Leading from Within: Conscious Social Change and Mindfulness for Social Innovation

Gretchen Ki Steidle

264 pages, MIT Press, 2017

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As the founder and president of Global Grassroots, a mindfulness-based social venture incubator for women in East Africa, I have found mindfulness to be the single most important design tool of the leading change agent today. My new book, Leading from Within: Conscious Social Change and Mindfulness for Social Innovation, presents evidence, case studies, and practical tools for integrating mindfulness into every aspect of social change design, from diagnosing systemic social issues to devising more sustainable and effective solutions.—Gretchen Ki Steidle

I have always had great difficulty asking for money—which is unfortunate for the founder and director of a nonprofit organization that depends on the donations of others to do its work. I felt great discomfort especially asking people that I knew for contributions to Global Grassroots, as if I were begging. I had a sense of shame around this.

When I meditated on the discomfort, I recognized that I preferred to be self-sufficient and earn my resources. This felt like a more fair and just way of operating. It also made me feel more successful, less dependent, and more capable. Going deeper, I realized I had a need to feel that success was my own making, and that I did not need to ask for help. My role was of the helper, and as such, I needed to be self-sufficient rather than dependent. Somewhere deep, I felt I was not worth a gift, and there was a fear of never being able to reciprocate such donations, so I couldn’t fairly ask for them. Though my organization depended on the resources of others, fundraising gave me a severe pain in the center of my shoulders and left me feeling paralyzed. I knew I needed to go even deeper.

So I did a breathwork session on my fear of asking for help. Breathwork is one mind-body modality that uses a particular deep breath practice to help shift stuck emotion. During this session, I was immediately transported to a memory from when I was two years old. I was alone in my bed, and it was nighttime. I was extremely afraid that something was going to come in the window and get me. I remember lying in bed, my covers pulled up to my chin, furiously glancing from window to window, keeping watch. I reasoned that if I could see the window, then nothing would be able to enter, but if I looked away for even an instant, something could come and attack me. I was also aware that I was not allowed to call for help from my parents. They had told me to stop calling out to them at night (probably after the umpteenth time of me calling them), that I was fine, and that I needed to be quiet and go to sleep. So here I was—terrified, paralyzed, and unable to call for help, plus the position of my hands holding my blankets up to my chin was causing my shoulder muscles to squeeze together right in the place where I usually felt pain when considering fundraising. Somehow my inability to ask for help around money had been linked to a time in my past when I was told I was supposed to be self-sufficient and not ask for help during great fear. This is an example of the condensed experiences that Holotropic Breathwork pioneer Stanislov Grof had observed in his work with therapeutic patients. Through my session, I was able to begin to unpack and delink these experiences, thereby releasing the fear, emotional charge, and limiting beliefs I had around asking for help.

I am still working on this, but I have released a lot of my challenges around fundraising. I know our work is worth a gift. I know that if someone says no, it is not because they don’t like me or don’t care about my cause. I know that if I ask for help and they say yes, it does not mean I am not self-sufficient. This has made fundraising so much easier, and my ability to ask for and receive support in all other areas of my life so much less charged.

Our limiting beliefs might be about money, self-worth, image, success, or something else. None of us have grown to maturity without inheriting some form of a hang-up, so rest assured there are traps, both subtle and obvious, somewhere in every single consciousness. The best that a mindful change agent can do is expose, understand, and release these emotional obstacles as a means to see more clearly as well as move more freely. True needs are intelligence that will lead us to our unique path of meaning.

Unconscious Compulsions

I am sitting in an audience of about three hundred women participating in a wellness conference at a well-known retreat center. The inspirational lineup of speakers has provided a range of methods designed to instill empowerment and self-realization. We spend the afternoon engaged in partner work, journaling, and meditations that reach deep inside to surface our greatest needs and possibilities. One speaker has just led the plenary in an activity of self-inquiry and is now asking for a few volunteers to speak about their insights.

A woman sitting a few rows ahead of me raises her hand, and the mike runner brings her the microphone. She stands and begins to speak, immediately choking on her words. Her efforts to contain herself only result in an eruption of tears, as she sputters to continue. Turning to share what she is saying with the whole room, she reveals a face shiny with both tears and a runny nose. Then I notice the woman sitting next to her madly rifling through her things as though searching for something vital. Looking around at her feet, she locates … a box of tissues. Then she purposefully grabs a big wad of them in one hand, and reaches up to wipe the nose and face of the woman who is speaking. Midsentence! Startled, the speaker stops for a moment, murmurs thanks, and then continues with her emotional share. The tissue lady sits down, satisfied.

