Leading from the inside out

by Nick on March 1, 2015

Walking through the supermarket this morning a line or two of poetry came to mind:

“Anything or anyone/that does not bring you alive/is too small for you.” *

Perhaps it was the depressingly large range of soaps and washing powders that triggered them. Anyway, it got me thinking as I walked home about the things that do bring me alive, and what brings my relationships alive, and what makes the communities and organisations I work with and for vital and vibrant … or not.

As my mind swirled with possibilities I was rescued by a familiar story which – in the way that stories sometimes do – kind of tapped me on the shoulder and quietly asked for attention.

Work from the inside out, the story suggested. Start by listening in with a quiet and empty mind to what’s happening around and within. Find a metaphor or other organising principle that engages one’s own and others’ deeply held values so that each person’s story is honoured and allowed to express itself. Find a common vision that everyone can own, share in, and contribute to. And then work together to allow – what now you only dream of – to become a reality. 

What is truly achievable and sustainable, the story seemed to say, is best built on the solid foundations of personal integrity, mutual respect and collaboration, and a deeply shared sense of purpose about what’s worthwhile and worth living into.

A once great monastery had fallen on hard times. Where before a hundred monks had studied in the library, prayed in the great nave, laboured in the gardens, healed in the infirmary, and laughed in the cloister now there was mostly silence. There remained just four brothers and the Abbot, all in their twilight years. All things decay and so it was here. Buildings lay abandoned, the gardens overgrown, the monks stuck in the ways of the past. All things considered it was a dying order.

Not far from the monastery, in a hidden valley, was a simple log cabin that an old Rabbi used as a retreat. For many years he and the old Abbot had appreciated each other’s company and insights, so one fine day the Abbot decided to pay his friend a visit. He asked the Rabbi whether he had any ideas about how he might save the monastery. The Rabbi shook his head sadly, “It’s the same everywhere. Hardly a soul comes to synagogue any more. There’s no spirit in people these days, no hunger for inquiry, learning, and transformation.” And so they talked together, meditated, and reflected on how the world could be, if only .…

When the time came to leave, the Abbot said, “My friend, it’s always such a pleasure to spend time with you. But I’ve failed in my mission. Do you really have no ideas that might save my monastery?”

The Rabbi turned the question over for a moment or two. “I’m so sorry, but there’s no advice I can give you except to say … that one among you is the Messiah.”

Now when the other monks heard about the Rabbi’s comment, you can imagine how surprised they were. It got them thinking. ‘One of us, the Messiah? Here in this monastery? Extraordinary! Who do you suppose it could be?’

They talked among themselves in dark secluded corners, ‘It must be the Abbot for he’s a fine leader; very wise too. Or could it be Brother Zdravko? He’s a fine healer though a little tetchy at times. Surely, not Brother Bruno? He’s got a memory like a sieve. But then he’s wonderfully kind and loving. Or could it be Brother Vladimir? He’s always around when you need him.’

And sometimes, lying in their cots, on the cold floor of their cells, in the middle of the night, it wasn’t unknown for each of them to consider just the faintest possibility, ‘Of course, he didn’t mean me. No, no, no … But just supposing he did? Oh God, surely not me. I couldn’t mean that much to you, God …… could I?’

And as each monk contemplated along these lines, a remarkable transformation began to happen. They began to treat each other with the most extraordinary respect just in case one of them might be the Messiah. And in the very unlikely event that each monk himself might be the Messiah, they began to treat themselves with extraordinary respect, too.

Now this monastery was situated in beautiful mountainous countryside and in the summer months people would come from the surrounding towns and villages to picnic, or walk along the panoramic pathways that overlooked the magnificent but crumbling edifice of the main chapel. They would often chance upon these old monks going about their business. And they were struck by the aura of extraordinary respect that surrounded these five old men, and the ambience of calmness and serenity that permeated the atmosphere.

People began to visit more frequently, and they brought friends along with them. And these friends in turn brought more friends. Some of the younger men began to engage in conversation with the monks. After a while, one asked if he might join the monastery. Then another. And another. And so it was that within the span of a generation, the monastery had once again become a thriving, bustling centre of industry, study, and worship.

Unlike the dryness of facts, metaphors are intuitive and emotional. They speak directly to our core, challenging us to re-align our behaviours, values, strategies and vision.

The Rabbi challenged the monks to re-align themselves. His gentle revelation led from the inside out: a mere suggestion signposting a route to resurrection. He carefully sowed the seed of a metaphor, knowing well the nature of the soil that received it. And the monks responded, digging up the integrity that had long lain dormant within themselves to create the conditions for new growth. It was the monks, increasingly attuned to their own and each other’s most deep rooted values, who created the frame for the vine of possibility to take a firm and sustainable hold.

* David Whyte: Sweet Darkness, The House of Belonging, Many Rivers Press 1996

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Nick March 1, 2015 at 11:55

Great story Nick. Where do you find them? Cheers, Michael K


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