Blog: Learning Curve

Community: The missing ‘Gem’ in Learning

“Why do we confront learning opportunities with fear rather than wonder?”

“Why do we derive our self‐esteem from knowing as opposed to learning?”

“Why do we criticize others before we even understand them?”

It’s been 25 years since these questions opened the seminal paper Communities of Commitment: The Heart of Learning Organizations by Peter Senge and Fred Kofman. They persist concerning adult learning in today’s organizational life.

Beyond routine learning and acquiring simple skills, there’s a kind of learning that cultivates our capacity to learn and evolve as human beings. Let’s call it deep learning—it encourages the necessary challenges to grow beyond our beliefs and assumptions, to let go of outmoded thinking, to experiment with differences, and to develop practices that sustain continuous learning.

Deep learning develops learners in ways that match these times of exponential change and content overload. With our abundance of information (or access to it), learning challenges do not concern content, but rather context: perspective, judgment, and attitudes.

The gap we must bridge involves the distance between our cognitive and our affective life to integrate new knowledge in ways that alter our self-perceptions and our view of others.

Learning vs Knowing

Instead of delving deeper into these questions by Senge and Kofman, much of our attention and time since the publication of their seminal paper has focused on the surface of learning: the delivery and accumulation of knowledge.

We focus on assessments to measure knowledge; technology to access more information, accelerate training, and optimize content delivery; and new processes to reallocate ideas in micro-learning-sized bites for fast consumption.

A quick review of some of the literature for learning and development reveals the following: Concerns about data and analytics and transitioning to data-driven learning; use of marketing to guide or scale learning; the impact and ROI of learning; questions of why we measure and what we measure.

With our focus on technology, scaling, and delivery modes, we’ve made little progress in differentiating learning from knowing.

A recent Harvard Business Review article noted that “one in five Americans have a mental health condition. Tens of millions suffer from mild to moderate anxiety and other mood disorders.”

What’s the point of adult development if heaps of knowledge cannot cultivate sufficient wisdom to get us in touch with what deeply matters for ourselves and others?

Much of this has to do with larger inquiries of meta-learning. What is learning, as distinct from knowing? How do we cultivate a mindset for continuous learning? How can learning offer refuge for humans to process life at the speed of thought?

Learning Is Emotional

An area to begin our inquiry is the realization that adult learning involves an emotional challenge—not a cognitive one.

Emotions are important, as they can either motivate or impede learning. For learning professionals, navigating the emotional terrain can be demanding, especially with experiential learning, which is effective but can evoke emotional responses.

To experience learning as-lived requires an emotional understanding as follows:

  1. Resonance—to connect cognitive and affective experiences to understand the responses in our body that lives in us.
  2. Context—to leverage that understanding to create an emotional context that motivates and sustains learning that lives for us.

The result is that we are more likely to learn something we care about, that matters to our future—or that lives in our lives.

Still, learning occurs between a fear and a need; we traverse the fear of the unknown to fulfill an unmet need. Much of our fear comes from reflecting on our experience — where learning actually emerges. As philosopher and scholar, John Dewey, noted “We do not learn from experience. We learn from reflecting on experience.”

Whether guilt, shame, despair or dread, fear can impede our exploration and discovery in ways hidden from us, such as:

— Coming to terms with being a beginner, and fear of not knowing can provoke anxiety and stress. If “I don’t know,” are the three most difficult words to utter, then the second most difficult are, “I’m a beginner.”

— Being confused or stuck in confusion, can produce self-talk that something’s wrong with us. This can be isolating, and prevent us from seeking support.

— A self-critical mind that judges one’s intelligence, abilities, or competence can increase anxiety or stress.

— Fearing being perceived as stupid or dumb, or concern about looking foolish or asking silly questions, can often cause embarrassment or drive one to be defensive or unwilling to participate.

— Taking feedback so personally can cause us to overlook important connections and insights.

— Discovering the need to let go of outmoded views or ideas can become overwhelming or even dreadful, and can lead to a loss of identity.

Learning, Teaching, and Emotions

Once we recognize our fears, we can appreciate the roles emotions play, both as information to guide us and as the context for powerful learning.

According to author and thinker Alan Sieler in his text Coaching to the Human Soul, Volume II:

Our initial challenge as emotional learners is to observe what is—to allow ourselves to observe and acknowledge emotions as phenomena that constitute an integral part of how we are human.

This is the paradox of learning: the very emotions that can impede us are most critical to learning.

