Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The Interview And The Sherfu

We might hypothetically possess ourselves

of every technological resource on the North American

continent, but as long as our language is inadequate,

our vision remains formless, our thinking and feeling

are still running in the old cycles, our process may be

“revolutionary” but not transformative.

-Adrienne Rich-

March 2012. The Interview. Napa, California.

I’m sitting in a small coffee shop. Nearby, a young man is completing a job interview. The interviewer just complimented him on how he has shown up. He’s on the team! Now, the interviewee asks the interviewer how he got started in this work. “Well,” the reply begins, “I attended a men’s seminar years ago, conducted by a nationally recognized group and based on Robert Bly’s book Iron John. It examined the shadow side of a man’s development. When I was done with that weekend I decided to copy as much of it as possible. That’s the way things work in this industry – we find things, borrow them, and make them our own to use.”

I cringe and shake my head. Years ago I worked for a company that operated much in the same way. Some time after leaving that organization I attended the seminar that this man has apparently just referenced. Bly’s book was the text. The men who crafted the course were an integral group. Their work was well thought through, intense, respectful, deep and profound. The course leaders and their staff had all undergone rigorous training that demanded they hold attendees’ well being in the highest regard. Moreover, we who partook knew to never “borrow” what that organization had designed. This was not ours to run off afterwards and produce on our own. Not only would that undermine our own integrity, it would be unsafe. This young job seeker has just stepped from what could be a “study” and into what has become, as the interviewer has aptly stated, an “industry”.

The revelation reflects a problem plaguing our world and many (but not all) groups engaged in the work of the human potential. As far as I am concerned the ones to avoid are those that seek to “McDonald-ize” – creating get rich/smart/enlightened quick programs – yet calling their work “transformative” in nature. Sadly, rarely is their behavior “transformative” in practice. Rather the approach goes something like this: (1) find a training recipe with just the right sizzle so that it is attractive to the masses; (2) create a marketing machine that delivers students at the flip of a switch, i.e. good sales pitch; (3) put the students through a series of cathartic processes; (4) define the resultant release of energy that accompanies catharsis as “a breakthrough”; (5) condition the students (now repeat customers) to seek future catharsis (i.e. breakthroughs) through a continuing stream of advanced level seminars; and (6) actively use those students as unpaid sales agents to promote their “product” by encouraging a belief that “life is really all about enrollment” and that if the student does not participate in feeding the promotional system it means he or she lacks in understanding - particularly regarding the concept of loyalty.

Stop. Think. Is life really all about enrollment? Are the organizational leaders engaged in their own rigor of personal learning? Do they have mindful practices that include physical embodiment of the philosophies they espouse? Do their courses accordingly encourage, provide for and promote embodied practices within which the individuals can continue in their own way to self develop and unfold as human beings?

Do some homework and research. Pick up a dictionary. At the very least visit Wikipedia, and enter “transformative learning”. Here you will quickly find the following -–

The role of the learner

The educator becomes a facilitator when the goal of learning is for learners to construct knowledge about themselves, others, and social norms. As a result, learners play an important role in the learning environment and process. Learners must create norms within the classroom that include civility, respect, and responsibility for helping one another learn. Learners must welcome diversity within the learning environment and aim for peer collaboration.

Learners must become critical of their own assumptions in order to transform their unquestioned frame of reference. Through communicative learning, learners must work towards critically reflecting assumptions that underlie intentions, values, beliefs, and feelings. Learners are involved in objective reframing of their frames of reference when they critically reflect on the assumptions of others. In contrast, subjective reframing occurs when learners critically assess their own assumptions.

The role of the learner involves actively participating in discourse. Through discourse, learners are able to validate what is being communicated to them. This dialogue provides the opportunity to critically examine evidence, arguments, and alternate points of view which fosters collaborative learning.

The role of professional development for the educator

Transformative learning about teaching occurs when educators critically examine their practice and develop alternative perspectives of understanding their practice. It is essential that this becomes the role of professional development. With this taken into consideration, the role of professional development is to assist educators in bringing awareness to their habit of minds regarding teaching. When this occurs, educators critically examine the assumptions that underlie their practice, the consequences to their assumptions, and develop alternative perspectives on their practice.

Be clear: there is nothing wrong with educational systems (including some of those engaged with the human potential) that move people from basic lessons, through intermediate steps and on to more advance stuff. We all know the models. Kindergarten to elementary school to high school, etc. Ground school to visual flight training to instrument-only flight training to airline pilot school, etc. Healthy educational processes exist for the purpose of serving learners and the learners’ constructive futures, the world into which they are moving, and the lives they now and will some day touch. Healthy educational programs must be led and conducted by people who simultaneously are on their own path of self-examination and learning, i.e. teachers must always engage in the rigor of being students themselves – willing to self-examine right along side those who seek their services. Healthy educational models are not closed loop systems instituted for the purpose of developing learner dependency. Healthy educational systems do not dedicate themselves to creating never-ending needs on the part of the learner to seek only those viewpoints that the system espouses in order to keep marketing and sales machinery alive.

As I sit here, an imaginary (and somewhat critical and cynical) Ian Malcolm appears in the coffee shop and plops next to me. He looks to the adjacent table, then back at me and continues his admonishment found on pages 305 – 307 of Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park.

