Hunger for Wholeness: Where the Islands of Sanity Are with Margaret Wheatley (Part 1)
Ilia Delio speaks with author and teacher Margaret Wheatley about her paradigm-shifting work in organizational leadership. In part one, they discuss the state of the world and the challenge of taking responsibility for the issues we see in the world. Ilia asks how we get beyond the distractions of the day and what we can do to build better human communities.
ABOUT MARGARET WHEATLEY
“Without reflection, we go blindly on our way, creating more unintended consequences, and failing to achieve anything useful.”
Margaret Wheatley, Ed.D., is a consultant, senior-level advisor, teacher, speaker, and formal leader, who has worked on all continents (except Antarctica) with all levels, ages, and types of organizations, leaders, and activists. Her work now focuses on developing and supporting leaders globally as Warriors for the Human Spirit. These leaders put service over self, stand steadfast through crises and failures, and make a difference for the people and causes they care about. With compassion and insight, they know how to invoke people’s inherent generosity, creativity, kindness, and community–no matter what’s happening around them. Margaret has written twelve books, including Leadership and the New Science, and been honored for her pathfinding work by many professional associations, universities, and organizations. Her website is designed as a library of free resources as well as includes information about products and her speaking calendar: www.margaretwheatley.com.Support the show
A huge thank you to all of you who subscribe and support our show! Support for A Hunger for Wholeness comes from the Fetzer Institute. Fetzer supports a movement of organizations who are applying spiritual solutions to society's toughest problems. Get involved at fetzer.org.
A HUNGER FOR WHOLENESS TRANSCRIPT | S03E09
Where the Islands of Sanity Are with Margaret Wheatley (Part 1)
Robert: Welcome to Hunger for Wholeness, a podcast from the Center for Christogenesis. I'm your host, Robert Nicastro. Today, Ilia speaks with writer and teacher Margaret Wheatley. Ilia asks Margaret about her paradigm shifting work and organizational leadership, as well as how she views the state of the world today.
Ilia: I am speaking today with Meg Wheatley, author of a number of books, but probably one that many of us, certainly when we were making our way into a new paradigm in the 1990s, Meg's book, Leadership and the New Science was extremely helpful, I think to many, certainly I remember many religious congregations using your book. And then you went on to write some warm books, you know, about leadership.
Margaret: It's a total of 12 at this point.
Ilia: 12. Oh my gosh. So maybe Meg, can I ask you to just introduce us to you, what brought
you into writing that work, bringing the new science and corporate leadership together.
Margaret: Yeah. And I want to put it in the arc of all of my books, because I just published a second edition of Who Do We Choose to Be? Its subtitles are more important than anything which is "Facing reality, reclaiming leadership, and restoring sanity." And from that last subtitle, I have a book coming out in March, a book of practices for how to create Islands of Sanity. And that is called Restoring Sanity Practices to Awaken Generosity, Creativity,
Produced by the Center for Christogenesis
and Kindness in Ourselves and our Organization. So this all started with what I thought would be a very simple task of introducing a new paradigm that already had great evidence of how effective it was to abandon command and control and take our leadership models from how life creates order out of chaos through processes of self-organization. I thought it would be
simple, and as you also would be familiar with, changing a paradigm is ridiculously hard work.
And now I understand it, but at that point, I was much younger. I was 32 years younger, and I really thought all you had to do was introduce people to this really wondrous eye- opening concepts, and then give them the evidence and give them some guidance. And voila, leadership would change. And we would be living in organizations where it was not command and control, but where it was, how do we truly engage people maximally for their creativity and need to contribute? Well, that was 1992. And what's happened in, I wrote subsequent books that tried in various ways to introduce people to what's possible among us human beings when we are fully engaged, and fully engaged at the level of community. And in my most recent book, at the level of awakening the human spirit, as times grow darker and as we are increasingly pushed back into primitive brain reactions because we're feeling so under threat and so fearful.
So, I no longer have any expectation in the science, in all of the sciences. I watch what's happening closely in anthropology with the discovery of advanced complex civilizations 20,000 years ago. How do we deal with that? I'm looking at it in physics where physics is falling apart right now with what's coming from the Webb telescope. I'm looking at what's happening to people in organizations who are now paralyzed with fear while their bosses demand more and more control because they're in fear and they're not successful. So, it's been a whole closing down of possibility. This is why I am now working with the—I think of it as Wheatley's last stand. Can we create islands of sanity where people can still recognize—where leaders can still create the conditions by creating a real barrier to these destructive fears and upsets and policy shifts and just plain greed and venality now? This is the hardest, most challenging, most meaningful work if we choose to accept it. So this is, I think it truly is Wheatley's last chance to see what we can create.
