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You must learn one thing. The world was made to be free in.

Give up all the other worlds except the one to which you belong.

Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet confinement of your alone ness to learn anything or anyone that does not bring you alive is too small for you.

—David Whyte

I always find it paradoxical that during a time of year when everything else is slowing down, turning inward and building strength for future growth, many of us seem to be ramping up and at our busiest. It’s almost as if we’re running away from the darkness that comes earlier and earlier in the wintertime, filling our lives with a rush toward the end of the year. Nature simply embraces this energy, dropping leaves, allowing seeds to sit quietly, waiting. The essence of a breakthrough is not only a shift in perception, but a shift in behavior.

Many of us may have heard the time-worn and true (and slightly humorous) definition of insanity as doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting different results each time. As we move toward a new year, an opportunity exists not to simply make plans or resolutions, but to explore how we can do things in a fundamentally different way.

Changing those things we do repeatedly—in our lives, our workplaces, in our culture—requires slowing down, sitting with the darkness and, like nature at this time of year, being with ‘the sweet confinement of your aloneness.’ But a breakthrough is also unexpected, and we rarely cultivate change that we can see in ourselves, much less in our institutions and policies, by simply taking some time alone. The reflective time which we often promise ourselves or prioritize in our organizations is often sacrificed when we need to get things done. And then things happen the same way again.

I often advise individual and organizational clients to weave in even a half-day of evaluation, planning and reflection each week. Others advise a day, which can seem downright impossible or heretical to some. Doing this in an intentional way helps to inform our work, grant perspective on our lives and foster change that we may eventually see as a breakthrough—although we were building toward it all along. Many find it useful to go away, find some place in the woods or the mountains where the mind can be cleared, the breath full and relaxed. This is an important experience, but much like drinking water after you are thirsty and dehydration has already set in, it can be too little too late to just “go away.”

To cultivate a breakthrough, we need to weave time for reflection for ourselves and time for dialogue, planning and evaluation for our work teams into our days and weeks: we must normalize a different way of doing things that will allow something new to emerge. 

Changes and breakthroughs happen—ways of seeing and doing shift after a concerted effort by individuals, groups, entire institutions, nations, movements. We are in the midst of a significant transition now, not only to a more sustainable, socially-just society, but in the ways in which we communicate with one another, resolve conflict, create innovative systems for working together. And these changes support one another, and are in turn supported by the clarity and commitment we bring to fostering such breakthroughs.  

On the heels of recent talks in Bali on climate change that some saw as incredibly successful and others as yet another failure, we need to see that such events are signs of a broader shift that is happening, of an imminent breakthrough already taking shape. Maya Angelou, in her poem A Brave and Startling Truth, speaks to a perspective that might help us realize this—here are the last few stanzas: 

We, this people, on this small and drifting planet
Whose hands can strike with such abandon
That in a twinkling, life is sapped from the living
Yet those same hands can touch with such healing, irresistible tenderness
That the haughty neck is happy to bow
And the proud back is glad to bend
Out of such chaos, of such contradiction
We learn that we are neither devils nor divines

When we come to it
We, this people, on this wayward, floating body
Created on this earth, of this earth
Have the power to fashion for this earth
A climate where every man and every woman
Can live freely without sanctimonious piety
Without crippling fear

When we come to it
We must confess that we are the possible
We are the miraculous, the true wonder of this world
That is when, and only when
We come to it.


December 2007