Blog: Learning Curve

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

The Experience of Being in 12 Practices – Part 1

Have you ever attended a seminar that offered prescriptive behaviors to adopt, processes to implement and content to remember? I recently had this experience.

What’s missing from this scenario depends somewhat on our expectations of learning and, more importantly, our view of being human. Do we react to, manage, or adopt change? Or are we co-creators of change?

To accept the former view implies an understanding of being human as fixed, separate selves, independent of our circumstances that respond to change.

If we accept the latter view, as co-creators, we shift:

  • From doling out prescriptive behaviors, adopting “norms” to conform
  • To discovering descriptive practices, accessing “being” to co-create

To make this shift from behaviors to practices  a distinction unappreciated by many learning designs – first requires a fundamental paradigm shift in our understanding of being.

I will explore these questions in a two-part blog. In this blog, part one, I will first flesh out a new interdependent understanding of being. In part two, I will introduce the 12 practices that support this new understanding of being.

What Is Being?

Most psychological models relating to the self and human functioning imply that the self exists as a discrete, separate, and independent entity. However, ontological models relate to the self (being) or all phenomena not as a discrete stand-alone entity but as mutually dependent on numerous causes and conditions.

Consider the human body (part of our being), for example, as mutually dependent on the wind, sun, oceans, plants, and animals. Each offers us the vitamins and energy to breathe in and out of our cycle of life.

Being is not merely an internal state of thoughts, emotions, and sensations, nor is it some set of identities or discrete or separate self, independent of its world and experiences. Indeed, our thoughts and experience – an arising-together phenomenon – result from causes and conditions that interact with our world to give meaning to our existence.

This is a departure from our rational mindset and normative view, which seeks to find discrete causes to explain our experiences rather than appreciate the interdependent nature of our role in reality.

An Interdependent Awareness

The implications of being with our world are profound!

 We are related to the world in ways that are inextricably linked to our thoughts, experiences, multiple identities, and history, which is continually revealed in our mind, body, and language as we interact.

Our presence in the world discloses our potential, which is not yet realized or confined in the present and is always projected toward the future, and emerging in the present. The future we look forward to reveals a unique context: a possibility that brings aliveness as we co-create our moment-to-moment existence.

  Our consciousness precedes being in two unique ways. First, we are aware of the notion of past and future in the present. Second, we are aware of the inevitable certainty of our own death. This awareness gives life meaning. Our experiences reveal this unified temporal nature, as three dimensions of future, past, and present.

Key to accessing this expansive view of being centers on adopting an awareness as co-creators of our world – a mindset of continual inquiry that discovers and discloses ourselves with each interaction.

A Different Experience of Learning

As co-creators of our world, our experience can both reveal dimensions of our being and realize our potential with each interaction.

The fact that phenomena are fundamentally interconnected and interdependent (even without discrete boundaries) means that they are “empty” of a fixed essence or solid self. This nature of “non-self” is both “empty” of an inherently existing self and yet “full” of all things.

Zen Master and author Thich Nhat Hanh describes such an experience as “Interbeing,” dispelling any notion of “solitary beings.” He views us and the planet as one giant, “living, breathing cell, with all its working parts linked in symbiosis.”

“Ultimately, the purpose of learning, here, evolves from knowing and doing more to being more.”

Learning professionals, however, seldom appreciate this interdependent nature of being nor the generative capacity it reveals. They both impact learning and require unlearning.

  • Learning occurs between a fear and a need. The growth imperative is met by fear of the unknown, which reveals many causes and conditions that defy rational-only analysis; too many variables to codify in “behaviors” or to reduce to empirical measures.
  • Unlearning occurs between certainty and possibility. The willingness to let go of outmoded assumptions and beliefs often challenges our self-perception with latent doubt, guilt, and old insecurities. The remedy here requires greater wisdom and imagination rather than more knowledge and concepts.

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 experience for co-creating our existence. Indeed, the experience of our presence matters. To listen, relate, witness, and to be seen – all support connecting deeply with phenomena internally and externally.

Ultimately, the purpose of learning, here, evolves from knowing and doing more to being more. Tapping into our interdependent nature, we access new dimensions of humanity to expand intentional meaning-making as co-creators.

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?

Why Practice?

Such profound questions and claims about our existence require a view of “self” beyond a rational, epistemological knowing self to also include an ontological felt sense of being.

Most pedagogical designs dismiss the tensions between concepts of knowledge and experience of being. We still view content and process as distinct, instead of inseparable phenomena. We separate language, time, energy, and action, managing each independently. And we’ve now begun to view intention and impact as distinct dynamics, preferencing the latter.

