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BK Blog Post
Posted by Tom Callanan.
Tom Callanan is a writer, group process facilitator, consultant, and cofounder of the Collective Wisdom Initiative.
One of my first experiences of fully participating in life came during a river rafting trip on a difficult section of the Salt River in Arizona during spring flood. I was a freshman boatman paddling with six veteran guides when the boat ahead of us capsized. With minimal direction from our captain, everyone immediately leapt into action. We paddled like maniacs to the overturned boat. Two men then launched themselves into the air and onto the bottom of the capsized boat as if shot from a cannon. Others threw rescue lines to swimmers and others hauled them like fish into our boat. Others, myself included, steered our boat and kept it from capsizing as we navigated continuous whitewater. Our actions were totally spontaneous and yet they seemed somehow scripted to include all of us and the river itself.
I’ve learned that this state of individual and collective “flow” can be experienced, not just in crisis situations, but in all domains of life including philanthropy. One of the keys to getting into flow is to recognize that it’s accessed through a particular state of being called “participatory consciousness.” In short, there are three basic ways of thinking, acting, and being (states of consciousness). These states, namely “instrumental,” “receptive” and “participatory,” are available to us in every moment. And yet, most of us limit ourselves to just one or two states at any given time, and rarely do we engage the most dynamic and creative state of “participatory consciousness” that is experienced as flow.
Here’s a brief run-down of the tree types of consciousness:
“Instrumental consciousness” is the most common way of thinking/acting for achieving success. Most of us operate from this type of consciousness 90% of our lives, as we set intentions, establish priorities, and move toward our goals with clarity, focus and will. From this state, we see ourselves as separate from our environment and acting on that environment. We evaluate things as either “instruments of” or “distractions from” achieving our goals.
“Receptive consciousness” is the state where, rather than “acting on” our environment, we “receive it.” We experience receptive consciousness when we step into a hot bath after a hectic day and our muscles relax. To fully enjoy and be nourished by the bath, we can’t “act on it” as instrumental consciousness would dictate. We need to relax our control and our sense of separateness and open to allow it to effect and nourish us. This state can open us to being nourished by sources far beyond the bathtub—to energy from other people, animals, the food we eat, art, beauty, nature, silence, God. It’s all there for us if we can open to receive it.
“Participatory consciousness” is a way of being where we’re not so much acting on or receiving our environment-we’re engaging with it. This was my experience with river rafting, and it’s also described by others such as big wave surfers or artists—the experience of interacting with the wave, the music, or the canvas in such a way that something is mutually unfolding between the actor and their medium. There’s a conversation or a play that we’re participating in – a spontaneous, creative and exuberant give-and-take. Like the experience of our most luminous moments making love, we feel totally connected and interdependent. Each person is contributing to the experience, and no one is controlling it.
The difference between states of consciousness is often subtle and can best be distinguished by our intention. If we want to accomplish something or control a situation, we’re in instrumental. If we’re looking to receive or get something, we’re in receptive. If we’re open to being influenced and guided by what’s happening, we’re participating. Participation is often the most productive and creative state, but it’s also the most difficult to achieve because you can’t make it happen in an instrumental way.
There are, however, a few things you can do to create the conditions for participatory consciousness to emerge. My first experience of participating within the realm of philanthropy came almost by accident during my second year as a program officer at the Fetzer Institute. I was totally inundated and overwhelmed by funding requests, proposals and projects and was operating totally from an instrumental mode. I turned to my colleague and mentor, Arthur Zajonc, for help. With a dozen projects in my portfolio, I was thinking that perhaps I was carrying too heavy a load. I was shocked when Arthur suggested that I double the load. “You’re holding on too tight,” he said. “The biggest danger in philanthropy is control, which is really an illusion. You’re trying to control the process, and there’s no way for Spirit, inspiration, or even joy to enter. With twice as many projects, you’ll have to let go and trust the process along with your intuition and inner guidance.”
With a good degree of skepticism and nervousness, I decided to try Arthur’s approach of loosening my illusion of control by working on a small project with Parabola Magazine to produce an audio CD called “Inside the Miracle: Enduring Illness, Approaching Wholeness.” It featured poet, Mark Nepo’s writing about his experience with cancer and the music of Therese Schroeder-Sheker, a harpist who works with terminally ill patients. I was nervous about the collaboration because Mark and Therese were busy, accomplished artists who worked in different areas and had never before worked together. My nervousness was exacerbated on the opening conference call which was facilitated by Parabola’s publisher, Joe Kulin. Instead of leading us into a very structured, instrumentally-oriented process as I had imagined, Joe began with the open-ended question, “Well, what are we imagining that we might do together?” “This guy is nuts,” I thought. I was going to intervene and call for more structure but decided to heed Arthur’s advice and follow Joe’s lead.
