Blog: Learning Curve

Blog: Learning Curve2020-01-13T15:39:29-05:00

Listening for Context: Discovering the Unexamined

The nature of being human shifts when we listen for context rather than for mere content. In our last blog post on the Importance of Context, I distinguished between the significance and decisiveness of context. We saw that listening, more than any other human faculty, is our access to context. This blog post explores several ways that listening is decisive.

Listening and Meaning-Making

Humans make sense of life in the meaning we assign to events. In a sense, we are literary beings. Things matter to us because they bring meaning to our existence. By perceiving, observing, sensing, and interpreting experiences, we make meaning and meaning makes us.

The nature of “being” is contextual—it is neither a substance nor a process; rather, it is a context for experiencing life that brings coherence to our existence. The first choice we ever make is one that we might not be conscious of. To what reality do we grant being?

In other words, what do we choose to acknowledge; what do we pay attention to? To whom do we listen? How do we listen, and what interpretations do we acknowledge? These become the framework for the reality through which we think, plan, act, and react.

Always–Already Listening

One of the most inaccurate assessments of another person is that “they’re not listening.” This view represents a misunderstanding of listening.

Humans are always granting being or listening to something. It takes an exceptional amount of training and practice to bring nothingness (blank slate) to the matter at hand. But that is quite different from the claim that we are not listening.

In most cases, what we mean by “not listening” is that the matter at hand is not registering in the listening that is present; that listening is insufficient and is rather focused elsewhere, on some other speaking. But on what?

Philosopher Martin Heidegger framed our involvement in the world as an always–already phenomenon. As subjects, we exist within latent structures in our listening before we perceive ourselves as such.

These listening structures reveal the features of a phenomenon that seem to precede any perception of it and are said to be “always already” present. This alwaysalready listening is always and already there, whenever and wherever we exist. When we show up, it shows up.

Listening is therefore our hidden context: our blind spots, threats, and fears; our content, structure, and processes; our expectations, identities, and cultural norms; and our web of interpretations and horizon of possibilities all offer a context for our words and actions.

These many layers of assumptions, norms, and expectations make up our alwaysalready listening as the fundamental structure that filters content. Such latent structures are a perceptual constraint that, until surfaced, shapes what we see, hear, and act on.

So, then, what gets in the way of us being in the present moment?

Most of us are unaware that our listening is not an empty vessel or blank slate, but that it contains perceptual constraints.

Perceptual Constraints

We assume that whatever someone says to us just enters our ears, is registered, and lands in our listening exactly as it was said. We often repeat the words back to the speaker, as if a match in content (words) is also a match in context (meaning).

While we may hear what is said as it was said, latent structures and content in our listening influence our perceptions to shape meaning.

  • Binary framing structures such as right/wrong, good/bad, true/false, win/lose, I know/don’t know, or agree/disagree are examples of binary filters that shape our thoughts and experiences.
  • Content such as concealed histories, associated memories, or socialized norms and culture also shapes our perceptions.

To illustrate an “I know” filter: say you are cooking in the kitchen and your spouse walks in and says, “You need to stir this pot.” You may defensively blurt out, “I know!”—even though letting your spouse know that you know is irrelevant to anything other than defending your alwaysalready listening that “I know.”

The entire need to say “I know” comes from “I know” being always and already in your listening. It is not that you are thinking “I know;” it is that who you are in that moment is “I know,” and when someone says something that occurs for you as a challenge to who you are, you respond defensively.

The perceptual constraint that we call alwaysalready listening shapes our observations, listening, and speaking. Concealed from us, it is already and always there before we can hear anything new.

Think about it, and you will find an example by identifying someone in your life to whom you are alwaysalready listening before that person even opens their mouth. Much of this forms a recurring loop.

Our Recurring Loop

Most individuals engage life at a surface level of listening. At the surface, we react by downloading events and uploading responses. This level of listening finds us transacting tasks in a recurring loop of

  • noticing what we react to, and
  • reacting to what we notice.

Our listening filters train us to engage life in this recurring loop. We tend to refine our filter for our already–always listening, which limits our bandwidth for noticing anything beyond what can be downloaded.

In short, there is a gap between what we hear (what enters our ears) and what we listen to (what lands and informs us). Said another way, our listening is decisive. The way we listen, whether explicit or implicit, defines our views, speaking, and actions.

