Blog: Learning Curve

Imagination is Key to Rethinking Stale Business Formulas

Would you rather be stuck in an elevator or listen to an elevator pitch? This is a tough call for me: both evoke stressful situations.

My niece—a young, brilliant artist—recently graduated from a design school with a Bachelor of Fine Arts. She graduated armed with two formulas to sell her services in the “real world”: mastering the elevator pitch and finding your customer’s “pain points.”

Did I mention she graduated from an art school?

Some of our business concepts can offer real solutions, but others can be reductive and can pollute education, learning, and the human spirit.

Two such ideas include the elevator pitch and the popular pain-point primer for pitching products.

1 – Ditch the Pitch

Much of what we call an elevator pitch demands a formula for reducing services to a 15- 30-second script. Elevator or not, I often feel trapped when delivering or receiving such a script.

For those who have a well-defined need, no pitch is necessary—but if it works, great. For most of us meeting you, and getting to know you as an offer, the pitch is a turn-off in at least three ways:

— People do not buy products based on the words you use. Most purchases are based on how you make the consumer feel or because they see a possibility for themselves. Before you fill a need for others, they connect either with you or the possibility you create.

— A pitch relies on a canned script, something you’ve thought through before connecting with the person in front of you.

— A pitch is another word for “sell.” It reeks of an icky agenda, informing what comes out of your mouth as obvious and often cringeworthy.

Instead of a pitch, consider three or four scenarios that you might find yourself in. Practice speaking to yourself in each scenario, imagining the person in front of you.

  1. Ask questions and listen to the person—not your agenda. Pause, and reflect on what was said to seed a conversation (perhaps with more questions).
  2. Remember your why. Speak from the purpose or commitment that animates you to make a difference. What is that difference you wish to make? How do you see your offers leading to that?
  3. Share examples or stories about client benefits. People often find themselves in stories they can relate to.
  4. Take the next steps: Create a possibility to set up a meeting or follow up with an email. 

The goal is to transform “making the sale” into “making a connection.” An authentic connection will either lead to work or to a champion of your work.

2 – No Pain, Big Gain

A pain point is a specific problem that prospective customers of your business are experiencing. Some common examples include pain points in finances, productivity, process, or support. This is where you step in to relieve your client’s “pain” with your service or product.

The pain-point formula drives much of today’s marketing, branding, website design, and business value statements.

My quarrel isn’t with the idea; it can work, and it can produce critical insights. My problem is that we stop thinking and start relying on the formula. This leads to narrowing our mind.

1 – We adopt a problem-solving mindset that reduces our focus and all ideas to problems. We seek out problems and quick fixes without truly understanding issues.

2 – We come to rely on problem-solving with binary thinking that destroys imagination in ways that quash our ability to create possibilities.

Is this difference between problems and possibilities just semantics? Only in the way that achieving success is qualitatively different from not failing. In the latter, we focus on the problem: not failing.

Such a focus frames our assumptions about human potential and capacity regarding creativity and imagination.

  • Problem-solving discovers solutions to make something unwanted go away.
  • Creativity discovers new methods and approaches to bring things into being or to fashion novel solutions.
  • Imagination cultivates ideas beyond what exists or what currently seems conceivable.

Imagination is the ability to envision something that does not yet exist, the ability to form a mental image of something not yet perceived by the five senses. According to Einstein, “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution.”

Instead of reciting pitches or relying on pain points, become curious. Imagine a future your clients wish to create or think of aspirations they wish to cultivate. Position yourself as the paintbrush on your client’s wide-open canvas.

What is the future your clients imagine? How can their offers or products create or impact that future? What kind of leadership will that future require?

When Companies Imagine Beyond Pain

What great companies like Apple do is invent twice. First, they imagine a new world as an aspiration, and then they return from that world with inconceivable ideas to invent products that both create and then serve that world.

They do not invent products first. They create a new world for those products. That requires imagination.

If we explore the iPod, what pain points did it set out to resolve?

The iPod solved the yet unknown pain points of finding, buying, storing, managing, and transferring music. Had Apple focused there and fixed those issues, we’d have some peripheral products to resolve these concerns.

Apple likely realized these pain points. But if it had offered a product to resolve those alone, I would have passed.

Instead, Apple imagined a world in which its product resolved issues we didn’t know about to connect us to music. When marketed, the iPod promised to “place 1,000 songs in your shirt pocket,” just like the Mac originally promised “a computer on every desk.”

Apple imagined an unimaginable world that offered us possibilities yet to be discovered.

To imagine its world, Apple built a whole ecosystem around iTunes and apps. Without it, the iPod would have just been an expensive niche MP3 player or perhaps the Zune.

