Reconstituted Families and the Holidays

In July 1990 I attended my 10 year high school reunion.  At the time, I was married to a handsome engineer, I had just graduated with my MBA, I had been the Executive Director of an Atlantic based health charity for just over a year and I was pregnant with my first child.  I thought I had it made.  Not in a million years would I have imagined how the shape of my life would have shifted 20 years later:  I have three children by two fathers and am twice divorced.  My two older children, now young adults, were born in my first marriage and my youngest, now 8 years old, was born in my second marriage.  Add to this, my mother is in long term care with dementia.  My father lives alone in the house they shared.  My brother also lives alone but in PEI.  And, since finding out I was adopted a few years ago, I now have birth family members in my life.  Over the holidays, to say the least, we are “stretched” in many different directions.

As I experience the comings and goings of my family over this holiday season and the times we are altogether, especially me and my three children, and as I am in conversations with so many of my friends in similar circumstances, I have been reflecting on “reconstituted families” – or, the term I became acquainted with through the adoption world, family constellations.

I like the term family constellations because it enables me to think of my vast array of family and friends, the various ways they show up in my life, and how they are connected to their constellations of family and friends, in an appreciative mode.  If I think of it any other way, I will be sad with feelings of “not enough” – not enough time with my children or my friends, not enough dinners, presents, experiences – what I’m missing instead of what I have.

What I have more than enough of  in my life and my relationships is love.  I have an abundance of love that overflows onto each of my children – individually and collectively – and onto my whole extended family and well beyond that to the people and relationships that I care deeply about – of which I also have an abundance.

I learned in my family growing up that friends can be like family and I experience that richly in my life.  I call them my soul family, knowing that we are finding each other along the way and feeling deeply grateful for how we enrich each others lives.  Some days I can hardly believe how rich I am.

When I greet my days, and my children in particular as I think about our family constellations over the holidays, with love, then there is enough.  It is perfectly right that they also spend time with their dads.  And it’s okay for me to visit with them at their dads’ place and vice versa.  Yes, please come in.  Please come visit – peak into a little part of your son’s life when he is not with you.  It is perfectly right that my children spend time with each other and with their friends.  There is enough time.  There are enough occasions.  There is an amazing amount of joy.  Even when I am the only one home.  I’m not lonely.  I don’t feel sorry for myself.  I feel grateful that these amazing children, friends and family are in my life, filling me up every single day.  I don’t need to be in their presence to feel full of them – although I love being in their presence too.

For those of us who live in increasingly complex family constellations, flood them with love (even when and where you are reluctant to do so – especially when you are reluctant to do so) and see how much love comes flooding back to you.  It is enough.  We are enough.  You are enough.  And in being enough, somehow we become more than enough and delight fills the space, as does joy and wonder.

I and my children may not live or experience a “traditional” family unit, but we fully live and experience the one that has unfolded in our lives, we are grateful for each other and the fullness of our family constellations and find our selves in a beauty and grace to be treasured.

Art of Hosting – Is It All About Being Nice?

Art of Hosting – is it all about being nice?  This question has my attention right now, following my recent adventures in and near Sao Paulo, Brazil for a four day Art of Hosting training followed by a one day Community of Practice meeting with mostly young practitioners in that country who are holding the field there with intentionality and integrity.  It is a question that has arisen a couple of times now post the training, I know it comes up in other places and it is one that is fundamentally important to the work we do.

Is Art of Hosting just about being nice?  And, why do we feel the need to ask that question?  I wonder if it has something to do with the field we create when we come together in ways that for many are different than their usual day-to-day experiences and which beg the question of how to show up differently.

In my experiences, when we really pay attention to what’s happening in the Art of Hosting training field (and beyond too), we will know that it is not always “nice”.  There are things that come up within host teams – issues, questions, disagreements, shadow – that sometimes get addressed and sometimes don’t.  We know that unresolved issues on host teams can and does impact the training field to large and small degrees depending on the issues and the capacity of the individuals to host their own field.  Sometimes what happens in the field of the training influences or impacts the host team.

Because Art of Hosting trainings are just that – a training ground – and people are courageously stepping into hosting portions of the training using methodologies they are not yet familiar or comfortable with, it is an imperfect practice and not always “nice”.  The intention the host teams I work with carry is to support and encourage learning and growth by helping people see their own learning and growth.  In Brazil, I was part of some really powerful debriefing sessions where participants shared their learning in ways that were far more comprehensive than anything I could have shared with them.

