through whatever experience they need. This session at the end of the weekend is an invitation for integration; a conversation between all of us about what wants to be carried forward; a locating of the gifts of the time spent on retreat; and how not to feel overwhelmed by insight and transformation. I love it. It’s a sacred space we share.

Today I was reminded that the opportunity exists to awaken everyday: to notice new things, to be curious, to be open to insight and, it’s my responsibility to wake up. It’s my responsibility to greet each moment with gratitude for being alive, to listen deeply to the heart.

So, when I arrived home, I sloughed off my coat, turned up the music really loud, and danced; shook off anything that needed shaking off and woke myself up to the newness of the moment.

by Miranda Chapman, Copper Beech Institute Program Director

How to Set Yourself Free…Really Free

What if all circumstances were neutral? This idea allowed Copper Beech master teacher Fleet Maull to turn a long prison sentence into a transformative time of personal growth and spiritual deepening. “Circumstances Are Neutral is not a value statement about the circumstances themselves,” he says, “but an affirmation of choice and the human spirit.” It’s a liberating premise, and opens up possibilities for the circumstances we face in our lives. To read more about Fleet Maull’s remarkable journey and the possibilities for freedom he offers through his teaching, visit his blog, “How to Set Yourself Free…Really Free” blog on Elephant Journal. Fleet Maull is a tireless and dedicated servant leader working for positive social transformation as a meditation teacher, consultant/trainer, social entrepreneur, peacemaker and end-of-life care educator. He will be offering A Pathway to Personal Freedom, Self-Empowerment and Authentic Relationships: Radical Responsibility® at Copper Beech Institute April 24–26, 2015.

Becoming an “Us” That Works

By Steve Wirth

Mindfulness and the many good ways of noticing and centering one’s awareness are such important and powerful works for individuals and the world. Yet, I’ve often had the experience that individuals with rich mindfulness practices don’t necessarily add up to communities, organizations, or families that embody those same qualities. Individual practices of mindfulness are an essential starting point without which we are collectively blind, but at the same time, they are not enough to create the functioning ‘us’ — the wiser collective that we aspire to be.

The Often Bumpy Nature of Group Dynamics

In all walks of life, good people show up and bump into group dynamics that may not bring out their best. I’ve often experienced good people misunderstanding one another, or winding up in polarized relationships where ‘my group’ or ‘my department’ was sitting in a meeting politely resisting, if not outright battling, the ‘they’ of the other group. It was deeply troubling to notice how often a group of highly trained professionals could fail to be as wise as they were individually.

Frustrated by the gap between our good intentions and the reality of our separation, I developed the mindfulness practice we refer to as Active Engagement. While it is not the answer to every problem, groups and individuals say that Active Engagement makes a noticeable difference in how they show up, how conversations go, and how much easier it is to reach better outcomes with relationships and integrity intact.

Basic Practices for Improved Group Relationships

Here are two base assumptions and practices I find necessary to create improved group relationships:

  1. Understanding one another and working with our differences is universal challenge, one that’s common to the human experience. It’s not just the laggards or the belligerent ones who have trouble; it’s a natural byproduct of the very giftedness we all possess and how we make sense of the world around us.
  2. Showing up in ways that support ‘us’ by engaging mindfully requires some counter-cultural shifts. Listening to others as they are without seeking to change them is the first such shift.

Why Our Interactions Often Don’t Build Consensus

It’s helpful to notice how frequently our interactions at some level are attempts to change / help / improve / fix each other. This may seem necessary to get things done, and suggesting we not do this may seem confusing or counterproductive. Isn‘t it good to help, motivate, or improve someone? It could be, but seeking to change another to suit my preferences, or to get the outcome I want, naturally sets up a guarded response in the other.

Most of us don‘t want someone to ‘fix‘ us to suit them. What we want is to be understood and valued for who we are. Give us a real choice and we may choose to change or cooperate, but force it on us and we‘ll resist. Yet in how many of our daily interactions is this what we attempt to do to each other?

How Active Engagement Changes the Conversation

Accepting one another as we are creates the necessary safety and trust that invites mutual engagement. Of course the rub here is the need to do this skillfully in real time, in the real world of everyday demands, and in a way that still allows us to get things done.

In order to foster acceptance, we need to effectively notice what is before deciding what should be or could be. Engaging in this mindful way slows down our rush to judgment so we can notice our own assumptions and invite those of the other person.

Taking this approach changes how we listen. We often listen with busy minds, preparing our responses as another person speaks while missing so much in the process. Then we later wonder why misunderstandings arise. Active Engagement is a discipline not just of sharing conclusions, but also the assumptions and experiences that they’re rooted in. Rather than speak in abstract images and sound bites, it’s an invitation to slow down and help others understand how we arrive at the conclusions we hold.

Sharing our assumptions rather than just the ‘truth‘ as we see it can be unsettling at first. We may feel that our positions are weakened. But in truth, when was the last time someone converted you to his or her viewpoint just by stating it conclusively or more forcefully? Most of us are willing to consider other possibilities if they make sense to us. And even if we don‘t agree with someone‘s conclusions, it still changes the way we relate if we at least understand why they see things the way they do.