3- Imagination Is Key

Many of our intractable issues today in government, education, business, and society are not for lack of creativity or problem-solving; they suffer from a severe dearth of imagination.

Resolving the magnitude of issues in an interconnected, volatile world requires imagination beyond that which created it. We can begin by questioning the thinking that reduces our world to problems and pitches.

Seeing today’s issues as problems is our biggest problem. We have become the product of such formulaic thinking.

With imagination, we become curious. Issues interest us as challenges that expand our minds, not problems that reduce our thinking. Imagination requires a movement willing to expand our minds beyond what’s possible.

When CNBC asked NBA legend Kobe Bryant about his conversation with serial entrepreneur and first-principles guru Elon Musk, Bryant said:

I buy into Elon… The amount of research, the amount of study he does is unheard of. But he’ll always say the most important thing is imagination. You can learn anything that you want to learn. You can study all these things that you have in a book, but if you don’t have the imagination and then take it to another level, it doesn’t mean anything.

How We Learn Matters

Imagination takes us beyond rational thinking, even beyond knowledge and analysis. When asked whether Steve Jobs was smart, his biographer Walter Isaacson revealed this:

Not conventionally. Instead, he was a genius . . . . His imaginative leaps were instinctive, unexpected, and at times magical . . . sparked by intuition, not analytic rigor. Trained in Zen Buddhism, Mr. Jobs came to value experiential wisdom over empirical analysis . . . . He told me he began to appreciate the power of intuition, in contrast to what he called “Western rational thought,” when he wandered around India after dropping out of college. “The people in the Indian countryside don’t use their intellect like we do,” he said. “They use their intuition instead . . . . Intuition is a very powerful thing, more powerful than intellect, in my opinion. That’s had a big impact on my work.”

Our notion of learning has slowly beaten out our imagination. Consider the legacy of this last half-century:

— We have diminished the very humanities Jobs wedded with science to generate elegant ecosystems of technological design. Jobs summarized it this way: “It is in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough; it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the results that make our heart sing.”

— We have defunded art and music programs in education that transport us to other-lands.

— We’ve so derided education in the literature and history that connects us to the human condition, that we are left with an empathy deficit: absent moral imagination, we are unable to imagine the concerns of others so different from ourselves.

— We’ve forgotten how to inspire curiosity and cultivate intuition, instead proclaiming rational problem-solving (that emphasizes binary thought) as the epitome of human potential.

— Whether through STEM, business education, or the coding mania, we are all becoming trained in formulaic thinking.

Imagining New Worlds

The former chief scientist at Xerox Corp., John Seely Brown (JSB) understands the dilemma. A visiting scholar at USC, JSB calls himself Chief of Confusion, “helping people ask the right questions.”

In an article with New School professor Heather Chaplin, JSB explores the distinction between creativity and imagination.

I think we’re way too focused on creativity. It’s misguided. We should be focused on imagination. . . The real key is being able to imagine a new world. Once I imagine something new, then answering how to get from here to there involves steps of creativity. So I can be creative in solving today’s problems, but if I can’t imagine something new, then I’m stuck in the current situation. . .

I think what’s happening in STEM education is a tragedy. Art enables us to see the world in different ways. I’m riveted by how Picasso saw the world. . . . Art education, and probably music too, are more important than most things we teach.  Being great at math is not that critical for science, but being great at imagination and curiosity is critical. Yet how are we training tomorrow’s scientists? By boring the hell out of them in formulaic mathematics – and don’t forget I am trained as a theoretical mathematician.

Ironically, we’ve lost a generation of minds to imagine us beyond the moon or navigate global issues with bold ideas. Today, we’ve reduced creativity to 140 characters, apps that remind us to walk, and elevator pitches and pain points to sell unwanted products.

Breaking this cycle requires the courage of curiosity: becoming interested in questions that don’t have immediate answers, testing our imagination beyond our knowledge, and questioning anything that smells like a formula.

The trick is to use formulas and not be used by them, or worse yet, become one.


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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The Practice of Choosing Wisely

You get one marshmallow now or two in an hour. I remember this test, which proved a valuable point about emotional intelligence: that our temperament can forecast future success. Delaying immediate gratification paid more dividends—even more than IQ—to one’s success.

This seems a quaint notion now, a quarter-century later, as we experience an abundance of information and daily inundation of content with a profusion of choices.

Perhaps the most important capacity today is the capacity to choose wisely.

Choosing requires the judgment to sort priorities. Without it, everything appears the same and becomes an emergency to do now (lacking priority).