I learned some things.  I learned how challenging it is for people to leap into the challenge of hosting when they don’t know each other, they all have great ideas about how to host the session they signed up for and they are carrying their doubts with them as they work with others and step into a very public part of the process, doubts that can very easily and often unintentionally be triggered by themselves, by others and by the work.  I am even more aware of how important it is that they feel encouraged and supported and that as part of the overall hosting team, we create space for them to grow, experiment and risk – which may also mean that they “fail”.  But if that can’t happen in the training ground, where else can it possibly happen?

Art of Hosting is about creating space for meaningful and relevant conversations and it is about relationship building.  The better we are able to build the relationships the better the conditions for the conversations we are wanting to have in our organizations, networks and communities.  The more we care about the other people involved and the purpose for which we are working, the more we are willing to stay in conversations that move us toward different results – and particularly the necessary, often difficult conversations – the ones that when we don’t have them, they get in the way of change, impact or progress and hold us back. The more we care, the more we are willing to risk – even imperfectly.

We can only truly be in those conversations when we personally are able to find our voice – a voice we often dismiss before others can or bury deep inside ourselves by believing there is no space or room for us, that we will be judged for what we want to contribute or that we do not have enough credentials, experience or credibility to say what is on our minds and in our hearts.  And this may be the thing we all most need to have voiced.

Learning, growth, risking, finding voice are not about being nice but it is a lot easier to tap into these things when we feel encouraged and when the environment is welcoming of all that is showing up.  This is not always easy to do and, for me as a host, it is a constant learning journey – and I know this was true of others on this particular hosting team.

Ultimately, the purpose of this work we do in the Art of Hosting field is to make a difference, maybe even to change the world, if I may be so bold.  And I do see it happening – in individuals, teams, organizations and communities.  I see this work being used very strategically in all kinds of places to shift the shape of communities, organizations and systems.  These trainings help us create foundations – within ourselves and with the work – to generate this shift.

The theme for this Brazilian Art of Hosting was the dance between inner and outer self – the impact of doing deep inner work on how we work in the world.  This theme came about because friends and colleagues of our Brazilian host team were asking for it and the response to the invitation was strong – thirty-nine of us altogether from a range of backgrounds and experiences,  mostly in their twenties and thirties.  The host team modeled well the theme.  We had strong, caring relationships that allowed us to compassionately and honestly voice the full range of fear, uncertainty and contradiction that was showing up for us, as well as the joy, appreciation and gratitude for what we saw emerging, building a stronger field for the participants and greater opportunities to flow with what was wanting and needing to happen in the field we were holding.

No, it is not all about being nice.  But how wonderful when we feel the foundation to be able to speak and address the things that are not so nice coming from a place of caring deeply, opening us up to more attentive listening and responsiveness and growing our capacity to shift the shape of the things that are most important to us in the world.

Unexpected Little Gifts

Appreciating the little and the not so little unexpected gifts feeds the field of gratitude, makes the heart glad and the soul sing.  It shifts the the shape of the moment, the day, our world, the world we touch including our relationships.

If we only care to pay attention, there are so many unexpected little gifts that show up in the run of a day –  and some of them are not so little.  A comment here.  A nice touch in there.  Someone noticing, paying attention, listening.  Connecting with other human beings – sometimes friends, sometimes strangers –  contact illuminated in a gesture, a word, eye contact, a touch.

Unexpected little gifts in my life in just the last day or so?  Dinner last night with a friend of mine and a beautiful young friend of my teenage boys – they are away for University, their friend, who has become my friend, stayed here for University and we headed out for dinner at The Wooden Monkey.  The Wooden Monkey in Halifax is one of those not so unexpected little gifts – beautiful, home grown, organic food lovingly cooked and served with care.  A beautiful late September night inspiring a walk on the waterfront and a drink later at an outdoor cafe.

As I write my book – Embracing the Stranger in Me – coming across really good writing from a decade ago that I had completely forgotten I wrote so now I don’t need to rely on memory – my writing from the time will take me back there into those compelling experiences that contributed to the me who now shows up in this world.

