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Artful Leadership in Service of Awakening the Commons of the Imagination

on Thu, 08/23/2012 - 20:45

"The divided self doesnt hear the music of wholeness - it doesnt find a home, a place of belonging - it's afraid to be real."

A recent vision quest in the Santa Cruz mountains gifted me with the wonderful opportunity to deepen my relationship with Mother Earth and in the process to find back to myself, to who I am and to what claims me. This experience was enriched  by the words, compassion and deep insights of Michael Jones. 

His ability to reach my heart through his language, his humility and radical but gentle honesty made me feel part of his conversation with his friend John as they walked through nature. My heart and mind exclaimed YES!  continuously as I became absorbed in the journey he describes in ‘Artful Leadership’. It gave rise to a desire to share his transformative insights with the world in need of it. I hope you will accept this enriching gift and will pass it on to whoever could benefit from it.

Commoning is an Art for Leaders to discover, to engage in and help inspire all those in need of finding their home and belonging in a disintegrating world. The personal leadership journey is a preparation for something else and something much larger than most of us may imagine. Leaders of the future that wants to come into being, need to use the ‘Felt Sense’  to follow the leads of the moment with sustained focused attention and listening to what wants to emerge.  When communities and organisations fall apart, leaders need to learn to create a new centre. This centre may keep the flame of inspiration alive and help us follow the thread of our collective inquiry in order to sense and tend to what is emerging into awareness now.

"Market dominance in all spheres of life, including public life needs to be rolled back from enclosures in order to allow the people’s creativity and the commons to flourish. In an individually focused and interest driven world it is difficult to actually step beyond our own self interest , even so we may cloak those interests by the language of the commons, yet when we do so we stand a good chance of disillusioning others who are seeking a genuine commons, and those so seduced will rightly feel betrayed."

The following is mostly quoted directly from ‘Artful Leadership’ Awakening the Commons of the Imagination by Michael Jones, 2006, Trafford Publishing

Most of the chapters from his book can be found online in various places. I have put direct quotes in quotation marks.

“The  Commons makes the spaces in between visible through the act of commoning”.

When we are listening, looking, touching, imagining with appreciation in our heart, we are also finding our way home to ourselves.


Awakening Self and Collective Knowledge

The choice to follow certain themes or questions will set us on the journey of self- and collective-knowledge. “ Unlike the first journey of certainty which has been well travelled, this second journey of re- imagining our world often seems to be the uncommon road, directionless, tentative and unclear.”

These are questions we might ask in order to awaken this awareness about ourselves:

·      “ Who am I really? What claims me?

·      When do I feel most present and alive?

·      What am I uniquely called to do?

·      What is my relationship to beauty?

·      How do I let go?

·      What is my inspiration?

·      How can I best serve the common good?

·      What are the patterns of beliefs that tend to reinforce our need to perform and keep us from being fully present to ourselves?

·      How can we deepen an attitude of listening and presence?

·      What is the work that lasts?

·      When do we have the courage to be fully ourselves? What are the life affirming gifts that represent the seeds of our own unfolding potential?

·      Where is home? To what do we feel we most belong?

·      What do we find interesting that is hard to explain?

·      Is there something that helps us recognize and have confidence in what is arising naturally in our experience? How can we trust in the authority of our own subjective experience and inner life?

·      To what do we most want to give voice? If we were being deeply listened to, what would we want to say?

·      What is the story through which we wish to express ourselves in the  world?

·      How can we learn to receive and participate in a grace-filled world?

·      How can we access the curiosity and wisdom of our common humanity?

·      Is there a public face for home? What is the relationship between inspired personal leadership and the revitalizing of culture and community?

·      What would it mean to restore the commons as a centre piece of organizational and community life? “


Language-making to nurture the Spirit of the Commons

“As we are still being informed through language that was most relevant to a world that existed 300 years ago and there is no language for being stewards of the imagination yet, we need to find a language that is good at describing the reality and potential of the commons. Words that are in common usage now such as accountability, measurement, objectivity, reason, investment, routine, efficiency, scarcity accurately describe a culture of ownership and control but not necessarily one of participation and belonging. “

We need a language to describe the reality and potential of the commons as we now have for speaking about the economies of market exchange.

“The purpose of the spirit of the commons is not problem solving, conflict resolution or strategic planning, although it may achieve any of these or all of these and more. It is for language – making. Specifically it is for rekindling a language of feeling and experience. It is this language of the heart that is most in need of repair in a world where the mechanization of thought has become so common that we know of no other way to speak”.