As we interact with our world – not via knowledge of concepts or singular events but as the connective tissue of our existence – we do not merely understand content, achieve goals, or experience impact. We also clarify our views and discern our intentions to discover the obstacles and choices that reveal the deep interconnectivity between thought and experience.

Ours is a journey not of increased performance or understanding concepts but of gaining new levels of clarity by examining the content of our consciousness.

  • Our aim is to experience being: to witness, experience, and co-create our existence.
  • Our ultimate goal is to calm our mind: to clear away the obstacles for tuning into the unfolding of wisdom.

In part two of this blog, I will introduce 12 practices that cultivate a new understanding of being and the kind of learning and unlearning to support an interdependent awareness.

Reading Time: 7 min. Digest Time: 11 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.


2020 Marks 20 Years of Learning and Change

It happened 20 years ago this month. I was teaching graduate students full-time in organizational leadership, and one of my students made me an offer. He wanted to use some of our course work to expand leadership in his vast public healthcare network.

Leaping from academics to consulting revealed a steep learning curve. First off, I had no company. The following journey offers an overall report of our discoveries and some emerging and enduring questions.

Phase One: Leap and Learn

On January 15, 2000, I created Leadership Innovations, Inc. In doing so, my goal was to create innovative leadership programs.

Most of our clients included executives and managers looking to expand their leadership profiles. I focused my efforts on developing a model or methodology that I could call my own.

Between 2000 and 2006, leadership was finally becoming distinct from management. Leaders coped with change between paradigms, and managers coped with complexity to optimize the current paradigm.

  • Fundamental concern. The company’s focus involved three macro-conditions of change regarding 1) access to information, 2) compression of time, and 3) globalization (beyond economics). Most clients and thinkers were concerned with adapting to this new world of change.

Phase Two: Cocooning

By the end of 2006, I decided that some cocooning was in order and changed the name to Zampella Group. This change denoted enough space to explore the emerging field of leadership development without committing to a direction.

The period from 2006 to 2018 incubated a direction that established leadership as a possibility for everyone in organizational life. We also shifted our client base to include learning professionals and eventually began working with experienced coaches.

I discovered the importance of vertical development and cultivating mindsets beyond skillsets. Leadership development also emerged as a field of study, practice, and coaching beyond executive and performance coaching.

  • Fundamental concerns. During this period, VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity) emerged, evolved and constituted a universal acronym as both a description and impact of non-linear change, and as the context for learning and development.

Phase Three: Emerging

By 2018, now as a team, we had spent three years developing our commitment. Last year, we rebranded as Bhavana Learning Group. The name signified our commitment to integrating Western learning models with Eastern wisdom practices to support the human side of change.

After conducting extensive research in coaching, leadership, and learning, it was clear that learning involves much more than acquiring knowledge. Our focus on learning to unlearn expands into the unknown. This involves the practice of letting go of outmoded beliefs.

Some of these beliefs, such as speed and multitasking, have been disproven by science. Others, such as balancing (or replacing) material needs with psychological needs, have been revealed by our hyper-connected reality.

We clarified our client base by adding educators to our community of experienced coaches and learning professionals.

  • Fundamental concerns. We enter this period cultivating an emerging interdependent mindset—mutually dependent awareness—that focuses on individual contemplation, which encourages unlearning with deeper connections to each other, to society, and our planet.

An Organic Process

I confess that this three-phased journey was not as neat or strategic as it seems. Nonetheless, it was organic. Not haphazardly informed (as organic often implies), but actually organic—as in intentionally present to what’s growing: being with mistakes and gaps, new questions and research, dancing with emerging client needs, and discovering new services and practices.

Questions emerged. Some were resolved, but most led to deeper inquiries and insights. This dynamic deepened our interest and fortified an emerging direction.

Our focus on research—to open enduring inquiries—was important early on. Our commitment to research and questioning the nature of change and related learning methods offered the necessary grounding to challenge our assumptions and evolve our efforts.

Surprisingly, we discovered the limitations of Western learning models to serve this level of human change. We ventured East to consume, study and synthesize wisdom, and develop practices and techniques.

The Nature of Change

The nature of change fluctuates between two vectors: the byproducts of change in a commercialized framework and the context of being human in the face of disruptive change. The latter can be unsettling, isolating, and anxiety-ridden. It led us to explore our capacity for learning and unlearning and to cope with what it means to unlearn.

The nature of change also discloses the decay of our current rationalistic, paradigm based on data, “independent” analysis, and “individualistic” approaches. This view of being human insists on learning methods that meet some arbitrary measurement standards. Such methods bias learning toward objective knowledge and material needs, as superior to experiences and psychological needs.

