What is the work that needs to be done?

daniel sťguin

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introduction by sera thompson

I am strongly influenced by the ancient Asian metaphor of heaven, earth and human, having been raised with the Shambhala teachings. Heaven is vast and open, our aspiration or vision for what is possible; earth is about action and practicalities, the nitty-gritty, obstacle-ridden realities that we live in. In this tradition, the ideal role of a human being is ďjoining heaven and earthĒ ó making our greatest human aspirations real in the world now.

I am more committed than ever to supporting radical transformation that is utterly grounded. In my Art of Hosting work (see sidebar), I sometimes feel overwhelmed by the magnitude of the challenges, by the stuckness and pain in the systems I serve. The conversation that follows was an opportunity to explore these very real questions about work as a practice with Jane Rabinowicz and Margaret Wheatley, two women whose work has fundamentally influenced my own.

We have circled around each other through our work, with loose and strong connections. I have known Santropol Roulant, where Jane is now executive director, since I volunteered there as a university student, and I have collaborated with Meg (Margaret) in the Shambhala Institute for Authentic Leadership. Meg knows Jane and Santropol Roulant through the Berkana Exchange, a network she founded that supports and connects pioneering leadership in communities around the world.

As Jane says, ďWeíre learning about the kind of inspiration that a very local initiative can have, but also what we have to contribute to larger currents of change.Ē Santropol Roulant is a Montrťal-based meals-on-wheels organization imagined and run by young people. Innovative and dynamic, it is a place that connects different generations to each other, to their food sources, and to what it means to be an active participant in imagining and building oneís community.

Margaret Wheatleyís wisdom about communities and the nature of change has influenced my work and the work of many of my colleagues. Her teachings about living systems and the very human struggle to be in relationship and make a difference have enriched my life and my thoughts. She is called to work in places ďwhere people are really suffering from hierarchy, the breakdown of systems, the loss of personal control.Ē

Even though we were miles apart, the three of us met on the phone and our dialogue had a luminous quality. I was especially struck by the resonance in our conversation as we began to build on and see our own organizations as radiant living systems. We are tending to our core values and beliefs about people and the world. By going through the tough work of learning, continually recommitting and living our talk, we are shaping organizations that are making a tangible difference in the world and are a joy to be a part of.

We all saw a kind of magnetism that was attracting what we need to do our work in strange and mysterious ways. I had an image of healthy fields of practice, mini experiments in ďcreating enlightened societyĒ at the margin of the dominant modern worldview, generating alternatives and new possibilities. When we explored the lived experience of being in these models of the kind of work we want, something became clear to me: it is possible for collective entities to experience joining heaven and earth. It requires tending the field at a personal practice level, a team relationship level and at a broader system level. I invite you to join our inquiry, to eavesdrop on the conversation that follows.


Sera Thompson As you both know, this conversation is a collective inquiry into this idea of work as practice or work as service. And I know that thatís very much how both of you approach your work.

Weíre far apart from each other geographically ó Jane is in Montrťal, Iím in Vancouver and Meg is in Utah ó but hopefully, we can create a feeling together that weíre in the same room and in intimate conversation.

At the Shambhala Institute for Authentic Leadership, we often start conversations with a bow, sitting up straight and leaning forward with our head and shoulders to mark the beginning of something new, to mark a space. So, maybe we could start together in our virtual space with a bow.

Margaret Wheatley Lovely.

Sera I wanted to start by asking: What is the work that youíre focusing on at this point in your life? What are you noticing about the way that youíre working that feels new?

Margaret The distinction between clarity and passion and its relationship to boredom or feeling engaged is very important to me right now. One of my spiritual guides a few years ago led me to understand that seeking passion is really a rather egotistical way of looking at oneís work. Instead, each one of us should be seeking clarity about what feels like the right work at this moment.

This distinction between passion as the key motivator and clarity that ďthis is my workĒ has been very helpful to me. If I find myself repeating the same things to an audience, I think of all of the spiritual teachers that Iíve been blessed with who say the same thing over and over again in slightly different permutations. When Iím clear about what Iím supposed to be offering, then I take boredom as a sign that my ego has returned and is saying, Oh, you donít really want to do this or youíve said this before. Once I recognize it as my ego, I go back to the essence of whatever it is Iím speaking about.

