The Energy of Striving, the Energy of Wellbeing

One of the seven principles of life in the Hawaiian Huna tradition is that “energy flows where attention goes.” Yet most of us go through our days allowing our attention to go mostly unguided or unexamined. Are you aware, right now, of the underlying thoughts or beliefs guiding your actions in this moment? Are you clear regarding why you are choosing to spend your time on the things you are focusing your actions on today?

Recently, I was with a delightful group of colleagues discussing how we are seeking to “operationalize wellbeing” in our own lives, our organizations, and with our clients. One of the most valuable gems I came away with was a reminder that even when holding a clear intent or perceived focus (i.e. wellbeing), there are many options in choosing what we actually look at. Do we look at the context or environment, and what supports wellbeing from that perspective? Do we look at the components of the experience of wellbeing – what it comprises in terms of emotional, body, and even mental sensations? Do we look in a very subjective way at our own inner landscape, familiarizing ourselves with the nooks and crannies where we feel most alive, at home, at peace, and living “on purpose?”

Those are all very useful ways to focus our thinking, yet all focus in a rather singular direction. One question that took the conversation I had last week to a different place was the question of what patterns we are seeing in our own lives and organizations as we seek to “operationalize” wellbeing. In both my own life and that of the organizations and clients I work with, I see a patterns of so many sincere and focused efforts to do things that support wellbeing, while still operating in a greater context of “striving” to achieve. And I found that those patterns of well-intentioned efforts found it quite difficult to co-exist with the energy of striving. Part of the definition of striving is, in fact, to “struggle or fight vigorously.” It is no surprise, then, that the energy of striving continually pushed us off-center and off-purpose.

So I have a question for all of us. What do we truly believe about our ability to contribute and live on purpose in this world if it is not from a place of striving? Why do we fear that in the absence of pushing and striving we will do nothing, or nothing useful will occur? What is the alternative to living a life of striving? For me, looking at that question both personally and organizationally is the next key to stepping into a life of greater wellbeing, as well as greater potential contribution.

Resilience in Leadership: Don’t Just Bounce – Bounce Forward

Recently, I attended a talk by His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Llama at the Nobel Peace Prize Forum in Minneapolis. During the Q&A session at the end of his talk, I found myself dumbfounded by how the same question was being asked repeatedly with only slight differences in phrasing or context – how can we not despair in the face of global conflict, materialism, corrupt politics, etc. How can we not despair? The Dalai Llama laughed and said, “We have no choice!” Despair leads to inaction and ill health; we must choose hope, health, and positive action.

In my work as a leadership coach, clients are often sent to me for “derailment coaching.” Derailment coaching means that they were in danger of derailing their careers. As they came up against mistakes, failures, stresses, or dreams unfulfilled, their responses are ‘maladaptive’ rather than resilient and forward moving. Not only were they not bouncing back, they were not bouncing at all. They were deflated, without hope, and suffering a loss of self in the face of setbacks.

Resilience is typically defined as the ability to spring back into shape, or recover from difficulties. The Dalai Llama was speaking at that level of personal resilience in his Q&A session, reinforcing how important it is to choose your thoughts in ways that keep you hopeful and therefore healthy. When you are in a position of power or leadership, however, the stakes are even higher. Emotions, mood, and affect are contagious, and a deflated leader can create ripples of despair in the larger system.

I was reminded of the language of ‘bouncing forward’ at a recent event led by Elle Allison-Napolitano (Allison-Napolitano, 2014). We know that leadership and coaching are both fundamentally about creating forward movement, and the ability to bounce forward is a critical differentiator of effective leadership. Our work with leaders, then, is not about bouncing back, but rather it is about how to take every “bounce” as an opportunity to step into new perspectives, create unexpected outcomes, and move courageously into often uncharted territory.

Like personal resilience, leadership resilience includes attending to one’s physical, emotional, and relational health. Leadership resilience, however also incorporates sustaining positivity, seeing opportunity in challenge, and being able to be present to the mystery and majesty of life in every circumstance.

Workplace Wellbeing: Bullying

There has been a lot of attention recently on bullying in schools and the detrimental impact on students’ mental health and wellbeing. Today the Minnesota Senate passed a bill that the governor is expected to sign that requires school districts to develop and enforce a plan to reduce bullying. Not surprisingly, bullying doesn’t end on the playground. In an article in Psychology Today (2011), Ray Williams describes workplace bullying as a silent epidemic in North America. According to the 2014 survey by the Workplace Bullying Institute, 27% of Americans have suffered abusive conduct at work and another 21% have witnessed it. 72% are aware that workplace bullying happens.

