What Could Possibly Go Right?: Episode 103 Margaret Wheatley

June 1, 2023

Show Notes

Margaret Wheatley, Ed.D. began caring about the world’s peoples in 1966 as a Peace Corps volunteer in post-war Korea. As a consultant, senior-level advisor, teacher, speaker, and formal leader, she has worked on all continents (except Antarctica) with all levels, ages, and types of organizations, leaders, and activists. Her work now focuses on developing and supporting leaders globally as Warriors for the Human Spirit. Margaret has written ten books, including the classic Leadership and the New Science, and been honored for her pathfinding work by many professional associations, universities, and organizations.

She answers the question of “What Could Possibly Go Right?” with thoughts including:

  • The idea of life affirming leadership, “on what cultivates life, what cultivates growth” and “adapting to circumstances”.
  • The call to be “of dedicated service at the local level where we can still create good lives… embodiments of good human beings, which is the ultimate gift that we can offer.”
  • The need to “get our egos out of the way” and move to a “place of right action and right work”
  • The question of seeing “what’s needed here, and then, am I the right person to contribute at this time?”
  • The idea that “as you’re out in the world doing this work and learning what it means to be of service, I do believe you find the teachings that support you, and maybe the teachers as well”


  • Book: Who Do We Choose To Be? by Margaret Wheatley


.Vicki Robin: Hello, Vicki Robin here, host of What Could Possibly Go Right?, a project of Post Carbon Institute. We interview cultural scouts, people who see far and serve the common good, asking them each our one question: in the midst of all that seems to be going awry, what could possibly go right?

My guest today is Margaret Wheatley, or Meg. Meg began caring about the world’s peoples in 1966 as a Peace Corps volunteer in post-war Korea in many different roles, speaker, teacher, consultant, advisor, former formal leader. Her work has deepened into an unshakeable conviction that leaders must learn how to invoke people’s inherent generosity, creativity, and need for community. As this world tears us apart, sane leadership on behalf of the human spirit is the only way forward.

She is co-founder and president of the Bana Institute, an organizational consultant since 1973, a global citizen since her youth and a prolific writer. She has authored nine books, including the classic Leadership and the New Science. She has been honored for her groundbreaking work by many professional associations, universities, and organizations.

In her new book, Who Do We Choose To Be?, she presents her hard won realizations about where and how to serve in this time of unraveling. This comes from seeing that the world has changed, that is no longer subject to the kind of interventions she spent her life articulating. She asks us to face reality, one element of which is that the poly crisis, the great unraveling, is not fixable. It’s already careening towards civilizational evolution.

It’s hard for activists to accept this, yet she isn’t saying we can do nothing. She’s saying it’s time to tame our egos. Whatever we’re doing, we can temper our need for control of outcomes and cultivate humility, and that this is the spirit we need to bring to whatever we’re doing in response to the actual conditions on the ground. Where we are in this moment, serving in this time, she says, is a spiritual discipline. So here’s my conversation with Meg Wheatley.

Vicki Robin: Welcome, Meg Wheatley, to What Could Possibly Go Right? You know, from the start of this podcast three years ago, our intention has been to interview what we call cultural scouts – people who see far and serve the common good – to get a glimpse of what they see on the horizon. We’ve asked them to help us see more clearly so we can act more courageously in complex times.

It seemed at that time that all bets were off and we were in new territory, and our scouts could orient us. We didn’t ask people for their prescriptions or solutions. Instead, we asked our guests to take a fresh look at what is emerging now, grounded in their long, deep work, but still in the question, to help us see more clearly so we can act more courageously.

This seems amazingly aligned with the purpose you state for your work. You say your aspiration is for us to see clearly so we can act wisely. So I’m reading your book, Who Do We Choose to Be? Facing Reality, Cultivating Leadership, Restoring Sanity. It is challenging me and also freeing me. I hope you can richly lay out what you are seeing in this time and then, if there’s time, we can evolve into a conversation.

So I will ask you the question I ask every guest. In the face of all that is going awry, what could possibly go right?

Meg Wheatley: I’m very happy to be with you again, Vicki. We have a long history and I wanna first speak about the role of scout because it is something I learned from where scouting is most important.