Sera The kind of clarity that Iím com-ing to right now is that my work is with all different kinds of groups and helping them co-create the futures that they want, creating space for collective leadership and wisdom to emerge.

The most tangible thing that Iím working on, which Iím quite excited about, is something called The Hub in Halifax. A few colleagues and I are working to create a co-working space for freelancers, small non-profits entrepreneurs and social innovators thatís affordable and ecologically efficient. Through the community, great ideas can take action because of the mix and the diversity in the space.

Jane Rabinowicz My work right now at Santropol Roulant is primarily about reflecting on and planning around this question of what is the right home for this community over the long term. Itís a pretty major reflection that will involve a possible relocation, buying a new building so that our physical space is a match for who we have become as an organization.

Iím learning how to be very focused on this one thing. Iím more disconnected from the day-to-day operations of this place than I ever have been. So, Iím learning how to invite leadership from other people to make sure things stay healthy. Itís an opportunity for different types of leadership to emerge. Thatís something that Iím really excited about.

I think that my role in this transition is to attempt to live the Santropol Roulant values in how we approach this period of change. Iím trying to find comfort in working in this new way, which isnít necessarily easy, and asking for help around that. And so, Iím learning what it is that I have to offer, about intuition, and Iím learning a lot about what other people have to offer.

Margaret This sounds amazing. In my own work, I am trying to remind people to remember what it feels like to work well together and to be engaged as learners in whatever weíre doing.

I feel an urgency about the message that Iím trying to give: We really need to pay attention to our relationships. We need to understand that the only way human beings get through difficult times is through being together as community. Berkanaís new banner headline is ďwhatever the problem, community is the answer.Ē That also describes my work, even though Iím just sort of the bumblebee buzzing around the world with this message.

Sera You both have this lens into your own selves, what youíre noticing about yourself and the way you work, but youíre also getting to see a lot of other people and how they work. Are you noticing any strong themes about peopleís lives that affect their ability to do the things they want to do?

Iím noticing that people are attracted to giving what they have to give. They get so much joy out of it. I think thatís an amazing thing because it makes exchanges reciprocal. There is this generosity to support something they believe in through whatever means they have at their disposal ó be it two hands, or professional expertise or financial resources or just hanging out.

The other thing that Iíve noticed over the last few years is that young people are engaging in this work and coming into work environments in the community sector ó theyíre doing it with just as much commitment, but less inclination to self-sacrifice and burnout.

Margaret I love hearing about what I consider to be real wisdom from younger people that we have to pace ourselves, we have to take care of what nourishes us so that we can stay in the work. Itís silly to think about sacrificing and going all out in order to serve because you end up sick, exhausted or with ďcompassion fatigue,Ē which is such a terrible phrase.

How are you going to nourish yourself so that you can stay in this work for the long term? What will really sustain and nourish you?

Thereís a deeper ground of spirituality that seems to be present in those who are able to be in very difficult work, in very difficult places and maintain their sense of self-nurturance or self-care. Iím thinking of people working in Darfur, Sri Lanka or Myanmar who are in the large NGOs that Iím in touch with.
I donít know how they sustain themselves, actually, except they must have a deep spiritual practice. This notion of karma yoga is a form of spiritual practice, but it leads back to the realization that we all need to be spiritually grounded.

What Iím finding in the populations that Iím speaking to is a sense of impending doom. Itís not about feeling hopeful. Itís not about feeling Pollyanna. The more I hear from people, they say itís going to get a lot worse. That sense of dread and hardship is really present now. And itís not inspiring. Itís not motivating people. Itís just there.

Sera So how do we maintain our ground and our sense of fearlessness when there are apocalyptic messages all around us?

Jane I know that whatís happening right now in the world is destructive at a global scale. It seems to me that
what weíre doing is an act of self-loathing.

If weíre gone, then thatís okay and maybe itís for the best. But what are we going to do while weíre here? What I want to do is experience joy and bring joy into other peopleís lives. I want to have a benign impact on the people around me and the planet so that my joy does not come at the sacrifice of other peopleís or of the natural environment.