Lamentably, greater technological “advancements” have perpetuated increased separateness and isolation.

  • We are linked (isolated) but not connected (lack belonging).
  • Our need for instant gratification shapes our expectations and notions of progress, success, and (un)happiness.
  • We’ve substituted care for speed and quality for productivity.
  • Those “moving fast and breaking things” produce instant results and gain immediate rewards regardless of the impact or consequence on society, the planet, our democracy, or the human condition.

This nature of change requires embracing an interdependent mindset that

  • Reframes our current notions of progress, success, and growth to include greater introspection and appreciation of pluralistic views and experiences.
  • Develops a new moral imagination to reframe commercial interests with social good and economic justice.
  • Cultivates shared commitments and communities of practice where isolation is replaced with belonging and mutual growth.

The tension between the independent-individual mindset and the interdependent-collaborative mindset will likely define the 2020s as Millennials, and Generation Z enters the workforce, where multiple perspectives and cultures, shared experiences, social ethics, and belonging are highly valued.

Discoveries and Commitments

A few guiding principles emerge as we focus on sustainability. Today:

  • context and direction (who/why) are more valuable than content and process (what/how to);
  • learning (and unlearning) is more useful than knowing;
  • principles are more worthwhile than goals;
  • awareness must inform action;
  • intentional presence accomplishes more than multitasking;
  • commitment sustains more than incentives;
  • culture is more vital than strategy;
  • discerning context reveals a deeper understanding than knowing content; and,
  • practice transforms culture more than knowledge or study;

And, to be clear, scaling and technologies are goals or strategy, not principles or values.

When viewed through the lens of the human experience, these guiding principles reframe our notion of business and commercial enterprise. Moreover, as professionals who will deliver human services and interventions, we will be tasked with questioning our role in the current system.

As our firm moves into its third phase and decade, the following fundamental questions will guide us:

1 – How can we better understand and begin to dissolve the forces, conditions, and causes that isolate us and socialize us as reactive, competitive, and fragmented?

2 – How can we better prepare adults for a cycle of development to include both learning and unlearning?

3 – How can we organize culture around equity and dignity as guiding principles that inform conventions such as strategy, profit, and scaling?

4 – How can we create a culture of practice that integrates both knowledge and wisdom?

20 Years of Leaps

In a word, these last two decades have been unpredictable.

This period may mark the most disruptive 20 years for technological change in human history. One study revealed that we absorb 34 Gb of info a day, and a 2011 piece stated that we each digest more than 174 newspapers per day.

Twenty years ago, my landline and slow AOL served as my primary connections. Today, my cell phone serves as a source of computing. I deliver services to clients internationally via a video platform, and we just delivered an immersive, deep listening certificate program, all delivered online.

Where this will lead us is hard to say, but our focus is clear: integrating Eastern wisdom practices with Western learning methods to support the human side of change. We owe any clarity and direction to our focus on research, our evolving practices, and our growing community of learners.

View Our 12 Practices to support this blog.

Reading Time: 9 min. Digest Time: 14 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.


The Dignity of Being Human

We all possess dignity. Does that sound odd or even doubtful?

The inherent dignity of being human is often overlooked, as we reduce dignity to feelings of respect, admiration, or adoration.

While such traits may be useful and even necessary in some situations, but dignity is more than a trait. It is a fundamental characteristic of being a human being.

With our current preoccupation with internet connections, social media postings, “likes,” and emojis, society tends to reward image and impressions. This finds us focusing on our appearance and the impression that we leave.

Such concerns work to strip away our own dignity. In doing so, we diminish our humanity—dismissing ourselves and each other as dignified beings.

What’s important now is less about the honor and wisdom of being human. We’ve been reduced—in a Pavlovian manner—to seeking instant gratification and succumbing to peer pressure, the effect of which has us feeling fragmented and isolated, having lost all sense of higher self.

Definitions and Distinctions

To reclaim our dignity, we must examine some distinctions for clarifying terms we may conflate with dignity.

Dignity comes from the Latin word dignitas, meaning “to be worthy.”

The View: All people have the right to be recognized for their inherent humanity and treated justly. Dignity is a given. Dignity identifies a worthy, high, and honorable condition as part of being human. You have dignity just as you breathe and experience things. No one can take your dignity away from you without your participation, and you cannot diminish it in another.

Respect comes from the Latin word respectus, meaning “to look back at.”

The View: Respect implies a review of what a person has seen or experienced; this individual is held in esteem because of their abilities, qualities, or achievements. Respect is earned. You are respected by others for what you achieve and experience and how you handle yourself as you achieve accomplishments.