In 1993, I was invited by the head of the US Army General Gordon Sullivan to be his scout to see where the army was changing. He was the most progressive, intelligent, brilliant leader I’ve worked with, and he was trying to prepare the army for the 21st century, especially around free and open information, sense making by soldiers on the ground. It was my first experience with the military. I have the deepest respect for soldiers since then. Unquestionably it’s where I learned about my work which is, what does it take to be a warrior?

But when he invited me to be his scout, there I am, I’m an OD consultant. It’s like a cute term, right? Oh, we used it rather glib in those days. Then I realized that he wanted to see the army through my eyes so that he could make smart decisions. It wasn’t just curious, casual or disrespected information. What I was bringing to him, which ironically was about the future of tank warfare tank training, he needed that information as part of his decision making process. So from the get-go, I was treated with the most respect I’ve ever experienced as a professional woman; absolute respect and absolute courtliness, but I don’t need to describe that. It was just a wonderful experience at the time.

What’s lacking now, what’s lacking for me is maybe I wouldn’t use the word scout anymore. I do have many gifts that have been given to me and refined over time, and one of them is being out in the world. Now it’s a discipline to be well informed about what’s happening basically everywhere, and that’s very taxing work because what’s happening is so tragic and so life destroying.

I was given the gift of access and then I was given the gift of insight, I think because I’ve been trained as a systems thinker and perhaps other reasons as well, seeing what’s going on. And seeing the denial or the inability to accept what’s going on has been exceedingly frustrating until I be accepted. It was different in the role I played in the Army where the information was necessary. There’s so many of us who have been bringing our information, perspectives, and experience into the public arena, and what we’ve been met with is denial or deliberate conscious unwillingness to see what’s really happening, because it doesn’t benefit certain individuals or certain corporations or certain powerful leaders.

So we are in a state of absolute life destroying behaviors. I still work with the image of life-affirming leadership. What is life affirming leadership? Well, it’s based on the human spirit. It’s based on what cultivates life, what cultivates growth.

One of the things that cultivates life and growth is adapting to circumstances and we have a real confusion about how evolution means progress. Well, it doesn’t mean that at all. It means taking in what’s happening in your current environment, and making changes so that you can survive. I wish we were behaving in true evolutionary, adaptive ways, but what I see everywhere is we are devolving.

We’re devolving as a species because now I’ve characterized this as the age of threat, and when human beings are in threat as a survival mechanism, we don’t wake up and notice what’s going on. We retreat into the reptilian brain. This is a recent interest to me, in studying neurobiology, the response of the amygdala, which is triggered by fear and threat. The response is always aggression. It’s always acting out with aggression. It’s embodying our fear.

This is so evident to me in everything that’s happening on the streets, in protests around the world. But also, in that reptilian brain, we withdraw and become human beasts or human animals. We’re forfeiting the very capacities we need; the beauty of being human, our rich ability to think, to dream, to imagine, to remember, to envision, to relate to another, to walk in another’s shoes. All of that disappears when we’re acting as human animals, and that for me, is the explanation of everything that we’re experiencing now with what we call polarization.

I no longer call it polarization. I just think it’s self-defense. It’s survival. But survival isn’t found in withdrawing from reality. It’s found from being willing, being brave enough to encounter reality and to have a desire to see what’s going on. I mean, I love that we’ve had, I would say, almost identical slogans here, right? We need to see clearly. We need to see clearly because there’s work to be done from those of us who have always strived to make a difference with our work. We’ve always driven to want to contribute. This is who we are. As you know, our peer groups, our colleagues, and our work itself has always been, how can I contribute to something beyond my own self-serving interests?

I work with that energy now; I rely on it, but with this important caveat. The difference that we can make now is quite different. The difference has a difference now. It has changed and we don’t know how it’s changed if we’re not willing to face reality, if we’re not willing to seek out the information that’s out there. We have to be willing to move past this confusion, which is quite deliberately and intentionally created both by the Russians, the so former Soviets for many years since the 1980s, and by corporations set on just profiting off our backs and now off our deaths.

I can’t say it any more directly, I think. It’s not only that they don’t care about us, they’re willing to kill us. So here we are. We have to be willing to seek out reality. We have to be willing to encounter the incredible levels of grief and destruction and rage that come from really tuning into what is happening.