Margaret I love where you went with that, which is, I think, the only place we can go: How do we live together, no matter what, in ways that actually enrich our human spirits? Because certainly, this whole idea of service or ďgift cultureĒ is actually not anything you would talk about in so many communitarian cultures because it is in fact a description of what they already have.

Has there ever been a time in human existence when people have believed that the whole species could be gone? Itís really interesting to me. Classical Greek and Renaissance periods were times of incredible human optimism, as was America until a few years ago. But what makes this time so unusual is this realization that we could be gone ó an entire species wiped out. Itís what makes this time a-historical.

We talk about gift culture a lot now in Berkana and I just see it as
an indication that weíre ready to give up our Western cultureís highly individualistic framing of life. Gift culture is a way of being, when you know that for your very survival, you depend on each other.

This leads me to feel that karma yoga is exceedingly important, but especially within the context of Western culture, which is really bankrupt around ideas of how to live together in ways that sustain everyone and that donít create harm to the environment.

Sera There is a really strong theme in this conversation of learning how to work well together and creating a living field of relationships. It reminds me of the idea that the future Buddha wouldnít be a person, but a group. That connects to something that we talk about in the Shambhala tradition, which is this idea of creating an enlightened society ó could a group of people or a society become enlightened? What are some of the practices that could help us become more whole as communities?

Margaret For me, itís always about learning by doing it. You know, you learn by working together on something that feels important. This helps you to forget your individual neediness and keeps you focused on the real work that supersedes the ego.

Jane For me, itís questioning, challenging and reconfiguring our operating assumptions. If you assume that everyone is just doing the best that they can, something happens that causes a ripple and we engage in that thing together. Itís infusing people with the values, finding the common ground, and getting this idea of competition off the table. As we work together, we celebrate ourselves and each other. Celebrating another personís leadership or strength doesnít undermine your own.

Margaret The one thing Iíd like to underline in all of this is when we talk about service, karma yoga, giving up competition, gift culture, even when we talk about a sense of doom, these all counter the prevailing culture that people were raised in. We come from this very disabling lineage in the West that really has destroyed our sense of community and interdependence.

I really appreciate, Jane, the beauty of assuming that people are doing the best they can because weíre really trapped into these old patterns and habits and belief systems. And itís why we have to pay so much attention to our relationships right now, because the old culture has not brought us up in a way that makes it easy to be forgiving or not competitive or just to work for the common good. These are all new behaviours weíre learning. Thereís a real repatterning going on.

Sera Iíve been having a lot of conversations lately about what it would mean if we as a human species started to really believe that we were worth it, that we deserve to live, that we deserve not to be destroyed by ourselves.

Margaret Wow.

Sera How would we act differently if we start recognizing our own inherent goodness and the inherent goodness in each other? How do we learn to really believe that and instill that in our cultures so that that kind of gold weíre all sitting on comes to the fore?

Jane My only professional experience is at Santropol Roulant. I feel like Iíve been born and raised within this culture. I canít speak to what it looks like elsewhere, but I do have the impression that the nature of the work that we do and how we approach our work at the Roulant is at the margins. Iíd be curious to hear either of you speak to how something goes from being at the margins to something thatís more dominant.

Margaret Well, change only comes from the margins. The real trick is to stay in the work long enough to really see it move to the centre. You do your little experiments and they stay little, but they get connected.

Once we strengthen the bonds, we have to pay attention to those connections, which is the relational side of it all, as well as the exchange of learning. You just hope that thereís enough strength
in that connective tissue so that what emerges is no longer marginal.

But, you donít get off the margin ó
I mean, whatís interesting about this model is that you really are marginal until something emerges. And emergence is always a surprise moment. It is actually the strength of our connections that I think makes emergence much more likely, plus outside factors that you can never predict.

Sera Like you, Jane, Iíve also been raised in a new work paradigm. And Iím noticing some of these things that weíve been working on and talking about and doing at the margin beginning to emerge more in the mainstream. But does it really hold? Does it actually deeply sink in and change the way that organizations and people are working?

Margaret I think the thing we have to be very sensitive to ó and I say this not to discourage us, but to actually motivate us in our pioneering efforts ó is all of these things get co-opted by the larger system, but they donít change. The underlying values of the major systems controlling and destroying the world are values that are not based on anything to do with relationships at all.