Admiration comes from the Latin word mir, meaning “to wonder.”

The View: Unlike respect, in which you hold a person in high esteem for their behaviors/abilities/actions with your own, to admire is to hold one in wonder, to marvel, and to place those behaviors/abilities/actions above your own.

Polite(ness) comes from the Latin word politus, meaning “polished, or made smooth.”

The View: Our concern here leans into courtesy and etiquette toward others. This is the essence of politeness, or focusing on how you present yourself in front of others.

Much of our confusion today seems to center around dignity and respect, which I will explore further to offer a deeper understanding of dignity.

Confusing Notions of Respect

In today’s culture, respect seems to be a catchall of standards and behaviors. We assess someone as respectable or respectful in an admiring way. This implies the viewpoint or ideal of the observer, elevating that view as deserving of respect.

  • Put another way, dignity is akin to honorableness, a quality of the person being elevated.
  • Respect is a viewpoint, a quality of the person doing the elevating.
  • Self-respect, or being good to, taking care of, being truthful with, and not denigrating yourself, can be seen as dignified.

People have dignity regardless of whether they are respected by others. It can be difficult to respect a person of little dignity.

Respect acknowledges behaviors, attributes, and experiences, while dignity teaches the importance of honor and humanity.

Dignity and respect may seem like the same thing; however, important distinctions must be made—if for no other reason than to cultivate our capacity for dignity in granting humanity. 

Granting Humanity

So, if dignity is inherent to honoring our humanity, why do we fail to recognize this in people we don’t respect?

Dignity grants the existence of humanity. What it means to be human is experienced in our being with one another. Being with all of humanity allows for humanness in each of us and invites us to expand our perspectives of being human.

From an ontological standpoint, dignity is as necessary to being a human as the body. If we ignore our body for too long (even in terms of basic hygiene), it will no longer work for us. Yet, we disregard our dignity regularly.

From a Buddhist perspective, people merit decent treatment because they possess human dignity, a feeling of inherent worth that is theirs due to the simple fact that they’re human. We need no notion of a fixed self to honor a common humanity; hopes, dreams, aspirations, and fears, which all people have, are part of our presence in this life.

Tapping into this common humanity, often via self-compassion, invites access to dignity.

Loss of Dignity: Being Indignant

Upholding our dignity is as challenging as caring for our body. Much like fasting may cleanse us to a state of wellness, the willingness to be indignant helps to restore our dignity. We lose ourselves without the willingness to express moral outrage.

In recent news, Ukraine has been discussed frequently. In 2014, the Ukrainian people led a demonstration called the Revolution of Dignity, which found them reaffirming their national honor and inherent worth.

The Ukrainians named this demonstration as such for that very reason: to tell the world broadly and remind Russia specifically of their inherent worth. With this action, Ukraine had little concern about whether Russia respected them; that is a different question entirely and perhaps not worth taking to the streets over.

To many, these actions may not have been considered respectable. Still, the Ukrainian people were willing to be indignant to reclaim their dignity.

Icons such as Colin Kaepernick today, and Muhammad Ali decades ago, have become despised by some. Yet, these individuals’ actions only revealed indignance toward undignified policies and practices. They reclaimed dignity, reaching beyond their own desires; they were willing to risk their respect for an idea, or a nation.


Loss and Restoration of Dignity

As humans, dignity is as critical to our being as breathing, nourishment, and love.

Losing our dignity, often through a self-betrayal, is not only crushing to our sense of self but can also find us unable to observe dignity in others. We are no longer present to our humanity.

Paraphrasing scholar and author Fernando Flores’ words regarding our own dignity,

As human beings, we are concerned that our actions and possibilities are valuable and come from our own integrity—that we act consistently within our own declarations of standards for action.

Practicing dignity requires taking time to reflect on it—to notice our consumption, conversations, or concerns that may strip us of our dignity. To notice where we may betray ourselves. Much of this can begin with the following dignity ritual:

  1. Create time/space for contemplation, for reflecting on and being with our common humanity.
  2. Declare principles and/or standards to live up to.
  3. Declare practices that manifest principles in action via as-lived experiences.
  4. Notice and learn to renounce any temptations that may violate your declared principles or standards.
  5. Acknowledge and resolve any conflicts between your principles and your actions.
  6. Embrace learning that supports the integration of your stated principles with your words and actions.

As we enter the holiday season each year, our principles become even more important and valuable. Sending a card with a heartfelt expression of gratitude can support and reclaim much of the dignity that is the promise of this season.

Reading Time: 9 min. Digest Time: 14 min


Tony Zampella is the learning designer at Bhavana Learning Group (previously, Zampella 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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