Will you listen to this guy over here! He’s selling a program about which he knows almost nothing at all. And his soon-to-be assistant has no clue that he is about to get involved with something that has been slapped together in very short order without much learning. Our interviewer has forgotten about, or doesn’t care about, how little he knows and what his competencies really are not. He believes that what is in front of him is simple. He doesn’t know a thing about why Michael Crichton created my character as a way to remind people that most kinds of power require a substantial sacrifice by whoever wants it. He overlooks the years of apprenticeship and discipline needed. He lives and believes in a get rich quick world. His toys - laptop, mobile phones, search engines, and instant bill pay – have become his tools of trade. And because he can source information very quickly he has convinced himself that he has the right to have and to use whatever is available at his fingertips.

All he has to do is write a check or lay down a credit card to attend someone else’s class, and bingo - he’s an instant guru. And because he has memorized a few words and moves, he fashions himself a leader or teacher or master or boss. Whatever! He mistakenly thinks this stuff is for sale and can be purchased. He has no appreciation for a life of discipline, self-examination and practice.

I’ll bet he does paint-by-numbers and calls himself an artist. He probably buys a new car every other year, and when he flips on his Sirius satellite radio he honestly considers himself a musician.

My imagined Ian Malcolm stands and disappears to return to his fictional world and I am left sitting alone again in the coffee shop. A particular poignant scene from the film Amazing Grace comes to mind. William Wilberforce, the man who eventually led Britain out of the slave industry, sits in his garden, wrestling with mid-life crisis. There he is joined by his butler, who for a few moments quotes Francis Bacon with the hope of helping Wilberforce through his dilemma: “It is a sad fate for a man to die too well known to everyone else, and still unknown to himself.” The butler then grins and admits, “I don’t just dust your books, sir.”

Over my shoulder the interview is wrapping up. I wonder if the man conducting the interview is walking a path into his own sad fate? Is an unaware interviewee about to join him on the trek?

I imagine a conversation might accompany and finalize such business dealings.

Question: And, the end game – what then?

Answer: Franchise our model, of course! Then retire and play golf, but don’t forget to check the quarterly balance sheets.

Question: What about the end users?

Answer: They’re not our problem. They’re just units. Remember, this IS a business.

March 2009. The Sherfu. Yi Lan County - the northeast side of Taiwan.

I had the good fortune to travel here and stay a few days. My temporary home is an apartment midst miles of rice fields. My bed is a two-inch thick tatami mattress on the wooden floor. My visit comes at the request of a woman who has asked me to deliver the Samurai Game® for her students. From that day to this day I know her only as Sherfu – meaning “teacher”. In my lifetime, including the three years since our first encounter, I have never met nor engaged with a more mindful, focused, peaceful or serene human being as she. (

Sherfu. Buddhist nun. Known throughout Taiwan. She travels this island nation west to east and from Taipei to Kao-hsiung helping people solve problems of communication and relationship. Her school is small, as is her temple; but her students and followers number possibly into the thousands.

Sherfu’s classes are dedicated to teaching meditation, calligraphy, flower arranging and tea ceremony. These arts she practices. They are her study and her path. At these she is personally masterful. But what people learn as a result is so much more than the skills involved. Her true work is that of being a problem solver beyond the walls of her school. She sleeps very little.

“Why do you want the Samurai Game?” I asked on the day we first met. Her reply, “The people are too dependent on me. They need to stand up on their own and solve their own problems. I’m a simple woman. What you are bringing will help me and them with that.”

“I have some personal concerns,” I say.

“About what?” she asks.

“Well, people know you to be a holy woman, a woman of peace. Sometimes I get moody and resentful. I’ve been married and divorced. You are asking your students to be my students for a while, and you are telling me that you also are going to be one my students. I’m worried about this.”

Sherfu smiles. So do the three nuns who sit with us and our translator. She reaches across the table and touches my hand, smiles again and says, “I was once married. And like you, I am now divorced. Don’t worry so much.”

How do people come to her school? I don’t know. Her focus is service, not sales; giving, not getting or taking; practice, not intellectualizing or lecturing about the newest fad or theory that she’s just come across through someone else’s lecture or Powerpoint or that she found in some article in Psychology Today magazine. She does not get wrapped up in deal making. She inquires. She listens. She speaks. She studies. She practices. At 5:00 a.m. every morning her meditation begins and lasts an hour. After that she breakfasts and starts helping people – in person and by phone. This goes on all day. Some time after midnight she goes to sleep. And then, at 5:00 a.m. she begins again.

Sherfu. She does not look to find what someone else is doing so that she can slick it up, re-brand and market it. She invests in serving life. She has not created a business. But she definitely has business to do.

Today, as I write these words, I imagine Sherfu ending an interview with someone who seeks to engage or work with her.

Question: And the end game – what then, Sherfu?

Answer: What do you mean, end game? I don’t understand what this means.

Question: OK then, what about the end-users?

Answer: There are no end-users. All human beings, including myself, are users and we are all servants. But if you mean what of the people I serve? They are my teachers. I am fortunate, because they come and go, and sometimes they come back. They are always welcome to do either. I will be learning from them about myself for the rest of my life.

© Lance Giroux, April 2012

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