Itís dangerous to think that change is moving to the centre in a gentle, incremental way because whatís really required is revolution. And revolutions are never quiet and gentle.

Jane Hmm Ö

Margaret One of the things Iíve learned from South Africa is that the struggle began in the early 1900s and it had many different forms. But the one thing it really had was enormous perseverance. And thatís what I want to learn these days: perseverance.

Jane I was thinking about what it means to be a leader and a woman. I was talking about this to my mom the other day and complaining a little bit about the stamina my work requires from me. She started telling me about when she was working full-time, going to school at night and had two children. And she asked, did I think that was easy?

You know, I never did think it was going to be easy, of course. My expectation is that things will be meaningful. If they cease to be meaningful, thatís when I need to make a change. But itís not about things being easy.

Iíve also been thinking about how different people are called to do different things and how we work together to make change happen. Meg, when I think about your work and your calling, what you do is share, illuminate and
tell stories, and inspire. Itís such an
amazing thing to do. Given the destruction in the world and the sense of hopelessness, what are people called to do? What I see in young people is they are called to act. They are aware of the issues and know whatís going on and they say, well, given that, hereís how I want to live my life.

Sera Thereís a Winston Churchill quote: ďLeadership is to face failure upon failure without losing enthusiasm.Ē I think those of us who have really big aspirations for the world may feel like weíre failing a lot. I think, for me, stamina has something to do with just loving what Iím doing in the moment.

Margaret I find it impossible these days to talk about anything without bringing in this broader context, such as weíve just done. Itís not like karma yoga is just a good idea. We have to be holding the state of the world and what people need from us as part of the motivation to not only do the work, but to stay in it.

I think itís really important to notice that we no longer can just talk about our work. It has to be in this greater context of what we see happening. What do we think the future holds?

Jane Thatís a nice way of thinking about it, that we all have to hold it and be conscious of it all the time. I can get overwhelmed when the global context comes up. What I want is to do something with my hands thatís active, thatís small, like make a meal for somebody or water a plant.

Maybe this is something that has to do with control because I have no control over whatís going on globally. It makes me feel tiny. I donít know about a sense of hope and where I think things are going. At the same time, I return to this question of what is meaningful. And whatís meaningful to me is joy.

Margaret Iíve been asking: Why do I do my own personal spiritual work, and why do I try and hold myself to an increasingly higher standard? Changing my thinking about my work from what am I passionate about to what do I think the world needs from me right now? Where can I make a meaningful contribution, not based on my desire or my ego, but on a felt need for this kind of contribution?

And not for my own self-development. Itís because Iím holding this world context, and then, of course, Iím holding a Buddhist concept, as well.

Jane Itís critical to have people who are bringing up the bigger question so that those of us who are inspired and motivated by it in our work remember that weíre part of something. To give other people a bit of a kick in the pants and change patterns of behaviour that are destructive or deeply ingrained.

Margaret Of course, that happens in every act of generosity when we start to notice other people rather than just ourselves and we start to just want to help. You know, thatís the kind of tried and true definition of a leader. Even if you have a problem with the word ďhelp,Ē a leader is anyone who sees something that needs to be challenged, fixed or changed and willingly steps forward to take action.

Sera Thatís why it requires spiritual practice to stay grounded, so youíre not just identifying with what you need or want or how famous youíll become and how much people will applaud you.

Margaret But, you know, where we find perseverance is in the nature of the work, not in our own narrow defined sense of self. I was in New Orleans a month ago and continue to work there. One of the things Iím learning there, as I learned in South Africa, is about the nature of perseverance in the context of community.

Iíd be interested, Jane, to hear your reflections because youíre working in such new territory, about buying a building for Santropol Roulant when youíve never owned a home. Whatís your sense of how much support you get from the community to do this work?

Jane The support has come when Iíve needed it most, and from unexpected places. I donít understand where these people come from!

Margaret Yeah. You know, weíre having the same experience at Berkana Ö

Jane Itís amazing Ö

Margaret Ö Quite wonderful.