Typically, our traditional learning paradigm tends to intellectualize emotions: we talk about them rather than learn from them. We will explain why an emotion exists—distancing ourselves from the feeling—rather than sitting with its sensations or direct felt experience as it moves through our body.

Intellectualizing our emotions aligns well with cognitive learning, rather than affective learning. For most educators, teaching is more about the teachings than the learning. Emotional resonance or context is rarely a consideration.

A wise teacher can bring teachings to life, but ultimately the learner learns what they care about.

Delving into deep learning involves more than great teachers and teachings. In fact, we need more than is available individually or experientially.

This journey requires venturing East.

The Three Gems

Deep learning that expands our view of self and others cannot be achieved individually. And while teachings and a teacher are necessary, they are insufficient to expand our sense of self.

Hence, another paradox emerges: Only in a trusted community with a shared understanding can we grow individually.

Or, the notion of “individual” is bankrupt as we seek to evolve our being.

In Buddhism, the idea of the three gems (or three jewels) represents an interdependent whole that includes:

  • the Buddha (the teacher),
  • the Dharma (the teachings), and
  • the Sangha (the community).

The most important part of this triad, however, is not any of those items. The real treasure here is the wisdom of its interrelated, interdependent nature, an insight that is too often overlooked or dismissed.

In the West, we view this triad as three separate items to combine. We may add the element of community to our design without revisiting the teacher or our relationship to the teachings. We’ve now added a fragmented view to what is an elegant interdependent whole. The grid below illustrates some of the challenges of our default, fragmented view.

From an Eastern perspective, the elegance of the interdependent view locates each of these items within each of the others—three integral parts hanging together to support a greater whole.

Teacher (buddha). The teacher represents the awareness to cultivate wisdom from the community to better understand the teachings necessary to deepen awareness.

Teachings (dharma). Here, teachings are contextualized as truth, beyond any content. This involves the material embodied by the teacher and the material in the community that emerges in discussions, and especially the practices that metabolize and connect the content to each waking moment.

Community (sangha). The community reflects the teachings and informs the teacher through what Zen scholar Thich Nhat Hanh terms, “sangha eyes”:

When a sangha shines its light on our personal views, we see more clearly. In the sangha, we won’t fall into negative habit patterns.

We learn about ourselves from each other. The Dharma or teachings bind the space with commitment to becoming more. The context for community transcends the individual, yet mirrors the self to the direct experience of being.

Community Is Key

Our Western pedagogy and context of learning demand a bit more attention.

Honoring the three gems requires looking deeply at two elements of our deep socialization that undermine community: our independent–individualistic mindset and our competitive attitude.

We often accept learning in this context. We seek out a good teacher, purchase the suggested material, and go off on our own to learn – often to achieve more, even faster. Many of us would rather pay more for a teacher or teachings that release us from becoming vulnerable in a community.

A learning community is not a mere sentimental view of being human, although it often reveals that dimension. Designing such a culture requires personal mastery and rigorous agreements and practices in areas of listening, focusing attention, and cultivating intention to develop compassion and patience.

Honoring the interdependent wisdom of the three gems constitutes community as an integral part of becoming fully human, not as a social place to connect with others. Consider these perceptions of a learning community:

  1. Everyone is respectful and polite and asks great questions that yield interesting discussions. I feel safe and respected.
  2. Belonging to the community is rewarding and fulfilling. I like to connect with people who share so much in common with me.
  3. Everyone encourages feedback and questions each other in ways that hold me accountable and respect me as a member.
  4. Belonging to the community can be rewarding but also annoying and irritating, as I am asked to explore questions that make me uncomfortable.

If you are drawn to the first two items and repelled by the latter two, it’s likely you have not yet experienced community as outlined here.

Community Beyond “Individual” to Evolve Being

Community as an interdependent element of the three gems is the very place where we can be vulnerable, open to learning about ourselves in new ways. As stated by Thich Nhat Hanh, “take refuge in the sangha, and you’ll have the wisdom and support you need.”

This kind of learning is beyond who we are as individuals. It demands honest interaction, deep connection, and critical self-reflection to discover a new relationship to the self as an evolving being in the world. This realization happens in relation to others, to other ideas, or to situations that disclose individual identity to our self as an evolving process.

More importantly, community is the missing link that, when viewed interdependently with teaching and teacher, offers us refuge to learn from the direct, felt experience of our emotions as they emerge in our body and pass.