This survey also revealed the very disturbing finding that employers fail to appropriately react to abusive conduct much more frequently than they take positive steps to ameliorate bullying. Denial (25%) and discounting (16%) and rationalization of behavior (15%) were the most frequent employer reactions. 12% of employers create and enforce policies and procedures to eliminate it, while only 6% condemn it and exercise zero-tolerance. What do co-workers do? Most often, they do nothing. In many respects, this “normalizes” the behavior and contributes to the creation of a hostile work environment. While bullying can have a devastating impact on an employee’s physical and mental health and wellbeing, it also takes a toll on the organization resulting in increased turnover, decreased engagement and lower productivity.

Addressing bullying in the workplace requires a comprehensive strategy that includes:

  • Developing an anti-bullying policy as part of the overall workplace harassment policy.
  • Educating supervisors and employees on bullying and clarifying behavior that will not be tolerated.
  • Coaching supervisors and employees who witness bullying to speak up and address bullying immediately.
  • Encouraging employees who are victims of bullying to make complaints with the assurance that no retaliation will result.
  • Giving feedback to the bully and implementing disciplinary actions.

Most important is creating a culture where bullying behavior is unable to thrive. While leaders have an important role in creating a healthy workplace, everyone in the organization contributes to wellbeing in the workplace.

Taking Social Change to Scale

Integrative Nursing by Mary Jo Kreitzer and Mary KoithanIn an article on taking social action to scale, Margaret Wheatley and her colleague Deborah Frieze (2009) advance the notion that the world doesn’t change one person at a time. Rather, it changes as networks of relationships form among people who discover that they share a common cause and a vision of what is possible. If you want to change the world, they advise, don’t worry about critical mass.  Focus more on cultivating critical connections.  Through relationships and networks, we develop new knowledge, practices, courage and commitment that ultimately lead to broad-based change. Networks create the conditions for emergence, which is how life changes!

I find it interesting to partner the idea of emergence with the work of David Peat who writes about gentle action. When people think about how to create change, we often think about changing others, acting from our own point of view, focusing on what is wrong and acting when we are certain. A gentle action approach is different in every respect. We need to consider first how to change ourselves, how to more fully understand many points of view and the system as a whole, the focus is on building upon what is right and a key practice is embracing uncertainty. A gentle action approach builds on grassroots and highly coordinated small actions.

Creating social action is a topic that is often on my mind. Perhaps I am thinking about it more this week because I just had a book published by Oxford Press titled Integrative Nursing with my co-editor Mary Koithan. What we aspire to do with this book is nothing short of transforming nursing and the patient experience. Applying the concepts of gentle action, networks, and emergence, we are considering ways to reach nurses around the globe.

As you reflect on leaders you encounter in your life and work, are you seeing these ideas put into action?  What opportunities do you have to apply them in your life?

Wheatley, M & D. Frieze. (2009). Taking Social Innovation to Scale. Oxford Leadership Journal. Volume 1, 1-5.

On Gratitude and Giving Back

Conventional wisdom has always taught that when we help others, some of the good we do flows back to us. Within the east Indian tradition, karma means “act” or “deed” and there is the belief that there is a consequence of natural acts that governs all life. The Vedas teach, if one sows goodness, one will reap goodness and if one sows evil, one will reap evil. This belief, also prevalent in Christian texts, is captured in a phrase in the Prayer of St. Francis – it is in giving that we receive.

Science has confirmed this ancient wisdom. In the book by Alan Luks and Peggy Payne the Healing Power of Doing Good, the “helper’s high” is described. After volunteering or giving back even in fairly modest ways, people feel stronger, more energetic and motivated. Tom Rath, our speaker in the Wellbeing Lecture Series this month, notes in his book Wellbeing that when they surveyed more than 23,000 people on this topic, nearly 9 in 10 reported getting an emotional boost from doing kind things for other people. He then describes research that has discovered that there is a region in the brain that lights up when money is received but lights up even more when money is donated!

There is also power in collective action. Across the nation, many organizations participate in the “Give to the Max” day. Harnessing the power of technology and social media, people are encouraged to “click, contribute and change your world”. Thousands of schools and non-profit organizations, including the Center for Spirituality & Healing, have benefitted from this annual appeal that invites people to invest in what they believe in. It is also clear from the success of this strategy that people also enjoy being part of a movement that makes a difference in people’s lives and the communities in which they live.

After a recent talk that I gave on wellbeing and gratitude, a friend of the Center sent me a gratitude bracelet, a simple band with 4 stones. The stones serve as a tangible reminder to pause and call to mind all that I am grateful for. A daily gratitude practice, whether prompted by a bracelet, gratitude stone, or by the power of your intention, is life changing. John Milton wrote that gratitude allows us to encounter everyday epiphanies, those moments of awe that change forever how we experience life and the world.

In this season of Thanksgiving, I am mindful of so much that I am grateful for and that includes the friends of the Center for Spirituality & Healing along with the faculty and staff who are so deeply committed to advancing the health and wellbeing of people, families, organizations, communities – and indeed, the planet.