Jane A masterís program in leadership was interested in looking at the Roulant as a case study. They asked: What is that energy which attracts people to contribute in that way? One of the Roulant board members noted that thereís a gravitational pull that brings good people into its orbit. This force has pulled the organization into the centre and attracted others. Itís fascinating to watch this process at work.

Margaret The word magnetizing is a very powerful word for me right now. At the Roulant, youíve created this gravity or this force field, this magnetizing capability. Itís everything you were describing earlier about being very clear about your values and working from a deeply congruent centre. Thereís a generosity of spirit in trying to see what everyone does as theyíre doing the best that they can. And that creates a real attraction for people.

If you didnít have that deep congruence, then what gets broadcast is noise. But the congruence is like a deep pulse radiating out and it draws people in rather than this noise, this dissonance that is most peopleís experiences.

Even as Iím saying this to you, I realize thatís whatís going on at Berkana now. I mean, weíre deeply congruent around our values and what weíre trying to do. We try to act with integrity. I think we do a pretty good job of it because weíre willing to stay in the question of was that the right thing to do or did we mess up?

Jane It connects back to what Sera was saying that the future Buddha wouldnít be a person, it would be a group. What we see going on at the Roulant or at Berkana is all about the people. Itís something that happens with a group of people and itís also independent of any one person.

Sera The idea of congruence or authenticity has come very strongly to me from this conversation, or really doing the work of living your values, which is hard work. But committing to that and doing it over and over again actually creates kind of a radiant attractive field.

Margaret What weíre creating here are ďstrange attractors.Ē There can be all this individual activity, all these people coming through, but that chaos gets organized into beautiful patterns. In my experience, it comes from having a deeply congruent centre, which is the values, which is the definition of integrity. Once you have that real deep congruence at the core of the organization, you get all these opportunities for not only magnetizing people, but for people to really be able to use their talents.

Sera What do you think are some of the practices that keep those kinds of systems in a self-renewing cycle? What are some of the practices that you do at Berkana and at Santropol Roulant?

Margaret The real practice is ongoing conversation that looks at what weíre doing, what we learned from what was just done. We ask if we are truly acting from our values, are we doing what we said we wanted to do.

Iím sure this kind of learning loop is hard at the Roulant. Itís really hard at Berkana because weíre so busy. I
mean, when youíre working at the margin, itís really hard work. You canít let down, ever. But to realize that the only way you develop this magnetizing power and create a truly self-organizing system is through constant learning as you go.

Sera You know, what I think makes Santropol Roulant extraordinary is the very practical kind of work that happens. I was running this organization called Pioneers of Change, which is a global network of young people working
on social change. We had lots and lots of global meetings, and they were very dialogic, conversational and intense.

But we had one meeting at The Shire, my friend Tim Merryís land in Nova Scotia, which is also part of the Berkana Exchange. We cooked all of our meals together and every afternoon we built composting toilets. We fixed boats and we worked in the garden.

Iíd never seen a group of people fall so in love with each other and have such deeply grounded conversations. They were working with their hands in such a practical way. And I wonder if thatís part of why the Roulant is so special.

Jane Well, I think for us, itís the gift of having food at the centre of everything we do, as the catalyst for building healthy relationships. I think itís one thing to say itís all about relationships, but you canít just go out and just make relationships happen, right?

Margaret Right.

Jane For us, itís relationships around food. You can get into the spiritual ideas ó nourishing ourselves, nourishing each other. Bringing people together through food is one of the reasons why Iím most drawn to our partnership with the Berkana Exchange. Itís just this idea that wherever we get together, we handle our own crap.

We cook for ourselves. We clean up after our waste. And I think that thatís how we start to build these really wonderful relationships with each other. It allows us to exchange around really practical things, and it breaks things right open. It creates a space for conversations that would never happen. Iíve never seen anything like what Iíve seen when weíve come together as a group in the Berkana Exchange.

Margaret Great.

Jane And then, amidst all of the activity, weíre also creating the space for reflection to happen so that we learn. At the Roulant, we have a lot of conversations about how to work with volunteers and clients with special needs. Iíve seen similar conversations happen over and over and over again, but theyíre conversations that remind us that values are rooted in relationship. So I never get frustrated about having the same conversation again and again.