Embodying the three gems offers emotional resonance to connect cognitive and affective experiences that live in us with an emotional context to encourage and sustain learning that lives for us.

The three gems offer the fundamental support for being in community.

In community, we can be a beginner.

To continue this discovery, this post is a complement to the following blogs:

tony-zampella-headshot Tony Zampella is the learning designer at Bhavana Learning Group (previously, Zampella Group), which serves coaches, learning professionals and business executives. As an instructor, researcher, and designer of contemplative learning programs and practices, his work develops mindsets for growing a culture of servant leaders.

His focus includes ontological inquiry, into the nature of being; Integral theory to include Eastern wisdom and practice with Western learning and business models; and, Zen Buddhism to sustain contemplative practice.

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Listening as Context and Practice

Listening is an underdeveloped asset in our leadership, culture, and organizational life. Deep listening expands our capacity to remain open, receive concerns, perceive experiences, and discover situations newly. And yet, as change becomes exponential and information assaults our senses, listening suffers.

For coaches, therapists, and educators, a failure to listen deeply can create professional negligence. For leaders, team members, and business professionals, it often produces unnecessary setbacks, misunderstandings, missed connections, or conflicts. My research emerges from the deep learning that informs deep listening. My work on listening involves several past blogs, as well as a white paper.

Our prior writings examine listening in a developmental model. This blog offers a previously unexplored aspect of listening: specific learnings and practices to expand and deepen one’s listening.

Listening as Context

What is listening? Let me begin with this: Speaking is insufficient to say what listening is. As soon as we breathe a word about listening, we’ve reduced its fullness. We’ve defined and limited a human phenomenon that is misunderstood, underappreciated, and highly involved.

We tend to observe listening as the opposite of speaking—in other words, if you are not speaking, then you must be listening. These observations engage a fatal error.

Listening as context is first a field of being, manifesting as a commitment; then as content as a competency, and then a skill. If this is news to you, please consider whether at some point you’ve reduced listening to something much less than what is possible.

Beyond levels of awareness or mindsets, listening as context allows for a field within which life emerges. I propose that such a field is governed by our openness to change. It expands our identity to include three interdependent states: intention, openness, and wholeness, each involving specific learnings and practices.

With each state, we awaken, deepen, and embody listening as a field or context to transcend the reactive self, competitive self, and fragmented self. Each of these identities results from our socialization and impedes deep listening.

I will briefly develop each state and review five learnings and four practices that I’ve discovered to sustain deep listening: 1) learning to observe, 2) practicing “coming back,” 3) learning to “not know,” 4) practicing resistance training, 5) learning to dissolve the “problem” paradigm, 6) practicing acceptance, 7) learning radical openness, 8) learning to “be with” possibility, and 9) practicing granting being.

Intention: Awaken the Field to Interrupt the Reactive Self

With intention, we increase consciousness to disclose and discover automatic, habitual energy that drives listening and choices. Ultimately, we become aware of our reactive self and interrupt its impact on us and others.

We create and cultivate space between opinions and actions. Some outcomes include:

  • The ability to distinguish between intentions, expectations, and impact.
  • Accurately reproducing communications, requests, and conditions of satisfaction.

Two practices and two learnings support this state: 1) learning to observe, 2) practicing “coming back,” 3) learning to “not know,” and 4) practicing resistance training.

1. Learning to Observe

Here, we begin with listening to your observer. We are always observing, but for most, it is casual and can be distracting. These four levels of observation reveal how layers of reality often happen in tandem. We can discern these levels upon reflection.

Level 1- Observe events around us—the rain falling, the dog barking, and the garbage truck driving by.

Level 2- Observe our direct experience of events. It’s raining, and I am wet. The dog’s barking is loud. The unpleasant smell of the garbage truck.

Level 3- Observe our internal state. I notice disappointment that it’s raining. I am delighted to see the dog. The garbage truck reminds me that I forgot to take out my trash, and I feel anger rising.

Level 4- Observe our listening. A stranger asks for directions. I pause and ask her to repeat the question. In a split second, I notice my listening. I set aside rising anger, disappointment, and delight. I now pay attention to the question.

2. Practicing “Coming Back”

The practice of coming back involves distinguishing between focus and concentration.

  • Focus is the span of attention or staying present.
  • Concentration is the depth of attention or staying grounded.

