David Sibbet | Leadership
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ri-mists

Photo by Alan Briskin

“Earth’s creatures are on the brink of a sixth mass extinction, comparable to the one that wiped out the dinosaurs. That’s the conclusion of a new study (by paleobiologist Anthony Barnosky of the University of California, Berkeley), which calculates that three-quarters of today’s animal species could vanish within 300 years.” From Science Magazine: Ann Gibbons, 2011.

At the beginning of this year the sixth extinction came to me in a dream. I was at a gathering of about 15-20 colleagues in a conference center that included many other people. We were getting to know each other with introductions. After some swirling around eating and getting set up so we could talk it was my turn. I stood up and found myself saying “I am a professional facilitator and am currently focused on the sixth extinction. I want to help bring forward the new ways of thinking and behaving that will be required to survive it.” I remember feeling surprised in my dream at what I was saying, but continued. “You will get to know me as someone who both draws and listens, guiding people to visually design processes that allow them to change, adapt and think more ecologically.”

At this point a young man rose up and said, “I was at an institute recently where someone was doing that, and the charts zig-zagged all over the wall. It felt like a breakdown.”

“That is often what happens when people look closely at their own thinking and information,” I said. I should be flummoxed I thought, but I felt calm and grounded. “It is this breakdown that allows them to break through.”

The group applauded! I was surprised and my heart was racing. I sat and turned to a young man sitting beside me and said, “this is the first time I’ve ever introduced myself this way!” I remember I was feeling both startled and strangely alive and excited. And then I woke up. I knew I needed to pay attention to this dream.

It was 7:05 Sunday, the last day of a long holiday break that my partner and I described as our “digital vacation”—no Zoom, email or social media. Because of the pandemic, and a steadily worsening number of cases along with the news that a more viral version was already spreading in California, we cancelled a trip to a local hot spring where we hoped to have some renewal time, and instead stayed home. The renewal idea carried over and we treated our home as a retreat center.

There I had time to link this dream to some earlier faint signals.

Tracking Back Through Journals

At a GLEN Community Winter Solstice Gathering call before our holiday week started, Karen Wilhelm Buckley, a colleague, read a poem I’d written at a Summer Solstice gathering of colleagues in 2004. I had no memory of it. So, I went back to journal number #134 and there it was. (Journaling is one of my reflective practices). The poem was about the group and our process, but the journal had some other very important entries that were connected to my dream.

I realized that 2004 was the year I turned 60. This was a real milestone at the time, and I had planned several “rites of passages” for myself to mark the change. It began with a week with my first wife Susan (now deceased) to visit the half dozen vision quest sites I’d experienced on the East side of the Sierras (where I grew up).

Later in the summer I had then planned for and gone on a new vision quest on Mt. Shasta with my teacher, Chayim Barton, and a small group. I was rocked to see here I had written about one of the most significant visions of my life up to that point. I think now that it was the headwater of my dream.

Facing the Beast: Prior to the Shasta quest, I’d been being “worked” by an upset feeling about the dominance of “extractive” industries that pay no attention to biology, local communities, or the hidden costs of their work. “Why don’t you work on it here,” Chayim suggested as he counseled me before heading out on a three-day solo water fast. He invited me, in my solo time, to build a monument to this “beast” as I called it, reflect on it, and practice Tong-Lin (a Tibetan practice where you take in pain and breath out compassion), and then take the “beast” apart as a conclusion. I took this suggestion and on the second day of fasting created a monument. Here is my journal drawing with the associations labeled.thebeast2004I don’t need to describe my full process here but can easily remember how powerful it felt. Building it took many hours. So did disassembling it. It was easily 8 feet long. What deeply disturbed me was my grasping experientially the extent of the systemically embedded exploitation mindset. But more disturbing was trying to imagine what could stand up to it—represented by the little wand with a feather. After hours of circling and meditating and just sitting and writing about this experience, I ended up writing some of my core values on the wand—things like the golden rule, my Bodhicitta vow to serve the awakening of all sentient beings, and staying tuned to the light, and the source of vitality I find in embracing and respecting all life. But I hardly felt resolved about this.

Stepping up to RE-AMP

Later that year in December, I was asked to facilitate a new environmental organization called RE-AMP in the upper Midwest. The name stands for the Renewable Energy Alignment Mapping Project, initially a group of 25 environmental non-profits and 12 foundations, who, discouraged by results to date, wanted to work collaboratively to support the growth of renewable energy. They concluded that they had to work on four fronts in a systemic way.

