Earlier this year I had the opportunity to sit down with Mark McCaslin and discuss the Potentiating Arts™, integral leadership, and what he sees for the future of the Integral Leadership Review.
Walker: How do you feel about the idea of sharing some of the stories that have been, that you’ve shared with me, and shared with other students about the beginnings of these pivotal moments that formed philosophical focus.
Mark: These are good stories to talk about. All of us have a frame of reference – a worldview that really starts to inform who we are and why. My original interest in this notion of human potential began in my early years when I couldn’t even have articulated it as such. I’ll talk more about that in a minute. It all really dates back to waking up in my mid 20’s and wondering how in the world did the potential that I held to learn, to grow, to consider, to think – how was that missed in my earlier education?
I was diagnosed as being mentally retarded and was put into self- contained classrooms with special curricula. I wasn’t really challenged in the grades in any shape or form due to the limited expectations in that situation. And Walker, it wasn’t that I was sitting around in my general science course or special English course thinking, “I’m too bright for this” or “This is so easy”. I actually believed the labels. I mean, that’s the part that’s really oppressing and anti-potentiating in every way. When we start to have such low expectations of a child or of an associate, and those things are imposed upon us, we then start to believe that. These labels and expectations become anchors, markers that limit who we ourselves think that we can become.
I’ve been lucky in my life in that I have had people who I originally called transformative figures come into my life who revolutionized who I thought I was. Eventually, I started calling these people potentiators.
The one story that I tell a lot is from high school, in my sophomore year, with my first potentiator – my swim coach. I was in beginning swimming in P.E. I didn’t really know how to swim. When I saw my best friend, John, after school I asked him where he was going. And he said, “I’m going to out for the swim team and they’re having time trials tonight.” I was new in this town so I didn’t really have a lot of people that I knew. I thought, “Oh, I’m coming too.” Pretty brave idea to do since I really couldn’t swim at the time. So we go into the locker room, and I put on my rather large, baggy swim trunks (everyone else in their Speedo’s). I walked out into the pool area pale and gangly and – you’ve got to know the story behind here, the context – because the team was the state champions the year before. They were the odds on favorite to repeat. So this was a very popular, confident, and cliquish group. There were some bleacher stands filled with a lot of people – parents, people that were observing. So even the seats in the auditorium, in the natatorium, were holding a lot of people. So I walked out of the shower room in my less-than-athletic swim trunks with everybody else in their speedos. I immediately look odd. And I knew it.
Anyway, rushing ahead, we go to the time trials, and it’s really just one length of the pool – 25 yards. These were yard length pools, not meters. You had to get up on the starting block and dive in. They timed you, and a good time off the block, one length—these guys were knocking it down in 10, 11, 12 seconds. The coach put six people up on the starting block, blew the whistle and off they’d go. A few seconds later, they’d hit the other side. And he was writing down their times.
I kept trying to delay this, and kept reallocating myself to the end of the line. But pretty soon, here I am, it’s my turn. I find myself up on top of the starting block. I’ve never been on the starting block. You know it’s a long way up there. My anxiety is really setting in. I heard this “Set” and he blew the whistle. So in some ways he saved me because I fell in. I mean, I don’t think you can really call it a dive. I wish I had a videotape of it. I fell in and I splashed myself to the other end of the pool. I actually made it 60 seconds later. And when I popped up, I’m trying to get the hair out of my eyes and trying to breathe, trying to collect myself. But one of the first things I notice is that there’s just dead silence in the pool.
For 50 seconds everybody has been watching me splash to the other side of the pool. And there’s John, kneeling down. He had this big smile on his face, looking at me. He could have said a lot of things to me, Walker, that would have made sense. He could have said, “You really should learn how to swim before you go out to the swim team.” “You know, I’m afraid you might drown.” I mean, any number of things would have been the real pragmatic thing to say. And I would have understood that. But you know, what he said to me changed my life forever, and I will love him for this forever. He just simply said, “Looks like we have a lot of work to do.”
I have to tell you, for the next three years, I never worked harder for any individual in my whole life. I ended up being a two year letterman and it really changed who I was and who I’ve become. It changed my person. It changed what I thought about myself, how I handled myself, the way I approached everything. Those are the things that I think are really important for us to remember – those people who come into our lives and just revolutionize it. They lead us to places that we didn’t think we could go, and they start to really make us reconsider our whole space.