The practice of coming back supports both being present and staying grounded by focusing the mind on a single object, to the exclusion of other objects, to foster concentration on a single task. To practice, we notice distracting thoughts or sensations that arise, then gently return awareness to the primary object of experience (the breath, a word or conversation, etc.).

3. Learning To “Not Know”

The three hardest words to utter may be “I don’t know.” Yet, until we can become comfortable with not knowing, we cannot fully discover, inquire into, or embrace the uncertainty on the other side of our opinions and judgments. Paradoxically, freedom and openness emerge from that uncertainty.

To expand beyond what we already know, we practice letting go of the need to know, to prove, or to explain. We allow for unexpected discoveries.

— Listening for knowledge seeks certainty: the fixed and predictable. We are located in our head and thinking about, or intellectualizing, events.

— Listening from wisdom involves questioning knowledge. With humility and uncertainty, we experience events, using all our senses by tuning into our breath and body.

More importantly, avoid turning something new into something known. This reduces “differences” to similarities. Embrace each moment with a fresh perspective.

This learning is a fulcrum we revisit for cultivating deep listening. Using practices one and two, we become open to “learning to not know” to develop conditions for the next practice (4) and learning (5).

4. Practicing Resistance Training

The word resistance conjures thoughts and emotions that can be unsettling: confront, conflict, challenge, battle, defiance, oppose, or endure. Given our thoughts and feelings about resistance—either as resisting others or as experiencing resistance from others—we probably want to avoid any form of resistance.

Paradoxically, expanding awareness opens us to subtler levels of listening that will include giving and receiving unpleasant information. This openness in our listening invites a new level of concerns to accept or resist.

I offer Carl Jung’s thought, “What you resist, persists.” Conversely, what you can “be with,” acknowledge, and receive can dissolve and free space for what matters most. This is the hidden power of listening.

Resistance training requires all the previous practices and learnings to cultivate the muscle to engage perceived threats or stress. These techniques support us in “being with” conversations and situations as they emerge:

  • Be willing to set aside your point of view—identify and drop any assumptions and expectations.
  • Be open to observing how you resist. Notice any resistance or conflict to what’s being said. Self-inquiry: What is it they want to say that I don’t want to hear? Then, pause and breathe, and be where they are in the conversation.
  • Be committed to getting another’s full communication. Self-inquiry: Am I willing to stay in the conversation until I get someone’s full communication? Ask to be sure: Is there anything else to say?

Openness: Deepen the Field to Transcend the Competitive Self

With intention, we slowly allow space for conscious choice. Openness cultivates the space between opinion and action.

We transcend the competitive self by distinguishing “either/or” binary thinking and listening for “both/and” inquiries.

  • Openness grants space to more fully experience resistance and cultivate emotional awareness.
  • Stillness and silence cultivate “self ” as a process rather than “identity.”

Two learnings and one practice support this stage: 5) learning to dissolve the “problem” paradigm, 6) practicing acceptance, and 7) learning radical openness.

5. Learning to Dissolve the “Problem” Paradigm

Dissolving the problem paradigm involves venturing beyond problem-solving to creativity. This is a deeply rooted fixation in education, business, and even psychology. Learning scholar, Peter Senge identifies this in a business context:

The reactive stance in management is evident in the fixation on problem-solving. … But problem-solving is fundamentally different from creating. The problem solver tries to make something go away. A creator tries to bring something new into being.

Problem Paradigm. Observing problems through a normative lens, we listen to diagnose and solve. We observe what works, what’s wrong, and how to fix it. We expect normative ideals to precede problems that should not exist, so we listen for prescriptions.

Possibility Paradigm. Observing problems with philosophical insight, we listen for what’s missing or essential for a declared possibility. We view problems as inevitable and universal as we venture into the unknown, so we listen for possibilities.

This learning is another critical threshold that deepens awareness to cultivate the beginning of an interdependent consciousness.

6. Practicing Acceptance

The practice of acceptance unfolds from previous practices and learnings. Specifically, the focus on mindfulness allows for the rising and passing of thoughts and emotions to cultivate non-reactive awareness. As we allow emotions, we locate them in our body, feel them, and let them pass without reifying them.

You may now see how a previous practice of “resistance training” supports acceptance. Such acceptance finds us accepting self and receiving (listening for) differing points of view as valid.

We acknowledge “self” as a point of view that unifies the flow of experience into a coherent narrative (Senge).

Practice acceptance with this mantra:

I am enough.
This is enough.
This moment is enough.
I accept this moment as it is.

