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One of the things you ask in your article is, how did the shadow disappear in our pursuit of looking for the light? How is it that the shadow just disappeared, when things are actually so unpredictable and surprising? We have to realize that these very things are the seeds of loving-kindness towards oneself and real compassion for others.

Margaret Wheatley: One of the things I’ve learned from science is that what’s true at one level is true at other levels. So if processes are true at the level of the individual, we are going to find they also work at the level of community, organization or nation. For example, I see these same processes at work at the national level in South Africa. Their effort to face the truth of apartheid through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has been a powerful teacher to me.
The process started with the whites saying, well, we won’t listen because they’re going to distort the truth for their own advantage and we’ll have no control over it. Instead, what happened was that as the victims of torture came forward, as mother after mother spoke about the loss of her child or husband, it became a shared national experience of listening to people’s human stories. And over time it allowed the whites to see the humanity of black South Africans, to see that they experienced the same sense of loss, the same grief as they did. To see them as human was a profound shift in the national sensibility, because any form of terrible treatment such as apartheid depends on denying the humanity of the victims.
What I learned from this is that first of all we need to listen to one another’s stories. We really need to acknowledge the other’s experience as they present it to us, and out of that comes the possibility of a different relationship. When we are aware of the other’s humanity, so much becomes possible in terms of working with each other.

Pema Chödrön: This is what I have been discovering again and again. We assume that by moving closer to suffering we would spiral down, but it’s amazing what a source of inspiration it is to face it together. It surprises us that the darkness is a source of inspiration.

Margaret Wheatley: The experience of facing ourselves at the individual level also helps us be together differently at a societal level. What I’m finding is that independent of any explicit spiritual basis, when people in organizations are able to tell the truth of their experience to each other, it addresses the questions of who really we are in an organization and what we are really learning. What do I feel about how this team is working, truthfully? What have I learned today about doing this project? There has been so much avoidance of being together in our humanity in our organizations that we don’t ask these kinds of questions. But I find it’s truly transformative when we start telling the truth to one another, including our mistakes, including our confusion. We summon something deep in all of us any time we speak together about the truth of our experience of being human.
Like you, Pema, I think people want to be courageous. We really want to be more noble, and we want to speak for the things we see and the things we believe. This doesn’t have to be grounded in any spiritual practice, but it always takes people there. Whether it’s in a government office, a meditation center or a large corporation, whenever we can truly encounter one another in all of our humanity, we get past the illusion that everything works according to plan and we never feel uncertain. This is the great imprisonment we’re trying to find our way out of, and one way to do it is to speak truthfully to one another about our experience. Then we experience a great recognition of being in the presence of other human beings. Whether it’s through suffering or joy, what we’re really seeking is that moment of recognizing another human being. That’s always joyful in some way.

Pema Chödrön: This is what I would consider a spiritual journey, although it doesn’t have to have any of the religious labels. When people are courageous enough to express their experience—their inspiration as well as their disappointment and failure—that’s the basis of awakening, of spiritual awakening. Of course, our experience is colored by our own take on reality.

Margaret Wheatley: Yes, until you get to the enlightened state.

Pema Chödrön: But even when we’re talking about the enlightened state, the path still seems to be one of waking to each moment as honestly as we can, and being willing to communicate with other people without feeling shame about exposing our defects. Because when we are willing to expose our defects, we expose some kind of heart to other people. Curiously enough, people respond more to our honesty about our imperfections than they do to our perfections. When we’re honest about our difficulties with a project, or with another individual, or whatever, everyone in the room sort of resonates with the bravery of someone who’s courageous enough to express their pain. It’s so fascinating that that’s what inspires people.

Margaret Wheatley: The experience of really listening to another human being is the source of our willingness to love them. Someone just gave me a t-shirt that says, “You can’t hate someone whose story you know.” That works at every level. The difficult issues in our society will not be resolved until we can listen to people’s experience of things like racism and sexism—just listening without trying to defend ourselves.
In organizations, we’re blinded to the power of honest communication because we fear it will take us down the road of guilt and accusations, that it will fracture our relationships rather than heal them. We really don’t want any more meetings because all we’ve done for years is accuse and yell at each other, trying to push our own agenda through this very dense resistance. We can’t see the power of these very simple processes that would bring us to this great place of opening to one another. Yet when we finally realize the truth of who we are, and really hear people’s stories, it truly changes our capacity to be together.

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