Vocabulary that expresses the spirit of commoning includes:  interest, wonder, ease, attraction, longing, otherness, beauty, inspiration, necessity, vulnerability, enchantment


Leader Role to make the Voice of the Commons heard

“So as people become more accomplished at discovering and developing their own uniqueness, the leader’s role is to listen for what is still implicit; their job is to hear what is missing. In doing so, they can let new things come. They allow the emergence of possibility, finding opportunities for a pause, for a stillness in which we can gather our thoughts – all so we can see and hear things whole.”

“There is an individual learning journey, but the journey is not about me. It is a preparation for something else. This is the new territory we are exploring.”

“Some hear that unheard melody more clearly than others and there may not be any such thing as a truly solo journey. It is often only through the presence of others that we discover what we think, feel and see.”

“With the passage of time, our individual journeys of awakening merge into a common story, many paths configuring into a diamond, the light from which may illuminate a space of collective presence. This is what we would call ‘the public face of home,’ a place of wholeness where we may meet a changing world together from a new centre of being. It’s a place that is more cohesive and organic; one that has always been with us, but that is often invisible to the divided self such that its music remains unheard.”

“The voice that is unheard is contained in what we have been referring to as the commons: a community of the imagination where the full ecology of the human experience that has infused conversation around fires, in native councils, civic squares, soup kitchens, village greens and in countless other forms for all of time can again be restored. In a time when we face the daily possibility of severe uprooting and sudden change we cannot rely on individual effort alone. We will need to rebuild the sense of connection and cohesion with one another to form a new, generative core of creation that can hold steady in the midst of the tides of change.”

“By keeping  our attention on what is alive in the moment, it offers a sense of depth, ease and grace –qualities of  attention that are sometimes lost when we try to put our focus on problem solving, action planning and conflict resolution too soon.”

“So the commons is asking us to learn to be together before acting together, the commons draws us further upstream; it is the internal and reflective ‘we’ as  distinct from  the exclusive orientation in external action. It is a space where we may bring a qualitative shift in consciousness–a more mature and subtle quality of attention that weaves together the many diverse threads of our common experience. By sensing and finding our way together, it gives us the opportunity for deepening our collective awareness. “

And it does all this by bringing to our awareness implicit patterns of meaning and connection that enable us to carry both the process of being and acting at the same time.


The Gift

“By tapping into this unexpressed potential, the commons was able to accomplish a great deal. It served as a template for wholeness –a space from which new possibilities could be both imagined and realized.”

“What is central to the commons is that it finds its roots in communities of gift exchange – communities that once thrived as parallel economies to those of market exchange. But with the relatively recent dominance of the market, these economies of the creative spirit have been lost. We need to explore the properties of these gift communities–properties such as our gifts, beauty, grace and story – in conversations. We may speak of these as virtues in that they are reciprocal. As we awaken to them they also awaken us to ourselves. These are what we all hold in common at the deepest level, and with which we need to re-engage if we are to bring our world into balance again.”

“We are fearful of the space between because we associate it – as we do silence or a pause or a break in the routine–with nothingness. It is a form of death to a busy leader. But what we realize is that the space between is not a nothingness but an ‘everythingness.’ So much of what truly matters arises out  of this space and because we don’t see it we let so much of what moves amongst us every day stay invisible!”

“This is what this new intelligence is for– to hear the aliveness of this unheard melody, a voice of belonging that brings the commons into view. This is what artists have always listened for, and now the rest of us need to listen for this music in ourselves as well.”

“Our gifts contain within them a deep vein of personal, intuitive knowledge that cannot be accessed solely in our trained skills. The gifts we bring fundamentally cannot be altered or removed from us. They already exist in us. Knowing that we are claimed by this potential and working in its service makes the difference between the work we do merely for profit and work that lasts.”

“Living our gifts is what we are here to do rather than focusing on performance goals. It is like there is a whole new currency needed between us – something based in the gifts we share rather than on just knowledge and skill. We have got to turn to something deeper than skills because that is where our true home lies. Maybe no one ever brought our gifts to our attention or drew them out of us. The world places so much value on the work of the practical intellect, and of competence and utility, our gifts – at least when they are still forming – likely seem too personal superfluous and self –indulgent.”

“We need to learn to recognize these gifts in others and trust to receive them. By leaving ourselves behind we can live only half a life. The real reason we don’t receive our gift is because we don’t want to be responsible for it. We are in conflict with ourselves and that needs to be resolved through receiving the gift”.

“Slave to the gods of competence”  Gifts are not the same as skills and abilities

“We may put off acknowledging our gift (healing, art, music, working with materials to build houses, animal husbandry, working with plants and growing food, making clothes, facilitating conversations, teaching children, ….) because we know that while it may free us to be more like ourselves, it would also bring us into a much more vulnerable and perhaps a more visible place in the world. We may shy away from that much responsibility or avoid to be exposed so publicly in our incomplete and unfinished state.”

