“Are you able to be with this exactly the way it is with no agenda to change it?”
I learned this powerful question in Steve March’s Aletheia Coaching training, and it continues to knock my socks off as a tool to help me discover when I am not fully present and accepting of reality as it is.
The common state for humans is what Tracy Goss calls the “Universal Human Paradigm”:
There is a way things should be.
And when they are that way, they are right.
When they’re not that way, something is wrong with you, them or it.
She says that humans tend to get stuck in “the cycle of addiction to interpretation”, and “you consciously break the addiction cycle by recognizing that “bad news” never happened. Nor did “good news” happen. They are both interpretations about what happened. They are meanings you gave to what happened, meanings derived from your past.”
I call this post Alignment to Reality, because humans rarely engage with reality directly. Our interpretations of events mean that we each construct our own reality in deciding which events to pay attention to, and view all inputs through the lens of whether they reinforce the worldview we already have. There’s a good reason for this, of course; to fully experience everything all the time would require a tremendous amount of cognitive effort, so we slot things into our existing categories as a shortcut.
The question then becomes how do we recognize when our mental models might not be accurate, or to use Bruno Latour’s language, when there is something new asking to be included in our personal collective. And that’s why I think Steve’s question is so powerful – it enables us to confront our unconscious agenda to change the world to be as it “should” rather than accept how it is. If I interpret events to conform to my agenda, then I am destined to repeat the same mistake, stuck in an interpretation that may no longer be serving me. When I can instead break free of my interpretations of how events affect me, I can accept the events that actually happened, and use that knowledge to more effectively plan my next step.
Catching our interpretations is not easy! Our ego is served by interpreting everything good that happens to us as being due to our skill, and everything bad that happens to us as being a function of bad luck or unchangeable circumstances. This cycle of interpretation leads to stasis, as we don’t see how things can change: “That’s just the way it is.” And yet, when we can answer Jerry Colonna’s powerful coaching question of “How am I complicit in creating the circumstances I say I don’t want?”, we can start to see the power we have to change our circumstances, and to recognize “It doesn’t have to be this way.”
The good news is that we can learn to recognize when our current interpretations are no longer serving us. Tara Brach’s RAIN practice is one way to develop this skill:
- Recognizing the interpretations we are making, and the feelings that are arising as a result of that interpretation.
- Allowing the experience to be just as it is, without resistance
- Investigate with Kindness – what is happening inside of me? Learning to recognize our own triggers and patterns of reaction, so we can learn to consciously choose rather than automatically react.
- Natural Loving Awareness (or as it was formerly called Non-Identification) – realizing that we are not our feelings or our reactions, and we can just be with them without reacting.
To be clear, I am still very much a novice when it comes to mindfulness, and I still fall prey to my addiction to interpretation on a daily, if not hourly, basis. My ego is so obsessed with being perfect that I can barely make a mistake without feeling a volcanic withering anger at myself for being so incompetent or stupid. And yet, I can see how this ego part gets in the way of me recognizing what is actually happening. Most of the time, a question is just a question, rather than a veiled attack to expose my incompetence. Most of the time, I can just do the task, without feeling like I must massively over-deliver to prove my worth.
I experience greater ease when I can relax into accepting what’s happening around me as just things that are happening, rather than filtering events through the lens of a paranoid ego that is hyper-vigilant for any sign that I might be perceived as lacking value. My toddler is just playing around, not trying to show me up as a bad father. The person who hasn’t responded to one of my emails is just busy with their own life, rather than dismissing me. Instead of living with my Inner Critic ready to pounce on any mistake I make while I perform, I can relax and just _be_.
This shift in perspective is not easy for me after decades of doing things the other way because that hyper-vigilant ego part has driven success for me throughout my life. But I’m learning to practice acceptance to bring my expectations more into alignment with what is actually happening. The alternative is dwelling in a constant state of self-deficiency and feeling “not enough”. This is where I link to Buddhist teachings about the inevitability of suffering when we get attached to the self and its desires, also known as being human.
When we combine this alignment to reality (and ego detachment) with an aspiration, we can start to see the ways in which our ego agenda is blocking us from our stated aspiration. With that clarity, we can focus on building the commitment, skills, or structure and take one action towards our aspiration. Once we see how our initial change affects the system, we can take another action, and through experimentation and iteration, dance our way forward with the system.
You may notice an apparent contradiction here, in that the initial question of this post asks us whether we can be with something “with no agenda to change it”, and yet I talk about aspiration. How can we change the world for the better if we have no agenda to change things?
An aspiration is a commitment to “it doesn’t have to be this way”. And yet to effectively change things starts by acknowledging the way things are today. Otherwise, we are likely trying to change things that don’t need to change, because we are caught in our distorted version of reality. When we start from a place of no agenda, no “should”, we can see the forest instead of the too many trees of our ego, which allows us to progress faster and further towards our aspiration.
Another way to put it is that when we view the world through an agenda and a place of ego (“_I_ will change the world”), our energy is directed towards defending that ego and agenda, instead of towards our aspiration. We spend our time in lofty dreams of a future world where everything turns out as it “should”, instead of focusing on the next action we can take. And yet if we consistently take actions that are in line with an aspiration, those small steps are what lead to actual change. When we “let go of the fruits” of our action (as described in the Bhagavad Gita), we can focus on taking the next step, rather than spending our attention dreaming about the potential future, or worrying about whether we will get credit for the result. This idea of letting go of the outcome shows up across many spiritual traditions, from Buddhism to Hinduism to Werner Erhard’s est, and I think that indicates there may be an essential truth here about the distraction and inefficiency of our ego’s need for credit.
The last point I’ll make in this post is around the value of not having an agenda in crafting alignment. In the first post in this series, I defined alignment in this context as “the art and craft of creating or identifying a unifying purpose and a set of elements or parts, and then connecting those elements together to move towards that purpose.” We can’t connect elements or parts or people without acknowledging them as they are, because otherwise we might be trying to force square pegs into round holes, and that would require a hierarchical use of force or threat. We must first see them fully, without our own agenda and filters, and honor their way of being. After respecting them in that way, we can invite them to join us in our aspiration. One of my coaching clients once said that my value was that I made it absolutely clear that I was with him, sharing his perspective, and only then turned his head to show him new possibilities.
Alignment to reality allows us to appreciate the present reality, exactly as it is with no agenda to change it, then humbly invite and connect others to a future aspiration. This is a loving and nonviolent form of influence, very different than the traditional hierarchical power (“Do what you’re told or you’ll be punished!”) that I am familiar with from growing up in America. I think alignment is a powerful model for being in the world and for being a leader, so I plan to continue exploring this topic for a couple more posts. I hope to turn these ideas into a book someday, so please offer any feedback on the clarity of these ideas and/or what resonates for you.