Those of us sitting here with internet, with food, with security, it’s our responsibility to tune into reality, to notice what’s going on; because the difference we can now make is different. It’s of being of dedicated service at the local level where we can still create good lives, or maybe not good lives, but embodiments of good human beings, which is the ultimate gift that we can offer.

I want us all to stop fussing about privilege and just get active with the work that it can be done, because we are secure and because we have communication and because we have consciousness. Everything that we have worked for, from a self-focus that we have all benefited from.

When we shift the framing to, how do I use this now for the benefit of others, then privilege becomes responsibility and the responsibility that I feel we all need to be so clear about and committed and even devoted to.

I mean, it’s a real discipline to stay active in the world now because we’re constantly encountering these overwhelming tidal waves of grief and rage. I know what rage feels like. Now I understand why people go out on the street, because I feel it in myself frequently. How could so much death now be created and now we can’t stop these dynamics that have begun years and years ago, whether we’re looking at the climate, the planet, or we’re looking at human behavior.

We’re in this now. It’s just going to play out. We can make a difference at the local level, and we need to make a difference. But that difference is different than formerly thinking we would change or save the world. There’s still a lot of people who are focused on what needs to shift in us, in our consciousness, in our way we interact, thinking that if we – I have to use the word fix, which is not a word I use generally, but – if we fix this one thing and develop a higher level of consciousness, if we develop new methods of collaboration, if we just see more clearly the logic of what’s going on, we will be able to turn this around or get out of this or have a soft landing.

That’s the newest I’ve noticed. A lot of people are accepting we’re in collapse, which is a historical description as well as the scientific one. But now we’re just looking for a soft landing. We’re still bargaining with life. We’re still not in this real acceptance. We’re still, I would personally see it as a plague, as a set of blinders on our thinking that impedes clear seeing.

The biggest blinder is hope, and as Michael Dowd has characterized it, and I use it a lot, “hope-ium”. We’re drugged. We think without hope, we won’t be able to stay motivated. And this is where I wanna build on your name here, what could possibly go right? I wanna redefine right in very Buddhist terms, because in Buddhism, there is right relationship, there is right communication, there is right work, and that definition of right is not dependent on outer circumstances.

It’s the clarity that comes from knowing your mind and developing your capacity for a stable mind, to not be so triggered so easily, to know how to work with our triggers. That capacity that’s real clear, seeing past our ego demands, our personality, demands our habitual demands. That’s the practice that can only be achieved through developing good meditation practice. Clearing mind as best we can and noticing when we didn’t clear it, when we were acting from an intense reaction because something got triggered in us, being able to work with that and have a commitment to be a less triggered, more present person.

I’m just describing the Warriors for the Human Spirit training now, but I know what right action is for me. I know what right speech is. I know what right work is because I’m not the one who defines that. That is defined by the circumstances and context of where I am and what I see might be a meaningful contribution.

So rightness is not about affecting this world in our former criteria of success and failure at that level, everything is going wrong. Yes, but what can be right is us working for the goodness, embodying the best qualities of human nature and really devoted to service; we people who are focused on right action, right relationship, right communication.

What that means is we’ve worked very hard to get our egos out of the way, to get our personal neediness out of the way. Of course, we still have needs, but the neediness and the demands we make on reality is what we work to both know and then to let it dissipate.

Once you’re in this place of right action and right work, you’re not judging what went wrong. You’re not even as oppressed by what’s going wrong and all the horror and tragedy that people are suffering from now that doesn’t need to be there. Now we also have a climate in which we have no choice with what we’ve unleashed. But I know that wherever I am, and this is what I teach to whoever will listen; I wanna be available, I wanna be an offering.

That’s another definition of I’m not trying to fix things. I’m not trying to readjust or make things better. I want to be an offering for whatever is going on. And the questions that I promote everywhere I can is to go into a situation; first of all, see how clear of judgments, biases, threat reactions you can be. That’s the work in which we train our minds. But then when you see more clearly, you ask, what’s needed here?

What’s needed here? Not what do I need, what do I want or what would fulfill my purpose, but what’s needed here? And with that clarity, you’ll see far too many things that are needed, right? I mean, that’s when we’re just overwhelmed with sorrow and anxiety about, oh my God, look at this desperate situation, or these desperate people, I wanna help, but there’s too many needs.