“Nobody can relax and trust their deeper instincts when they are under constant pressure to appear that they know what they are doing, where they are going, and who they are. Our gifts are not designed to meet the same performance standards for planning and execution as our skills and abilities.”


The Journey of Awakening

The meaning of solitude is ‘an unbroken wholeness’. This is the new story that leaders and artists share. I think this is what we all need to do: to find our own feeling and our own thought, which comes from being at home with this place of undivided wholeness within ourselves.

“It is a journey of  awakening to our inner commons. We will come to recognize how vital the outer commons will become as a space for revitalizing the public imagination. .We simply need to see the familiar landscapes with fresh eyes.”

The commons has always been with us, but we have lost the sight to see it clearly. By inviting others to tell their personal and collective stories, it is possible to create a field of wholeness – a commons – and re-ignite a sense of purpose and meaning.

“To meet in a field of wholeness involves a subtle shift of mind from an emphasis on plans, goals, controls and outcomes to a process of awakening and discovery – one that invites a suspension of belief in order to create a welcoming space for conversations of depth to emerge.”

The greatest challenge in convening the commons is trust – the ability to engage in a process, the outcome of which cannot be predicted or seen in advance.

“To create a community of trust it helps to introduce live music, story, art and poetry. Expressions of the imagination that bring up the field, helping us re-establish trust in the unknown and our willingness to explore our inner life and our common life together.”

When communities and organisations fall apart, leaders need to learn to create a new centre. This centre may keep the flame of inspiration alive and help us follow the thread of our collective inquiry in order to sense and tend to what is emerging into awareness now.

“It’s the intellect that helps us to bring our gifts to others, but it really is the heart that receives them.”

“In a world where accurate responses increasingly are so complex that they are no longer trainable, we need to access this deeply intuitive aspect of our nature if we are to create a new centre of self-understanding that is resilient enough to navigate the perilous journey before us. “


Work that Lasts

Most leaders are not living their own story but are caught up in performing according to job descriptions.

Work that lasts is that which is left when that which has consumed us every day is taken away.

 “And work

Yes, work

The going

To what lasts”


“When we have found the work that lasts – and this does not need to be based in talent or activity, but can also be a compelling question, curiosity or attitude of aliveness – then we have also found freedom.”

“Mentors, coaches and teachers need to first learn how to serve themselves and find their own gifts.

Through their live curiosity and enlarged perspective, they need to learn to hold up a canvas of possibility large enough for others to paint their lives upon.”

“The world of imagination usually is based not on an articulated vision, but instead on our realization that we are in the right place – after we have arrived. So we almost never set out with a clear goal or reason in mind, but with a simple conviction that, because it is there, it is important to follow. That asks for a tremendous amount of faith to persist often for many years with no guarantees that anything would come from it. Perhaps the deeper gift is finding the faith to live one’s own life.

It may be our dedication to persist for the gifts own sake that makes what we do become the work that lasts.  It lasts probably not because of the activity itself but because there is a question that we have gotten hold of and needed to pursue. And this is what gives us life – being with the question and discovering where it is taking us. What keeps us on the thin edge is a hunger to learn and grow.”

Creating a more alive environment leads to each of us feeling both more responsible and more vulnerable. The final outcome is not clear, so it is a risk that many are not wiling to take.


Cosmic Journey

There has been a loss of connection with our common story of evolution. As the world spins faster and faster, it becomes more and more vital to restore environments in which we can listen for what is unfolding organically from the center of our own being. This brings us full circle to the idea of the commons.


Stories and creating a Culture of the Commons

What was the sequence of meetings, chance encounters, people met and choices made that brought each one of us here to read this at this particular moment in time?


So all who hide too well away/Must speak and tell us where they are

                                                                                                 by Robert Frost

Stories offer a shared space – a commons space – a community of the imagination that we have for the most part forgotten.

A culture of the commons is cultivated where people are generally open, curious, creative, respectful, courteous. It provides finding fellowship in the midst of facing both eternal mystery and the constant threatening presence of the world of that time.  The absence of the commons has been a source of indefinable but palpable unrest. It is like a hunger for which we find no cause or cure.

Allowing space to which each was welcome not necessarily to do something but rather to be with whatever evolved in the form of ideas, stories, images and emergent meanings.

Each component build  upon one another in a manner that set them free to take seed and flower in an infinite variety of ways. As an open space for exchange, the commons reinforced these early cultures as “attention economies” – ones in which it was essential for survival and wellbeing to keep the perception and awareness for their changing world vital and alive.