Ilia: I still, maybe this is my optimism, you know, I think we're always changing. So I do think I leave that openness to a new paradigm change. I think the complexities of our age
are such that—I was just telling Robert before, you know, the way technology has really quadrupled the amount of information, we're still the same old brain that we had in the year 2000 BC. I mean, the human brain hasn't really changed that much. It hasn't grown new cortical layers or a fifth lobe. It's still the same brain, and yet the amount of information is just explosive. And this is, I think, one of our problems. And I think the deep fear is coming from several levels, from my perspective. One is the inability to process the information. I mean, it was very different thousands of years ago when we lived in these smaller communities, and we could then make sense of the whole that we were part of, and it had a kind of cosmic unity to it, and we could find our place in that unity. But as that hole has now evolved into not just higher levels of consciousness, but more complex levels of consciousness, and I find that what I see today is that people are really struggling to hold on to the fragments of their humanity. In other words, you know, just to stay with two feet on the ground and feel that they're not going to get either knocked over or that a hurricane or a tornado or a tsunami or an airplane crash is not going to wipe out their lives in like the next 30 seconds. So there's a deep existential fear.
Margaret: It's not only how we process information, it is actually the fundamental role of information in living systems. Is it the means to organize, as you just expressed in clear communities. It organizes meaning, it organizes relationships, it organizes your cosmology and your relationship with everything. And what has happened now is information used to be described as a difference that makes a difference, so it creates a possibility for change, right? But now we're not living with information. We're dealing with an overwhelming, complex fear-based, deliberate misinformation environment. So right now, with the war going on in the Middle East, what's real, what's true? Nobody can tell until you get double verification. “This video is not a deep fake. This statement was never made by the leader, et cetera.” And this is a deliberate campaign coming primarily from Russia to destabilize us.
And once people don't know what's real, then all you have is fear. And more importantly, the seeking out of groups with whom you think you share an understanding. So we have
these echo chambers, which are deliberately created by algorithms. I wrote about that in detail. But you put your finger on the most important element in how we organize our lives and our relationships, which is information. But then I really want to bring it up to now, this is no longer possible. So to say we're living in an age of fear is true. And it's what Hannah Hernth said that, when you keep telling people lies, it's not that they just disbelief or challenge one lie, they end up not believing in anything. And I think this is your work, and this is my work also; I ask leaders, what do you have faith in? Do you have faith in people? That's your role as a leader. And in your work, what is your cosmology and linking it to your theology. We're trying to create coherence. But I just have to say in all clarity, this is the age, not only of incoherence, but of growing dissociation from reality. Except at the local level where you can still check out and be in concert.
Ilia: Which is your current work. In other words, to create these small local, which you call islands of sanity. I think there's something to that. For example, if I just take the Catholic church just as an example, or any institution that tries to universalize principles in a world of just out of control information, so to speak, it doesn't work. So as we know evolution, and I still think nature does run still on the principles of evolution, fundamentally. You know, that there's still nature itself, even though we are nature on the level of thought, but we are not the whole of nature. Nature is larger than us, but you know, it does still run on principles of openness and systems and a lot of stuff that you've written about. But universal principles don't hold. I do find our systems are just bankrupt, quite honestly.
Margaret: They're collapsing.
Ilia: They are collapsing for sure. Politically, religiously, they simply cannot sustain the
world that has rapidly evolved into these.
Margaret: And they cannot perform the functions that we've become dependent upon them. So you get all these crises in education and healthcare and military in politics, yes.
Ilia: I completely agree. In fact, one of the courses I'm teaching this semester is on technology and religion and human becoming. And yesterday we had a lecture on AI and the future of work. And our lecturer pointed out various scenarios. By the way, artificial general intelligence is rapidly developing. We are just not aware of what's been taking place actually for the last 10, 20 years. And of course, politically it's a chip war, so we have major corporations vying for that power of making the fast system most efficient chip. And AI is going to really, according to our lecturer, will change everything, really, in terms of education, jobs, you know, what will happen to the economy and the implications of a significantly altered economy. So I am deeply concerned, like you, how do we allow a world like this?