So you ask the second question, and first you realize you will never be satisfied, okay? We cannot be satisfied in our work any longer. We really do the best we can with our finite human resource. But the second question helps define that by asking, do I have the conditions in my own life? Am I the right person now to contribute to this need?

So you look at your skills. That’s the easy part, right? But you also look at your life circumstances. How stable is your life? This is why I started by speaking about the conditions we have of safety and security and food and connection. You look at what’s going on in your own life, if you’ve got a chaotic personal life going, or if you’re feeling chaotic and unsettled, that’s not a stable condition.

Therefore, if you try and work with people according to their needs, but a lot of stuff’s going on in you, you’re just gonna become a neurotic distraction for people. We’ve certainly seen this where people are working their own issue as they try and contribute. So you need a level of stability and then you need to notice, do I have any allies or supporters, or am I going to be a loner? I mean, sometimes we are, but other times we have good community around us.

So those two questions for me are framing how I look at everything; what’s needed here, and then, am I the right person to contribute at this time? That for me is the discovery of right work because it’s not based on what I want. It’s based on what is needed. In working in that way, you actually discover your right work. You discover meaningful work, you discover work that is often joyful in those moments when you’re not overwhelmed with sorrow or grief.

It is such joy available in this true connection with one another as we do work in horrible circumstances. We know that from the stories of wartime, and I know it personally because I’ve worked in post-disaster situations in several places, when I was first aware of the role, the ability to feel joyful when you’re doing hard work in the midst of overwhelming tragedy. I learned that in New Orleans post-Katrina because as I was collecting stories of people who’d said, I just had to be here. I drove a thousand miles. I just packed, got in my car and drove here because I needed to help.

Then, as I heard many stories, we were in the midst of dealing with death and destruction and despair and it was quite awful at that physical level. Then they would surprise me by saying, but those were the most joyful moments of my life.

That’s what I got curious about. What is joy? Then I listened to, I think it was Richard Roar who described joy as an experience of true communion. It’s the state of being present. No personal needs, no personal ego needs, just being present for what needs to get done in the moment.

It’s promised by a lot of spiritual traditions, but we’re transcending the self to be part of inter-beingness. And that is always joyful and it doesn’t matter what’s going on around you. This goes back to our habitual criteria for that I have to feel good about my work, or I have to feel it’s meaningful and I define what the meaning is, or I have to feel yes, this is fulfilling my purpose, or I have to feel respected or admired or somehow appreciated for this.

These are all very human dynamics, but when we can transcend them and just do the work that needs doing, that’s when we experience the richness of being. And that is always a feeling of joy because it’s also a feeling of true communion, not, not connection, true communion. So let’s talk about this,

Vicki Robin: Wow, that’s a lot. I’ve been scribbling some notes, so let me just see what question I wanna go with.

In a way what you’re saying is, intuitively we can all go, yeah, that’s who I wanna be. That’s what I wanna do. And we can perhaps remember a time when you’re talking about, rising to an occasion, but not in a heroic way, in a serviceful way.

My mind is in so many places. It’s like, here I am in great comfort, living on Whidbey Island, very great deal of safety. We’re privileged in that we have a great deal of safety. We’re not in wartime, we’re not in this unraveling. We don’t even know how we would behave at that time. We don’t know if we would be cowering or saving people in the streets. We do not know in ourselves what our mettle is because we’re not up against it.

And when I say we, and when you say we, I think we’re referring to a type of person who is not normally, not currently in massive distress. So in what ways do we put ourselves in situations? Not sort of neurotically, going to some protest or going someplace, you know, a soup kitchen. But how do we work with ourselves in our times of security, to develop that capacity? And it doesn’t matter our economic circumstances. People could be in limited economic circumstances, but still feel very stable.

So how do we work with ourselves in situations where we’re more privileged?

Meg Wheatley: Yeah. Well, again, I’m gonna say, let’s use our privilege. So when you ask how do we work with ourselves, that is the second thing. The first is reorienting ourselves. This is the work that I do. The work with training Warriors for the Human Spirit who are leaders, activists, and concerned citizens, people who want to stay involved and have to define a new role for themselves.

Now, you can do this wherever you are right now, because it’s a formation process. It’s very much like becoming a priest of any faith or a monastic or someone who knows that I am now dedicating my energy, my wellbeing, my circumstances, so that I can serve other people.