The grid below shows some of the content in our already–always listening.

  • The interior funnel (bold items) includes some structures and concerns that we experience as we engage with information, others, or the world.
  • Outside the funnel includes some of the questions or concerns often coming at us.
listening recurring loop

Click to Enlarge

As you review this grid and move from the right side (ear) to the left side (brain), review all of the implicit structures such as assumptions, beliefs, and stories, or the explicit structures such as distractions, conditions, and symbols that occupy the space between our ear (right side) and our brain (left side).

Which of these items can you observe in your own listening?

Which of these are most pertinent to you in any situation or during specific situations?

Which of these might you automatically bring to any conversation?

The Listening We Are

We do not do listening or have listening – we are a listening. That listening, more than anything else, shapes what’s possible in any situation.

I remember my mentor sharing moments from the movie The Matrix with me. She correlated its premise with my writing, teaching, study, and practices. I had found the movie’s trailer to be very violent, so I listened to her through an “I’m against violence” filter already present in my listening. Who I was as a listening filter biased the possibility she shared. I thereby rejected the movie.

Years later, after my mentor had passed away, I caught the movie one night on television. Instantly, I related to the narrative, philosophy, and underlying themes, and any violence now seemed ancillary. I have often reflected on the many conversations I might have enjoyed with my mentor. I have since purchased The Matrix trilogy and viewed it dozens of times.

In the same way, people listen to classical music with an “I don’t like classical music” filter already in their listening before they even hear a new piece of classical music.

In these instances, our ability to hear music or view a movie is not interfered with, but our listening of these experiences is constrained and shaped by our alreadyalways listening.

Even though we think we are open-minded, coming to a situation as a blank slate, we can now see that we listen to people through a filter of assumptions from deep in the background.

In the Background

Much of what is conveyed in a conversation is implicit by virtue of a network of background conversations. In their paper Organizational Change As Shifting Conversations (1999), Jeffrey Ford and Laurie Ford discuss background conversations as “an implicit, unspoken ‘backdrop’ within which explicit conversations occur and on which they rely for grounding and understanding.”

They continue that background conversations “manifest in our everyday dealings as a taken for granted familiarity or obviousness that pervades our situation and is presupposed in our every conversation.  A conversation between a female manager and male worker, for example, may occur against a background for gender, manager and worker, oppression or exploitation, human rights, business, organization culture, family relations, or the singles’ dating market.”

Like the “I know” filter presented earlier, Ford et al. suggest that “background conversations bring both history and future into the present utterance by responding to, reaccentuating, and reworking past conversations while anticipating and shaping subsequent conversations.”

Context begins in our listening and is decisive. Can we hear with our eyes and see with our ears? As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “People only see what they are prepared to see.”

What we believe (context) often counters and always influences to a degree the facts and events (content) we observe and experience. We listen first to our background beliefs, assumptions, and values.

We are often used by and at the effect of concealed, habitual, or reflexive backgrounds. To become co-creators, we can discern and become present to the interior structures in the background.

Interior Structures

When viewing context, most focus on exterior conditions without examining interior structures, such as backgrounds that reveal the past, perspectives that can reveal both past and present, and possibility that reveals an emerging future.

Backgrounds. Drawn from our past (often historical or socialized) and automatic in our listening, backgrounds remain undistinguished and concealed from us. These begin with our alreadyalways listening and reveal our assumptions, norms, and worldviews about how things are, or our unexpressed expectations about the way things ought to go.

Perspective refers to a point of view or attitude that can either be explicit or implicit, such as frames of reference. To shift perspective in the moment, we can pause with a question: how important will this event or choice be in 1, 5, or 10 years? Often viewing current events in a historic context can expand perspective and lessen its charge.

George Carlin shared this view on perspective: “Some people see the cup as half empty. Some people see the cup as half full. I see the cup as too large.”

Shared Background: By dropping assumptions, surfacing expectations, and sharing perspectives, we reveal concealed backgrounds and can create a “shared obviousness” with others—making what’s obvious to us obvious for others. Once distinguished, this “obviousness” can support creating a shared understanding, which cultivates possibility.

Possibility. The way we discern backgrounds, surface perspectives, and drop any agendas or goals cultivates a presence, an availability that cultivates the radical openness and imagination for something new, uncertain, and unpredictable. Such a space allows for an emerging future possibility.

