We know that the magnitude, nature and frequency of change have accelerated tremendously in recent decades. Technology is a game changer that shortens business cycles and disrupts long-established routines and structure. Organisations continually restructure, resize and restrategise to survive. We are repeatedly asked to do more with less with more surprises and less control. The demands outside of work have increased as well, with our children engaged in this technology-enabled space, our family time at a premium and community organizations seeking our support to help them cope with challenges they face in the modern world.
None of this makes us whole. It is easy for a sense of disengagement and disempowerment to set in. This is turn has a negative impact on innovation, productivity and ultimately the bottom line. Alphabet Inc. executive chairman Eric Schmidt once said, “Our landscape has changed, yes, but our humanity will always remain, and that, above all else, is what makes us who we are.” This article draws on the combined wisdom of East and West to offer some perspectives on how we can be whole and thrive in this disruptive world.
Pulse check on your level of wholeness
Do you feel hurried and hassled?
Do you feel tired and want a break?
Do you have a sense something is incomplete in your life?
Do you try to multi-task most of the time?
Do you feel lost without a ‘to-do’ list?
Do you have insufficient time or energy to focus on matters outside of your immediate work/life?
Do you sometimes wonder about the meaning of all this work?
Do you see yourself caught on the treadmill of endless work?
Do you think you have no choice but to make compromises in your choices?
If you answer more than three items with ‘yes’, you may be missing the harmony, balance, and synergy that wholeness could bring to your life and work.
Wholeness – opposite of fragmentation
In a fragmented and stressful world, it has never been more important to be whole. I define wholeness is a sense of completeness and balance within oneself and with the community.
As Einstein said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” Let’s first reconsider what wholeness is to paint a vision of an alternative way of being in this disruptive world. There are three aspects to the definition of wholeness:
Wholeness is ‘I’ and ‘We’
Questions to you – Do you take time out to take care of your own needs? How do you take care of the needs of your team? How do you contribute (however small) to the wellbeing of your community?
When individuals are whole, we are engaged in our lives, we envision a desire and are empowered by our abilities to move towards it. We feel happy, authentic and healthy. This focus on ‘I’ comes more from the Western tradition. On the other hand, the Eastern perspective on wholeness is about the larger community – family, team, organization and society at large. A leader says, “I am not whole until my team is whole.” Both ‘I’ and ‘We’ are connected, just like the leaves of a tree are connected to the roots and trunk. Dr. Daniel J. Siegel coined a term ‘mwe’, describing the connectedness between people with an awareness of yourself and others in the moment.
This perspective implies that we need individual and collective wholeness to reinforce one another. We cannot simply focus on our individual interests without regard for larger community. Similarly, sacrificing individual wellbeing or aspirations for larger interest is not sustainable and leads to individuals feeling unfulfilled in the longer term. The work is in balancing both individual and collective wholeness.
Wholeness is Both a State and a Process
Questions to you – Are you aware of your own emotions as they occur? How do you clear your mind to make good decisions in stressful situation? Do you respond productively or react with quick judgements? Do you really stay attentive in the moment?
These questions point to being whole in the moment. A room is useful when it is empty, just like we are useful when we are empty – of our mental clutter, judgments and ego concerns. In emptiness, we just be and are whole in the moment. This void allows us to receive new ideas and connect to when, who and what matters.
At the same time, wholeness is also fullness. This is when we are totally focused on the task at hand, e.g., when we are facilitating a meeting, delivering a presentation or performing music. The total mind, body and heart are on the task at that moment. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi described it as flow, an optimal state of being totally involved in the task or situation where one’s skills are fully utilized and where ego and time becomes irrelevant.
So we alternate between fullness and emptiness, with a range of variation in between. So in this sense, wholeness is not just a state but it is also a process. Chapter 15 of the Dao De Jing describes this alternation:
Who can find repose in a muddy world?
By lying still, it becomes clear.
Who can maintain his calm for long?
By activity, it comes back to life.
This means that we can be whole amidst daily challenges and tension. Rather than wait for a holiday, when we can finally relax and rewind. The work is in cultivating the ability to whole in the moment, in our daily scurry.