We don’t have to be in terrible conditions to find places that need our hearts and minds, right? I mean, they’re all over the place, including on Whidbey, right? For sure. So that’s the first thing is, I use Roosevelt’s great maxim: Do what you can, where you are, with what you have.

That’s the first thing, is orienting myself. I want to serve and I’m gonna learn what that means. I’m gonna come up against myself and I’m gonna learn what self-sacrifice means because I don’t like it or I don’t like when I interact with people, If I’m working in a homeless shelter, I could just get really put off by their presence, behavior, odor, aggression, whatever.

You can’t just decide to go into these places that don’t require or welcome our service. You can’t just go in as a person of goodwill. We’ve all done that. We get into fixing, we get into noticing everything that’s wrong that we could reorganize. I’m speaking very personally here, right? As a consultant, in the past.

How we enter these situations is we have to train for that, because we wanna enter them as being available and open, non-biased, non-judgmental. These are huge development goals, but they are achievable through a commitment to meditation practice, to developing mind-body awareness, to learning to see our triggers, and then expand our perception.

But this takes a commitment to training. I don’t have the sufficient capacities before I train to be in places of suffering. We’ve all tried this, I would think, and we have all sorts of reactions, including anger when we see the cause of the suffering. We may wanna protest that, but we certainly react to it by feeling angry. We may be offended, as I just spoke about being with homeless people. It is something that I learned. we have to train ourselves.

So there’s the formation, the willingness to accept a new role for ourselves. There’s a path of practice that has to be developed with discipline over time. Then there’s the actual learning from the doing of the work of service, and that’s where we learn about our triggers and we learn about rage and grief and all these strong emotions, but our commitment is to stay. That’s the ultimate commitment.

But you can’t just stay as an open-hearted, ultra compassionate person. It eats you alive. We know that. We know that personally, our levels of exhaustion and dysfunction, because this world is impossible to handle on our old terms. It’s even impossible to handle if you’re just trying to understand the causes of injustice or you see injustice. How do you learn to relate to injustice without anger? I just raised the bar for us. But it’s about how do we?

This is doable. I’m speaking from my own experience and the experience of many other people that I’ve trained; wanting to stay but not wanting to be the way we normally are. Our filters, our reactivity, or anger, our overwhelm. If you wanna stay, you have to train, period. You can’t just go into this open-hearted. You will be eaten alive by your own compassion, and then that will transfer into anger, and the anger will eat you up and destroy any possibility of participation.

So this is what I’m describing is an enormous shift for how we develop ourselves. It is a well-trodden, spiritually grounded path. Everything I’ve said I have learned in my own training. But everything I’ve learned is also part of the spiritual warrior path as well, defined by many traditions.

So you have to make the commitment, accept the role, and it’s a historic role. You know, the warriors arise historically. There are people who are dedicated to preserving and protecting, whether it’s the king’s lands or in my case, the human spirit. but we are always a small group of dedicated people because this is a path that requires devotion and discipline and training.

You can’t be an accidental warrior, right? We all have been. We can build on that experience, what it feels like to really be of service and be present in a situation. But what I quote often, Sir John Glove, who’s one of the historians that I use a lot in Who Do We Choose to Be; in understanding the pattern of collapse that we’re in, he said that, there are always only a few people who understand that it is through self-sacrifice that community can be maintained, and they raised the banner of duty and service against the depravity and despair of their time.

So this is a path not for the fainthearted or the casual, but for the openhearted ones who understand this is a beautiful role and it’s just our turn. It’s just our turn. So I no longer feel deceived or abandoned or the promises of this good life that didn’t materialize. All the materialists, all the grief that our populations are suffering for a lost promised future. I don’t feel that at all. I now feel I know why I’m here right now, and it’s just our turn really, folks.

Let’s not be so self-involved about our own grief, our own trauma. Let’s just do the work. And it’s a work of pure service and it’s incredibly meaningful.

Vicki Robin: Well, that is a high bar. That is a high bar, because when I think about it for myself and for many people I know, there’s no way for us to… it seems like in times like these, we don’t wanna remove ourselves.

We come into situations with, to use a Christian term, our brokenness. We come in with our incompletion, we come in with our amygdalas, the fight/flight/fawn. I think what you’re saying is that, yes, we come in with our brokenness, our fears, we come in with the full catastrophe of ourselves. We’re not gonna change that.

