“Square yourself to what is,” my yoga teacher has been telling us this late summer and early autumn. Such an intriguing phrase, paradoxically combining the muscular act of engagement with the opening and expansive breath of surrender. You can choose to live your life in a healthy and sustainable way, in a series of acts of deliberately acknowledging what is real, or you can fight against that basic truth, and live in misery and exhaustion. So much of our current world of work seems to me to be a cultish attempt to make overwork and frenzy seem like a completely acceptable and real heroic quest to put in superhuman effort, at least 150%, in order to slay some dragon and win some princess (or prince). I want to argue here that that seeming heroic quest is not what is real, and our attempts to live that myth are not sustainable.
About a year ago on an eight day mostly off-trail backpacking trip with my sons in the Wind River Range in Wyoming, I was struggling to climb up some twenty-seven hundred vertical feet, mostly on continuous steep boulder fields, from the Green River up into a high valley above Tourist Creek, where we would spend our second night. In the moment, I believe, looking back, I was not thinking about anything but breathing and putting one foot carefully in front of another. But later, I reflected back on that horrifically challenging day. Three words came to mind, and I could feel how they combined to help me understand what I was doing climbing up that valley, and how I managed to make it to the top with enough energy left to collapse onto the ground at our campsite and burst into tears. Those words were: commitment, engagement, and surrender.
I can hear you saying to yourself, “Commitment, yup, I get that. Engagement, that too! But… surrender? How can surrender possibly get you twenty-seven hundred feet up steep boulder fields?” My realization was, I could I not have made it up without surrender. Even stranger, I realized that full engagement and surrender are the same thing. I can also hear you saying, “Oh, he must mean something like the AlAnon phrase, ‘Let go and let god,'” but no, that’s not what I mean.
In her intense and brilliant essay, “Living Like Weasels,” Annie Dillard writes, “The thing is to stalk your calling in a certain skilled and subtle way, to locate the most tender and live spot and plug into that pulse. This is yielding, not fighting. A weasel doesn’t attack anything; a weasel lives as he’s meant to live, yielding at every moment to the perfect freedom of single necessity.” Could we live like weasels? “We could, you know,” Dillard writes, “We can live any way we want.” The surrender that I am talking about, which is the same as one hundred percent engagement, is like that, yielding at every moment to the perfect freedom of single necessity. That is squaring yourself to what is. I could have tried to muscle my way up that slope, attacking and fighting it all the way with the will power of my ego and my strong body, giving a hundred and fifty percent, beating myself up if I wavered or faltered. I am sure I would not have made it. I could have sat down in a slump and given up the first time I realized how hard it really was, surrendered in that way, full of doubt and fear and resignation. I could have tried to dream my way up, disconnecting from the pain of the experience and floating into camp, and again, I doubt I would have made it. Or I could have kept telling myself that I was strong and capable and I could go all the way to that high lake where we wanted to camp. I believe, again, that the energy it would have taken me just to have that encouraging conversation with myself, and keep having it, would have left me with not enough to do the actual climb. We have in us a number of voices that we call on in difficult situations. We have a critical voice, and we have a lenient voice. We have a way to make up stories about why we do or don’t do something. I am saying that what I needed at that time was silence, a unifying space lying beneath the dualities and cacophonies of all the voices, a space of presence, watching, reflection, a radical affirmation of what is, a kind of acceptance that certain situations demand of us of necessity, but that all situations allow as a possibility. I am saying, that day, that steep slope, demanded every bit of presence I had in me, and that demanded complete surrender and complete engagement. One hundred percent, no more, no less. In squaring to what is.
“But,” you ask, “what does that have to do with the world of work?” You already know I believe we can create healthy, organic, emergent, adaptable, sustainable work settings, organizations that effectively engage us in meaningful work, enact our values, and are integrally connected to our community, in order to accomplish things we care about. Creating that sort of organization is hard work, to be sure, especially since it involves effort against the prevailing myths of work I described above. It is about authenticity and it is about wisdom. But it is not about the violence of overwork, or the consequent giving up. It requires an abiding belief in the inherent worthiness of the effort, and belief in the capacity of an open, human, and humane system to be healthy. It is a situation that allows us the possibility of complete engagement and total surrender, of yielding at every moment to the perfect freedom of single necessity, by choice.
We humans are meaning-makers, ritual creators in a sense. We make ritual out of every experience in some way or another, to mark it off as distinct and separate in space and time, to imagine it as an idealized version of itself, or to use it to dig deeper into the unknown, including our own inner unknowns, our unconscious. Most of our communal work is in some way ritualized social interaction. We make culture out of nature, all of nature. I have done that with my backpacking experience on Tourist Creek, in order to come to a deeper understanding of how to square with what is, how to engage and surrender in the same breath. In the moment, no. But after the fact, I have crafted this story to tell you, so we might come to a deeper understanding of what it means to create organizations that are sustainable, healthy, resilient, realistic (in that we can see what is), reflective (in that we can see our own depths and unconscious in action), in order to acknowledge and know our intentions and achieve what we want to accomplish.
I want to suggest a new ritual activity. Not making myths of heroic and superhuman effort. Not myths of heroic leaders who single-handedly swoop in on a white horse to save the damsel in distress or solve the problem, then ride off into the sunset. It’s not even about solving problems or fixing things. I want to suggest a ritual activity of embedding ourselves in a matrix of relationships, a social ecosystem, fully engaged and totally surrendered, squared to what is, where we see our work life not as a problem to be solved, but as a gift to be explored, to paraphrase one of my teachers, Dr. Douglas Brooks. That makes our work a ritual of inquiry into radical possibility, not dragon slaying. This is a new kind of leadership practice, requiring a new vision of community and of work. But that might take us into the wild places of the unknown, where there are steep boulder fields, and where there is need of full engagement and total surrender, where we might live as we are meant to live.