There are events in your life that mark you—moments when you realize that you have learned a lesson and are ready for a new challenge. I have been working as change agent linking education, business, and sustainability together for the last 15 years. I have dedicated much of my work to creating learning communities, facilitating dialogue and collaboration, and developing leadership capacities to respond to the socio-ecological challenges and opportunities of our aching world. At the core of my work is a very human quest to find meaning in life—to align work, learning, and joy of living with a higher purpose so that we may create organizations and communities where we can be healthy, happy, and express our full potential. This past week I had the honor to participate in the Wasan Dialogue on Creative Place-Making: Recovering the Soul of Place. This learning event was sponsored by the Breuninger Foundation and took place on Wasan Island, in Ontario, Canada.
My invitation to participate in this dialogue came through my former student and Saybrook alum Julie Auger who has been an integral part of the Powers of Place initiative and actively exploring place-based leadership. Julie, Michael Jones and Volken Hann were the conveners and facilitators of this event and Dr. Helga Breuninger was our most gracious host. The invitation to be part of the Wasan dialogue was inspirational, but somewhat vague. I agreed to attend because the intention of the gathering resonated deeply within me and because I love and trust Julie. But I was aware that I was not clear what I was agreeing to and yet I had a strong intuition that this experience would be a turning point for me. Wasan means “a good place for transformation” and “for many centuries Wasan Island has been a sacred place where our First Nations contacted the ancestral world… a place of transition….” The indigenous people of this land came to Wasan to meditate and prepare to die.
When I arrived to Wasan Island and met my fellow collaborators for the week, I discovered that we all came together because we knew we were ready for something most likely nobody would express in words. We said yes to something that was already alive in our hearts but that was waiting to be shared and revealed to the world.
In the invitation to the event the conveners expressed some questions to guide our inquiry:
“What does place have to do with transformative leadership? How can our surroundings – place, space, and environment – actively work with us as leaders to inspire and revitalize our organizations and communities? How do we know what to consider and include when creating spaces where transformative learning and action can occur?
The powers of place and place-making are a critical dimension that has been largely overlooked in dialogue and leadership theory and practice. In a time when we find that strategy and tactics are not enough, the role of place, space and environment in nature, design and community are emerging as central components in revitalizing our organizations and communities as well as creating ideal conditions for creativity and innovation.”
They suggested two processes as a very open and flexible structure that created the conditions for self-organization, shared leadership, and the emergence of a group consciousness. First, they requested that we prepare an ecoduction and share it with the group before we got to Wasan: “An ecoduction is a way of introducing yourself, based not on what you do for a living, who your family is, or how you spend your leisure time, but on the geographies of where you’ve come from and how this has impacted who you are now.” Second, they invited us to share “a story of some aspect of creative place-making that excites or is a source of curiosity or concern for you.” The result was a fluid and multidimensional dialogue and exploration of who we are, where we come from, and where we are going, informed by our human experiences of connecting to place and the relationships that each place—natural, cultural, imaginary—elicit.
“A place is not an object or a thing, but a relationship, a power and a presence; a reminder that we can partner with place in a way that is itself deeply transformative, opening our hearts to the experience of beauty, aliveness and possibility.”
Our group was delightfully diverse. Educators, researchers, consultants, managers, designers, visual and performing artists, and healers with rich backgrounds and multicultural life experiences. But in this sacred place, only our common humanity was present, and our differences were like the colors of the rainbow that came together to create beauty and joy. We learned together through sharing and listening, laughing and crying, walking and meditating, painting and creating, dancing and finding our still points. For me, we took a step beyond transformative learning into the land of healing: a return to wholeness and a re-membering—belonging again—to the sacredness of place, of community, of love.
I see myself as an integrator. My work has always been about dialogue, collaboration, transformative learning and co-design. But I have learned that creating evolutionary learning communities require us to move beyond systems thinking to systems being. More and more, I’m finding the need to include creativity, emotions, and spirituality in my work because, on the path to become whole, we need to recover those aspects of our human experience that were excluded from our scientific and technological development. The time is ripe to bring back the feminine energy of love, care and beauty through our work, learning and ways of living in order to rebalance our world.
During a healing meditation, I had a vision: I saw Wasan Island as a tiny piece of land in the vast majesty of our planet Earth. But from below Wasan Island came out deep roots, connecting to all the corners of our planet. I felt that my presence here, and my connection to this land, was a portal to listen to the cry of our world. I experienced personal healing, the removal of blocks and fears, in order to give back and assist in the healing of the world. The theme of healing places was very significant to me as it relates to the type of environments I’m calling to co-create. I came away from Wasan Island with a felt understanding that if we want to create spaces—communities, organizations, societies, ecosystems—where humans and nature can co-exist in harmony, we first need to inhabit healing places to enable that transition. Healing, whole, holy—three words that share the same etymological root. Healing places are sacred places, places where we can experience our full selves, without fear, without constraint. Permission to be authentic, to be fully human.
During the closing circle, after this magical week together, Michael Jones talked about the call to re-enchant our world; to experience the mystery and power of the places – inside and outside – that shape us and inform all our relationships. Before my departure, I walked the perimeter of the Island once more. It was raining. The drops of rain in the water, the wind, the sound of the trees dancing with each other, the vibrancy of each plant, moss, rock—everything was alive. I realized that the world is enchanted; it has always been. It is us who are opening our eyes to this beauty. The re-enchanting of the world is about discovering this enchantment within ourselves so that we may experience oneness.
Thank you Wasan Island.