7. Learning Radical Openness

Here, we honor the origin of the word radical, which means “root.” We dig to the root beyond surface “maps” or “concepts” that tend to represent our experiences.

For instance, when I sit by a tree, I “know” it’s a tree because I’ve internalized the map of a tree and bring it with me. I listen through my “tree-map” filters. If I saw a mustache and beard on the tree, I’d do a double-take, as it would no longer fit my tree-map.

Our lives consist of maps for most situations we encounter in life. Until we penetrate concepts, we view life through our maps rather than directly experiencing each encounter.

Buddhist scholar Thích Nhất Hạnh considers nirvana as “the silencing of concepts.” Radical openness notices what’s between our maps and the root of our experience.

  1. Observe the layers of “concepts” that represent experiences and “beliefs” about concepts to explain reality.
  2. Observe meaning: Begin dissolving expectations, assumptions, and differences—notice unexpected questions or thoughts that emerge.
  3. Observe identity: Disclose “self” as a point of view part of a larger coherent truth.
  4. Observe what shows itself: Notice what emerges in how others bring you into being (recreate you).

Wholeness: Embody the Field to Dissolve the Fragmented Self

Developing intention and cultivating openness allows for interdependent awareness that embodies the field of listening. As we experience wholeness, we begin to dissolve barriers, identities, and the fragmented self. We witness all forms and dissolve binary thoughts into unfolding wholes.

  • Each discovery unfolds into greater meaning.
  • Each fragment unfolds into a larger whole.
  • Each interpretation unfolds into deeper understanding.
  • Each fact unfolds into a coherent truth.

I begin to see parts of you in me and parts of me in you, emerging as common humanity.

A practice and learning support this state: 8) learning to “be with” possibility and 9) practicing granting being.

8. Learning to “Be With” Possibility

The idea of being with possibility is cultivated by every previous learning and practice.

Possibility is not a goal, agenda, or intention. It is a space of freedom, a field of potential and openness where anything can surface, be witnessed, and be heard. The test involves our ability to be with what arises, stay with it, and to sustain possibility.

We can now “be with” what we do not understand or what we do not want to hear. We can stay with things to see through them. We can be with others’ views, concerns, and commitments as they hold them. We can be with another’s views as valid and other beings as legitimate. We navigate life differently:

  • The experience of empty attention cultivates non-reactive awareness;
  • With clear perception we view unified coherence; and
  • Direct presence experiences reality as holons: simultaneously, parts are both wholes unto themselves and unfold into larger wholes.

Our listening becomes the space for others to sort themselves out in language.

9. Practicing Granting Being

All we want is to be heard. Any problem, conflict or emerging strife can be traced to a lack of listening. “A riot is the language of the unheard,” taught Martin Luther King Jr.

Surveys have shown that the most profound justice people seek isn’t retribution but to be fully understood and to be heard. In this space, wholeness shows up as:

  1. Being gotten. We begin to receive and accept all points of view to embody a fuller view or coherent truth. People now sense they’ve been heard—that we get them—viscerally, beyond any forms, labels, or concepts.
  2. Granting being. In allowing to be, we embody what we can acknowledge. Here, we connect with the generative power of listening and begin to see that listening is decisive and shapes what comes to be in our presence.

We recreate all views that come into presence as revealing and coming from our field of listening. We can be here with another, exactly as they are—nothing added or taken away from their experience.

Learning and Unlearning

Many of these learnings and practices are quite involved. They often require unlearning at the level of our identity — our assumptions and beliefs about ourselves, others or reality. The journey to expanding listening is like climbing a mountain with no top. Getting used to the climb becomes the aim.

I hold these as developmental and circular—not linear and sequential—areas to explore. However, the order laid out in this blog offers supportive conditions that cultivate subsequent learnings and practices that can unfold naturally.

One tip might be to take on a practice or learning and test it out. Live with it a while. Marry it with a breathing practice and in time you may find that you’ve come to practice all of them. The interdependent nature of the whole field is more like a hologram; anywhere you enter reveals the whole.

Still, I’ve discovered that once you expand awareness, circling back can offer greater depth. Few programs offer this level of immersion and depth. We have developed one, specifically for experienced coaches. Perhaps it is right for you.

Learn about our Listening Certificate

tony-zampella-headshot Tony Zampella is the learning designer at Bhavana Learning Group (previously, Zampella Group), which serves coaches, learning professionals and business executives. As an instructor, researcher, and designer of contemplative learning programs and practices, his work develops mindsets for growing a culture of servant leaders.