My hairdresser, unfortunately, broke her wrist and couldn’t cut my hair, but referred me to a place a client had given me a hundred dollar gift certificate for a few months ago.  Nice unexpected little gift.

Friends find me on Facebook chat or skype and we have short or long chats that pick up the spirit and make the day shine, sometimes just a hello and sometimes opening up the gift of possibility.

My eight year old says, “Mom, you’re the best mom ever.  I wish there were two of you!”  (I do too, but probably not for the same reason.)

There are so many more delights in every single day.  They shape my world.  They make me smile.  They energize me.  They motivate me.  They bring me joy.  They give me strength, remind me of my strength, connect me to my strength and then I radiate the joy, peace, and connection I experience, attracting more of it, helping me see and support brilliance in the world, in my friends, my family and the people I have the honour and privilege of working with.

Like my Brazilian friends who I will be joining at the end of this week (along with another good friend from Colorado) for an Art of Hosting training near Sao Paulo.  Good friends.  Deep relationships.  Amazing work already – with each other and in Brazil.  The swiftness with which my travel visa was processed. Smiling to sense into what more will emerge there.

Unexpected little gifts.  In every single day, in so many ways.  I like it when they shift the shape of my world and my experience. I look forward to seeing what unexpected little gifts show up in my day tomorrow and the tomorrows after that.  Maybe you will be one of them.  Maybe I will be one of them for you.

The Gift of Shadow

I have been intrigued by the notion of shadow ever since I came across Debbie Ford‘s book, The Secret of the Shadow, years ago as I began the more conscious part of my journey.  The idea that it is everywhere, in everyone of us and in our group dynamics was a revelation at the time.  The fact that there are real gifts in it when we develop enough courage to dive in was illuminating.

Shadow is not a bad thing.  It just is.  It exists. Where there is light there is also shadow.  We can really live into the light when we are ready to acknowledge shadow.

For some reason, we have made that acknowledgment really difficult in the world we live and operate in today.  We have made it “bad” through our fear of facing it, surfacing it or acknowledging it and so we try to pretend, individually and collectively, that it isn’t there.  We tiptoe around it, we dance around it, we grow frustrated by it and still it often remains a challenge to name.  We think it only exists in some places, but it actually can and does show up in all kinds of places and even in the groups and organizations that are doing amazing and, do I dare say, enlightened work.

My good friend Christina Baldwin, author of The Circle Way and Calling the Circle, and, along with her partner Ann Linnea, keeper and steward of circle practice for over twenty years (long before it became more fashionable as an effective and powerful meeting practice) defines shadow as: “the things that cannot be said or, if they are said, are said at great peril to the speaker”.

This great peril is often that the speaker is ostracized.  As the speaker is shut down, so are others who will not now venture to name the unspoken things and then any avenues for the naming of shadow are also shut down.   Unproductive group patterns and dynamics become entrenched in the group and members of the group pretend to each other that all is well.  And yet in this scenario, it means that people no longer feel invited to show up as full human beings.  They feel the need to leave a part of themselves parked at the door and this is often the part that would most wonderfully, fully and impactfully engage them in the work ahead.

Anytime things cannot be spoken, they surface in actions and interactions in a group.  They show up as frustration with process or lack of progress and as blame: “if only that one person (or that group) would get their act together, we’d all be fine.”  The impact of shadow shows up in lack of engagement by some members of the group and by side conversations that happen outside of meetings that do not serve the health and well being of the group.

It is not unusual that someone who has been perceived as the problem can leave the group and yet the actual problem persists.  It is now acted out by someone else.  The longer the patterns persist, the harder they are to surface and to break.

Aside from fear of being ostracized, the other reason people do not name shadow is because they are afraid of hurting other people in the group.  They do not have language or process around how to do this well and it is a skill that can be developed.

One of the tenets of Circle Practice is understanding there is a centre to the circle – or the work or the group – and if we focus on the centre it enables us to transcend two way debate,  personal attack and interpersonal dynamics and speak to the underlying patterns – that are often showing up in very overt ways.  To be able to name tension in a group or situation is one very simple way of relieving the tension.  “Yes, we’ve noticed and are aware that it is here.  How will we choose to move through it now?”