By creating the space for us to reflect as a team, we are able to learn from our mistakes. Weíre reminded of the root values, but we also evolve forward because we have created that space to reflect even in all of the action. I think thatís really important too.

Margaret Yeah, thatís the kind of continuous learning loop around the values that really makes a system grow in its centring coherence.

Sera You know, I recently learned that the root of the word sustain comes from Latin and means to hold. I think a lot about this idea of container, of feeling each of us, in some way, is responsible for the future of the world and we are, in our own way, holding the future.

I think the Art of Hosting is a practice of holding that kind of space. When I work with my team at The Hub in Halifax or whatever organization Iíve been involved with, thereís this sense of a smaller core group that really feels like theyíre holding and continually sorting that congruence. They are continually nurturing that field so that it becomes true to what it wants to be, more radiant and attractive. Itís like a strange attractor.

Jane Thereís something really powerful in what Meg was just saying, this idea that the work that we need to do is not based on ego and thatís why it requires spiritual practice. A light bulb turned on for me, and I understood that looking inwards is in service to the work that we need to do.

Sera Yeah.

Jane Iím not sure how used to doing that many of us are, though.

Sera Powerful fields actually require leaders who know how to create that self-renewing pool of stamina, which for many of us is through some kind of contemplative practice. It may be through running or painting or writing, but itís a way of tending to your own garden in a very intentional way, and then tending to the garden of your little team and then that ripples out into the world.

I think itís almost like thereís a whole world of practice in each one of those concentric circles. Well, I have to say this has been incredibly, incredibly delightful.

Jane Iíd like to say thank you to both of you. This has felt like a reminder of how I want to be working.

Margaret These are just the conversations I love to be in. Thank you both.
I think we just keep doing what we can to keep the core learning and the core perspective in front of us and so we can then help others to know them as well.

Sera Iím feeling incredibly touched at the moment. I also have that feeling of reminder and also of having some fresh clean water poured into the well. Iím going to take something away from this conversation about the sense of sustaining ourselves, and having the stamina to just keep going and staying in those places that are tough.

Itís a delight to be in this conversation with such wise women. Thank you so much. Now, if we could just close the conversation together again with a bow.

For years, Margaret Wheatley has been occupied with seeing the world differently. She explores questions of organization, management and community, and considers how old patterns, problems and paradigms may develop into more meaningful and hopeful practices. Her lifeís work has succeeded, she says, because it has increased her sense of wonder for life and for the great capacity of the human spirit.

She is co-founder and president emerita of The Berkana Institute (, a charitable global foundation that connects and supports pioneering, life-affirming leaders around the world who strengthen their communities by working with the wisdom and wealth already present in the people, traditions and environment.

Margaret received her doctorate in organizational behavior and change from Harvard University, and a masterís in media ecology from New York University. As a consultant, she has collaborated with a wide range of organizations, from military leaders with the US Army to pre-teen Girl Scouts.

She has written four books: Leadership and the New Science (in twenty languages and third edition), Turning to One Another: Simple Conversations to Restore Hope to the Future, A Simpler Way and, most recently, Finding Our Way: Leadership for an Uncertain Time. Her numerous articles appear in both professional and popular journals and may be downloaded free from her website.

Margaret makes her home in Utah.

Sera Thompson is a conversation host and change agent in places as diverse as Southern Africa, the UK, Canada and the US. Her core work is in creating spaces for collaboration, innovation and committed action. A practitioner and teacher of the Art of Hosting and Deep Democracy, Sera designs and hosts change processes, strategic dialogues, conferences, best practice and innovation exchanges, and leadership trainings. She is deeply involved in the Shambhala Institute for Authentic Leadership and is co-founder of The Hub Halifax. She lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia and loves it. (

Jane Rabinowicz is executive director of Santropol Roulant, a Montrťal-based youth-run, volunteer-driven and bike-powered meals-on-wheels. With an environmental ethos and a vision for social change, Santropol Roulant builds and nourishes an intergenerational community through its many projects, rich relationships and infectious spirit. Jane volunteers on the board of directors of the Centre for Community Organizations. She has been living in Montrťal for the past nine years, and is learning to repair her bike in the Santropol Roulant bike shop.

Copyright ©2007 ascent magazine, first Canadian yoga magazine, yoga for an inspired life