His focus includes ontological inquiry, into the nature of being; Integral theory to
include Eastern wisdom and practice with Western learning and business models;
and, Zen Buddhism to sustain contemplative practice.

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Commitment: A Context and Practice

Commitment is a universal element in life. While just speaking the word commitment can elicit confusion and angst, there’s no question about its importance in our lives. Everything from monthly bills to education, marriage, work, and goals depends on some level of commitment.

The challenge becomes distinguishing, cultivating, and deepening commitment, especially in times of volatile change and uncertainty.

With this post, I will examine a fuller understanding of commitment: first, to offer different views of commitment, then to explore it as a context with fundamental conditions, and finally, to address some of the challenges in cultivating a life-giving commitment.

Different Views

The research on commitment includes at least three broader views: psychological, philosophical, and Buddhist.

Psychological View

John Meyer and Natalie Allen published a three-component model of commitment in Human Resource Management Review (1991). The model distinguishes commitment as a psychological perspective toward an organization, with three components that affect how employees feel about the organization:

— Affection for job (affective commitment). Here, you feel a strong emotional attachment to your organization and to the work that you do. You may identify with the organization’s goals and values and want to be there.

— Fear of loss (continuance commitment). This type of commitment is achieved through a cost-benefit analysis; you weigh the pros and cons of leaving your organization. You may feel the need to stay at your job because the loss you’d experience by leaving it would be greater than the benefit you might gain in a new role.

— Sense of obligation (normative commitment). Here, commitment feels like an obligation: you are duty-bound to your organization, even if you’re unhappy in your role. You feel that you should stay with your organization because it’s the right thing to do.

Each option in this model offers a normative view, depending on some evaluative and external assessment as good, or better. Even so, each case seems insufficient to generate a commitment from within yourself to bring to work.

Philosophical View

A philosophical inquiry questions the relationship between freedom and commitment. Business philosopher Peter Koestenbaum highlights the importance of this inquiry:

“One of the gravest problems in life is self-limitation: We create defense mechanisms to protect us from the anxiety that comes with freedom. We refuse to fulfill our potential. We live only marginally.”

We become less because we are unwilling to commit to our fullest potential. In his classic, The Fifth Discipline, Peter Senge dissects different views of commitment that reveal who we are regarding our potential.

  • Compliant. Here, we conform to others’ expectations. The attitude is “we do this because it’s our job.” As long as we finish the task, we are satisfied, even though more opportunity exists. We see no incentive to go the extra mile, which often entails creating more work.

Signs of compliance:

        1. Objectives are only completed at minimum standards.

        2. Meetings are attended but with limited participation.

        3. Input is acknowledged but nothing happens.

  • Enrolled. Here, we express ourselves, aligned with an organization’s purpose and the “spirit” of a vision or future. We see value in our participation and recognize our valuable contributions based on our experience, insight, and intuition.

Signs of enrollment:

1. People approach you instead of you looking for them. They proactively sign up for positions or tasks, and ask: “How can I help?”

2. They actively contribute in meetings, ask questions, and interject opinions.

  • Committed. Here, we do whatever it takes, becoming willing to make personal trade-offs and taking responsibility for co-creating reality. We put ourselves on the line in order to reach key objectives and goals to bring about a vision or future.

Signs of commitment:

1. Show up to meetings and events fully and prepared to contribute or seek out contributions from others.

2. Challenging assumptions and opinions based on expertise and skill sets.

3. Willing to break the rules after they have been learned.

Buddhist View

When we venture East, deep commitment becomes akin to a vow or a willingness to surrender to something larger than yourself. Commitment emerges from a compelling future that binds and guides us:

  • It can ground us and provide a sense of purpose.
  • It can provide direction in life.
  • It can give us something to serve.
  • It can help us evolve emotionally and in wisdom.
  • It can provide a context for making decisions.
  • It can prevent us from acting on unhealthy impulses.
  • It can unify the mind.

From this view, making a commitment doesn’t necessarily mean that you will reap the desired result. The outcome of any commitment can involve conditions beyond your control. Therefore, you aren’t committing to a certain result—you are committing to a way of life, to showing up as your best effort. The reward comes from acting on your commitment.

Elements of Commitment as Context

We can begin to see commitment as more than a goal I achieve or a value I embrace to achieve goals: it is a context for viewing life that enlivens and animates me. Commitment as a context involves three fundamental conditions: choice, word, and stand. Each of these exists at three levels of awareness: life either happens to me, by me, or through me.