The grid below supports us in discerning the structures in our listening.

Discerning and Creating Context

Becoming present to the categories Background, Perspective, and Possibility in the grid above supports practices under the columns What to Drop, What to Clarify, and What to Create.

a) What to Drop details surface items, shifting them from unintentional to intentional in our awareness. Then we can either bracket (set aside) or let go of what’s arisen to create space for openness.

b) What to Clarify details items in our awareness and within language so that we may note and name them. We can then communicate any framing, concerns, or gaps in our awareness.

c) What to Create details the contexts that open new understandings, presence, and possibility.

Just the awareness of Background, Perspective, and Possibility offers an emerging openness in our listening. Accepting the presence of background will find us asking superior questions. To surface perspectives will find us inviting more views. And to acknowledge both of these will find us opening possibility.

Possibility can reveal both an emerging future and previously unseen backgrounds and perspectives, returning us to uncovering and disclosing to cultivate openness. In the space of openness, we can recreate each other. We learn to be with another (or a situation) exactly as they are and as they are not.

As we become present to our specific assumptions and interpretations, we become present to the possibility of listening we bring to any conversation. In this way, we shift our view of reality as co-created by our participation.

Reading Time: 13.5 min. Digest Time: 21.5 min

photo credit: B Rosen

Please view these related blogs: The Importance of Context in Listening and Life


Tony Zampella is the learning designer at Bhavana Learning Group, which serves coaches, educators, and learning professionals and executives.

As an instructor, researcher, and designer of contemplative learning programs and practices, Tony’s work explores the human side of change by bringing wisdom to learning. His focus includes ontological inquiry, Integral meta-theory, and Buddhist wisdom to sustain contemplative practice.


The Importance of Context in Listening and Life

“Information is now both content and context.” A passing comment made by my mentor in 1999, has since stuck with me and changed the way I think and listen. It was as prescient as Marshall McLuhan’s 1964 comment, “the medium is the message.”

To date, the importance and pervasiveness of context remains a mystery. What is it? How can we discern and create it? The subject of context—defining, distinguishing, and examining its application—is worth exploring.

Defining Context  

A good way to start is to differentiate content from context.

  1. Content, from the Latin contensum (“held together”), is the words or ideas that make up a piece. It is the events, actions, or conditions that occur in a setting.
  2. Context, from the Latin contextilis (“woven together”), is the setting in which a phrase or word is used. It is the setting (broadly speaking) in which an event or action occurs.

One can infer content from its context, but not vice versa.

Take the word “hot.” This word can describe the heat of an object, the temperature of an environment, or a spice level, as in hot sauce. It can also imply a physical quality, as in “That guy’s acting is hot,” or connote a standard, such as “That person looks hot.”

The meaning of “hot” is unclear until we use it in a sentence. Even then, it might take a few more sentences to understand the context.

That car is hot.

That car is hot. It is very trendy.

That car is hot. It is very trendy. But because of how it was obtained, I will not be caught driving it.

Here, it isn’t until the last round of sentences that we can discern the context for “hot” as stolen. In this case, the meaning is inferred. So, then, how pervasive is context?

Culture, history, and situations all alter our viewpoints and perspectives.

Layers of Context

Context gives meaning to our existence. It functions as a cognitive lens through which we can listen for interpretations of our world, others, and ourselves. It highlights some aspects, dims other aspects, and blanks out yet other aspects.

Discerning context (whether historical, situational, or temporal) helps us express our views, enables greater understanding, reveals our interpretations, shapes our choices, and compels action or inaction.