The simple act of naming can, quite remarkably,  diffuse a lot of tension and shadow.  How would the shape of our world shift, the shape of our meetings and the shape of our relationships shift if we could honour the fact that shadow exists, it shows up – instead of pretending it’s not there?   If we understand this, it frees us up to look for the gifts inherent in shadow and use those gifts to build our effectiveness, connection and cohesion as a group and as community.

Shadow is not something we deal with once and it is gone.  It will show up again.  But if we stay tuned to it, name it when it is present and work through it, more light will shine into our lives and the work we do.

Contemplating Joy

Byron Brown, in Soul Without Shame: A Guide to Liberating Yourself from the Judge Within, asserts that compassion, strength, love and joy are essential soul qualities.  He says that ego – or our internal judge or critic – would have us believe this is not true, that we are in constant search of these qualities and that usually they are unattainable, maybe because we believe we are not worthy.

A constant search for these qualities would always have them in the future and, while we may have fleeting glimpses of them, they are elusive.  We are thus, by default, relegated to a life of strife and striving, doomed to be ruled by the internal judge or critic who, when we are not doing well admonishes us that we can do better and when we do well, first congratulates us and then says, “How long do you think you can keep that up?”.  Stepping out of this habitual, ingrained pattern in our thoughts and in our life takes conscious, intentional effort but when it happens we experience moments of freedom – even joyful freedom.

Of the essential soul qualities, it is joy I am contemplating most frequently at the moment.  Joy because, as the shape of my world has shifted, I feel joyful – often.  I wake up in the morning feeling joyful, go to bed at night feeling joyful.  I don’t necessarily feel joyful every moment of every day but at least I’ve become aware of my emotional journey and am living into it – rather than walking through it as if it was happening to someone else – or, maybe, happening to just a shadow of myself rather than the multi-coloured range which has become more available to me over the last couple of years.

Joy feels freeing and expansive.  It is fed by gratitude and appreciation. It is fed by noting it and sinking deeper into it – surrendering to it, letting it seep into all my pores, breathing it in with every breath and back out into the world so other people can also feel the expression of joy – even if they do not know what it is they are experiencing.

And as I notice joy and joyfulness in my life, in any given moment, every now and then I also notice the little voice that says — yeah, sure it’s summer now, but what about the fall?  How do you know you are actually going to keep your business busy enough to sustain yourself in the fall?  You should be worried about that now!

Hmmm, you should be worried about that now.  Sounds like the voice of my internal judge wanting to be heard – in fairness to it, it does want to keep me safe and financially sustainable, but it has a limited range of options with which to do that and they all include struggle, worry and fear – emotions I am very familiar with – as I am also familiar with how constricting and how limiting they can be, shutting down the capacity of the soul to be in full expression – which includes full manifestation that comes from a place of trust.

Most of us have learned that life is full of struggle and if you want to get ahead you have to work hard, really hard – and even then there are no guarantees.  We have learned that life is not handed to us on a silver platter, we have to work in order to live and adversity makes us stronger – you know that phrase – that which doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.

Okay, so there may be some truth in that but I declared awhile ago (a bit more than a year ago in fact) that I was welcoming ease into my life.  I’ve had varying degrees of success with that over the last year and a bit – it takes intentionality and really paying attention  in any given moment, and, for now, it seems to be more and more a characteristic of how I am living my life and what is showing up in it.  It doesn’t mean there aren’t difficult things or moments that show up. My father’s diagnosis of prostate cancer is a good example, the uncertainty of this story as it unfolds over the next 6 months to a year and the impact on me as his main source of support in his health care.  Or my mother’s journey with dementia in a long term care ward.  Or entering yet another new phase of my life as both of my older children prepare to depart to different provinces in the fall for University.  But it does mean I entertain these stories, events in my life, with a different kind of graciousness which invites ease into how to hold them them.  And it doesn’t mean I can’t feel joy or be in a state of joyfulness as I experience the ebb and flow of my life and the ebb and flow of the lives of people I care about.

I am welcoming ease, welcoming joy and welcoming the full array of what all needs to show up in my life, saying no to worry and to fear, yes to presence and to calm.  I am aware that fear, worry, frustration are waiting in the wings some days, some moments, but I am no longer expecting them and no longer inviting them – consciously or unconsciously.  Every moment will take care of itself.  And, if I believe that, it is a far more playful and fun way to show up in the world, a world of joy and joyfulness.

