Noetic leadership is a visionary concept with ancient roots. When Claire Lachance, CEO of the Institute of Noetic Sciences (IONS), first brought it to Alan Briskin’s attention, he says he felt an immediate sense of its significance and a personal “Yes!” Alan was a guest presenter at our recent webinar “Noetic Leadership: An Inspirational Quest — Session 1. The video recording of this webinar can be viewed by IONS Members by clicking here. (Not an IONS Member yet? Make a membership donation today!)
We hope you enjoy his guest blog below about how meeting Edgar Mitchell impacted him and the meaning of the Greek word nous.
In 2000, a group of us were working on the Fetzer Institute sponsored Collective Wisdom Initiative and staying, by invitation, at the Institute of Noetic Sciences’ new campus in Petaluma, California. It had not officially opened yet, and we were there when the Institute’s board of directors was also meeting — including its founder, Edgar Mitchell. In the evening, Mitchell wandered over to the dormitory where we were staying, curious about what we were up to. We in turn were interested in him and specifically how his going to the moon influenced his decision to begin the Institute.
Without being overly dramatic, this experience had for me elements of mythic time, meaning that the chronological time we spent together had little relationship to the impact of our encounter. He told us how he had originally been slated to be part of the Apollo 13 mission, but events unfolded that changed those plans. Of course, the Apollo 13 lunar mission was aborted when an oxygen tank exploded during the flight and the crew had to return to Earth. In the wake of that near-disaster, Apollo 14 was a closely watched global event.
Mitchell was the lunar module pilot, and he and Commander Alan Shepard spent more than 33 hours on the moon’s surface. On the return to Earth, Mitchell recounted, he had fewer responsibilities and fell into a meditative state, gazing out the cockpit window at Earth and then the cosmos. It was under these conditions that he described having an epiphany — an ecstasy. He realized that the molecules of his own body and the molecules of his fellow crewmembers and the molecules of the spacecraft and the molecules of space around him were all born from a common origin, an ancient generation of stars. As he told this story, tears welled up in his eyes. I had the distinct impression standing next to him that he was reexperiencing this extraordinary moment. In fact, Mitchell told us, after returning to Earth, he searched for a word that came closest to his experience and finally found it in the Sanskrit term samadhi.
Samadhi has come to mean a meditative absorption, a state of being wholly in the present moment, but its etymological roots lie in referencing a merging into oneness, a direct experience of integration, wholeness, and truth. It is the experience of embodied interconnectivity, a convergence of multiplicity from which we tap into an infinite potential of possibilities. Samadhi is a pure state of awe and wonder.
I will never forget the emotional memory of this experience — that on the far side of rational understanding is a divine understanding, permeated with ecstasy and a deep sense of connectedness to other people, nature, and all of life. When we experience the world emotionally in this state, we see and act in the world differently. Mitchell would later write about how it is possible, under certain circumstances, to develop an “instant global consciousness, a people orientation, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world, and a compulsion to do something about it.” Mitchell told us that the inspiration for starting the Institute of Noetic Sciences was the direct result of this epiphany.
Nous (pronounced “noose”), the Greek word associated with Noetic, has held a deep fascination for me ever since. Nous is related not only to Noetic Sciences, but also to Teilhard de Chardin’s concept of the noosphere, and to noesis, the word for divine understanding. Socrates suggests it is at the root of the name Athena, goddess of wisdom, Thea Noesis. Nous appears significantly in at least three of Plato’s dialogues, Cratylus, Philebus, and Phaedo, as a description of a cosmic intelligence operating in the Universe. In Philebus, the dialogue between Socrates and Protarchus, Plato provides a critical bridge connecting this expansive cosmic intelligence, beyond human comprehension, with mortal knowledge.
In the dialogue, Socrates makes the observation that the same elements of the physical world (fire, water, air, and earth) lay in the bodies of animals but in a much smaller amount. “And isn’t the fire that belongs to ourselves small in quantity and weak and inconsiderable, whereas the fire in the universe is wonderful in respect of its mass, its beauty, and all the powers that belong to fire?” He asserts that this must also be true of our relationship to a universal, self-regulating intelligence working for good ends. Within each soul lies an indwelling spirit capable of resonance with a much grander cosmic intelligence; otherwise, we could not recognize it. Mitchell appears to agree: “Suddenly I felt tuned in to something much larger than myself, larger than the planet in the window — something incomprehensibly big. Even today, the perception baffles me. It wasn’t religious or otherworldly, nor was it new scientific understanding which I had suddenly become aware of. It was a pointer showing the direction toward greater understanding.”
In each of us, infinitesimal as it may be, lay a precious kinship with an intelligence found in nature and the cosmos. It is not out there, as if it is an object of study, separate from ourselves, but within. We are part of something incomprehensively larger than ourselves, and this is why the experience of expansive awareness escapes confining language but not the emotion of awe.
We do not need to go to the moon to discover nous, but we do need to be reminded of its power to change our perception of this world. We need leaders who embody this curiosity about interconnectivity and who are also deeply operational, capable of orchestrating our connectivity for good ends. Nous can aptly be described as a quality we all have, pointing to a greater understanding, working for good ends. Noetic leadership will be those who step forward and lead us in that direction.
About the Author
Alan Briskin, PhD, is a pioneer in the field of organizational learning and leadership development. He has been working with executives, managers, and teams for over 35 years as a coach and consultant, specializing in systems change and collective wisdom. Alan’s work is distinguished by his attention to the conditions that allow for change and innovation. He estimates spending over 10,000 hours in conversations, 1-1 and in small teams, with managers and executives addressing change processes and their role in it. He has held retainer relationships with multiple organizations for consecutive periods of 10 years or longer, including Lucasfilm, Goi Peace Foundation, Sutter Health, and Kaiser Permanente. Co-founder of the Collective Wisdom Initiative, he has written or co-authored five books, including the award winning The Power of Collective Wisdom, Daily Miracles, and The Stirring of Soul in the Workplace.