  1. Reduce the impact of coal pollution from the 70 plants in the eight-state region
  2. Stop the construction of new coal plants (34 were in the pipeline)
  3. Increase energy conservation
  4. Increase renewable production.

The consultant who had helped create a causal-loop system diagram of why renewables were not taking off had concluded that these factors were all inter-related and needed to be dealt with in parallel. They needed a facilitator to help create the strategies of the four working groups.

At the meeting where the consultant, Scott Spann, handed off the project to me, he presented his system analysis in a series of complex slides, moving from a 175 factor causal loop diagram he had vetted with many experts, to a 16 factor overview diagram (Shown here) to his conclusion there were four leverage points.

re-ampsystemsmap

At the end of his presentation, he turned to the RE-AMP steering committee and, and speaking very deliberately, said – “Just remember, this is a MINDLESS BEAST.”

I can still feel the goosebumps. Oh my. Here I was standing in front of it again. The small stream of intention started on my vision quest was suddenly here, embodied, and real!

I and my company, The Grove Consultants International, spent four years working with RE-AMP with the agreed-on goal of cleaning up global warming pollutants in the eight-state region by 80% by 2050. The goal was not considered practical. But everyone involved believed anything less wouldn’t matter.

  • RE-AMP did stop the coal plants.
  • It didn’t get far on cleaning up old coal.
  • It did stimulate energy conservation in the region.
  • It encountered roadblocks regarding developing wind energy.

And it expanded to more than 150 participating organizations and over two dozen foundations “thinking systemically and acting collaboratively.” It is one of the most successful environmental collaboratives in the country and still it is not enough. The full story is for another time. Reflecting back, I realized it was my strongest experience so far of being moved by a vision without knowing the outcome. Would my sixth extinction dream might have this same arc of enactment. It feels HUGE! But then so does is this new “beast.”

A Calling?

I wondered why had my reflective “vacation” over the holidays had started with this retrospective. By accident? It was not “planned.” What guided that impulse? What was my psyche through my dream trying to tell me about what I should be doing with my work?

I remembered as I reflected that for several years now when asked about my core motivation—my life purpose— I’ve found myself saying that it is to “help midwife the coming ecological paradigm.” I perceive that we are in a shift that historians will eventually compare to the Copernican revolution—moving from engineering oriented/materialistic thinking to a more biologic, open systems approach, which will include but transcend the old paradigm, as new ones do. I also suspect that the shift will take years or centuries, as all such shifts have taken historically, and while already emerging in many places is hardly dominant.  “We will live into this new way of thinking and relating, or we won’t,” I can remember saying in various workshops. To evoke a birthing metaphor, I feel that these last few years, with global warming directly impacting my home state of California in the form of volatile weather and fierce firestorms, that the baby of this new paradigm is crowning. It needs help.

And then I remembered that two weeks later I was clobbered by an interview article in the Sun Magazine with Eileen Crist about her new book, The Abundant Earth: Toward an Ecological Civilization. She is an associate professor at Virginia Tech in the Department of Science, Technology and Society and has written extensively about biodiversity and the mass extinctions taking place. I have been reading about this for years. But Crist’s reflections on how much more serious the extinction process is than the pandemic got through this time. “It takes 5-10 million years to recover the same levels of biodiversity” she wrote.

I know that reading information doesn’t really change me. But having a full, integrated systemic embodiment of the understanding at a feeling does (like the vision quest experience) and I was having that feeling reading this interview. I suspect it is because the pandemic is no longer an abstraction. I feel the losses deeply. Perhaps it ignited the same feeling about the extinction. I ordered Crist’s book, and for several days was talking about how big an impact this article had. I didn’t think at the time think that it was a breadcrumb of what I’m to do in 2021 going forward.

I now ask myself, “What kind of scaffolding in writing and image could possibly help us all face this ‘problem’ of the sixth extinction?” I put “problem” in quotes to signify that the real problem isn’t the biological problem of a die-off of 50% of the world’s species in this century, as hard as that will be to cope with. The “problem” is that the vast majority of people on this planet, at least in the Western world, don’t have the perceptual or thinking tools, or motivation to even imagine a different way of living that is actually ecologically sustainable. This lack could accelerate the extinction as a result, and for sure ensure that anger and mistrust will accompany the change. Crist argues that what we don’t have this time is time. It’s happening now.

I’m not sure yet what I can do personally. Will I be part of the acceleration?