  • Choice: Intention from a level of consciousness. My relationship to “choice” is based on my level of consciousness.

1. Life happens to me. I am at the effect of life. Choosing occurs as reacting, mostly unconsciously (Senge’s “compliant” view).

2. Life happens by me. I make things happen. Choosing occurs as responding, proactively (Senge’s “enrolled” view).

3. Life happens through me. I am in a dance with life, surrendering to its flow. Choosing occurs as continual discovery and intentional choosing through what is happening, what is disclosed, and what is wanting to happen (Senge’s “committed” view).

  • Word: Responsibility from level of ownership to co-create. My “word” pertains to the strength of the promises and agreements I make or the understanding I create. It reveals the relationship to my word or how it exists for me.

1. Life happens to me. I use my word to describe circumstances. This occurs as describing what I want without taking the necessary action to move forward.

2. Life happens by me. I am proactive with my word to make things happen and accept responsibility for results.

3. Life happens through me. In a dance with life, my word is generative. I use my word to co-create reality. I accept responsibility for what I co-create: results and the unexpected impact of those results.

  • Stand: Resolve to act from an awareness of what’s at stake. This is where commitment meets choice, word, and action. I engage action as a conscious choice.

1. Life happens to me. I am obliged to act on my word, depending on the circumstances.

2. Life happens by me. I am empowered to create results regardless of situations or setbacks.

3. Life happens through me. I resolve to stand for something bigger than myself and engage in the necessary trade-offs to co-create the results with others.

Absent commitment as a context for life, we are at the effect of circumstance. We react to the drift of life, unaware of our role as co-creators in its unfolding. To honor commitment requires choosing consciously, owning my word as my world, and taking a stand from what’s at stake as I engage life.

Challenge of Commitment: Choosing and Action

The freedom of commitment lives in its possibility: to take a stand and act on a future possibility and to stick with it to create results.

Commitment and Choosing

Commitment opens a future while foreclosing others to offer direction. Commitment as context is a stand. There is no evidence for it; it is a view we bring to life, a possibility we embody through a declaration we speak. Such a stand requires choosing intentionally, owning our word, and resolving to be moved by what’s at stake.

We are willing to engage in trade-offs—between what’s comfortable and what’s possible or between past beliefs and future possibilities.

Beyond those moments when you say “yes,” commitment also involves, more often, those times when you say “no” (often, more importantly).

What matters in a commitment is choice: the continual choosing that constitutes yourself as a possibility and establishes a direction. Even the commitment to arrive early to a meeting constitutes me as willing to participate and contribute as opposed to someone attending a meeting because it’s on their calendar.

Commitment in Action

This is where commitment tests our courage to choose, declare, and act. Here, we generate rather than perform our commitment. Generating a commitment begins, first, by embodying a visual experience in language.

For example, let’s say my commitment is to bring wisdom to learning. These words come from a background of experience that moves me, and from an understanding of what’s at stake, which I am willing to give voice to.

With the meaning of these words, and the experience, I will 1) generate a possibility in language, 2) embrace its truth, and then 3) show up as that commitment.

  1. Generate possibility. I view the commitment to bring wisdom to learning as a possibility. I can now visualize a world that honors learning for its own sake. I can see different learning environments, different conversations, the joy of discovery and practice that leads to wisdom, and the imagination that enlivens questions and wonder.
  2. Embrace truth. Now, I honor truth—not merely seeking the “truth,” but as Peter Senge states:

“a relentless willingness to uncover the ways we limit and deceive ourselves from seeing what is, and to continually challenge the ways things are. It means broadening our awareness and understanding the structures that underlie and generate events.”

Here, I am willing to examine and own what my commitment opens and the deeper truths it reveals.

  1. Show up as commitment. Soon, I awaken to commitment as context: to the possibility of wisdom and learning in all aspects of life. I am drawn to philosophy, different cultures, Eastern practices, and even wisdom in previously entertaining films like The Matrix or Star Wars. I notice wisdom in the design of things—art, food, furniture, living systems—and marvel at the child-like wonder in deeper learning that opens rather than closes questions. 

To generate a commitment is to understand and acknowledge why we show up, how we show up, and what to do or say when we show up. I am now available to act from my commitment. 