If it is true that the other shoe will drop, why can’t it look and feel like the first one rather than the one we allude to: the heavy handed, heavy-hearted counterpart to joy, love, compassion and strength?

Immoral Power or Powerless Morality?

I am still basking in the glow of my ALIA Institute experience last week (my 5th one, by the way) and this morning find myself pondering concepts offered by Adam Kahane from his new book Power and Love.

Kahane said, power properly understood is nothing but the strength to bring about purpose and love is the drive to unite the separated.  Both power and love have generative and degenerative sides.  What makes power degenerative rather than generative is the absence of love and what makes love degenerative rather than generative is the absence of power.

The idea of this continuum for both power and love makes absolute sense to me.  The idea of experimenting with the blending of power and love with greater awareness has me on the edge of my seat.

I was particularly struck by the expression: immoral power and powerless morality.   We have come to believe that power corrupts, is held in the hands of a few and is the source of much that is bad in the world.  We believe that people who sit in the place of love are ineffectual and weak – other than a few prominent examples like Mother Teresa or Ghandi whom most of us have trouble identifying ourselves with.

While we  may believe the antidote to power is love, when we swing too far in that direction it often becomes inaction and ineffectual.  How many of us have avoided stepping into our power out of fear and the belief that power is bad?  How many of us have self-righteously sat in the place of love waiting for it to right all the wrongs of the world – or have just given our power away?

Kahane says it is not a choice but a paradox.  We can’t choose just one.  We need both.  We just need to find the balance between power and love.  In any given situation, what is needed of me?  If there is too much power, act with love.  If there is too much love, act with power.   When we work with this consciously and intentionally, then power and love  gradually overlap and we find our place of greatest effectiveness and greatest movement for any given situation.

Shape shifting, shape shifting,in a soulful way, leaning in, claiming it back, leaning in, growing open, shape shifting, shape shifting in a soulful way” – some of my  “blues band” lyrics that just spilled over onto this page as I consider the journey of power and love I have been traveling the last 5 years.

The Mind Cannot Take You Where the Heart Wants to Go

The mind cannot take you where the heart wants to go.

I wrote this statement at the bottom of a random piece of paper that has been floating around my desk for some time now.  I do not remember how it came into my awareness but it has caused me to pause and reflect every time I happen upon it.

This simple statement is why so many dreams go unrealized.  Our dreams reside in the heart and beyond any logic.  The mind seeks safety through logic and analysis.  In so doing, it has the potential to paralyze the dream – and often does.  It shuts down vision, beauty, aspirations and possibilities while looking for the right way or the right time to do things or waiting to have enough – information, money, time, experience.

In waiting for the logical evolution of things, there is no right time.  And yet, right time and right timing emerge through heart space and consciousness if only we pay attention to what is whispering in our awareness.  It requires a different kind of listening born out of quieting the mind, stilling the body and surrendering to the inspiration of the visions and dreams that call out to us, reminding us what is ours to do in the world right now.  It takes courage and fierceness, even gentle fierceness will do.

We do need both the heart and the mind in order to realize our dreams and our potential and to contribute to others doing the same.  We have however, tended to lead with our minds and, with the shifting shape of the world, it is time to lean into leading with our hearts – in our relationships, our work and our lives.  This is how we will contribute to the healing of the world we live in and the regeneration of its people – us included.  The more we live our inspiration, the more we gather and feed the energetic field that is also shifting the shape of the world.

The mind cannot take us where the heart wants to go. We need to grow our wisdom, capacity and faith to lean into the calling and movement of the heart.  Once the heart choices are clear, the mind becomes a tool to move mountains to achieve what it originally thought not possible.

As we lean into and lead with our heart choices, the shape of our personal world will shift and so will the shape of the world we work and live in.  I see it now.  I experience it now.  Many of my friends experience it now.  If we stay true to where the heart wants to go and connect with others who are doing the same, it is only a matter of time before this movement is more real, tangible, recognizable and palpable in more and more places.  It is not about not doing hard core work, transformational work, difficult work, systems work.  But it is about leading it with heart and noticing how much more powerful all of our work and our relationships become and how much more able we are to create the shift we want and need to see for our future, the future of our children and their children’s children.