The Healing Power of Woodstock

Yesterday, the Center for Spirituality and Healing joined Boynton Health Service and other University partners in hosting Cirque De-Stress. The circus, including high-wire walkers, clowns, aerialists and jugglers, is a forum where the public can come and learn how to more effectively manage stress. As noted by colleague Dr. Gary Christenson, chief medical officer at the University’s Boynton Health Service, mental health and stress in students is the No. 1 public health issue on campus. An estimated 4,000 people attended.

According to research conducted last year, the No. 1 attraction at Cirque De-Stress were the therapy animals that are part of the Nature-Based Therapeutics (NBT) program, a joint endeavor of the Center for Spirituality and Healing and the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum. The critters on site included several dogs and the very popular therapy chicken Woodstock.

NBT focuses on how the environment affects overall wellbeing. There is evidence that being in nature can reduce stress as well as boost immune activity. A growing number of researchers and human service professionals believe that many challenges facing people today including depression, anxiety and stress – are due in part, to our separation from nature. The Center offers courses in therapeutic horticulture, animal-assisted interactions and therapeutic landscapes. A new course just launched this semester focuses on horse as teacher!

Yesterday was a busy day. In addition to supporting the Cirque De-Stress event, the Center also hosted researcher Dr. Esther Sternberg for a conversation on place and wellbeing. Dr. Sternberg, the research director at the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine, has written a book titled “Healing Spaces” that explores the neurobiology of the senses and the critical role of nature. Dr. Sternberg discussed with design and health professionals the relevance of this work in designing hospitals, communities and neighborhoods. Towards the end of our time with Esther, Woodstock made an appearance along with Tanya Bailey, one of our NBT faculty. Esther had her first encounter with a therapy chicken and this of course led to a very interesting conversation on the body-mind connection that occurs human-animal interactions. On a day like this, it is very rewarding to see the far reaching impact of the Center for Spirituality & Healing.


Positive Deviance


I arrived a day early in Vermont where I gave a talk on “Cultivating Wellbeing in our Lives and Communities”. To orient me to Vermont, my host took me on a drive through Smugglers’ Notch, a narrow pass through the Green Mountains. Lined with 1,000-foot cliffs, the winding road is closed in winter. In earlier days, there was only a footpath and trail for horses. I was curious about the name. In 1807, President Thomas Jefferson passed an embargo act forbidding American trade with Great Britain and Canada. This was a severe hardship for northern Vermonters, since Montreal was closer than other markets in the US. Many local people continued illegal trade with Canada, herding cattle and carrying other goods through the Notch. During the Prohibition years, liquor was smuggled from Canada over the improved road built in 1922. Having spent a couple of days here now, I can attest to the creativity, resolve and tenacity of the folks here and their inclination to buck the system. Within the realm of health care, they may well be the first state to fully embrace single payer coverage. In my talk today, I spoke about the need for change and innovation – bold action! Pouring more money into the same health care system is not going to produce different results. Perhaps what we need is more positive deviance. Positive Deviance is based on the observation that in every community there are certain individuals or groups whose uncommon behaviors and strategies enable them to find better solutions to problems than their peers, while having access to the same resources and facing similar or worse challenges. It is an asset-based, problem-solving, and community-driven approach that enables communities to discover successful behaviors and strategies and to develop a plan of action to promote their adoption by all concerned. This thinking is very aligned with my ideas around advancing wellbeing in communities. For more information on positive deviance, see:

Appreciating Imperfection

In the world we live in, there seems to be a constant striving for perfection and this begins at a very young age. There is competition around grades, sports, and friends early on and later the focus becomes job or career, income, and status. Not infrequently, we feel that we don’t measure up and this leads to harsh self-judgment. While the western world view is oriented towards perfection, the Japanese have a phrase “wabi-sabi” that refers to beauty that is imperfect, impermanent and incomplete. Put another way, wabi-sabi acknowledges the reality that nothing lasts, nothing is finished and nothing is perfect.

Last week, the Center for Spirituality & Healing hosted Dr. Kristin Neff, a researcher, writer and teacher who focuses on self-compassion. One of her core messages was that imperfection is part of the human experience. When our baseline in life is perfection, we end of feeling isolated in our suffering. The practice of self-compassion in positively linked to happiness and wellbeing. I encourage you to
check out the  video link to discover simple ways you can start practicing self-compassion.

The Center’s Wellbeing Model

At the Center for Spirituality & Healing, we believe that wellbeing is not just—or even primarily—about physical health. Rather, wellbeing is about finding balance in body, mind, and spirit. In this state, we feel content, connected, energized, resilient and safe.

Our model identifies six dimensions that contribute to wellbeing. It takes into account our interconnectedness and interdependence with our friends, families, and communities, as well as the personal and global environment we live in. It addresses the importance of security and purpose in our lives.

Wellbeing Model

This model can be conceptualized and expressed at many levels—including the individual, family, organization/system, and community.

We invite you to explore each dimension by visiting our Taking Charge of Your Health & Wellbeing website. Our hope is that this model will lead us to individual, community, and environmental wellbeing.