This was the nurturing of a collective attention that instilled a profound sense of belonging, not only to one another but also to the larger than human world. If we see the world as a gift, this is the key to sustainability of a commons space which can last.

Some anthropologists suggest that the idea of belonging  is based on a participatory kind of thinking that made the active exchange of ideas a common activity that sustained the life of the whole.

Our stories are often the instrument of evoking a commons space because they cannot be made routine – a story is always freshly told and heard.

A story by its very nature is always forming and becoming – each moment exists as a blank page upon which our possible future has yet to be recorded.

So a spirit of commons offers a free and open environment where we may come together to speak of who and where we are in manner that gives new shape and meaning to our life and work.


Nurturing Curiosity and Wonder

“If there is a modern artifact that mirrors the commons space of the past it would be found in a musical improvisation. Here the musicians listen to one another sensing where the music is going and adjusting their playing as they go. As they feel the music they make new meanings of it. And just as they capture it the music changes.”

With the celebration of private life we shrank public things and lost public spaces and the commons. There was a shift from nurturing the public imagination to valuing private linear space and the precedence of the parts over the whole. Even when people talk of their teams or their work, they still conceive of this as theirs, creating a context of ‘mine’ against ‘theirs’. This has eroded generosity, creative innovation, and most importantly the willingness to listen, to suspend judgment, to see and to speak freshly, which is the spirit around which the commons first formed. The search for aliveness is the one thing that may reverse the effects of the loss of the commons. It helps draw us away from the dominance of a mechanistic and more individualistic world view and helps us to see a more life affirming way of being behind it..

The commons is an open space where life happens for no other purpose than for the expression of itself now. By suspending our agendas, it offers a safe vessel for engaged listening and unguarded presence. By weaving together the many diverse threads of community and organizational life, it offers a space for deepening collective awareness and for surfacing implicit and often hidden sources of meaning and connection..

We need to take time to nurture curiosity and wonder.  We need to create physical meeting places in the form of parks, markets, front porches, and other spaces where we can speak and listen together.

The biggest mystery in the development of the commons is that it is evoked rather than administered  or prescribed. The commons finds its natural home in the economy of gift exchange. This leads to the central key for evoking a commons space . It is fully participatory.

We cannot attend to each other entirely objectively. We always become a part of what we see. So the early versions of the commons were founded in the central idea that the world does not so much belong to us, as we belong to it and – through it – to one another.

We need to learn to reciprocate as it is central to any living process. We have to stop taking without thought but need to appreciate and reciprocate when we take from the commons. Seeding, watering , nurturing the commons and reciprocating is the life of the commons.


Reconnecting to the Ancestral Home – the Secrets of the Collective Heart

The commons connects us to the shared place of humanity’s wisdom. It joins together our ancient past with our modern age and so helps us reach beyond personal memory to new ways of feeling , sensing and thinking.

Our access to this collective heart is not so much through our memory but from what arises from our interaction with the commons.

No matter what we may be talking about at any given moment, there is something of this larger mystery carried in our words. This makes the commons space much more profound and universal than we may know. When our conversations are carriers of wisdom as much as they are conveyors of topics , our very speaking about something is going to change it.

As we awaken to the commons it also awakens something in us. That means that when we speak of something in the spirit of the commons we can never talk about it in the same way twice as it is never the same thing twice.

When we are the commons, we can take the spirit of it in our hearts wherever we go.

Economies based in the creative spirit were rooted in language that reinforced this state of constant attention: ie.  interest, wonder ease, attraction, longing, otherness, beauty, inspiration, necessity, vulnerability, enchantment

These words reinforce the spirit of generosity because we need to be in a generous and open frame of mind to receive them.  To learn to give back in time, property and spirit freely requires to take ones personal journey increasingly important in the time ahead. Our inner journey is to develop our inner commons and prepares the soil for us to be full citizens of the still emerging public commons.

Also the commons teaches us how to keep our gifts in circulation.  Keeping them to ourselves diminishes us in some way. Unlike our skills and abilities which become dated, the gift is always evolving and changing. It is never exhausted but instead expands through use.

We already live in a global commons with our shared heritage: which we need to protect and cultivate i.e languages, cultures, art, wisdom, stories, conversations and silence. All bestowed on us as a gift.

It is remarkable how long the gift spirit prevailed and how in ancient cultures it accounted for the recognition and rise of genius at the time. We now take it for granted as if we are entitled to it.

For all we have mastered, we have not mastered the commons and its essential wildness.  As soon as we want to domesticate it with an agenda or a dominant idea, it disappears.

So the commons is summoned not for the purpose of reviewing what we already know but for aligning ourselves with life’s forward movement and to take us to the next step in the progression of human awareness. As we engage at the edge of human consciousness, we also participate in the larger ordering of things.