Wholeness is Also Thirdness
Questions to you – Have you received feedback that you’re too task oriented or too people focused? Perhaps you’re thought to be too detail oriented vs. strategic? Do you think you have to choose between family or career?
Wholeness occurs when the parts come together to create thirdness – something more expansive and life-giving than the individual parts – a powerful synergy.
- Breathe in + Breathe out = Life energy
- Push + Pull = Movement
- Give + Take = Collaboration
- Harmony + Conflict = Genuine relationship
- Balance + Imbalance = Dynamic equilibrium
- Capitalism + Community = Socially responsible and caring business
Wholeness comes from the synergy between opposite but complementary forces. This synergy is healthy and necessary for progress. For example, we need to both challenge and support staff to help them grow. We can focus on both career and family to have a complete life. Or leaders need to be oriented to both people and tasks to succeed. The work is in finding the thirdness from integrating opposites.
In summary, wholeness is:
– caring for both individual and collective well-being
– both a state and a process
– the thirdness that comes from integrating opposites
Putting it together, these ideas of wholeness help us to stay balanced and flexible, sustain our best work in the long haul, and contribute to the larger world around us.
ABC Pathway to Wholeness
So how do we shift towards wholeness? After interviewing many leaders and professionals on how they do it and drawing from both Eastern and Western traditions, I distilled it to these ABCs – Anchoring, Balancing and Clearing. In face of whirling change around us, we need to anchor ourselves and stay rooted. Taking guidance from our anchor, we balance our thinking and embrace opposing ideas, so we are expansive in finding our solutions. With some clarity on our solution, we empty and clear ourselves to act wisely.
In face of disorienting change, anchoring is more important than ever to keep us focused on what’s important. Your anchor is who you are as an individual and who you are in relation to your community. Awareness of your anchor gives you clarity, courage and commitment. The deeper and wider your anchor, the more positive your impact.
Consider these questions:
- Values: What do you value in your work and life?
- Purpose: What is meaningful to you?
- Identity: Beyond your job title and roles in your life, who are you?
- Responsibility: What or who are your core responsibilities?
Is balance like a weighing scale that when one side is up, the other side is necessarily down? So when one party wins, the other party loses? Or is balance a 50:50 compromise? You win some and I win some?
I don’t believe so. If you push your palms against each other with equal force, what do you get? A stalemate, despite a lot of energy expended. Similarly, if we place our feet 50:50 on our feet, there is no movement. To walk, we need to alternate the weight. So to balance, we need to first get out of balance, get to 100% on one side, and then rebalance. Over time, we create a thirdness that is more expansive and creative.
Consider these questions:
- Choose one dilemma in your life. What are the opposing forces?
- What are the positives and negatives of each polarity?
- What happens when you combine the positives of these two forces?
- What is needed to support both positives?
For example, career and family is a common dilemma. We know the negatives of focusing excessively on career or family. However, the positives are extrinsic rewards, job satisfaction, learning and growth with work challenges. Similarly, the positives for family are enjoying family togetherness, joy of seeing the children grow up or simply spending time in our hobbies. When we combine both family and career, the thirdness is a balanced and fulfilling life focusing on both individual and collective wholeness. With this thirdness in mind, we manage both spheres – get support in both work and family demands, manage timelines and work scope, say ‘no’ where needed and be focused at one thing at one time.
Clearing is about emptying yourself out so that you can purposefully be. We are useful when we are empty – empty of judgments, ego and mental clutter. You increase your capacity to reflect in the moment, to be aware of your impact on your environment and to sense what’s needed in a situation. This helps you act in wisdom.
Consider these questions:
- Do you intentionally clear yourself in between activities or the different spheres of your life?
- Do you start the day jumping into activity like checking emails and phones messages, or do you take time to exercise or contemplate?
- Do you take time to reflect and listen to your inner wisdom that guides you beyond a ‘to-do’ list?
When change happens frequently and quickly, we cannot see the world from our lens from the past. We need to continuously clear these lens so we can be attuned to the evolving landscape and see the world from anew.
Your daily ABC exercise
Integrating the ABCs does not have a formulaic step-by-step guide, as the process will vary between individuals and across situations and cultures. Balance your personal needs and needs of the people around you. Balance emptiness and fullness in your daily activities. Balance opposites so they create a thirdness. Be whole during your journey.