Observing the exchange, I recognize the good intention as well as courage to act. The tissue lady wanted to alleviate her neighbor’s suffering. But her well-meaning maneuver was driven by a hasty assessment of the situation and her internal, unconscious compulsion to fix a perceived problem. As frequently happens, this change agent was caught interpreting a problem from her own sense of discomfort and viewing a solution based on her personal priorities. To her, the awkward emotional distress of the speaker was clearly a situation that needed fixing. The end result, unfortunately, was more of an intrusion, interruption, and distraction, as opposed to a mindful solution that provided care, support, and respect for the person in need.

The impulse to fix may be one of the most seemingly innocent threats to social service, but acting on that compulsion is often driven by an unconscious discomfort with what is happening in front of us rather than a conscious awareness of what might be most useful. The knee-jerk response might help us feel better, but at the cost of leaving our intended beneficiaries feeling railroaded, misunderstood, and even further disempowered. Again, our proverbial three breaths can assuage this well-intended impulse. Our ability to notice and sit with our own discomfort, and then inquire about the unconscious impulses that are triggered, prepares us to listen to what is truly needed and then act without distortion.

Consider why people volunteer or give philanthropically. If you have ever taken on a volunteer experience or contributed financially to a cause, consider why you were first compelled to do so. Did you help others because it made you feel liked, useful, or powerful? Was it because you felt it was the right thing to do, or thought you had expertise or knowledge that could be useful? Then again, maybe you were motivated by a sense of meaning or the chance of accomplishing something that would distinguish yourself as an individual?

All these intentions can be authentically sourced from a deep commitment to making the world a better place. But they can also be driven from a place of ego that wants to prove a belief about what is right, demonstrate knowledge, or further a sense of accomplishment. There is nothing inherently bad with wanting to advance justice or accomplishment. None of these motivations, though, may have anything to do with what the people you aim to serve actually need. If intentions are not conscious, they may drive us to act in ways that are self-serving and blind to, if not in misalignment with, what is needed by another. And that can be disempowering. It is possible that there are unconscious drivers to even good acts that are important to be aware of as we engage in social transformation.

This is true not only of individuals but of groups of individuals, organizations, and institutions too. For example, on an organizational level we can ask whether we are acting in support of our core mission, or making decisions that position us to achieve publicity or funding at the expense of those we serve, or in opposition to or outside our mission. Organizations should always review their intentions and decisions in light of their over-arching mission statement. On a societal level, we can examine the ways the structures we endorse uphold hierarchy and exclusion. If intentions are set consciously from the ground up, it is more likely that the resulting actions, structures, and systems will support the optimal path for the common good.

Becoming Whole Collectively

Claudia Horwitz, community organizer and founder of stone circles, a nonprofit retreat center for activists, remarks, “If we engage in the collec-tive without some practice of individual consciousness, we’re more likely to get caught up in group think and only use a fraction of our human capacity. Without consciousness, there is no choice.” It is only by investing in deeper self-understanding that we can effectively turn toward the societal level. Just as we do in our own process of cultivating presence, we ask, What is happening now? This allows us to look deeply and listen not just within ourselves but in all corners of our external environment too. We engage as many viewpoints as possible in helping us understand what is really going on with a particular issue—recognizing that every individual has something to contribute to our deeper, human understanding. We know from our own experience how we grasp at or avoid change, and how hard change actually is, so we approach others with greater levels of compassion.

Then we work to see clearly and understand the underlying roots of the issue by asking, What is really true? We need to avoid division and instead use presence to understand the entire system, even engaging those who oppose our views and values, even those who are perpetrators of violence and hate. How did they come to those actions or beliefs? How did our society fail them such that they have chosen those harmful actions, so that they have come to believe in ways that limit tolerance and inclusivity? What role can we play in breaking down barriers and boundaries to help foster deeper understanding? How can we understand and heal these unconscious behaviors so that we can work toward common ground and eventually a deeper sense of interconnectedness?

Conscious social change honors both the unique wisdom of our conditioned experience and essential similarities we all have at our deepest levels. Employing mindfulness is crucial for advancing social justice so that we do not re-create hierarchies of power over others but rather eliminate the fear-based prejudice and abuse of privilege that underlies suffering and oppression. A conscious approach to social change fosters understanding of and compassion for the roots of suffering in ourselves as well as those who oppose us. It embraces self-reflection to examine our fears, insecurities, and the rejected parts of ourselves such that we can more easily accept or at least understand others. It scrutinizes power structures in the dominant culture, including our own standing within them, and works to dismantle oppressive institutions. Without denying reality and its historical wounds, we speak truth, listen deeply, bear witness to the experiences of others, and contribute toward a vision for transformation.

Excerpted from Leading from Within: Conscious Social Change and Mindfulness for Social Innovation by Gretchen Ki Steidle. Published by The MIT Press, October 2017. Copyright 2017 Gretchen Ki Steidle. All rights reserved.