Blog: Learning Curve

Blog: Learning Curve2020-01-13T15:39:29-04:00

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

Individualism Heightens Anxiety

The practice of “accepting uncertainty,” must include evolving our relationship to independence as rooted in individualism into a relationship with 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 beaches – pastors even sued for “religious liberty” exemptions – rather than stay indoors or wear masks 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 view of human potential as hyper-individualistic: self-reliance, self-sufficient, and self-responsibility. We empower responsibility for the individual self instead of ennobling the primacy of the collective whole.

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

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.

Let 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.

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.

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.

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.

Test and Trust Our Experiences

How can you unlearn your reliance on knowledge, and relearn your clarity of experience?  Testing and trusting what you experience, is the first step toward reaching this level of 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. Prevent racing thoughts and restlessness by avoiding stimulants and caffeine.
  2. Silence. Observe the level of noise in your life. Experience more silence by creating pauses in conversations and between events and appointments. Mute the TV during commercials to reflect on your viewing experience. This blog post reveals how we’ve normalized noise.
  3. Space. Notice the effect that space has on you. As you self-quarantine, and space opens up 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.

These practices develop your ability to live in the question. You 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 your discomfort go away.

Just Do This Moment

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.

Acting 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.

All you can ever possibly know comes from a sense of who you are, from the presence of the current moment, and from your 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.

Peace in Vulnerability

Uncertainty still triggers me. I become irritated at the loss of control and annoyed 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—and part of you. 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: 7.5 min. Digest Time: 12 min

Read the full, original text of this blog here.


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 Experience of Being in 12 Practices, part 2

What is the experience of being? I explored this inquiry in a two-part blog. In part one, I explored an interdependent understanding of being. In this blog, part two, I will introduce the 12 practices that support this new understanding of being.

This new dimension of being views humans as co-creators of our world. However, most psychological models relating to the self and human functioning imply that the self exists as a discrete, separate, and independent entity. Therefore, learning professionals, seldom appreciate this interdependent nature of being nor the generative capacity it reveals. They both impact learning and require unlearning.

To live between learning and unlearning entails a primary focus on intention, inquiry, imagination, and contemplation. We must clear our minds to sort out identities, penetrate distractions, prioritize concerns, disclose concealed impediments, and tune in to an intersubjective experience to co-create our existence.

If we can become open to this possibility, the question then becomes how to clear ourselves to reveal and tune into the vessel that we are?

Getting Closer to the Experience of Being

This journey requires much more than mere knowledge of theories and concepts.

We are not proposing practice in what we know or how we do things. We are proposing practice for differentiating being to clarify who we are.

This kind of practice requires becoming present to our humanness as a fluid, interdependent, interconnected being – to become aware of the felt experience of being. The practice of being opens up a dimension of our humanity that can increase performance without increasing the compulsion and wants that also increase anxiety.

Practice precedes performance. We become intentional to test our understanding of knowledge, to question our assumptions and to reveal the causes and conditions that intersect to create experiences.

These practices discovered through research and contemplative learning will expand our presence to reveal our interdependent being: our temporal nature, internal state, and our possibility as co-creators (as distinguished in part one).

Our 12 Practices

As we have grown to become Bhavana Learning Group, we have also codified our multi-year inquiry into the practices for developing an interdependent awareness.

Part of our shift involved exploring and examining rigorous practices that access our being to expand our presence: To weave together our past and future, reveal impediments, integrate lessons and realize possibility.

I have organized these 12 Practices in three vessels, each preparing learners to integrate wisdom into an interdependent awareness.

  • Grounding Vessel– Practices 1 through 4 – develops a foundation for our view, speech, and actions.
  • Fruition Vessel– Practices 5 through 8 – expands grounding to cultivate commitment and possibility.
  • Fertile Vessel– Practices 9 through 12 – extends and deepens the previous learning to co-create.

The key for each practice below denotes how we exist with or without each practice. I have also linked some resources after each practice to support an inquiry.

= With PRACTICE              = Without PRACTICE


This practice cultivates my attention so that I observe my experience – the perceptions, emotions, thoughts and other causes, conditions, and contexts that influence me.

 I react to events and circumstances, and I allow deadlines and tasks to determine my actions.

NOTES: View this link and this article to begin a practice of increasing awareness.


This practice honors my word as whole and complete, and it affects my speaking, action, livelihood and agreements to cultivate trust.

My fragmented attention and casual speaking create incongruences between my words and deeds, causing confusion, uncertainty, and distrust.

NOTES: View this link to begin a practice for shifting our understanding of integrity and to build trust.


The practice of bringing conscious thought to the present moment. Being deliberate and responsible in my motivation, attitude, and direction, manifesting as mindful choosing, speaking, and action.