  1. Context as situational, such as physical structures, culture, conditions, policies, or practices. Situations are events that happen, and they can also shape events. When I hear somebody speak on a train, in a church, or in a lecture hall, each of these settings carries contextual associations that inform the meaning of what I hear and how it’s heard. I may also hear something in the middle of the night differently than in the middle of the day.
  2. Context as informational/symbolic: Pattern recognition, economic or trending data, or interactions between symbols (signs, emblems, images, figures, etc.) such as religious, cultural, or historical all shape identities, perceptions, and observation. Items such as the result of medical exams or the answer to a marriage proposal can be both content (answer) and context (future).
  3. Context as a mode of communication: The medium is the message. The mode of communication is critical: analog or digital, screen size, character count, symbolic expression, mobility, video, social media, etc. all affect content and shape narratives.
  4. Context as a viewpoint: Details about yourself, character, life-changing events, perspectives, intentions, fears, threats, social identity, worldviews, and frames of reference all matter. A politician walking away from a reporter asking an uncomfortable question reveals more about the politico than the reporter and can become its own story.
  5. Context as temporality: The future is the context for the present, as distinguished from our past. Said more precisely, the future a person is living in is, for that person, the context for life in the present. Goals, purposes, agreements (implicit and explicit), commitment, possibilities, and potential all shape the moment.
  6. Context as history: Backgrounds, historical discourse, myths, origin stories, backstories, and triggered memories form critical associations with current events.

Context and Randomness

In the Information Age, information both constitutes reality (context) and is a piece of data (content) that informs our understanding of reality. Actions and events do not happen in a vacuum. A bad cop cannot be divorced from the culture of his police force. Seemingly random incidents of police brutality do not occur in isolation.

Indeed, even randomness is a matter of context, as demonstrated by renowned physicist David Bohm, whose findings imply that randomness vanishes whenever the context is deepened or broadened. This means that randomness can no longer be viewed as intrinsic or fundamental.

Bohm’s insights into randomness can reorder science, as summarized in the following statements (Bohm and Peat 1987):

… what is randomness in one context may reveal itself as simple orders of necessity in another broader context. (133) It should therefore be clear how important it is to be open to fundamentally new notions of general order, if science is not to be blind to the very important but complex and subtle orders that escape the coarse mesh of the “net” on current ways of thinking. (136)

Accordingly, Bohm posits that when scientists describe a natural system’s behavior as random, this label may not describe the system at all but rather the degree of understanding of that system—which could be total ignorance or another blind spot. The profound implications for science (Darwin’s random mutation theory, etc.) are beyond the scope of this blog.

Still, we can consider the notion of randomness as akin to a black box into which we place items until a new context emerges. Emerging contexts are a matter of inquiry—our next discovery or interpretation — which reside in us as humans.

Review the deck below with two slides. Review the first slide then click the “>” button to the next slide to experience a new context.

Being as Context

Humans make sense of life in the meaning we assign to events. When we reduce life to mere matter or transactions, we become lost, empty, and even despondent.

In 1893, French sociologist Emile Durkheim, the father of sociology, termed this dynamic anomie—without meaning—the disintegration of what binds us to greater society, which leads to resignation, deep despair, and even suicide.

Each of these contextual layers (as identified above) involves, either implicitly or explicitly, our way of being. To discern context requires discerning and listening into being: the self-discovery to reveal the interpretations and perceptions we hold.

In a sense, we are literary beings. Things matter to us because they bring meaning to our existence. By perceiving, observing, sensing, and interpreting experiences, we make meaning, and meaning makes us. The nature of “being” is contextual—it is neither a substance nor a process; rather, it is a context for experiencing life that brings coherence to our existence.

The first choice we ever make is one that we might not be conscious of. To what reality do we grant being? In other words, what do we choose to acknowledge: what do we pay attention to? To whom do we listen? How do we listen, and what interpretations do we acknowledge? These become the framework for the reality through which we think, plan, act, and react.

Listening is our hidden context: Our blind spots, threats, and fears; our content, structure, and processes; our expectations, identities, and dominant cultural norms; and our web of interpretations, framing, and horizon of possibilities all offer a context for our words and actions.

Listening Shapes Context

Every situation we deal with shows up for us in some context or another, even when we are not aware of or do not notice what that context is.

Consider the daily occurrence of making and receiving “requests.” When someone makes a request of you, in what context does this request occur for you? In our research, we see several possible interpretations:

  • As a demand, a request occurs as an order. We may feel disdain towards it or resist it—or perhaps even procrastinate on fulfilling it.
  • As a burden, a request occurs as another item in our list of tasks. Overwhelmed, we grudgingly manage requests with some resentment.
  • As an acknowledgment, we accept requests as an affirmation of our competence to fulfill them.
  • As a co-creator, a request occurs to us as a future to create. We negotiate requests and explore ways, often with others, of fulfilling them.

The context is decisive.

Indeed, the context in which we receive requests reveals how we listen and, more importantly, shapes how comfortable we are with making requests.

