The Trek Down: A Participation Essay

In the years BJ and I lived among the Appalachian Mountains, we hiked stunning trails in Tennessee, Virginia, and North Carolina. We lovingly remember one particular trek in North Carolina’s Land of Waterfalls.

After a day of warming up on a trail along the river by the hotel, we decided to go deeper into the Pisgah National Forest and explore a bit higher. Stopping in at a park visitor center, we met a Scottish Ranger. We probably asked more questions than required, as it was delightful to hear his rhythmic responses. We outlined what we desired to do; hike a trail of medium difficulty for approximately two to three hours. He quickly responded by unfolding a park map and pointing to the trail he believed would fit our preferences. We thanked him, followed his directions, and arrived at the base of the trail. We cinched up hiking boots over hiking socks, retrieved our hiking staffs, and I pulled on the backpack loaded for our medium difficulty and distance hike.

Upward

We have hiked many beautiful trails, and the one in the Land of Waterfalls was no exception. About two hours into the hike we were still climbing, even with the realization that this was going to be a long one, we still found ourselves appreciative of trees, rhododendron, and the skillfully maintained trail; extremely steep sections made more navigable by carefully placed stones harvested from the bounty of the Mountain.

When I graduated from the University, as best I can remember, I think I expected the trail of life ahead would be a relative steady, upward climb. For a time, it was. I know individuals who have climbed their path with such straight, conscious focus, or so that’s how I perceived their ascent. But for me, there were a lot of side-paths, diversions where I was maybe trying to “find myself” (one of those phrases once spoken often by those in my generation).

On my upward trek in life and living, I wish I had been so present and conscious of the beauty surrounding me all along. Even in the lack of due-diligent presence, I’ve still found myself tremendously blessed by the relationships made and maintained along the way.

I’m here to tell you, in spite of the diversions, that the trek upward went way too fast; a speed that breaks my heart. As Parker J. Palmer asks, “Is my heart broken apart or broken open?” I pray continually that it is open. 

The Trust View (At the Summit)

For so long it seems, I looked expectantly forward to getting to the top of the hill, to be filled with experience and wisdom, proud of what was back down that climb of life and living. Certainly I breached the crest with experience, and yes, a certain cache of wisdom, but there wasn’t time to peer back without the temptation to walk back the same way, something that in loving reality was not possible for me.

Certainly I was free to make the choice of which way to descend. Or was I? I’m not sure going back the way one came is necessarily the best way to go home. Or maybe it’s just that trying to go back the same way is not possible due to our own false expectations. Expectations tied to anything other than our own Trueness cause us to want a reality that once was, or anything but what it is in the moment. If we are actually paying attention once at the summit of something, we see the way up with new eyes, and clearly see other possibilities from there. It is such presence at the peak that I call “The Trust View.” It is a place you go, real or metaphorically, to know the balance of all experience.

Our hiking in the Appalachian Mountains taught me something of great value: When you get to the Summit, stop and look. When we reached the top that day, we were enthralled by the beauty of the heights. We could look back down to where we had parked, buildings barely identifiable, and cars looking like frozen ants. To stop and rest in such a view, observation and participation meet and swirl together, creating the joy of experience, a holding together of what has been and what is about to be. At such summit we pause and consciously open to all that can be seen. Without words we find encouragement for the poetry of the journey to continue.

The trust view is a metaphor to balance ascent and descent.

Downward

“Over the hill,” another term once frequently spoken in my generation’s younger years. It was often heard as, “Don’t trust anyone over thirty.” In general, I didn’t say or think such, or maybe my reality was the challenge of trusting anyone between age thirty and sixty-five.

Growing up, I was fortunate to spend a lot of quality time with grandparents. Even though they are long gone from this earth, their influence stays with me as I continue on the trail of life and living. The gift of time with them was made possible by two parents over thirty. Well anyway, I’m now over the hill according to those old standards, and quite so as I’m almost at that sixty-five limit. But what does this mean?

I’m not certain what all it means, but one thing I know, that it is important to walk steadily with a good hiking staff. In the reality of walking a mountain path, the hiking staff is a smart option for support and security over the hill, allowing other body members to absorb the pounding of the steps downward. Metaphorically, the trek down the hill of life and living requires that I  remain consistently conscious of, and dedicated to, the support I need to steady the walk.

There’s the need and requirement to focus one’s steps down the path on the other side of the hill. I stumbled plenty on the hike upward. While usually recovering my steps quickly, I also had times in a divot dug deeper by self-pity, but I eventually came out of each one of these times and kept walking. Sometimes my steps resumed as I smiled and looked forward with joy. And sometimes I walked on with a tear stained face.