Coaches and consultants often observe “busyness” as lacking time, boundaries (or balance), and focus on time management, self-care, or prioritizing. But at the heart of this issue is something more fundamental and confusing: choices.

What, how, and why we choose are often unclear to us unless and until we reflect on our relationship to “choice” with a clear mind.

The Paradox of Choice

In his 2004 book The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less, psychologist Barry Schwartz argues that the diminishing returns of additional choices paralyze rather than liberate us.

While Schwartz posits that freedom of choice is critical to our well-being, and choice is critical to freedom and autonomy, he also argues that eliminating choices in certain situations can greatly reduce anxiety.

Schwartz points to how the act of choosing intersects with our notions of free will, power, and responsibility. The sense of control we often get from choosing can be overwhelmed by the number of choices we cannot absorb, evaluate, or fully understand. We also often focus on the freedom of choice while dismissing the responsibility that we must take for our choices.

If we are unclear about what matters to us, beyond others’ expectations of us, we are more likely to choose from scarcity, from not (being) enough. Choosing from scarcity can cause greater regret, guilt, anxiety, and insecurity, without ever realizing satisfaction and the possibility of freedom.

If this sounds abstract, consider the frustration expressed in the tweet below.

How is this possible? What can we do about it?

Paralyzing or Liberating?

Capitalistic logic might indicate that more choices mean more competition, which increases quality. We have more news media outlets today than ever before, with more choices for consumption: broadcast, print, blogs, apps, streaming services, etc. With the abundance of time and cyberspace, what have we produced?

Economics suggests that a rarity of space, time, and intellectual resources—once governed by square inches, barrels of ink, and broadcast minutes, providing fewer choices with greater deliberation—yields a more thoughtful product.

Today, the abundance of space and time has offered more choices and greater access, without any threshold. The result is a system that churns out information and misinformation that has drained our intellectual resources to absorb, evaluate, and be informed. Sure, we have some better products, but we also have many more inferior products. Most do not have the literacy, time, or energy to discern the difference. Instead of more choices liberating us, we become paralyzed by choices or numb to weighing the differences.

Maximizer or Satisfier?

According to Schwartz, how we view choices characterizes us as either a Maximizer or Satisfier.

The Maximizer has no standards. They operate from an ideal of “the best” rather than the idea of “good enough.” They engage in exhaustive research to seek out the best, becoming drained. When they decide, they are left wondering if another, better option might exist and are unsatisfied.

For this mindset, an abundance of choices is met with a fear of missing out (FOMO) and the possibility of never having enough. Applied to news, without standards we consume endlessly for fear that we will miss out on the latest. We become confused and drained.

The Satisfier operates from a predetermined standard for what is good enough. They apply that standard to any option before them. When the product or service (or toothbrush) meets their standard, they are satisfied and stop searching.

For this mindset, an abundance of choices is met with the recognition that “enough” is possible. Applied to news, we might read and view from a diet that informs us. Then we stop.

The satisfier also comes away with another lesson: some choice is necessary, but more choice is not always better.

FOMO or JOMO

Choosing often means being confronted with “choice shock,” claims Schwartz, who told Pacific Standard Magazine, “My suspicion is that [social media], and dating sites have created just the thing I talk about in connection with consumer goods: Nobody’s good enough, and you’re always worried you’re missing out.”

Many of us have become maximizers. The level of dissatisfaction manifests in daily life; each choice becomes an epic battle of confusion, research, and analysis to seek out the best. Our mantra: never settle for second best.

How can we shift our internal compass from FOMO to JOMO?

JOMO, or Joy of Missing Out, is about understanding yourself, your needs, and your desires, and choosing to live in a way that energizes you. To embrace JOMO, we need to practice reflecting on our choices to understand better what’s driving our FOMO. This piece on the shift from FOMO to JOMO offers some tips, from slowing down and disconnecting to reflecting, reconnecting, and testing.

Practice Choosing Well

In addition to these ideas, I have found four frames that support intentional choosing.

1 – Choosing Principle: Important or Urgent

I offer you this temporal grid, originated by President Eisenhower and popularized by Stephen Covey, to observe your choices.

Q1- PRESENT – We manage with deadline-driven projects, pressing issues, and tasks.

Q2- FUTURE – We manage important items that are not urgent but reflect our values. We live by our principles, not by others’ deadlines.

Q3- PAST – We use distractions to cope: to feel good and ignore items that are urgent or important.

Q4- PAST – We use distractions to neglect items, often becoming obsessed and fixated by disruptions.

A full life can exist in all four quadrants by choice. The issue becomes problematic when any single quadrant dominates our life or becomes habitual.