Taking a Stand

I notice as I write that I keep thinking about Gretta Thunberg, the young Swedish girl who has ignited a youth revolution in response to the climate crisis. Did she know what she was doing? I don’t think so. She simply had the courage to speak her feelings and do so in a public forum, and open to a movement, a collaboration that would far transcend her.

If she can, why can’t I? Why can’t we? I don’t believe that knowing how to respond to the sixth extinction is required to stand up to it, and in it, with full awareness and readiness to ask fundamental questions and learn what we need to learn to change, any more than I knew what standing in front of the beast on Mt. Shasta would mean. I do know that context matters, and as complexity theorists have discovered, a small change in the context of a dynamic system can affect huge change.

So, I begin my new year sharing this dream. We are in a time of enormous turbulence. Will we be ones who stand up? Can we actually feel this happening with as much depth as we are feeling the losses from the pandemic?

I hope my sharing strikes a responsive chord. I intend to explore these ideas further through our Global Learning & Exchange Network. You are invited to join our inquiry there if you like. I and many committed colleagues will be there.

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“We’ve been expecting the s____t to hit the fan,” said one of the participants on the third Zoom call of the day on Sunday. “Well It has.”  But another said, “It’s our collective chance to actually transform.” “I’m worried about my father, alone,” said another. “The Germans are worried about the US falling apart over this,” another said, after talking to a sister in Germany. “The air is clear over Wuhan for the first time,” said another.pandemicart

It is clear to me that very little is really clear yet, except that all of us are now in the beginning stages of our response to the COVID-19 world-wide pandemic. It is spreading itself on top of a fragmented geo-political landscape, spiking distrust in leadership, wealth, and the news itself, all combining to create a VERY high level of uncertainty. So, what should we do? What can I do? Is the “doing” impulse itself the right response?

My Inquiry

I am watching my own conscious mind working to make sense of all this, weaving stories about where it came from, what it means, where it will go, what it will do to our consulting company, The Grove, and what it means for our Global Learning & Exchange Network, a brand new non-profit dedicated to facing problems like this in a collaborative way. I devour the new. I feel vertigo looking at the stock market. Something deep inside me know it will never be the same.

I share this writing to bear witness to myself, coping. I’m resisting the urge to write — “Here are the Seven Things You Can Do.” That seems too easy, too comforting to the rational mind—like watching Netflix. I think it’s too early and maybe even dangerous to dismiss the complexity of what is happening.

My Context

I came back to this “new reality” after a nine-day silent meditation retreat that is the culmination of a two-and-a-half-year Timeless Wisdom Training with Thomas Hübl, an Austrian mystic who is attracting therapists, counsellors, facilitators, consultants and other who do trauma work. We ware learning traditional mystical practices. Hübl is convinced that a perspective which includes a capacity for working with spiritual, energetic, and emotional realities can integrate with modern understandings of neuropsychology, quantum physics, and technology in facing big problems. At the core of his teaching is a belief that before we can help others successfully, we must make friends with our own personal being and its special intelligence, trauma fields, and blindness. We are invited to see the doorway to these understandings as learning to listen to our bodies and emotions first, before helping others. That is why I’m starting with myself here.

Hübl’s approach is a practice known as “presencing” or “mindfulness” and involves meditating and learning to truly listen to what our intelligent nervous systems are telling us. For nine days the 130 of us in the training experienced walking meditation, sitting meditation, light meditation, silent meals, solo walks in nature, and some of our own practices interleaved in hour long sessions. Each day involved at least 8 hours of quiet meditation. “It is in the stillness that there is enough space for something new to come in,” says Hübl.

My spouse and partner Gisela Wendling and I attended together, and while not relating at all during the retreat, did plan a buffer of a few days to integrate afterward, tuning slowly into the news and each other. A LOT is going on personally for both of us. We are very glad we did.

As we returned news from the outside world broke like a tidal wave of information and confusion. European travel bans. A tanking stock market. Panic buying at the grocery stores. A President who cannot manage his own impulses. Pockets of COVID-19 outbreaks around the country. Italy closing down. Iran cavitating. Every day are new developments.

Of course, our own business is already being directly hit with cancelled workshops, cancelled or postponed meetings, hours to renegotiating already booked air travel, etc. etc. etc. Shouldn’t I be panicking? Shouldn’t you? I’m not panicking but I am deeply disturbed.