Going Home

It was more than five hours before we saw the base of that trail again in the Land of Waterfalls. Along the descent, probably still an hour to the base, a young couple passed on their way up; they had obviously begun their hike from the other end. As we greeted each other, the woman said, “We’re almost to the top, right?” Without breaking careful downward stride I said, “Whatever you need to tell yourself.” Behind us we heard, “Oh no!”

Once the shock of the distance ahead wore off, I hope that young couple continued on the trail, stopped at the summit, and like us can look back on the day as a beautiful experience. I hope, as they have navigated life and living since that day, that they can see the stones so carefully placed where they needed to be, that their steps will be as carefully placed as they head down, and that they will each see the bounty of the mountain all along the way.

–J. Brunson

Check out my new book, Participation: Falling in Love with Reality
Also available for Kindle

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Participation (Falling in Love with Reality) – Wonder: Part IIID

Love & Oneness
To allow the strength of one’s voice uninhibited flow.

See the Unfolding

There is work, and there is work one is called to do. Or, is it; there is work, and we are called to be who we are? It is, maybe, both/and. No matter what, under most circumstances, we are free to bring our Trueness to the doing of our work.

In the rhythm of life & living, and the balance of Wade, Walk, Wonder, if we do not allow Trueness application in the doing of a work, then the grace given to us will not flow through that work to another. To lead from original passion is to hold the tension in the eddy of enthusiasm and suffering−the reality of the passion paradox.

I was excited to arrive in California and work with Jamie and her leadership team. A recent survey in the larger organization had delivered some concerning results around how much individuals felt engaged (lack of engagement is a form of suffering in our journey with work). While this engagement concern was not the main reason for bringing her team together, it was not far from Jamie’s thinking. She had been newly promoted from the peer ranks of those attending this session, and she wanted a powerful beginning of their work together, and a new, more energized focus than had previously existed.

In preparing for this session, I was impressed with, and encouraged by, Jamie’s passion. Her immediate boss had provided me with a synopsis of strengths Jamie had exhibited in her role prior to the promotion. She had diligently focused on execution and tactics, but he was unsure of her ability at the strategic level of purpose, setting the stage for more meaningful application and execution.

Jamie had pulled her team together for the purpose of creating oneness around the story they desire to tell, individually and together, with the intention of bringing more meaning to application and execution. To kick off this section of the session, I asked Jamie to share her vision of the future state, in any form she wished. She opened her portfolio to her prepared comments and spoke them from her heart.

Seeing in the Clarity of Love

Jamie’s love for her work, and those she is privileged to love in doing the work, came through in both message and action. After sharing her vision of the future state of the territory for which she and her team had accountability, she left the room and asked me to facilitate a dialogue of response. After about two minutes of fumbling with what they thought they were supposed to do, they looked at me and said, “We are good with what Jamie said.” I loved it! I got up and went to fetch her.

Jamie is taking accountability born within her passion to create an atmosphere supportive of life-giving-sharing autonomy. From her engaging vision, the team pulled together around the story they collectively desire to tell and created clear strategies for acting on individual and shared passion. Time will tell. The story will unfold.

To see the unfolding we must pay attention. We must pay attention in the clarity of love. We are not focused on some distant outcome as much as we are paying attention to how we behave, individually and together, in the present moment−in the unfolding.

In my work, and in the life of my work, I pray I’ve brought my true self into play. For the most part, I believe I have. I have tried to find meaning in, and bring meaning to, the work I’ve been given through the years. In some instances, it may have been close to survival, but it has mostly been an approach of meaning. This is built into my wiring, deeply ingrained in my established value system.

Jamie’s voice was clearly engaged as she shared her vision. The strength of her voice was leveraged in her presence with her team. Trueness was in play. She was in the flow of her passion, purpose, and presence.

Now is the Time

Do not be distracted
from the peace,
from the presence
that is yours to hold,
that is yours to let go
into your life
into your living,
into a world
grasping for peace
misunderstanding presence.

For to know presence is to know God.
For to know God is to know presence.

We can only love
in the now.
Now is the time
to love.

It is love that saves us,
always has been,
always will be.

Participation (Falling in Love with Reality) – Wonder: Part IIIA

Love & Oneness

Our unique brand of love is complete freedom, allowing us to hold opposing truths we find in life & living. These truths become more clear to us as we listen deeply. To hold is no longer about control. As we hold with the freedom love provides, we feel with wholeness, hear more succinctly, and see more clearly.