Living our potential requires choosing to make time for our future (Q2) daily; otherwise, urgent demands (Q1) dominates life. Navigating these quadrants will help us learn when to choose to choose.

2 – Knowing When to Choose: Standards for Thinking

Here, we choose which 25% of our choices deserve greater investigation and thinking while applying predetermined or well-considered criteria to the remainder. We prioritize our thinking by letting these criteria manage the bulk of our choices.

In 2012, President Obama explained to Vanity Fair why he only wears gray or blue suits: “I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.”

Similarly, I simplify my choices. My breakfast consists of a protein shake six days a week. It’s healthy, with fruit and 20g of non-animal protein to fuel my day. I may choose something different on the seventh day.

My wardrobe consists of a closet of heavier short- and long-sleeve black tee-shirts. When attending special events, I place “thinking” energy on dressing. Otherwise, my energy is placed elsewhere when I wake up.

Such thinking criteria also factor into my computing devices. I’ve used Apple for 35 years and developed these criteria: 1) excellent service after sale, 2) user-friendly interface, and 3) high quality, long-lasting products. Apple meets these standards, so I rely on them for my tablets, laptops, phones, and watches. It is a reliable “choosing partner.” A bonus is ease of integrating these devices. I use a similar approach for airplane tickets, lodging, travel locations, and other larger choices. My two or three criteria usually include a reliable “choosing partner.”

Of course, I reexamine these “choosing partners” every so often to avoid getting lulled into unwitting habits.

Learning when to choose prepares us for daily choices.

3 – Considering Reserves: Yes, No, Not Yet!

Choices that arrive quickly often evoke an automatic response. For most, that response is yes. Answering yes automatically can mean overpromising or becoming overcommitted or overwhelmed (see this blog). But the solution to a habitual yes isn’t just to automatically say no.

If you’ve explored items 1 and 2 on this list—defining what’s important and knowing when to choose—you can apply another standard for saying yes.

Here, we consider three reserves: Do I have a reserve of a) time, b) energy, or b) finances? Considering these reserves suggests we have the time, energy, or finances to expend. Paradoxically, building these reserves requires saying no to other choices that may deplete our reserves.

Also, consider that some choices are clearly no right now, while others may be a yes later. This is where we employ not yet: choosing two marshmallows later rather than one now.

I use not yet for two reasons: first, to evaluate any yes I want to consider. I examine my reserves and choose either yes or no. Second, I choose not yet if the merit of an idea arrives before it is timely. Not yet offers the freedom to hold off on an item until it ripens, perhaps next month, quarter, or year.

Signing up for a new learning program may be a good choice, but it may not be for me right now. A wiser choice comes from examining my reserves to guide me in choosing not yet.

Adding not yet to your toolkit will support you in choosing a more effective yes. It also allows you to manage reserves that strengthen your self-care and cultivate sustainable practices that evolve beyond reflexive whims or scarcity.

4 – Binary vs. Alternatives

Finally, as we examine our choosing, we can explore our view of choices. Most of us experience choices from a binary view: today, I will go to a movie or I will not. The choice is simple: to go or not to go.

A view of alternatives, however, offers us a range of choices that can cultivate possibility.

For instance, my choice is not merely whether I go to see a movie—rather, any choice discloses an anticipated future. We can go to the movie or go on a date, read a book, or play Words with Friends.

This reveals a world of alternatives, reminding us of our original challenge. Inviting alternatives without structures, standards, or reserves to guide us can be confusing and overwhelming. Choosing any alternative discloses the guilt of not choosing options from other possible futures. We choose and yet ponder what might have been.

Still, with structures for evaluating what’s important, standards for knowing when to choose, and reserves to guide us, we can allow alternatives to expand our imagination and open our mind to possibilities beyond a binary view of life.

Our Temporal Character

Understanding our most fundamental power of choice requires close inspection to examine how our thinking and actions appear in time. We are all afforded the same 24 hours, which reveal our choices and priorities about what matters most.

This last item considers how we can observe time in a way that reveals our choices, or, our temporal character, as posited by Heidegger: “Being, itself, is made visible in its temporal character.”

Examining our choices—what, how, and why we choose—is a critical step to disclosing our authentic nature. At the very least, our choices reveal whether we’d select one marshmallow now or two later.

However, this can be challenging, as it demands we explore these issues beyond mere time management. Do our choices reflect our principles from our authentic possibility?

Such a full inquiry is rare and can be intense. Few programs offer this level of immersion and depth of inquiry. We have developed one—perhaps it is right for you.


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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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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 “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.”

—ERIC HOFFER

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