Margaret: You don't have to allow it, it emerges. No, I really want to talk about it specifically because we get in two belief systems, we get into, well, how did this happen? And we want to go back to causes because we think we can change simple ingredients of this very complex situation. But the other thing we ask is, well, we created it, we can change it. So this is where I have to bring in how life changes through emergence. And the best example I'm going to give, it's the simplest, is the chocolate chip cookie. Because we have separate ingredients, none of which predict the experience of eating a delicious chocolate chip cookie. So if you look at this, and this is, I'm just teaching you good science, right? If you look at the separate parts that created anything, you do not find a description of what those parts coming together then emerged as.
So with a chocolate chip that you could look at the flour, the butter, the eggs, the baking soda, the salt, and then you get a delicious cookie or not. If you don't get a delicious cookie, how do you change it? You can't change the ingredients. Maybe you put in too much salt. Well, what are you going to do now? Or there's too much baking powder. What are you going to do with that? Once the system emerges, and this is where we are with everything in life, you cannot change it by going backwards. You have to start over. And that's why the local work and the local congregations, I mean, I'm really interested in exploring with you how people regain their trust and faith in the sacred.
Ilia: Absolutely. That's a wonderful example too, by the way. Very concrete. And I cannot agree with you more. You know, you cannot undo that cookie and go back and change the ingredients.
Margaret: We don't have to take responsibility or say, well, we created it and so we can fix it. It's not how it works. The different parts are all doing their own thing. We were living our life, we were moving into this global economy, we were doing this, we're doing that, and all of a sudden we're here and nobody likes it. Well, a few people like it, but most people don't like it. And we're not benefiting from it, but we're imprisoned by it. And so, then the alternative, and this is why I have those, "face reality, claim your leadership and restore sanity" as subtitles, because we have to decide “who do we choose to be?” Do I want to put my energy, my devotion, my interests with other people to see what we can create locally that still recognizes individuals that still works with the human spirit? That while AI takes over, that is tradition—my master's was on the role of any new technology and how it shapes society and it's purely deterministic.
We didn't want what is now the reality of social media. We didn't want what has now been taken over in misinformation, troll farms and bots and everything. We didn't agree to that. We didn't know it was even possible. We just liked Facebook or other ways of connecting, and then it just shifted the culture for teenagers in disastrous ways. It shifted the culture of politics in terrifying ways—in elections where people get their information. And it's primarily misinformation. So we're not going to change what AI has in store for us, but we can create what humans have always needed, communities, where we do care for each other and we know each other, and we can create these online as well. So my islands are virtual as well as real, but I think we need to wake up to, not the disaster that's coming, but the disaster we're already in, where the human spirit needs reviving. It needs remembering, it needs people like us and many others who embody the best qualities of being human, which includes rational thought, but that's not the whole game; that we bring a deep spiritual connection to our work. And that's what more and more people just need to connect with. Find new ground, and the new ground is in who we are as humans.
Robert: What do our individual actions mean when we find ourselves thrown into a world that we never asked for, or a world that seems to be beyond our control? Next, Ilia and Margaret discuss how we got here and ask how we can move beyond the distractions of our day and emerge for the better as a human community. Support for a hunger for wholeness comes from the Fetzer Institute. Fetzer supports a movement of organizations that are applying spiritual solutions to society's toughest problems. Consider getting involved at fetzer.org.
Ilia: You know, honestly, Meg, if I hear you, I think I share the same sentiment. Actually, I don't foresee a a rosy future up ahead, quite honestly. If you look over the long course of evolution and the mass extinctions and the violence of nature, et cetera, and we have to be realistic. And I agree, something deep, deep has become unraveled, and that is the human spirit, the spirit, the energy that has constantly pulled us forward. It has just lost. It's just out there someplace; it cannot attach to the body again into the experiences of the senses and the passions of love and the sense of belonging together. I do think this is something of a Western phenomenon that has now imposed itself on the entire world.
Margaret: I agree completely with that. Western became global for the destructive results that we see everywhere. I do want to say one thing about what may be a difference in our views here. You know, I've become a student and have written quite a lot in my most recent books about the pattern of collapse of complex societies. It's always the same behaviors. It's always the same progression from intensely value-based self-sacrificing people, the growth of commercialism, of some form of people getting so obsessed with things rather than values, and the whole politics and lifestyles of prosperity. And then when it all declines, which is where we clearly are now, it has specific behaviors that are shockingly descriptive of our time, such as the elites take everything for themselves. There's so much infighting that nobody notices the real enemy at the gates, which in this case is climate shifts and catastrophes, and people are distracted and disengaged, but are given bread and circuses are given distractions, and the whole population worships, not divinities, but celebrities, musicians, actors, and other entertainers.