To be in the free and whole space that love provides is to learn to be in the creatively tense middle. The middle space is tense because it forces the meeting of solitude and otherness.

An Encounter with Voice

He was a bit older than most when he began his assignment guarding the prisoners. My guess is that Jack was more mature than most his age. He had not allowed life’s realities to harden him into stone. He lived from his heart, broken open by reality, not scattered into pieces, as had sadly happened in the story of one particular prisoner.

In the ward where prisoners were placed on suicide watch, there was a particular individual who was teaching himself English by listening and searching for the right word for what he desired to translate from his native tongue. He was searching for someone to listen. Jack had walked this length of cells often and checked in on this person as the translations were being developed.

One particularly beautiful evening, the prisoner called Jack over to the cell door. He looked at Jack and pointed to a word he had written, saying, “This is my word for you.” The word was tolerance.

The prisoner shared his story with Jack that evening. I will not share that story here. What I do share, I share because I met Jack and heard the prisoner’s full story from him. The story gave insight into the teller’s tragic reality, while also speaking clearly about Jack’s Trueness as experienced by this prisoner.

Even before Jack and I had a chance to talk together, I was intrigued by watching Jack with his peers, his supportive eye contact and an engaging smile; a way of being with each person in his presence. In our one-on-one time together, I shared with Jack what I heard as he told the story of this encounter. I heard Jack’s voice of love coming through, not only in the telling, but also in the very fact that such an encounter could only occur because the man in the cell chose Jack to receive his sad story.

That night, with the open door allowing the night air through, his prisoner offered a gift in exchange for being allowed to leave his story with Jack. He gave Jack the gift of awareness, letting him know the impact of his voice, and the strength of that voice, tolerance.

The Door to Oneness

Upon learning more about my journey, and in the process more about what both drives and draws me, my friend Judy said, “You live a true life.” From this conversation, the term Trueness was given visible life in my work. My Rhythm of Trueness in this work begins as I gather from desire what is needed to grow intent, and rhythm finds its full cadence as I give in the creative, tense middle space. This rhythm, authentic and true, keeps me in the flow.

When you finally commit to lead, influence, and serve from the rhythm of your Trueness, you can grasp the reality that there is no priority higher than that of your love.

In a follow up conversation with Jack, he talked about how important it is to purposefully recognize the difference between yourself and the other person in whose presence you’re blessed to be. He shared other stories of stepping into that space where he carefully held what he was feeling, hearing, and seeing. It became clear to Jack, and ever more clear to me, that our voice−our individually unique brand of love−is what opens the door, and allows our differences to swirl into Oneness.

Love & Oneness:
To allow the strength of one’s voice uninhibited flow.

Participation (Falling in Love with Reality) – Walk: Part II

Trueness Meets the World

To walk, in a world of paths,
along one’s own path,
a paradox in the making,
of focus and distraction,
choice and decision,
of what’s inside
meeting what’s outside.

Truth, no matter the origin,
pulls one inwardly
into the truth of self,
spirit true, since the beginning.

Truth, doing its work within,
pushes one out, a self
openly evolving, a path
providentially unfolding.

I know I’m privileged to work with many wonderful individuals, and I also know the value reaped from the observations and wisdom of these spirits. From these leaders I often hear about the belief that people, in general and for the most part, do not go into the workplace to do a bad job. Rather, each consciously or unconsciously wishes to operate from their true self, to add value from his/her own way of being, and to serve some larger transformative purpose. Such wise observation is an example of an individual leader’s grasp of Everything Belongs.

Kevin is one of those wonderful, wise individuals. There has been significant change in his organization, thrusting everyone into transition. In a conversation about change and organizational culture, Kevin pointed out that the components of an evolving culture are not linear; the actions to build and maintain a healthy culture must happen simultaneously, working together for good.

And so it is within the flow of Forgive Everything / Everything Belongs / See the Unfolding. It is not necessarily a linear flow. It is a very interactive relationship. However, like many things of both mind and heart, it helps to at least begin by seeing the linear flow, and to then allow it to move toward relationship.

Deep into the work Kevin and I were doing together, we reached the point in my methodology where we compose an objective to tangibly focus Trueness into conscious application and practice. In the session following the creation of his objective, and after time spent reflecting on its flow, Kevin acknowledged its resonance, stating that it represents his rhythm and his true self. As we reviewed the objective together, I pointed out the energy drawn from the three things he wanted from our work; 3 things he had wisely stated in our very first session.

Kevin knows that changes are part and parcel to each transition. He also knows that transitions build one upon another to support transformation, and that collective transformation can only happen when, as individuals, we participate together in a way of being true.

