Feb 04 2008

Being the Change We Want to See-Part I

Being the Change We Want to See—Part I 

The second sermon I ever wrote was about change. It was delivered on a hot and sticky Sunday morning in August, and the sermon’s message was “Change is hard. Change is really, really hard.” It included lots of examples and had a somewhat happy ending, but basically, that was it, for 24 uncomfortable minutes: “Change is hard.”         

It wasn’t a very good sermon.         

Yet now, years later, I still believe that it’s fundamentally true: Change is hard—at least the kind of change that Harvard professor Ronald Heifetz calls “adaptive change.” Heifetz contrasts adaptive change with “technical changes,” for which there are clear steps to take and a fairly certain outcome. Changing an electrical fuse that has burned out, or taking some medicine known to cure what ails us, could be called a “technical change.” But to accomplish adaptive—or transformational—change, we have to change a complex series of behaviors and attitudes, and the outcome cannot be completely predicted ahead of time. Changing careers is a transformational change; adjusting to the loss of a loved one is another. Getting sober is a transformational change; so is developing environmentally sustainable habits of living or changing civil rights laws. We may have a few ideas about the steps we need to take in order to make such changes, and in community we will find allies, teachers, and companions to help us and cheer us on—but to accomplish transformational change, there is no “quick fix.” It takes heart, time, hope, commitment …         

In January, my clergy colleagues and I spent a couple of days with Unitarian Universalist minister and Alban Institute presenter, the Rev. Dr. Larry Peers, at a workshop called “Sacred Shifts.” Larry offered a fresh approach to transformational change that I find rich and inspiring. Let me sketch it out for you.          

Often when we think about making big changes in our lives, in our community,  or in our world, we think about the results we want—we create a vision of the outcome—and then we form an action plan to get us there. If our actions don’t quite produce the results we’d hoped for, we may figure that we need to rededicate ourselves to our vision, and/or we may come up with a new series of actions to take. This businesslike approach can be productive, says Larry, but if we focus solely on actions and results, we may be leaving out a deeper and more essential truth: When we’re talking about making a transformational change, we’re talking about changing our very way of being. This is what makes transformational change a “sacred shift.”         

So let’s step back from the “strategic plan” for a moment and, with an attitude of nonjudgmental curiosity, take a look at who we are as we enter into a process of change. Let’s describe our “being” using three interconnected aspects of ourselves that we can actually observe:
·        What is the language we’re using to describe where we are right now? If we are facing a big personal change, we may hear ourselves saying, “It’s too hard. It’ll take too much time. My family won’t like it. I don’t have the skills.” If we want societal change, we may find ourselves saying, “That will never happen. It’s human nature to do it the way we’ve always done it. It’s too complicated. I don’t know where to start.”
·        What is our mood about this change? Are we feeling depressed or confused? Are we feeling resistant or angry? Are we feeling hopeful or excited?
·        What is the feeling and posture of our body when we think about this change? These postures may literally be visible, or we may feel them internally. Are our shoulders slumped, our arms crossed across our chest? Do we feel “stuck in the mud,” like our feet buried in cement? Are we stepping boldly forward, head up, eyes bright, even though we’re not sure where the path of change will take us?

OK, those are our tools. Now, here’s the fun part! Larry suggests that as we contemplate a transformational change that we would like to make—either a personal or a societal one—we can make great discoveries by imagining the end of the process before we begin. What does this mean?

First, we start by imagining our way of being after the change has been made. What will our bodies feel like, what will our posture be then? What will our mood be? What kinds of things will we be saying to ourselves and each other when we have made this change that we want to make?
Second, imagine what the results of this new way of being are for ourselves and our community. Picture it thoroughly. What are the new behaviors and relationships that announce, “We are now the change we’ve wanted to see”?
Third, with this new way of being and these results in mind, now tell a story about the process of change itself. What were some of the obstacles we faced along the way, and how did we overcome them? What were we able to celebrate as we moved through this transformation?         

Here is the great advantage of this approach to transformational change: it leap-frogs us out of our “stuck” place and into a place of empowerment, hope, and joy. We begin our transformation from a very spiritual place: That is, in our imagination, we look down from the mountaintop of accomplishment, instead of looking up at the huge mountain we need to scale. From this empowered and joyful perch on the mountaintop, we can imagine new solutions for obstacles that we might encounter—obstacles that might seem insurmountable if we only count them up, down in the valley, before we even begin our climb. From the mountaintop, we can see that there is much to celebrate all along the way, rather than letting ourselves get discouraged by how much more there always is to do! Best of all, when we imagine our new way of being, we begin to integrate that being into our here-and-now lives; our language, mood, and posture begin to shift almost at once, and this makes the rest of the journey all the more possible.         

Take a transformation you are longing for—in your personal life, or in our world. Walk through the steps that Larry has laid out for us and that I have listed here. What do you see? What do you learn, and how do you feel about it?         

Then stay tuned: in my next newsletter column (and blog entry), I’ll tell you about the transformational change I tackled during the workshop in January, and describe what I saw and what I learned. It was a breakthrough moment for me, as I join you in building the Beloved Community! 

With warmth and gratitude, 
Nancy 

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