Now, this has been going on, no matter the location of the empire or the theology, we always go down in the same way. That is the evidence for me. And this is how, what I base, who do we choose to be on? Just notice where we are in the pattern so that, and this is where I think we'll have deep congruence. We can choose to be people of faith, of service, of love, and are dedicating ourselves to that as everything collapses. And in this case, for the first time, we're facing the loss of our planet which is of course, huge and ever present now. So, I ask people to become spiritual warriors in their leadership. I named them warriors for the spirit. And if you know what's going on and you see what's coming with this pattern just grinding away; you see what's coming with the planet just fulfilling her laws that we decided we could ignore, but we couldn't. Then from that clarity of what's going on, you can choose a very noble path of contribution for yourself that has to be grounded in spirituality. Whatever it is, it has to be grounded in a world beyond yourself.
You know, the big question of our age is, what does it mean to be human? And my response to that is, what does it mean to be you? Because as Annie Dillard said many, many years ago, if you just want to understand what people are like, just look at yourself and then you'll know what 8 billion other people experienced. She didn't have 8 billion at the time but we do. How do we understand ourselves so that we can understand each other?
Ilia: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I couldn't agree more. In fact, I gave that question to my undergraduates, what makes you? They're 18 and 19 years old, and I find there's a lot of anxiety. They're very worried, you know, they suffer from depression, anxiety disorders, eating disorders, and identity disorders. And honestly, my heart goes out to them.
Margaret: Me too. Me too.
Ilia: But I was really inspired by their answers, and that is what makes each person unique. They could look at themselves and say, you know, I come from this family, here's what I've suffered through. One student actually has lived through cancer, another losing a parent at a very young age. You know, they've had their share of suffering so far. But I do think you're right; to reclaim our humanity, the beauty of it. You know, there's a saying from the
second century writer, [unclear25:] of Leon. He says, the glory of God, not the guy in the sky God. I mean, the God who's the wholeness of life—"The glory of God is the human person fully alive." Isn't that a beautiful saying?
Margaret: Oh, thank you for that. I now am describing the need for human beings to be fully human. That's
Ilia: That's it.
Margaret: You know, so I love that quote.
Ilia: That's it. To be fully alive is to be godly. And out of that godlike, that's the whole point. Then we live for one another. We live for justice, we live for peace, we live for the health of the earth and for one another. That's the whole thing. I think when we can, you know, Thomas Merton has that, pray for your own discovery. And he has an idea like, for me to be a saint is to be myself. You know, really, what does it mean to be at home in yourself and to know that root of your own tree, to drink from that sap and not the sap of misinformation and everything else out there. I do think you're right. I think we live too much outside. We're looking for something outside ourselves, when all that really makes us fully alive is within, and from that wealth, from that ocean of love, we can say within, you know, that love that makes you, you and me, me. And that's the beauty of that. The beauty of diversity in the unity of what we are. That in a sense, we're all like little pieces of glass then together, you know, the whole is this incredibly rich, beautiful...
Margaret: Let me check with your own experience because this is so clearly mine and in all great spiritual teaching. Once you understand your own divinity within your own human spirits, all you want to do is serve other people. It just releases this narcissism, and you notice other people's pain and suffering, and you want to do something about it because you know your own pain and suffering. So then to really understand ourselves, and then you just wake up to the human experience, really.
Ilia: Yes. More and more, honestly, I think institutional religion hampers it.
Margaret: Yeah, you're still fussing about institutional. I'm free of that, but that is your
Ilia: I know. Well, it's like my job. Margaret: It is.
Ilia: Yeah. But you're right, to be free of that and to know that all that we desire, actually, I think that's what Jesus was really about. Like when he said that “the reign of God is within you,” it's like, Hey, you don't have to go searching outside. It's there, and just tap into that root, but that means we have to slow down. And I think we're on this blind treadmill of, you know, everyone's running, running, running someplace, they don't know where they're going, though.
Margaret: They're desperately seeking and desperately reacting to everything. But I find the only way to slow down is the inner work—meditation and contemplative prayer. We have to create the slowness internally as it ain't changing up there. But once you have that slowness within you as part of who you are, then you also notice that things get done faster or with a more of a sense of flow. So, yes, it's not even just slowing down; I have to say it's also just feeling centered and grounded from a different source. And I don't know any other way to accomplish that, except through contemplative or prayer or meditation.
Robert: Be sure to listen next week when Ilia and Margaret go deeper into the spiritual dimensions of the human question, and most of all, who we choose to be in the face of a sometimes dim future. A special thanks to our team at the Center for Cryogenesis. I'm Robert Nicastro. Thanks for listening.