One Purpose, Two Practices, Loads of Change

I love the way that California Poppies grow this time of year where I live. They are hearty. They open to the sun in the morning and curl to closure as the sun sets. They are bold in color. Yet so soft to the touch. California Poppies are themselves a story, of course.

A few years ago I was in a conversation with a new friend and colleague. It was an exploring conversation with some room to wander. It was the kind of conversation I like, when there is an inherent knowing and welcome of divergence. This was not a conversation to merely transmit a few convenient certainties.

My new friend and colleague offered some of his learning that helps to create practice, and operationalizes, “being in difference together.” He said that what works for him is a question — “Can you find yourself in the story of another?” It’s a question that has really stayed with me. I suppose, because “finding” ourselves in a story, or an experience, or a long journey, of another is really about developing some compassion, understanding, and empathy.

I have learned that there are two the key skills I rely on to be able to find myself in another’s story.

First, the ability to associate. To juxtapose. This is an underestimated super power in contemporary complex culture. Young toddler kids are naturals at associating in rather unbounded ways. Tell them about a cat and one sentence later they are sharing, “I have a cat…I’ve seen mice before…I was outside once…I like playgrounds too…There is a playground at my school…I like my teacher….” It’s fun to watch how quickly it moves, isn’t it. The kind of associating I’m talking about here, evolved, is an ability to find shared common ground in very different circumstance. If the toddler had it, the sentence might sound more like, “There are creatures that I love also. For me it isn’t a cat, but rather a goldfish.”

The second key thing about finding ourselves in another’s story is about recognizing and embracing a “partiality.” We humans, it turns out, our rather complex creatures ourselves. I would suggest that we are rather complex amalgams. Just as our genetic makeup is an amalgam of proteins, bacteria, water, fats, etc. Our emotional makeup is an amalgam of multiple states that include calm, peaceful, angry, hot mess, despairing, overjoyed, etc. We do well to recognize that each of us is all of that. I may not be a hot mess all of the time, but I can find the ways that I am some of the time. I may not have rage on the whole, but I can find the ways that I feel rage in minute moments or certain circumstance. Partiality points to aspects of the whole. And not reductive marketing pitches that reduce us to fragmented qualities.

Finding myself in the story of another doesn’t mean I’m just like them. It does mean I can however find similarity even in vastly different circumstance. Back to our toddler, “…yes, I’m not really a cat lover, but I remember there was this kitten when I was a young boy that I loved completely…”

So, let’s say that these two abilities, associating and noticing partiality are important. Now here’s a next layer. Can you find yourself in your own story?


Yes, I would suggest that none of us fully know our own stories, be they what has occurred on the outer, or even more unknowingly, what has occurred on the inner. I would suggest that these two super powers for finding ourselves in another’s story apply to finding ourselves in our own story. The freedom too associate — to connect seemingly unconnected things into a larger whole, this is very complex work, yet starts from a very simple premise that “it is all connected.” Even, the very minute amounts. I’m not generally an angry person, but I can find anger in me.

You can feel the integrative intent in this, right.

If any of us, individually and in community were to further practice finding ourselves in another’s story, and finding ourselves further in our own stories, with honesty and vulnerability, phew, I can feel the way that such simple practices evolve who we are as a human community trying to add some harmony to the times we live in. And develop a beauty that people can’t not notice, like with California Poppies.

Wisdom — An Online Series Beginning June 4, 2020

I think one of my favorite parts of this online series that I’m co-hosting with Quanita Roberson, that begins June 4th is this notion:

In these days,
it is not more tools that we need; it is more connection.
It is not more information that we need; it is more wisdom.

This series is NOT a training of easy steps that assure neat and tidy outcome. It IS a communing of people readied by life circumstance to develop a different relationship with forgiveness, and the doorway that creates to wisdom.

This online series mixes teaching, sharing stories, asking questions, wondering and wandering to territories known and not known. There will be whole group and small group interaction. This series mixes insights found in both words shared and silence welcomed.

Week 1: Anger
Week 2: Grief 
Week 3: Compassion 
Week 4: Grace 

We want to help all of us go deeper, more able to insert wisdom — thought, heart, belly, spirit, and practice — to the plethora of chaotic circumstance that accompany 21st century life.

Registration is open. Join us as a wisdom seeker and wisdom contributor.

Associative Ability

As a kid, I loved math. There was something simple about times tables. I can still see the light green papers used at my elementary school. They were long lists of simple multiplication questions. 4 x 3 = ___. 9 x 3 = ___. Nothing higher than 12. I remember being timed on such tests. Both to completion as well as to see who was the fastest. Something in me loved it. I suppose because I came from a card playing family, those kind of numbers came pretty easy to me.

In math, an “Associative Property” is the one that invites some moving of parts into a different order that still yields the same answer. For example, (2 x 3) x 6 = 2 x (3 x 6).

In my young adult life, I loved psychology. I didn’t have a clear picture of what I would come to study in university. In my family system, I was among the first to get to go to university. I landed in psychology. Because, I think I liked figuring things out beyond the numbers. And of course, I was making sense of a few things in my own experience, trying to understand what it meant to be me, and what it meant to be community. I loved the nuancing of all of that.

In psychology, an “Associative Ability” is the ability see and learn the relationship between unrelated things. It’s an ability to connect things and make meaning from them. It gets interesting here doesn’t it. Not in 5th grade math anymore. In my professional life, Meg Wheatley became one of the best examples of this for me. Her 1992 book “Leadership and the New Science” showed just this kind of associative ability. She connected leadership with such seemingly unrelated topics as biology, physics, and chemistry.

There’s one more layer to this associative journey that I’m learning these days. I have several friends that I would say have fantastic associative ability. Some just know stuff that’s impressive. They connect ideas. We connect ideas together. Or, they are willing to connect ideas in a way that sounds like, “Hmm…, I don’t know if that’s connected. How is that connected for you? Let’s explore it a bit, shall we.”

The most interesting form of this associative journey with friends is very much a deeper psychological, epistemological, and well, spiritual and poetic orientation — everything is connected. Indigenous traditions have been telling us this for, well eons. Science is catching up to slowly change our human collective psyche to stop reducing things down to parts and rather to dwell in inherent wholeness. It takes some work, definitely.

With these friends, with some shared associative ability, and with an orientation to relatedness, one of the things that I’m most appreciating is the radical honesty that grows from associative ability. Psychologically, it just feels more healthy and helpful. Rather than, “…can you believe how narrow that person is…” (the gift of people that trigger us usually points to an unresolved or denied aspect of ourselves — check out yesterday’s post with quotes from Pema Chodron), there is kindness and brilliance in the associative ability of finding that quality, “narrow,” in self. It sounds like, “…yes, I can find the part of me that is narrow and protective….” Or, flip this associative practice to a societally uplifted quality such as brilliance, “…can you believe how brilliant that person is…” starts to sound like, “…yes, I can find the part of me that is brilliant…”

Associative ability that pertains to humans being humans being together means that we’ve really grown the ability to start anywhere and follow it everywhere, with utter relevance always waiting patiently for us at the edges. It’s fun. It’s also enlivening in a way that feels like a lot more than just fun. Those are rich conversations when we go agenda-less, yet through growing associative ability, are so harvest-filled.

I’m glad for math way back when. It gave me a medium to work out some of what churned in my soul as a kid. I didn’t stay with the math side of association — didn’t become an engineer. But I did follow the consciousness and psychological side of association — and became the teacher, guide, community engager, and leadership development person that I am.

And I’m glad for friends, with whom we together learn to see much bigger worlds, both within us and in the outer.