What we’re going to do is work on awareness of our reactivity, and commit to not having that be a personal process of self-discovery, but to have it be a path of duty, which duty is a word that nobody likes now.

Meg Wheatley: Oh, self-sacrifice is right up there also.

Vicki Robin: Yeah. So it just feels like a narrow notch, through which you’re gonna definitely…

Meg Wheatley: And a totally fulfilling, meaningful, joyful place to stand in the midst of this. I don’t start with our brokenness at all. I mean, I felt like I was listening to a little bit of St. Augustine here.

Vicki Robin: Well, I’m just recently going to church so that it comes to me that, that language.

Meg Wheatley: Let’s go with an original blessing. I work from, it’s all Asian spiritual cosmologies, that what we have to do is uncover, get rid of all the habituation, the culturalization of telling ourselves that we are less than, because at our very core is this Christ consciousness, is this basic goodness, is this purity. The work through becoming mindful and conscious is to uncover all the things we have armored ourself with, and so when I’m working with anyone, my aspiration is to be able to see through everything, to get to that basic core of the human spirit.

Vicki Robin: I’m just gonna say it again. I’m not getting it. I’m just saying that it sounds like, it sounds like what you’re saying is that basically it’s like an elite core.

Meg Wheatley: It certainly is. Of course we don’t like the word elite, right? We are few in numbers. We are never a mass movement, and we recognize that. I mean, it exists in every culture at the difficult, hard times. I think of Samurai warriors who were in great number actually hundreds of thousands of them at one time in battle against one another, but that’s a life of true devotion, and let’s define how narrow the gate is.

But for me, it’s the only way to find a path of contribution, a path of meaning and joy in the midst of everything that is crashing down us. It’s a steady path. It’s a well worn trodden path by millions of people before us, but we have to give up all the things we’ve been grasping after.

Well, yes, I live a life of comfort and I recognize it’s a privilege and therefore I feel guilty about it. But, you know, I’m still not willing to give that up. I’m not asking any… I mean, look at me. I live in a beautiful place in the mountains. but I feel I was gifted with this stability and aesthetic even. I live on a very powerful mountain at Sundance, Utah.

These are gifts that were given to me to support me. Not to distract me, not to occupy my focus of making it work or not, getting focused on money rather than opportunities. No, I really, truly understand this as a gift, and I would like all of us to have that sort of conversion experience that my life has been given to me for a higher purpose. Period.

Vicki Robin: Yeah. And you use the term formation. It’s not just in meditation practice. There’s something that you consider formation a role.

Meg Wheatley: There’s a role, yes. Which is, I go from having different criteria for who I am and what I need. People will say, well, I’m a this, I’m a that, or I need this, or I need that. We’ve got that to the max in this culture at this point to saying, I want to be of service period.

Vicki Robin: It’s like a dedication of your life energy. Exactly. To get to that, that’s what it is for me, you have to start there.

Meg Wheatley: That’s exactly right. Vicki. You have to start by reframing your highest purpose. I mean, to say I’m available is a huge, huge deal, right? To say, use me Lord. To say, I’m available when I’m working with my teachers for whatever you want to direct me to. I’m available. But it’s essentially fundamentally Christian in orientation as well. They will not mind. Right?

Vicki Robin: Exactly. Yeah.

Meg Wheatley: That is a daily prayer, and I used to cower at that when I’ve been in many faiths and when I was a loving, devout Christian, that terrified me in my twenties. Could I really say I will not mind? Well, I would say what? That’s dangerous…

Vicki Robin: Right, right. God speaks through my will. You know, if I want to do it, it must be God.

Meg Wheatley: Exactly right. That’s right.

Vicki Robin: There’s an aphorism. Don’t ask what God wants you to do. Whatever you’re doing, that’s what God wants, you know? So it’s like, yes, and you’re right.

So you mentioned your teachers. Since you’re making this sort of an inner dedication, I’m sort of pursuing not the ideas, but you know how you got here. You talk about your teachers and it seems to me that we have complex relationship with our teachers, but that we need people who are holding us in this process and calling us.