My Early Response

Part of our work in the retreat was to not only witness our own emotional body, but to open to sensing the groups field for its level of coherence, and the large social field. Can we listen into our collective fragmentation? Can we be open to understanding what flows down from our ancestors? Can we begin healing by connecting with and having our real feelings, and connecting with and being open to the feelings in the collective?

I realize that my concern is arcing out through my circles of intimacy. Close-in I connect with Gisela, her daughter, my children and grandchildren. Then we are connecting with as a small firm, the Grove—in what may be the last face-to-face meeting in a while and then again frequently on Zoom and Slack. The three zoom calls I mentioned were larger circles and networks. And Gisela and I are calling the GLEN community to gather. A lot of these communications are sharing heart space—listening, empathizing—not problem solving yet.

But my mind is also going. It’s my traditional response to crisis. The Grove is reaching out to our clients to let them know we are ready to help with our extensive on-line experience. I’m accepting the prevailing story that— “flattening the curve of growth through social distancing” so health care facilities can prepare and keep up. I’m aware that much of our traditional client world is going to be working virtually for a few weeks and months. We are designing new offerings. (So are most of the consultants we know).

But some other new awareness is creeping in. I notice that paradoxically “distancing” in Italy has led to thousands singing to each other every noon and evening from their balconies! I’m noticing some people reporting unusually deep feelings on connection on Zoom even though everyone agrees virtual work isn’t nearly as engaging as face-to-face. But I know that audio is quite intimate. And I’m thinking a lot about the very interesting fact that everyone is vulnerable, no matter what age, creed, socio-economic status, or affiliation you have. Has there been an event like this that is so universal?  Even the political parties managed to put their media-managed professional wrestling matches aside to pass an emergency measures bill. Even our neighbors are having a zoom conference to see what we need from each other and are especially open as we wagoldenlight-earthlk the dog.

I can see how my attention is already moving to the hopeful even as I worry. “Can I work from home tomorrow?” my assistant asks. “I don’t want to use public transit.” “Of course,” I respond. What will it be like in three weeks?

We are all at the early blooming of this crisis. It won’t touch me, my mind says. I’m healthy my mind says. I know how to work virtually my business sense says.

Yet I feel the deep upset in my body, spreading like the dark clouds from Mordor in Lord of the Rings. Can I shake your hand? Are visitors leaving something on the doorknob? If I, a pretty trusting person not in a COVID-19 hot spot am feeling this way, what is happening elsewhere?

So, I don’t have seven answers. But I do feel myself being called to be as grounded, open, connecting, and ready to respond as I possibly can be. I’m calling my children. We’re organizing meetups on-line. We are ready to help with virtual meetings. And I’m asking for guidance and saying open to the light. I’m practicing holding all of our planet in the light.

inpersistence1Coming back to the United States from a month in Europe has my head spinning. Gisela and I were working in Germany, Austria, Italy and Poland, leading our Visual Consulting: Designing & Leading Change workshops with groups of consultants and managers interested in collaboration and change. They were all hyper aware of the confusions swirling in the U.S., and wondering about their own stability. Italy is closing its borders. Merkel in Germany is hanging onto a slender coalition. Young entrepreneurs in Poland know from experience that things can shift. And they were very excited about learning hopeful strategies for change.

 

WHAT’S NEXT?

“So, what is ours to do?” I ask myself, now back home. It’s clear the polarization and complexity of our current situations (not to mention the Supreme Court square-off) are pushing many into either a zealous supporter or resistance camp. Blaming abounds (see my previous post).

As I re-grounded myself—sweeping decks, going on walks, meditating, hosting brothers and visitors from Australia—it came to me. I’m not in “resistance.” I’m in PERSISTENCE.

 

Read more…

As summer heats up, I’m thinking ahead to the fall and Leading as Sacred Practice (LASP), the week-long conference that Gisela Wendling, Alan Briskin, Holger Scholz and I will be facilitating this October 23-27 (2017) at IONS’ Earthrise Retreat Center in Petaluma, California. Last year’s gathering in Germany was exceptional and some are coming back a second time, so I’m looking forward with anticipation. But it’s taken on some new meaning and urgency.stringofbeads

I began to feel strained several weeks ago supporting the launch of The Grove’s Global Learning & Exchange Network (GLEN) while simultaneously starting a year-long Leading Change Program in Minnesota for a cohort of 20 participants from several agencies in the Metropolitan Council. This last program ended with an inspiring “stringing-of-the-beads”; more on that later.

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