“Being transformative is a constant state, like being a leader.” −Kevin

Now more conscious of his own rhythm, Kevin is focusing his Trueness into the presence of others and their way of being. He has taken accountability to break down his own mental constructs and constraints, stepping into the middle of the flow without any need to separate and divide, further freeing his way of being as a transformational leader. The impact of Kevin’s Trueness, made real by his choices, decisions, and actions, depends on the attention he gives to his relationship with the flow−his own rhythm and the flow of a larger purpose.

We break from reality, and our own Trueness, when we step out of the middle, and the flow, not onto our own path and the walk, but to a divisive, separating position to one side or the other. Kevin may not claim so, but I see him as a contemplative leader. Contemplation and a non-divisive spirit, these make Kevin the transformational leader that he is.

Kevin’s voice of Honesty is his way of paying attention with love; it is his brand of leadership love. It is the energy for his walk and the opening to his poetry and encounter.

Participation (Falling in Love with Reality) – Wade: Part I

Simplicity, Reality, and Love

I just want to step in
and Wade.

I only want to be steady
and quiet
in my Walk.

I want to hear and know
Oneness as I allow into my life
Wonder–at the smallest,
simplest, and so very important things
of an everyday life.

Moving back to Ohio after twenty years is one of the most significant transitions we’ve experienced. It has been a beautifully demanding transition, calling our minds and hearts into the atmosphere of present being.

It was the middle of October, waiting for the color, and I was in my new favorite coffee shop thinking on this next series of writing. I began to soak in a joy I felt, while resisting any temptation to stray away from the depth I sensed in the stream of joy.

I had just released my fourth book; a book of selected verse encouraged out of me by my beautiful friend, editor, and publisher. Do I have yet another book in me? I think so, maybe more than just one. Parker J. Palmer talks of being one of those writers who only has one book in him, but he continues writing about the topic in varying expressions. I feel this as well. And like Palmer, I don’t seem to mind.

I’m a simple person I suppose. It could seem I do not like challenge, not writing multiple books on varying topics, but it is very challenging to write about the one topic providentially placed in my very soul. This topic doesn’t define me, rather it is a wonderful energy force in my soul–this thing I know as Trueness.

Wade–Walk–Wonder

So, why this alliteration? As my soul-sister Pam said, it has a flow inherent. And as she knows from her encouragement of me, I am captivated by flow, and the rhythm it washes into the open.

It begins in the Wade. I step into life and living freed from the lie of any single expectation. Forgiving everything, gently placing all in the flow, allows me to step out and Walk in the beauty of it all–all that is reality. In the steadiness of such walking, I am deeply encouraged by how it all fits together (how it can all work together for good, if I only allow it to do so). Then, at some point I begin to actually see an unfolding; and this is the Wonder.

In this day and time, I find it sad when we allow ourselves to not be filled with wonder. We believe we are well-informed, that we see and understand so much. All that, to me, gets in the way of real Wonder.

I hope you will stay with me as writing within this rhythm unfolds; for your own Wading, Walking, Wondering.

In the Resonant Middle – Your Loving Presence

Surprising it may seem
and so surprising it is;
but deceitful it cannot be.

−verse 5 of Transforming Trueness (Repose)

Trust has to begin within.

Sitting down to write, I often find myself in the sludge of thoughts, wanting to write, but not knowing where to start. The one thing that always seems to calm the whirling thinking and open me to the pen and page is one particular song, which I select on my phone and play through the ear buds, often over and over as the words start to come: Love is the Answer, by Todd Rundgren.

With love being my voice, the lyrics and music open me to trust the flow, and the moment with what needs to be written. It is almost always a wonderful surprise.

A Story
My desire to write goes back quite far, at least to the time when I wrote the essay on work when in elementary school. I didn’t know why I wanted to write. Once I was in high school, there were more assignments requiring one to write.

I remember high school English, getting many writing assignments, and seeing the less than average score on most of them when the teacher handed them back, always in an impersonal fashion. I didn’t know if I just couldn’t write, she just didn’t like my writing, or some combination thereof. Consequently, when I got to college, found myself in American Literature, I dreaded the first writing assignment.

The time, of course, came. Sandra Boyd was her name. I shall never forget her, my teacher. She graded that first assignment and the time came to hand them back to us. She went to the first seat in each row and handed the graded essays to the first person to pass back, except on my row.

She brought my paper to me directly, placed it in front of me (I saw the A at the top), and said, “I can’t wait to read what you write next.”