At first, it appeared that I might be right. The visions that each of us shared for the project, myself included, were REALLY different. But Joe wasn’t phased and reassured us that our differences added to the creativity (if we held our visions lightly) and would eventually “work themselves out.” He then asked us to share why we were personally drawn to the project. Mark began by sharing deeply and tenderly about his experience of being broken open by cancer and his desire to help others through similar experiences. Mark’s words and the way he spoke brought me to tears, and I could feel the atmosphere of the call move to a much deeper level of intimacy. Therese followed by talking about the heartache and joy that she experiences every day in her job working with the dying. I then found myself choked up as I spoke about my recent experience of joining my kids and ex-wife in holding our 14-year old family dog as she was put to sleep by our vet. When all of us had shared, we sat in complete silence for what seemed like five minutes. “What was going on?” I thought. We’d clearly touched sacred ground and a common sense of purpose, but where was this leading?
Then Mark began to read a passage from his writing about how a friend of his named Paul had participated with him in his cancer experience.
“You see. It was time. The tube had to come out. It had drained my lung of blood for days, through a slit in my side. The doctor was waiting and I looked to Paul at the foot of my bed. Without a word, he knew. All the talk of love was now in the steps between us. He swept past the curtain. Our arms locked and he crossed over, no longer watching. He was part of the trauma and everything—the bedrail, the tube, my face, his face, the curve of blanket rubbing the tube, the doctor pulling the tube’s length as I held onto Paul—everything pulsed. And since, I’ve learned, if you want to create anything—peace of mind, a child, a painting of running water, a simple tier of lilies—you must crossover and hold. You must sweep past the curtain, no matter how clear. You must drop all reservations like magazines in waiting rooms. You must swallow your heart, leap across and join.”
When Mark finished reading, Therese began to spontaneously play (over the conference call line) on a small wooden instrument like a harmonium called a shruti box. The melody was haunting and spellbinding. When she finished, we sat again in silent reverence. My whole body was tingling. Then Joe said, “That was incredible. How about if we do the CD in this same spirit. Mark will read from passages of his work, and then during regular intervals Therese will play. Everyone immediately agreed and the following month Mark and Therese met at a sound studio in NYC and the recording session went effortlessly and flawlessly without a single hitch.
It’s taken me years to fully grasp what happened during that conference call. My understanding now is that Joe invited us into a participatory space where he very purposefully held an intention for full participation by everyone but had no predetermined set of instrumentally-oriented goals and strategies. Our personal sharings deepened the intimacy and trust between us, and Mark’s writing about dropping “all reservations” and “crossing over” inspired Therese to begin playing. From a place of unity, sacred connection and Spirit, the project then unfolded naturally and easily.
I’ve since tried to engage this participatory domain with every possible project. I’ve learned that there’s unfortunately no recipe to follow. There are, however, a few things that you can do (as Joe did), to create the right conditions for participation to happen.
I offer the above ideas as a “work in progress.” It’s a reflection of my ever changing and growing personal philanthropic practice. I’m reminded of Nietzche’s words: “This is my way. What is your way? There is no ‘the way.’” I welcome hearing about your way and enriching my personal practice as a result.
I’m drawn to close with one of Mark Nepo’s poems.
Go on, the voices say, part the veil.
Not with your hands. Hands will only
tangle the hours like a net. Get closer.
So you can part the veil with your breath.
The world keeps moving in on itself. It’s
what it does. Cobwebs. Opinions. Moss.
Worries. Dirt. Leaves. History. Go on. Put
them down and get real close. Open your
mouth and inhale all the way to the begin-
ning, which lives within us, not behind us.
Then wait. When something ordinary starts
to glow, we are even closer. When the light
off the river paints the roots of an old willow
just as you pass, the world is telling you to
stop running. Forget what it means, just
stop running. When the moon makes you
finger the wet grass, the veil is parting.
When the knot you carry is loosened,
the veil is parting. When you can’t help
but say yes to all that is waiting, the veil