In John Godfrey Saxe’s poem “The Blind Men and the Elephant” blind men wanted to perceive the elephant by touch. By touching parts of the elephant, each person created their own version of how the animal looked.

Context Reveals Process and Content

In the grammar of being human, we often focus on what we know or do (content) and how we know or do something (process). We often ignore, diminish, or outright dismiss who we are and why we do things (context).

Content answers what we know and how we know it. Process answers how and when to apply what we know. But context explores who and why, shaping our horizon of possibilities.

Why we do something offers insights into the context of who we are. (See video here “Know your Why”)

Consider this analogy: You walk into a room that feels off. Unbeknownst to you, all the light bulbs in that room are giving off a blue hue. To “fix” the room, you purchase furniture (content), rearrange it, paint walls, and even redecorate (process). But the room still feels off, as it would under a blue hue.

What’s required instead is a new view—a new way of seeing the room. A clear bulb will provide that. Process and content cannot get you to a different context, but shifting the context reveals the necessary process to deliver the content.

Context is decisive, and it begins in our listening. Can we hear with our eyes and see with our ears?

For example, if our context for dealing with others is that “people can’t be trusted,” this view is the context that shapes the processes we adopt and the content we observe.

With this view, we are likely to question whether the evidence that the person we are dealing with can be trusted. We will highlight anything that comes up that might question their trustworthiness. And when they are actually attempting to be fair with us, we are likely to minimize it or miss it completely.

To deal with how the context of this situation occurs for us, we are likely to be defensive or at least wary in dealing with that person.

Hidden contexts, like a concealed or unexamined bulb, can deceive and reveal us.

Context and Change

Context also plays a critical role in our notion of change. For instance, linear change as an improvement is quite different from nonlinear change as volatile and disruptive.

  1. Incremental change alters content. Changing the current state requires improving the past.

Suggesting Friday as casual day is an improvement in past content (what we do) that doesn’t require an examination of any previous assumptions.

  1. Nonlinear change alters context. Transforming an organization requires a new context, a future that is not extrapolated from the past. It requires revealing the underlying assumptions on which we base current decisions, structures, and actions.

Mandating diversity training for all executives sets new expectations about the future that will require the reexamination of past assumptions (who we have been and are becoming). Such a change, however, is often treated as adopting new content rather than creating a new context.

In their 2000 HBR article “Reinvention Roller Coaster,” Tracy Goss et al. define organizational context as “the sum of all the conclusions that members of the organization have reached. It is the product of their experience and their interpretations of the past, and it determines the organization’s social behavior or culture. Unspoken and even unacknowledged conclusions about the past dictate what is possible for the future.”

Organizations, like individuals, must first confront their past and begin to understand why they must break with their outmoded present to create a new context.

Context is Decisive

Consider our pre- current- and post-COVID world. A significant event has revealed many assumptions. What does it mean to be an essential worker? How do we work, play, educate, buy groceries, and travel? What does coaching look like? Social distancing and Zoom conferencing are new norms that find us exploring Zoom fatigue.

How has this pandemic revealed inequities in the context of “essential workers,” health care, economic relief, government resources, etc.? How do we view the current business context where we’ve outsourced our ability to respond to a pandemic to other nations? Will COVID alter the way we view happiness beyond individual and economic metrics to include social cohesion, solidarity, and collective wellness?

Interruptions in the flow of life offer a break from the past, revealing beliefs, assumptions, and processes that previously concealed norms. We become aware of outmoded norms and can now reimagine new contexts in so many parts of our lives.

Any new normal will likely unfold within some unconceived context that will take time to sort out. Only by listening for and understanding context can we embrace the different possibilities before us.

Reading Time: 14 min. Digest Time: 22.5 min


Tony Zampella is the learning designer at Bhavana Learning Group, which serves coaches, educators, and learning professionals and executives.

As an instructor, researcher, and designer of contemplative learning programs and practices, Tony’s work explores the human side of change by bringing wisdom to learning. His focus includes ontological inquiry, Integral meta-theory, and Buddhist wisdom to sustain contemplative practice.


COVID-19 Reveals the Nature of Uncertainty

Uncertainty causes panic.

This seems to be the mantra right now. It makes sense and also reveals a hidden truth: that we expect certainty. That without it, panic arises.