You worked with Pema Chödrön, you’ve found other teachers. How do people…? It’s like in this sort of very secular world. I have a pile of books, all sorts of different people and I poke around in the different ones. That’s not a process of formation, that’s just looking for daily inspiration. So what suggestions? Not like recipes, but reflect on this.

Meg Wheatley: There’s a great longing among all of us who are really seeking to find a teacher. I mean, at any retreat, people will always ask, how do I find a teacher? And it is more difficult because of the overwhelming amount of books and YouTube videos and teachings that you can access.

I think finding a teacher is very rare these days, and it involves a level of surrender that most of us don’t want. I worked with Pema Chödrön who was a friend before and then for 10 years led me on very deep retreats every winter, half of them at Campo Abbey, but it was two months of just practice solo retreats with her coming in. So that was like a graduate course in formation, but within the shamal tradition of we need to be spiritual warriors.

Then I have now completely surrendered, surrendered and devoted to a guru, who is an Indian yoga mystic of incredible manifestation. It’s partly his ability to manifest billions of people behind a cause that was my initial attraction, and now he’s the great support of the work that I’m doing.

The desire to find a teacher is very important. Let’s start with maybe the aspiration to find someone to surrender to, which is not what usually people are asking for, but could we create – and this is all new thinking as we’re talking here – could you just develop the aspiration to find a path of contribution? This is how I phrase it in Who Do We Choose To Be? And that if I have that aspiration, which is open-ended, I mean, aspiration is a very intense quality of focus, but it doesn’t know how it manifests, right?

So it’s very open-ended, but if I just feed this aspiration that I wanna be useful here. I wanna serve. I don’t wanna be so frightened and withdrawn or self-protective. Just work with that aspiration and you will find teachings. You will find readings that support this. Then you might find the one teacher.

I guess what I’m experimenting here with you is what do we first surrender to? Because when you finally surrender to a teacher, it’s pretty scary. But what do I first surrender to? Well, I surrender to wanting to serve, period. Right? Work. Relationship. And then you learn what it takes to do that.

Then I believe that, as you’re out in the world doing this work and learning what it means to be of service, I do believe you find the teachings that support you, and maybe the teachers as well. They’re more and more indigenous teachers arising. I’m from Buddhist and now Indian mystic tradition, but I started out Jewish, very focused on service. And Christian, very devoted. Still regard Jesus and Buddha as the same manifestation of who we can be.

So, let’s not get scared off by or let’s not get distracted by looking for a teacher. How can you embody teachings? How can you embody service, compassion, generosity. So it’s stepping onto the path and then you find a lot of support along it. Right?

Vicki Robin: And life itself becomes your teacher.

Meg Wheatley: Well, this is all about life itself, being the teacher. You know what a teacher can do, and you can get this certainly from teachings, is they describe the path and they know the challenges, they know the detours and they just keep redirecting you, but you can get from many different sources.

So I guess what I’m coming to as a statement. We’ll see how long I believe this is. Stop looking for a teacher, right? Just start practicing the teachings as best you understand them.

Vicki Robin: Yeah, where you are. That’s the other thing is that what I’m hearing from you is that the era of thinking we’re gonna change everything, or there’s gonna be an intervention that tips, that there’s gonna be a tipping point; that the era that thinking that yes, we as a group, a movement… and it doesn’t mean we stop working with groups and stop being part of movements. It may be that that’s your path of service, when there’s time to show up on the street, you show up on the street, but you show up on the street, with an eye on like, where am I coming from?

Where am I coming from in this? Even in that, how can I be of service here? This is a very powerful path, Meg, what you’re talking about. Thank you. It’s like moment by moment because. I am not pure. I don’t know who is, maybe you are, but I am a bundle of neurosis and psychosis, as they say. I’m a bundle of that.

So it’s like what I’m hearing you say is that is cultivating the awareness of self and cultivating the openness to life as a teacher and then seeing what arises…

Meg Wheatley: And finding practices that support you in that openness and that courage and that totally continual motivation, if we were born in any place that was not about global, our western culture of individual achievement and service and saving the world, which I tried my best to do. Thought it was my purpose in life.

Vicki Robin: Yeah, me too.

Meg Wheatley: Yeah. I love what happened. We developed, we became more available to people. You’re finding your path of contribution now. it doesn’t have to start with disappointment at what we did not achieve. We did not fail. Circumstances overtook us that were far beyond our ability to influence, period.