Developing the skill and practice of showing up in this dialogically mindful way changes how we engage and how others respond to us. It is one necessary step in overcoming the climate of ‘individuals’ contending and creating a space for a true ‘us’ to develop.

Steven Wirth is founder of the Centre for Contemplative Dialogue. Active Engagement is the descriptive name used for the practice of Contemplative Dialogue in public or for-profit organizations. He has shared this approach with positive outcomes in healthcare, government, corporate, faith-based and culturally diverse human settings around the world. He will be facilitating the retreat, “Active Engagement Training: The Practice of Mindful Leadership” at Copper Beech Institute April 20-23, 2015. For more information and to register, please click here.

An Evolving Model of Leadership

by Kathy Simpson

We are busy people, especially at work. Every day, we’re challenged to work faster and better, process huge amounts of information, keep pace with technology, and prevail in the midst of change and disruption. Those who lead are under even greater pressure to guide others while cultivating a work environment that’s conducive to success. Their agility needs to be at its peak all the time.

Traditionally, top-down control and a linear path of setting goals and achieving them have been workable models for leaders, even if collateral damage was left in their wake. But a new paradigm is gaining traction. Leaders are discovering the gentle strength of slowing down, of opening respectfully to others and to the nuances of their present-moment experience, and making decisions and choices from a decidedly different vantage point.

This is part of the mainstream mindfulness movement that’s taking hold of our nation, and its principles may seem counterintuitive to the pursuit of success: being in the present rather than focused only on the future; shared ownership in place of one-sided control; surfacing conflicting viewpoints and questioning assumptions rather than suppressing or hiding emotions; compassion, awareness and trust instead of reactivity and polarization. What gets revealed in the process is perspective and possibility.

“We learn we can be comfortable in our skin,” says Michael Carroll, author of “Awake at Work” and a former executive with such firms as The Walt Disney Company and Simon & Schuster Publishing. “We begin to see a whole set of resources and opportunities, and that our forward-looking intent blinds us to the very solution we’re looking for.”

This is a natural byproduct of mindfulness meditation, Carroll says. It can also be cultivated through concrete relational skills.

The Wisdom of Non-Achievement
“I call mindfulness meditation the wisdom of non-achievement,” Carroll says. “We’re really good at achieving and performing to high standards, but mindfulness is a different kind of effort. It’s about training the mind. The mastery of stabilizing the attention in the present moment is key.”

Practitioners sit on a chair or floor cushion and focus the mind on the breath. When the mind wanders, they’re instructed to let go of the thought and bring their attention back to the breath while attending as best they can to the experience of each moment.

“We’re trying to become familiar with the quality of our being,” Carroll says. “Off the cushion and on the job, we begin to notice things from a different perspective.”

Gradually, through this practice of attention and letting go over and over again, practitioners become more intimately acquainted with their own hearts and minds. According to Carroll, this unfolds into a gentle respect and kindness that naturally extends to others; greater resilience, agility, perspective and confidence; and the mental and spiritual poise that business leaders need for today’s complex challenges.

“The simple act of sitting still cultivates natural leadership talents,” Carroll says. “Skillful means come out of the practice that you can bring to the organizational setting.” And this paves the way for choices that can better serve the interest of the organization and everyone who supports it.

Aetna CEO Mark Bertolini is a long-time meditator and yoga practitioner who has introduced both practices to Aetna’s workplace along with other employee wellness initiatives for employees, according to a recent New York Times article. He’s also made such remarkable moves as to raise the minimum wage for Aetna’s lowest paid workers.

By Bertolini’s account, mindfulness has made a difference. “It’s made me question what I do and how I look at the world. It’s made me consider my influence and how I treat people,” he says.

Active Engagement
Mindful skills can also be developed off the meditation cushion using specific methods of dialogue, awareness and relating that open individuals, communities and organizations to new levels of compassion and effectiveness.

Steve Wirth, a facilitator and mentor for leaders in corporate, government and non-profit organizations, calls this a process of “active engagement” which he frames in three interrelated practices:

  1. An honest inquiry into our own habitual ways of noticing, thinking and behaving that may blind us to possibilities
  2. Opening to a non-defended learning stance that allows the group to see its options and make choices in more intentional and less reactive ways
  3. Whole systems engagement that creates the safety and freedom groups need to solve fundamental problems and achieve their mission

Dialogue skills, including sharing thought processes and questioning assumptions, are a key part of the process and provide a powerful path to overcoming conflict and reaching shared understanding.

“This is learnable,” Wirth says. “People in all walks of life can learn this practice. Even if we can improve our interactions only 10 percent, think of the problems that wouldn’t hold us back – and the difference it can make in collective society.

Whether developed through meditation, active engagement skills or a combination of both, mindfulness helps us relate with our hearts and our minds – and everyone gains from that.

Steve Wirth will be offering “Active Engagement Training” at Copper Beech Institute in West Hartford, CT April 20-23, 2015. Michael Carroll will be offering a weekend retreat on “The Mindful Leader” at Copper Beech Institute May 1-3, 2015.