A challenging truth to absorb is that the very certainty we expect or need may also be a source of our suffering. The issue here is not certainty itself, but the need for certainty.

Our attachment to needs—growing to expect them—can find us lost in their absence.

Rather than continuing to fill these needs, how might we dissolve them? What would evolving beyond them make possible?

Certainty, Uncertainty, and Information

In the 1950s, scientists at Bell Labs defined “information” as the “resolution of uncertainty.” This was a useful definition, as information was becoming more essential to communications and adaptive systems for predicting a stable world.

This definition inextricably links information and certainty in ways that socialize us to measure for the predictable. In the absence of certainty, we expect information.

Imagine a world in which such a definition was useful: a stable, industrial age of predictable change. As we’ve experienced with COVID-19, change today is disruptive, relentless, and complex.

“Consider this paradox: Life is naturally uncertain–

we only go about life as if it should be certain.

Most importantly, the context for change today involves an age when information is ubiquitous and fleeting, and knowledge is fungible. Certainty is no longer the norm and never actually reflected reality. Consider this paradox: life is naturally uncertain — we only go about life as if it should be certain.

The prospect for certainty as a source of comfort no longer serves us in a world where knowledge has a half-life of a news cycle and uncertainty is the new norm. A dearth of information causes our internal compass to go awry.

That was life last week.

So much has happened over the last seven days. Each day seems like a year of change, and each week a lifetime. I live in an unrecognizable and grieving New York City.

As soon as we receive each new norm, the goalposts are moved. There is no time to adjust, settle in, or predict any certainties.

The Need for Certainty

Yes, uncertainty can cause panic when we expect, cling to and construct a world that depends on a sense of certainty.

Certainty has come to mean control, comfort, and security. Our need for certainty is a result of our relationship with knowledge. Consider the following three conditions that cultivate this need:

  1. Knowledge of Processes: predicting how something will unfold or how effective measures will be. This offers an expectation of control. Regarding our current situation, we want experts to confidently predict how long this crisis will last and how bad it’s going to get.
  2. Knowledge of Content: predicting what we’re dealing with. This offers an expectation of comfort. If we do not know how the situation will unfold, at least we know what it is and can rule out worst-case scenarios.
  3. Knowledge of Outcomes: predicting what the end will look like. This offers an expectation of security. Even if we don’t know how this crisis will unfold, at least we know the worst-case scenario and can begin to plan around that.

Any loss of control, comfort, or security can increase anxiety.

Two items prevent us from accepting uncertainty: unpacking certainty from clarity and examining our socialized beliefs about individualism. Distinguishing both can support us in shifting from controlling certainty to cultivating clarity.

Certainty and Clarity

I explored the distinction between certainty and clarity in a previous blog, concluding that:

Certainty is an emotional state. It is informed by fear, which offers a sense of safety and security in a predictable outcome. We grow to expect a specific outcome in order to hold fear in abeyance.

  • Certainty is grinding on the last 10% of a decision to get all the information possible, at the expense of time, energy and, sometimes, resources and market advantage.
  • Certainty requires us to know the outcome and to figure out how any choice will impact that outcome before any action is taken.
  • A lack of certainty makes us feel fearful, insecure, and unsafe. We cannot make a choice until we know what will happen as a result of it.

Clarity is a state of mind. It is the result of practices that clear the mind. It allows us to know the next step without having to know every aspect of the outcome.

  • Clarity occurs when we have enough information to make an informed decision.
  • Clarity rests on a grounded sense of who we are, accepting that nothing’s certain.
  • Clarity taps into our self-discovery. We make choices based on our principles (who we are), our view of reality, now, and our grounded intentions.

The unexamined need for certainty can produce anxiety, which results in an obsessive pull to make the right choice rather than the next choice.

Letting go of this need for certainty in favor of clarity begins with tackling something most powerful and often unseen: the sense of control rooted in our individualism.

American Individualism

The practice of accepting uncertainty involves evolving our relationship to independence as rooted in individualism into a relationship to freedom as sourced in our interdependence.

Socialized to believe that knowledge is power, we believe that knowledge offers us a sense of control, invulnerability, and even invincibility. These beliefs, from an orderly, industrial era, are now being dismantled in favor of an interconnected world of unmediated ideas and information.

When such impermanence and disruption drives insecurity, we are left to examine our relationship to individualism.