That for me is a major learning what was going on all the time that we couldn’t see through our idealism, and now we’ve woken up to those dynamics and forces which are purely negative and destructive. That’s seeing reality and then we find contribution and that’s always courageous. Always.

Vicki Robin: We probably should wind this up, I just wanna reflect back on one thing, representing the audience for this podcast, people who care deeply are also in that process of what is my path of contribution? Where can I put in…? Or from what I know, and there’s people who are brilliant analysts, there are people who are devoted to organizations and spend half their days fundraising so that the work can continue. There are people stationed throughout organizations, communities. There are people serving Meals on Wheels. There’s people everywhere.

So I think what you’re suggesting is not that for the masses, there’s not a total path. It’s just in your service. Become aware of and see with your blind spots, and also strengthen your devotion to doing whatever you’re doing with love, and with the purest spirit you can; of service, of it’s not about me. So perhaps this is, I’m just trying to get down to what is this meat, potatoes.

Meg Wheatley: I would only add, I’m gonna put the gravy on this, or the seasoning, that we have to expect to be disheartened and overwhelmed. If you’re out there serving meals to the poor, the homeless, how many more meals are needed now as opposed to last year? Where is it headed? We have to avoid, at the heart of warriorship is our commitment not to rely on fear or aggression. But as we’re doing the work of service, I guess what I’m asking for is don’t expect that we are alleviating the coming suffering or that we are going to prevent the current, the increased suffering. Be prepared for that and find the greatest sense of achievement and joy in the present moment.

I am doing this today with these people in front of me. Now I’ve become a minimalist. I started at very high levels of trying to change the US Army or the National Park Service or whatever those high, big bureaucracies I was in. It’s now moment to moment expression of service. That is the most meaningful thing, and we know this from countless stories of people in terrible situations.

Did you just help one person at this very moment? Did you help maybe hundreds of people because of what you could set up? Let’s do that. The work of service is creating more and more opportunities, but we have to expect disappointment and outrage and failure. We just do what we can, where we are with what we have, and it is enormously satisfying.

But it’s so hard in our goal achievement, where we come from, where I came from, it takes a long time to just realize, no, this moment, this interaction, this relationship, this expression is inherently meaningful. And everything else is still going on, that’s terrible. Our big dreams and our goal oriented culture are really problematic at this point. What keeps us from being in a meaningful relationship in the moment and we are reconnecting in ways that feel very good to me. And is it enough? Well, it is enough if I keep it right here, right now, then it fuels me for the work that I have to do elsewhere this day or beyond.

That’s where we look for satisfaction, I guess is also what I’m circling around here. And you know, in the end, the meaning of life is all about relationships. We just have to get rid of all the other conditions we’ve put on it and it’s very hard. I’m completely aware of the difficulty of everything, the challenge of what I’m saying, because I’ve experienced, but I know it works. I know it’s a real path of contribution. So I’m so glad we had this time together.

Vicki Robin: Wow. Thank you so very much for this inquiry into where we need to come from. Not so much what we need to do.

Meg Wheatley: Oh, that’s well said. Well said.

Vicki Robin: Thank you so much, Meg. I really appreciate it.

Vicki Robin

Vicki Robin is a prolific social innovator, writer, speaker, and host of the What Could Possibly Go Right? podcast. She is coauthor with Joe Dominguez of the international best-seller, Your Money or Your Life: Transforming Your Relationship With Money and Achieving Financial Independence (Viking Penguin, 1992, 1998, 2008, 2018). And author of Blessing the Hands that Feed Us; Lessons from a 10-mile diet (Viking Penguin, 2013), which recounts her adventures in hyper-local eating and what she learned about food, farming, belonging, and hope. Vicki has lectured widely and appeared on hundreds of radio and television shows, including “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” “Good Morning America,” and National Public Radio’s “Weekend Edition” and “Morning Edition.” She has also been featured in hundreds of magazines including People Magazine, AARP, The Wall Street Journal, Woman’s Day, Newsweek, Utne Magazine, and the New York Times. She currently lives on Whidbey Island in the Puget Sound and is active in her community on a range of social and environmental issues including affordable housing, local food, and community investing. For fun, she is a comedy improv actress, sings in a choir, gardens, and nurtures a diverse circle of friends.

Tags: building resilient communities