Field of tulips

This is the season of spring rituals. The arising of spring itself is a ritual. We welcome the budding of the flowers and the ending of a long winter here in this part of the world. Passover is another ritual that comes at this time of year, symbolizing a crossing over from bondage to liberation. The theme is the same—movement out of the state of darkness below the veil into an awareness of the reality of Being, and in the process uplifting the substance immediately around.

I’ve become aware in the last few weeks of this deliberate movement, having experienced several different rituals: my father’s 80th birthday, a memorial service for a friend of our family, and taking my son to see colleges (which is itself an exercise in mind-bending change!). Each one, while potentially laden with baggage or preset expectations, in fact evoked an experience of transformation—the emergence of a threshold and the experience of crossing over it.

Human beings recycle memory. This routine recycling of consciousness prevents upliftment and change, and is what leads to the anxiety, difficulty and destructiveness that we see. And yet in the midst of this there can arise special moments, rituals, some considered small and some larger. Many cling to them with the hope that something new might emerge. Rituals have mostly been used as habitual exercises, but they can be something more. In fact we have the opportunity in each moment to allow the tone of life to emerge: what I would call a ritual of the present moment.

The word ritual is interesting. It means, “to fit together.” From the perspective of human consciousness this typically translates as an attempt to get something, to try to call in a bit of magic. But it can also be seen from the perspective of Being as an opportunity to set a space in which creative change can occur, allowing the formation of a new dimension of the true design of life.

There is a new book out written by Ed Catmull called Creativity, Inc. Catmull is the President of Pixar, the digital animation company, and is also the President of Disney. In his book he speaks about the creative process within Pixar that turned lousy movies into good ones. He said all their movies start off terrible (he did not use that word), but then through the practices they forged over many years, moved from terrible to not so terrible. Characters that started out hollow, as he put it, found a soul. This kind of transformation is one that human beings look for in every context.

From the perspective of Being, this process always begins with the spirit of love, the sounding of the true tone of life. We may reveal that in every moment, whether we feel like it or not. We all have moments when we feel the pressure to do something else. The shining of the light, of the energy of the truth of love, allows a protected place to form, a container in which something new might emerge. Apparently this happened at Pixar. People began to realize that they could say anything they needed to say about the developing movie. It was not seen as a personal critique. They created a protected place—so rare, and yet essential for creativity in any context. What then appears is a new aspect of life’s design, inexorably so, because that safe place is present. The atmosphere clears and it becomes apparent that something new has been created, a ritual of creativity.

We can know assurance in this absolutely reliable process. From the perspective of the human mind this looks improbable. But as we know, it is anything but; in fact, the only thing that is reliable is the emergence of the truth of Being through the ritual of this present moment. And there’s a beautiful door to the experience of Being, available to anyone, anywhere: the door of thankfulness. Passing through it allows the opening of the heart.

David Steindl-Rast, a Benedictine monk, describes it this way:

   You think that this is just another day in your life…

   It’s not just another day.

   It’s the one day that is given to you – today…

   It’s given to you.

   It’s a gift.

   It’s the only gift that you have right now…

   …and the only appropriate response is gratefulness.

   If you do nothing else but to cultivate that response to the great gift that this unique day is            

   If you learn to respond as if it were the first day in your life and the very last day

   Then  you will have spent this day very well.

The assurance of Being, known when the heart is open, allows an experience to reemerge that has been absent for a long time. Then it becomes possible to play one’s part. Everyone senses that they have within them some kind of direction, some kind of purpose, a contribution to make to the larger whole. We can allow the understanding of this contained within our own consciousness to be a marker for all. After all, the authority of our own leadership is a function ultimately of what happens within ourselves. When our heart relaxes, we can hear and sense the urging of creative expression through each one, through me.

Martha Graham was one of the preeminent dancers of the 20th century. She urged us to follow this compulsion: “There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open.”

If there were a creative commandment emerging from the ritual of this day, it would be to let your heart be open to Being and the creative process of life. As that is the case, we discover our participation in a much wider whole, a living whole. This becomes known, real, natural. We are here to reassure, to allow the ritual of this present moment to be the one where life is born through me, through us. It is the legacy that we have each inherited. It is a responsibility that we have had from the beginning, and it is a great joy to fulfill it.

William Isaacs is the founder and president of Dialogos, a consulting and leadership education firm based in Cambridge, MA, and Chairman of the Board of the Dialogos Institute, a not-for-profit action research organization. He is a leading authority on collective leadership, the design and development of organizational learning, and the practice and theory of dialogue. His 1999 book, Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together was featured in Fast Company as a guide to “the secret of good informal conversation,” and has been acclaimed by a variety of reviewers as the definitive guide to profound change through speaking and listening (billisaacs@dialogos.com).

image: John-Morgan (Creative Commons BY)