Many of our values have rubbed up against our American identity during this pandemic. Our individualism, exceptionalism, mythic self-reliance and tendency to equate “independence” with doing whatever we want encouraged some people to flock to bars and beachespastors even sued for “religious liberty” exemptions – rather than stay indoors to save lives.

This independent view of “liberty” prizes individual competition, defiance, and resistance over an interdependent view sourced in cooperation, connection, and collaboration.

The coaching professional reinforces some of these views and myths, most of which rest on a self-image that empowers responsibility for the individual self instead of the collective whole.

Unlearning Individualism

Sociologist Geert Hofstede, who founded the cultural dimensions theorybegan surveying national views worldwide in 1965 on a spectrum of individualism-collectivism; uncertainty avoidance; power distance (strength of social hierarchy) and masculinity-femininity; and, starting in 2010, indulgence versus self-restraint.

According to Hofstede, “Individualism is the extent to which people feel independent, as opposed to being interdependent as members of larger wholes.” A society’s relationship to individualism is reflected in whether our self-image is defined in terms of “I” or “we.”

The nature of COVID-19 amplifies our fears as “I” in the face of the unknown. Demands to quarantine can isolate us and heighten our anxiety. Protecting our individual “I” can provoke an “us against them” mentality.

COVID-19 also reveals the limitations of our individualism. Approaching this situation has reminded us that “we” are all interconnected; doing our part reduces the risk to society, which supports each of us as individuals.

Letting Go of Our Story of Separation

Our expectations of certainty are shaped by our belief in the primacy of knowledge and control in supporting individualism. This begins with the story of separation we tell ourselves. That you and I are separate. That I am separate from my circumstances and my environment. That different functions are separate.

The walls we place in the physical world represent our mental walls—our thinking and our worldviews.

“Two items prevent us from embracing uncertainty: unpacking certainty from clarity and examining our socialized beliefs about individualism.

Separation is our most fundamental misperception. It shapes all our beliefs about humanity, life, and living. It seeks out knowledge to protect the self and control circumstances or others.

Even our form of knowledge reinforces separation; we break down wholes to classify and analyze the parts within them, giving us the power to control and exploit our environment. Our fragmented minds find certainty in controlling pieces that separate us from the larger fabric of life.

Consider these words from author and thinker, Peter Senge:

We take the contingent features of our current character and reify them into a substantive personality. Thus, we assign a primordial value to our ego (part) and see the community (whole) as secondary. We see the community as nothing but a network of contractual commitments for symbolic and economic exchanges. We think that encounters with others are transactions that can add or subtract to the array of possessions of the ego. But the constitution of the self happens only in a community.

Accepting uncertainty requires embracing the dual commitments of allowing for the unknown and accepting responsibility for complex wholes. By allowing for the unknown, we develop the ability to live in the question. By accepting responsibility for complex wholes, we evolve to appreciate our connection to the community, collective good, and larger systems.

Two Dimensions of Responsibility

In the practice of accepting uncertainty, we shift from responsibility for the self (part) to responsibility for the collective (whole). Consider these two sets of democratic nations:

  1. In the East: South Korea, Hong-Kong, Taiwan, and Singapore.
  2. In the West: Italy, Spain, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

Of note: China released the genetic coding for COVID-19 on January 11, 2020.

Set 1: first reported cases between January 20 and 29. These democratic countries bent the curve to reduce spread. They didn’t wait for government mandates. As continuous learners, they leveraged previous lessons and began lockdown measures before the government stepped in. When asked, they share their belief in a kind of cultural solidarity — that each of them had to act for the collective good.

  • Responsibility for collective society guided what was best for the individual.

Set 2: first reported cases between January 20 and 30. Cases continued to spike, increasing the rate of the spread. These countries viewed each event independently and each citizen as separate, reacting in a fragmented way. America has a patchwork, 50-state strategy and thus failed to leverage previous lessons. When asked, we proudly declare our right and freedom to rebel against societal mandates.

  • Responsibility for the individual self, guided what was best for society.

Here, as they were not guided by collective welfare, individuals or states had different ideas on testing and social distancing.

On the index of the Hofstede dimension of individualism, Eastern nations average 20, while Western nations average 76.5. The United States leads at 91 out of 100. This article outlined the steps Taiwan took to keep its cases low, currently below 400.

