Your Presence as a Changemaker

March 5, 2019
Cassandra Vieten, PhD, & Mica Estrada, PhD

The following was originally published in Purpose Rising: A Global Movement of Transformation and Meaning edited by Emanuel Kuntzelman and Dustin DiPerna. This excerpt is from chapter five, “Making Change,” and was written by Cassandra Vieten, PhD, President, Institute of Noetic Sciences and Mica Estrada, PhD, Assistant Professor, University of California, San Francisco; Director, Climate Education Partners. It is reprinted here with the permission of the authors.

Of everything we have said thus far, it’s possible that the single most important thing you can work on to enhance your change-making ability is your own state of mind and way of being. The presence you bring to this work is your most valuable tool.

Why? Changing in foundational ways can make people feel vulnerable and scared. Stepping away from what they know can feel unsafe and unfamiliar. By changing, people are often risking the loss of comfort, love, social standing, equilibrium, sense of self, sense of control…actually, it’s a wonder that anyone changes! Your ability to embody a genuine, authentic sense of caring, respect, and dignity is essential.

As change agents, we must cultivate humility in ourselves – the knowledge that we cannot control the outcome of our efforts. We can only provide as many ideal conditions as we can for the natural process of change to happen. Utilizing the garden metaphor, making change is about painstakingly cultivating an environment most conducive for a natural process of growth to occur. We don’t reach inside the seeds to pull the saplings out, we instead provide the ideal environment for germination to take place. If you have ever tried to make someone (through blunt force or sheer will) to be different, including yourself, you’ll know that it is a losing proposition.

A guiding assumption here is that given the right conditions, most people grow toward what Abraham Maslow called self-actualization (or, a drive that is present in everyone toward the realization of their talents and potentialities). When we work to change people’s beliefs and actions by force, we often witness a pendulum effect – where people swing between being on “good behavior” and relapse/regression. Oscillations are to be expected and are in fact essential to true change, but trying to force change or pushing people too far beyond their current meaning system and capabilities too quickly, almost guarantees a rebound.

In fact, the desire to control other people and situations (which includes employing direct and forceful efforts to change them, even with the best of intentions) paradoxically leads to less effective approaches to making change, and also leads to greater burn out for changemakers. Focusing on what we can do to provide the ideal conditions under which a new way of being can bloom leaves us knowing in our hearts that we have done what we can, leaves others feeling respected rather than harassed, and leaves a pathway open for future change. Some seeds that are planted germinate for years, with no apparent sign that anything has happened, until they eventually break through the soil. You as a change agent don’t always get to know the impact you’ve had.

Two crucial things to cultivate in yourself as a change maker is 1) trust in the process of change itself, and 2) non-attachment to the outcome of your work. Make sure your passion is tempered by compassion. People don’t change from being insulted, harassed, shamed, lectured, lorded over, or in response to hysteria or outrage. In fact, when people feel this, they are unlikely to be open to change. When threatened, we perceive an unsafe, dangerous environment that is not conducive openness to change. Unwittingly, we create unsafe environments when we overtly or covertly insult people, their families, their regions, or their people.

Conor Friedersdorf points out that “people are never less likely to change, to convert to new ways of thinking or acting, than when it means joining the ranks of their denouncers.” He quotes Abraham Lincoln who said, that to dictate to a man’s judgment, command his action, or mark him to be despised “and he will retreat within himself, close all the avenues to his head and his heart. And even though your cause be naked truth itself, transformed to the heaviest lance, harder than steel, sharper than steel can be made, and though you throw it with more Herculean force and precision, you shall be no more able to pierce him, than to penetrate the hard shell of a tortoise with a rye straw.”

You can feel outraged, righteously indignant, and you can have thoughts that people who need to change are selfish and stupid. But if your attempts to make change do not afford the other person or perspective respect, dignity, and compassion — conveying what is essentially an invitation to try another way of being and see for themselves how it works — then any change you make is going to be brittle and easily retracted, broken or damaged.

This is why nonviolent resistance is so incredibly effective. If you watch the speeches of Martin Luther King Jr or John F. Kennedy, consider the march in Selma, the actions of Rosa Parks, or Gandhi, or countless others – what you see is an invitation to join into a community of dignity and justice. It’s inviting people to move toward something, rather than taking something away from them. It’s welcoming, and it offers direct experiences, evidence, actual tools and training, and a community of support. It enhances their sense of efficacy, clarifies their sense of identity, and moves them in ways that align with their deepest values.

The November 2018 C3 In-Person Workshop at Earthrise Retreat Center

Do you want to learn more about how to become even more effective in your change-making efforts? Check out our Consciousness, Communication, and Change workshop held at our EarthRise Campus in Northern California.

C3: Consciousness, Communication and Change
April 4-5, 2019
Featuring Cassandra Vieten, PhD

In this groundbreaking, experiential in-person workshop, you will explore how the latest research findings in social, cognitive and brain science, along with worldview and behavior change research, intersect with timeless wisdom from the world’s spiritual traditions to reveal the dynamic forces driving human thought and behavior.

Through a seamless interplay of instruction and guided exercises, you will learn what works, what doesn’t, and how to craft clear, concise and compelling messages that enroll your audience in a powerful new vision of the future.

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