 My reactions rest on sentimental wishes, wishful thinking, and my casual aims and heartfelt desires.

NOTES: View this link and to begin a practice for deepening intention and here as intention in speaking (speech-acts).


 With this practice, I take custody of my unified being – who I’ve been, who I am and who I will become. My interactions reveal the possibility of being fully human.

My preoccupation with fitting in, adapting to norms and my self-image guides my priorities, concerns, and actions.

NOTES: View this link and this article and this one to develop an awareness of authenticity.


 This practice focuses my awareness of deepening concentration below the surface to gain insight.

I automatically react to events and tasks, skimming, and scanning communications. I am unable to delve below surface thoughts or emotions for a sustained period.

NOTES: View this link and tree of contemplation practice for deepening contemplation.


 I practice reflecting on things as they are. I recreate others, acknowledge situations, and receive concerns from a foundation of wholeness and background of possibilities.

My split attention leads to stepping over items, ignoring details, and taking shortcuts. I learn to tolerate unnecessary missteps, which requires more time and energy.

NOTES: View this link and here to begin a practice for increasing an awareness of completion.


My practice of bare attention and receptive awareness allows things to be revealed — for me to be with others as they are and to receive their concerns fully.

 I listen only for the information I need to manage my tasks and solve my problems.

NOTES: View this link and here and this article and this one to expand deep listening.


With my practice of devotional resolve – cognitively, emotionally, and volitionally – I find serene direction in surrendering to something larger than myself.

 My life consists of obligations and perpetual, monotonous tasks that find me aimlessly drifting without direction.

NOTES: View this link and here and here to begin a practice for developing commitment.


My practice of envisioning possibilities opens untapped potential beyond daily activities, problems, and what seems conceivable. This practice taps into a nonlinear view and poetic mind, which seeds my empathy to be with others’ experiences.

 I am a practical and analytical problem solver and effortlessly discover solutions to resolve problems. Within a linear view, I am seduced by quick fixes and immediate results.

NOTES: View this link and here and this article to better understand how to develop imagination.


With the practice of rigorous focus and attention, I can cut through noise and distractions to choose wisely among different needs, concerns, and priorities to gain clarity.

 My indecisiveness has made me unable to scrutinize, evaluate, or penetrate the morass of choices and distractions, becoming inattentive to the quality of my output.

NOTES: View this link and here to begin a practice for developing discernment.


This practice challenges me to live in the question and explore situations with humility, curiosity, and interest in the face of the unknown.

 I reflexively seek out answers and solutions and stop questioning once I discover them.

NOTES: View this link and here and this video by Alan Watts to shift an awareness of inquiry.


This practice ultimately determines what it is to be a person because becoming a “self” happens in community. This practice expands my view of “self” and community as mutually dependent on causes and conditions – a point of view that unifies and views coherence in the flow of experiences.

I believe I am a discrete, fixed, and solid entity. I am an independent and individual identity to protect and defend.

NOTES: View this link and this link by Peter Senge to increase awareness on this practice of community as context.

Practice Cultivates Wisdom

The experience of practice is quite different from behaviors, knowledge or “tools.”

  1. Each of these 12 Practices expands our view to cultivating the experience of being as interdependent.
  2. Each is connected through a progressive sequence: the first vessel (Practices 1 – 4) is fundamental, and the subsequent vessels (Practices 5 – 8, and Practices 9 – 12) expand on previous vessels.
  3. Each lives beyond conceptual understanding to include experience (not simply knowledge) for deeper understanding.
  4. Each also opens a new perspective and framework with techniques and trainings that establish routines and rituals to cultivate wisdom.
  5. And finally, each includes resources to begin an ongoing practice.

The practice of practice leads to greater clarity and wisdom by 1) applying new understanding 2) internalizing our learning, and 3) embodying our experience of learning on the way to 4) expanding to an integrated being.

Many programs promise these same results, but such promises stem from a mistaken conclusion about learning, unlearning, and wisdom: to know the content (about the thing) is not living the context (felt experience of being).

“We are not proposing practice in what we know or how we do things. We are proposing practice for differentiating being to clarify who we are.”

I’ll leave the larger implications for another blog. Suffice it to say that only greater clarity of causes and conditions reveals the beliefs that lead to our consumption and desires that impede the experience of greater satisfaction that already exists.

Our (dis)satisfaction is rooted more in unexamined assumptions rather than one more “missing” thing to consume, acquire, or leverage. As the Buddha taught, Those who act with few desires are calm, without worry or fear.” 

With this deeper awareness of being, we view concerns about performance as mutually dependent on the wisdom found at the source of our freedom.

And that begins with practice.

Reading Time: 8 min. Digest Time: 15 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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