This chart displays several nations over time. The US and South Korea both had the first known case of COVID-19 on January 20. 

What if we expanded our responsibility from protecting our individual independence to connecting to the larger fabric of life of interdependence?

Such a leap requires clarity—to act on what’s next without having to know or control the outcome. Clarity begins with a willingness to accept the truth of uncertainty.

Learning Clarity (as Practice)

If you’ve made it this far, you are ready to get to work on unlearning and relearning.

Much of this involves moving from your reliance on knowledge to your clarity of experience. Testing and trusting what you experience, as a practice, is the first step toward reaching clarity.

  1. Consumption. Bring awareness to your consumption by observing how you numb your mind and emotions with news, social media, distractions, junk food, alcohol, and other impulses or cravings. Avoid racing thoughts and restlessness by avoiding stimulants and caffeine.
  2. Silence. Observe the level of noise in your life. This blog post reveals how we’ve normalized noise. Experience more silence by creating pauses in conversations and between events and appointments. Mute the TV during commercials to reflect on your viewing experience.
  3. Space. Notice the effect that space has on you. In these times of self-quarantining, there is space in your calendar and in your life. What emotions or sensations arise? Do you feel you should be more productive? Do you feel guilt, grief (from loss), or vulnerability?
  4. Expectations. What expectations do you have of yourself, others, and the current situation? Should you know more, control more, or do more? Observe how you react, what impulses guide you, and when you are swept up or pulled away from this moment.
  5. Fear. Notice when you feel helpless, fearful, or a loss of control. Perhaps you are experiencing the unknown. Feel the fear, name it if you can, allow it to be and pass, and then note the next feeling. Notice if any individualism creeps in. This could show up as us versus them thoughts or a tribal impulse to protect yourself from others.

The result of these practices develops our ability to live in the question. We learn to explore situations with humility, curiosity, and interest in the face of the unknown and unpredictable; instead of reflexively seeking out quick-fixes to make our discomfort go away.

Accepting Uncertainty

Accepting uncertainty is a practice. It involves acknowledging your views, noting and naming your fears, slowly dissolving your underlying beliefs, and daring to be vulnerable.

Once you’ve accounted for yourself, acknowledged your situation, and acquired accurate information, ask yourself: How can I just do this moment?

Pause, breathe, feel the ground beneath your feet, and contemplate:

I am here.
I am now.
All I need is within me.
All I need comes to me.

To act from clarity requires letting go of (un)predictable outcomes later or the (un)known consequences of that outcome. It’s focusing on the here and now.

This reminds me of the Zen parable of the Chinese farmer, shared here by Alan Watts. Wisely, Watts claims that because of the “interdependent and complex nature of reality, we shall never know what happens is good or bad; because we never know what the consequences of the misfortune, or the consequences of good fortune.”

All we can ever possibly know comes from a sense of who we are, from the presence of the current moment, and from our ability to envision what’s next. That’s clarity.

Then, ask yourself: How am I part of common humanity? Where can I request support? We are not alone. That’s interdependence.

In time, uncertainty will be viewed not as negative, but as normal, or more accurately, as reality.


Uncertainty still triggers me. It evokes irritation at the loss of control. It triggers annoyance at unfulfilled expectations. It provokes sadness at perceived helplessness.

But these emotions, thoughts, and sensations are neither concealed from me nor do they mysteriously guide me. They are part of me—part of us. They are part of our common humanity.

Moreover, accepting uncertainty cultivates more peace in our vulnerability. We appreciate self-discovery by accessing our imagination, acknowledge the mystery of being human, and learn to create possibility by living in the question.

Yes, uncertainty may cause panic. Paradoxically, though, the very possibility we desire also exists in uncertainty.

Reading Time: 10.5 min. Digest Time: 19 min


Tony Zampella is the learning designer at Bhavana Learning Group, which serves coaches, educators, and learning professionals and executives.

As an instructor, researcher, and designer of contemplative learning programs and practices, Tony’s work explores the human side of change by bringing wisdom to learning. His focus includes ontological inquiry, Integral meta-theory, and Buddhist wisdom to sustain contemplative practice.


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 “In times of change, those who are prepared to learn will inherit the land, while those who think they already know will find themselves wonderfully equipped to face a world that no longer exists.”


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