It was many more years before I made the commitment to not only write regularly, but to become diligent in the process to become better at the craft. To help in the matter, I was blessed to find Pam and Susan and we formed our own writing group for practice.

One day, several years into our time together, we were doing our normal thing; writing a piece from an impromptu assignment and then reading to each other what had been written. They shared something with me that became a gift of energy leading me to find focus in my writing.

I had just read my piece, where I had shared a story. They said, “We like it when you tell us a story. Write more stories for us.”

I hope I’ve done a good job since then to keep my commitment to Pam and Susan to write more stories.

A poem for your work: Encouragement is Love

The Mystery of Authenticity

As I write this, it was 15 years ago and we were preparing to leave the corporate life. We traveled to the region where we now live and purchased a house. I was leaving an organization where I had a good run, with 23 assignments in three states. Many good relationships were built that still nourish my work today.

We moved in December of that year. In January the company brought me back for my final day, and for a surprise going-away party. Being the reason for the party I decided to hang with it until the last person left. I had no idea that would be 1:00 a.m.  After he had too much truth serum, one of the few late attendees seemed upset and decided he needed to tell me something.

His telling was about what an executive had said to him, and how it had obviously disturbed him greatly. I write this as the 2016 presidential campaign season is days from being over. What he had heard was in no way as disgusting as what we have heard in this campaign, but to him it was nonetheless very upsetting. I’ll leave it at that as I’m simply trying to set up my story.

I will call the executive Carl. The division’s Christmas party was being planned, and the name of a recently departed executive came up as someone to put on the invite list. That’s when Carl made his reactive statement. Even though he only said it to the one person, it seems that one person couldn’t help but talk about it to others.

The next morning I traveled back to my new home. I was leaving the company with a signed contract to complete culture work that had been started by my team while employed there, and another contract waiting for approval to begin the leadership coaching part of my practice with nine individuals.

In the following days I could not get that story about Carl off my mind. I respected him enough to confront his reactivity. I called his administrative assistant and set up an appointment. On the day of the call, I found myself pacing in the yard outside my office asking myself how I was going to handle this.

When I got Carl on the phone, I said, I’m going to tell you a story, at any point if I get anything wrong, stop me. I told the story, and he never stopped me. He said that how I told it was how it had unfolded. He then said, “I was just being myself.”

I reminded him of the wonderful things he had led and done in the culture of that organization over the last few years. His presence and work had been part of setting up a needed transformation. I told him I was making this call because I didn’t want to see a simple comment take it all down. I then said to him, “You have a thousand people under your care now, you’ve lost the right to just be yourself.”

Therein lies the mystery of Authenticity. We confuse blatant honesty driven by emotion with real authentic presence. Whatever Carl’s feelings were about the departed executive had nothing to do with the person who had stood before him.

I’ve told this story many times to leader clients whom I felt needed to hear it, but writing it down is causing me to reflect on my own behavior as authentic, or not. It’s rather humbling when that spot is flicked on.

Leadership is about behavior.

It is only about behavior. We influence through behavior. Our behavior can stand in the way of powerful results or our behavior can encourage and empower others toward powerful outcomes.

An organization’s culture does not determine our behavior as a leader, but our behavior as leaders determines our culture. Frankly, I no longer care very much for conversations about culture. I much prefer to keep my energy focus on a body of work that builds confidence.

Realize that it is not how you feel that determines how you act; rather it is how you act that determines how you feel.

−William James (1842-1910)

At the end of the conversation Carl directly asked my advice about what he should do. I told him that he knew the one person that was present that he needed to talk to, and that he must go to him and ask for his forgiveness. Then, ask him who else he should talk to, and then go to each of them and do the same.

In the brightness of the authentic self (what I call Trueness) we clearly see our actions and can observe them factually, before any judgment. There is a narrow space in which such seeing occurs, and we must respond quickly leveling in on what drives us from the deepest place in our being.

Yes, as a leader in the 21st Century, Carl has grown beyond the emotional right to say whatever. However, he is completely free by his Trueness to speak from and with his authentic voice.

Bright Unknowing

Superfluous opinion, you’re not.
Yet trigger pulled, sending brightly
such divisive thinking into the air.

An opinion, only narcissism serves.
Egocentricity, and shallowness lightly,
simply wasting the burst of a flare.

Devastating challenge it was,
when such I realized,
of opinions, I must let go.

Wonderfully freeing it was,
truthful wound cauterized,
of presence, I can now know.

Inauthentic only, an opinion can be,
outwardly lashing,
misrepresentation externally told.

Authenticity, non-dualistic and free,
inwardly flashing,
oneness internally we can hold.

–J. Brunson

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