Peeling the Shallot – A Contemplation on Learning
After 30 years (or 55 years depending how you count) of personal development, I have reached a point where I finally really understand and fully believe the cliché that we never stop ‘peeling the onion’ to reach deeper layers of realization and fulfilment. The layers may get finer and subtler, but the peeling continues, even if the bulb is just a tiny shallot.
This past year I unpicked yet another layer. It took some careful pinching at the edges. I knew there was a layer there to discover, but I couldn’t find the point at which the edges were loose so that I could get my fingers around it. Instead I soaked the bulb in water, exposing myself to certain challenges that I knew would push me into new depths of discovery, even though I didn’t know exactly what the discoveries would be.
Have you ever tried that strategy for learning? In the leadership development program I have been designing and delivering this year, we call it an Action Learning Program. A group of emerging leaders were set into the cauldron of a team effort to solve a complex organizational problem. With the right context and framing, and with just enough support, but not too much, the teams experienced leadership learning that they could never have experienced within the relatively safe confines of their day jobs.
In my case, I soaked myself in an entrepreneurial venture with a new environmental technology and a cutting edge business operating system. I stewed in those strong juices for about 15 months until the venture collapsed. Although it was painful, my learning purpose was fulfilled. Just like an onion, when the edge loosened a whole layer came off very suddenly, within a matter of 2 weeks. Suddenly I was feeling fresh, and clean with a beautifully smooth pink skin, a subtler shade of pink than the redder, crustier layer that I had just discarded.
At this stage of my development, all my learning seems to come down to one thing: discovering parts of myself that I have rejected and then re-owning and loving them. The unloved parts of the self show up in many different ways: as enemies or people I despise, as aspects of people that I idolize or strive for. So it is very convenient in terms of self-development to live wholeheartedly, simply waiting for the characters to appear who will piss me off, or shame me. And then I can get to work in fully loving and accepting those people and their characteristics.
Have you noticed that the best way to manage an unwanted characteristic in the self, is to love it fully? For example, a toothache. If I spend all my time wishing it were gone, the pain increases spreading into various emotional pains like regret, guilt and fear. Instead I can notice it lovingly, thanking it for the role it plays in my life …helping me to notice stress, dis-ease or needs that I can then pay attention to. And in this way, the ache diminishes when I have responded to it. Likewise with anger. If I feel it fully, putting my attention on all levels of the anger: physical, emotional, mental and spiritual, then it will dissipate quickly and not reappear with the same force.
Since I’m learning that the inside and the outside are in fact all inside me as representations within my own body, mind and spirit, therefore I can heal myself equally by paying positive, loving attention to the pains and annoyances in the outside world.
I have heard that Donald Trump receives a weekly summary of all the positive news about him. It may be natural to deride him for the self-obliviousness of his personal neediness that this pattern suggests. But imagine how much worse it may be for the world if he didn’t have that additional recognition and positive regard. I wish him all the positive regard he needs and craves, that all of us may benefit from his softening and opening.
I will close this contemplation with heartfelt gratitude for all the ills in the world, because without them we would have no contrast that allows us to see and appreciate all the beauty in the world. With the help of all the challenges, frustrations and brutality we face, we may touch the blushing inner layers of ourselves.
What are you in the process of learning?