Challenge of Commitment: Courage to Face Our True Potential

What is the commitment that moves you? Are you willing to stand for it? For legendary actress Carol Channing, of “Hello Dolly” fame, it was “to lift up people’s lives.” What a life she created from that commitment.

Generating any commitment requires courage — whether it’s to wellness, gardening, music, writing, teaching, parenting, artistry, listening or leading, or tasks such as attending a meeting.

Commitment and Courage

Courage will be required to face this paradox: As you realize your commitment and bring it into being, you will simultaneously realize greater doubt, disbelief, and uncertainty.

In fact, this doubt and disbelief arise from having realized or expanded your commitment. It is, in an odd way, a sign of progress.

This is an unusual statement, to be sure. But realizing a commitment is not a linear process; our past and future arise together, now, in the moment of choice. The very leap into the unknown of a future possibility also seeds the very doubts that generate uncertainty.

Our potential (which means future power) reveals our past assumptions and views and challenges our beliefs of unworthiness in our current reality. This is where taking a stand becomes a valuable practice.

Courage requires facing our true potential, as stated by Koestenbaum:

“We limit how we live so that we can limit the amount of anxiety that we experience. We end up tranquilizing many of life’s functions. We shut down the centers of entrepreneurial and creative thinking; in effect, we halt progress and growth. But no significant decision—personal or organizational—has ever been undertaken without being attended by an existential crisis, or without a commitment to wade through anxiety, uncertainty, and guilt.”

Creative Tension

The illustration below reveals a pull in direction. Commitment calls us in our current reality toward our vision (future). Simultaneously, it reveals hidden assumptions from our past. We become hooked on and tethered to those past structures; thrown to past beliefs or identities — doubts, unworthiness, uncertainty — as we realize that we cannot do everything we’ve chosen.

This is the power and challenge of commitment: it reveals our assumptions, offering us an opportunity to challenge our belief structures and convictions. The past that rears its head is simply a reminder of outmoded assumptions and views against a future possibility.

  1. Now we can choose and continue choosing. I choose my context for engaging life: will I endorse my past beliefs and assumptions, or will I author a future by acting courageously, challenge those assumptions, and live from my commitment as context?
  2. Then we expand responsibility of our word to co-create, both in the way we speak to ourselves and the way we declare to others.
  3. Then we take a stand for the dignity of our potential. We generate the context and possibility for something bigger than ourselves: a compelling future (vision) that generates action by tapping into a fundamental concern.

Practice of Commitment

When we are moved by something bigger than ourselves, living our commitment as the context for our life is a moment-to-moment existence.

  • We are not entitled to a commitment.
  • We’ve not earned it or studied for it, nor can it be discovered.
  • It is a context to create; possibility to embody; a generative act to speak; and, a practice to live.

When practiced, we are living at choice. Things may happen to me, but once I pause, I can generate my personal commitment: I wish to bring wisdom to learning. Let me see what this moment offers. That commitment leads to each subsequent commitment. We become co-creators, designing a life from our potential that transcends past beliefs.

The book, The 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership, a new paradigm for sustainable success focuses correctly on the commitments for leadership, or in this case, 15 conscious commitments. Since Peter Senge’s work emerged, I found this a refreshing outlook reaffirming his work on the level of commitment required to assume leadership. The authors define commitment as follows:

“For us, commitment is a statement of ‘what is.’ From our perspective, you can know your commitments by your results, not by what you say your commitments are. We are all committed. We are all producing results. Conscious leaders own their commitments by owning their results.”

I like this statement. It is important to venture beyond talking about our commitment and taking action to co-create results. People can get mired in expressing their commitment to look or sound good, and fail to manifest any results. I would expand this statement to suggest that our intentions, actions, and results arise together in the moment of choice. Perhaps like this:

Commitment is a context for “what is and can be.” You can know your commitments by the intentions revealed through your actions and results. Ultimately, results speak loudest when congruent with your expressed intentions. Conscious leaders embody their commitments by owning their intentions, actions, and results.

This blog post is a complement to the following blog post: Commitment: Leadership Intelligence, pt. 4

tony-zampella-headshot Tony Zampella is the learning designer at Bhavana Learning Group (previously, Zampella Group), which serves coaches, learning professionals and business executives. As an instructor, researcher, and designer of contemplative learning programs and practices, his work develops mindsets for growing a culture of servant leaders.

His focus includes ontological inquiry, into the nature of being; Integral theory to
include Eastern wisdom and practice with Western learning and business models;
and, Zen Buddhism to sustain contemplative practice.

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