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6 January 2018

Weirdly practical

Written by
Keith Johnston

I wonder how often what I say or teach comes across sounding to others like Sanskrit, or some other foreign tongue?

I happened to be chanting in Sanskrit, a language I do not comprehend, when this question came to me. I was also clapping and dancing along happily.  We were in a round straw-bale building at the inspiring Anahata Yoga Retreat, perched 600 metres above Golden Bay in New Zealand, for a New Year’s yoga and meditation retreat.

Yoga?  I am to yoga as a Presbyterian pew is to a folding deck chair.   My body balks at bending.  It was bending a bit but balky.  For all that, my heart was happy.  During the week we were at Anahata, I experienced a coherence between the physical practice, the questions we were considering about how we might want to change and the obstacles we placed in front of those changes, the power of bringing heightened awareness to daily chores, and the heightened energy and focus that built during many hours of yoga, chanting, and meditation, especially the chanting.

All good stuff.  Much of this has similar aims to work we do with leaders at Cultivating Leadership.  Questions kept arising for me in relation to our work.

I was particularly focused on what might we learn from the challenge of establishing powerful new approaches to personal change and growth that cross into very different cultures.  What needs to happen to make a practice from the East work in the West?

Over many years I have practiced meditation, tai chi, and now a little yoga.  Each of these involves a physical practice that is derived from a spiritual tradition and can be taught either separately from its cultural and spiritual roots or from within that context.  I think this is analogous to some of the choices we face in working with leaders.  How much do we focus on immediate practical steps or on the theoretical context that those steps are derived from?  We make these choices all the time and, in my case, I am unsure about whether I am making effective choices or whether I should be providing more of a synthesis between practice, context, and theory.  I am curious about how others think about this.

Mindfulness meditation, tai chi for enhanced health and well-being, local yoga classes, all take ancient practices and remove their more Eastern spiritual elements, to make them accessible to Western audiences.  The reasons for stripping out the weird and the ‘woo-woo’ are totally understandable.  The aim is to get people to start practicing and to keep practicing; lowering the barriers to entry as much as possible makes good sense.  The practices are in themselves beneficial.  Any of these as a regular practice is a win.  And, as I have always struggled myself with regularly practicing meditation, tai chi, or yoga, I can see the value if I were to get over that hump.

There are also elements that are lost in this process of simplification and the extraction of the practices from their contexts.  The meditation I have done has Buddhist origins which were more or less visible, the Tai Chi is Taoist, this week’s yoga is rooted in Hindu spirituality (although that was not highlighted on the retreat).  Context matters.  It helps to deepen the practice and emphasises that there is a way of thinking and worldview that lay behind the practices.

I wonder if understanding the context allows us to hold the whole package in more nuanced ways and thus more lightly.   Or can context also lead to an opposite effect:  where the whole package is seen as the way of true believers, literally holy writ with correct rules to be followed?  I feel I have seen both in Buddhist communities and that may be a function of the level of adult development of the practitioners combined with the confidence of the leaders to feel able to flex their approaches.

It seems to me that we face a similar challenge in teaching about complexity and adult development.  How much can we help people into these topics, or help leaders to lead differently in practical ways, without giving them some sort of contextual and theoretical grounding so they can figure out stuff for themselves?  How much would the theory, research, and context bury the learners?  I would summarise our approach as building from the practical, giving participants enough context and theory to establish authority but not so much as to be overwhelming, then encouraging those who want more to ask.

I confess that my challenge is to stop there.  There is always more context, theory, research I am bursting to offer.  With the help of colleagues, I have trained myself to shut up, or I am trying to.  I now aim to give the simplest and most succinct summary of the material (challenging), take questions, try to turn the questions back to the group and not answer them (more challenging), and then follow up with anything else that really needs to be covered or clarified.

The assumption about building from practical steps is that only by practicing, and getting value, week by week, will leaders build habits that lead to transformations over time.  I wonder if we are teaching to set up the practices (because that is what is useful to start with) and whether context and theory are things that become more useful (and accessible) over time as questions arise through practice.  Might we do more to help leaders to loop back to get more context as they proceed?

It is an exercise in trying things out, establishing loose structures, and letting go.  It is a work in practice.  Sometimes what I offer in a workshop turns on the lights for participants; other times I seem to be talking in Sanskrit.  I need to do a lot more full-yogic breathing.

3 thoughts on “Weirdly practical”

  1. Stuart Reid says:

    Hi Keith – I share your challenge! I am soon to run the final session in a leadership development programme I’ve been leading for six months. I’ve entered each session with a menu chock-full of ideas from complexity theory and adaptive leadership that I’ve been excited to share with the participants. And in each session I’ve pared that down to the two or three tasters that they have had time and space to absorb, leaving most of the menu untasted and untouched.

    I’ve learned to relax into this, and not be disappointed, on the basis that if we have found one or two ideas and practices that interest them, that they find stimulating to talk about and work with, then the session has been useful. I’m trying to listen first to identify the issues they are facing in their work (rather than what excites me the most), and pick something from the menu that connects to those issues and might be of use.

    I do worry though that what emerges from this is the consumption of a lot of tasty items, but few that are harder to chew on (more theory-laden). And I wonder if what they want (actionable ideas) is not always what they might need (an understanding of the ‘theory, research and context’ behind those ideas). Am I serving them best by giving them what they want in the short-term? And am I avoiding introducing what they might see as ‘woo woo’ in order to please them? It’s something I think about before, during and after each session.

  2. I love this, Keith. Thank you for the deep theory and context you bring to me and to this community. I agree, the interplay between depth and breadth, between theory and practice is an individual preference, and each of us us has a preference whether we notice it or not. We also (I do anyway) have a lot of Identity tied up in the way we approach our work, and there are always opportunities to decide we are doing it well or not well, right or wrong, hitting the mark or not. As you know, at CL, we have gone back and forth and round and round over the years testing out various ways to manage this interplay, sometimes (for me anyway) falling into the trap of trying to get it right. But alas, each situation and each leader in each moment is different so we will never get it right. But, since we are works in practice, as you say, we just keep experimenting and noticing both what happens out there and how our own need to defend our Identity (often in service to our clients but always in service of ourselves, too) shows up in all of that! I hope you will not ever completely stop holding the pole of deep theory and context for all of us, Keith!

  3. Ally Bull says:

    Hi Keith,
    I’ve been mulling over your blog all day. I’m fascinated with the relationship between theory and practice. I do quite a lot of professional development with teachers and I often hear a request for practical things that people can do differently tomorrow. I understand this need but I also worry about people picking up techniques/ strategies/ approaches and implementing them without really understanding what sits beneath them. Now – I accept it is quite possible my concern stems from my own preference for theory but I wonder about the potential of any idea to effect change if it is taken out of the discourse it belongs in. How might a new idea unsettle an existing discourse rather than the discourse colonising the idea?

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