I’ve had others who have had similar effects to me, like when I went to community college and my thinking was just to get an associate’s degree in mid-management so I could be a manager at Kmart. I had a professor there who said – and no one had ever said this to me in my life, ever – he said, “You’re really smart.” That just really shook my world. What? You know, it wasn’t until my junior year in college before I had anything but straight A’s after that comment. That just shows you the power of a potentiator. I felt like someone turned the lights on for me about my possibilities where, until that moment, I thought I was retarded. I cannot tell you the feeling this gave me.
So my whole history of why I’m interested in this is if the system could miss somebody like me, who else are they missing? And then I started thinking that if everybody has this seed of greatness, this seed of original greatness – no matter how great or how small we are – if everybody has it, then how are we going to find it? What is it hiding from? How can we look, evaluate differently, so that we don’t miss it? That was one of the first questions I started asking. Why is this potential, this daimon, this personal greatness, hiding at all? I really began to realize that it hides because it’s afraid that somebody will judge it and find it wanting. That’s just a cruel twist of fate if you put yourself out there and somebody tells you that you have no or limited value. I set upon looking at ways that we can change that, Walker.
Walker: I’m curious about what you think it is about those beings who are potentiators? You have that gift, as well. Is there something special about those people?
Mark: Well, special? They would not say so. I think that they would say they just hold a great appreciation for potential, for beauty, for the beauty of seeing something possible. I just think they’re full of wonder in a way. They have a deep seated curiosity. They don’t look at me or at you as a responsibility, as a student, as something that they have to mold, to confine and refine, and squeeze you through some tiny aperture so that you look like everybody else. They see you for who you are – and they want to. They have an appreciation for that uniqueness that everybody intrinsically possesses. They don’t rush to judgment. In fact they don’t really judge at all. They rush to appreciation. The thing is that so many of us are missed. Potentiators don’t miss you. They see you. I think that’s such a refreshing, freeing, phenomenon – to be in the presence of somebody and be seen – not only their seeing who you are, but also where you might be going and what’s possible about where you are in terms of all of that.
The other thing that I’ve noticed about these people is that there’s something courageous about them. For example, if you are on a downward vector, if you are heading nowhere fast, and they see that, they’re not shy to tell you that this pathway you’re on isn’t going to be helpful for you in the long term. How can we turn this around? How can we help you re-find your footing to stop the slide? But they’re not going to lift you over the hard stuff. They’re trying to tell you that you’re in the hard stuff. They help or potentiate you to find your own self-power. They understand that empowerment isn’t something that I give you or that I can do for you. It’s something that you have to give yourself.
Walker: There’s such a clear sense to me, when I hear you talk about it, of somehow there’s been an awareness developed or a sensibility developed. Potentiators have no desire or even a mechanism to own, to own another or another’s success. Their motivation comes from some sort of understanding on deeper levels that we’re all connected. With a bend toward service through potentiating, they see the other. That interconnection is so elegant.
Mark: I do think that it helps to have at least some awareness of what it means to grow, to nurture, and to cultivate. I think that my early studies into ecology and into agriculture enlarged my awareness. I was actively involved in wildlife management and conservation, and then sustainable agriculture. I don’t think that’s a requirement for becoming a good potentiator, but I do think it illuminates an awareness of things that grow and that notion of cultivation that I’m oriented towards where I may plant a garden but I don’t own that plant. I’m cultivating that plant. I can’t do anything for it other than take care of it, nurture it, and provide the right elements for it. If I do that, then it’s going to move to its greatest possibilities, its greatest potential.
And I do believe that – I know I’ve said this before – there’s something violent about educators, parents, and leaders who try to force things, who try to refine, define, confine you. It’s a violent action in my mind. It’s a violence against our greatest self, our highest possibilities. What we cultivate is that mediocrity in life. I am talking about a monoculture of sameness that is so stagnant and choking to the human ecology.
Walker: And this obviously has a connection to you and your developing The Potentiating Arts™. I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit more about the Potentiating Arts™ in terms of this anti-violent cultivation of a greater good?
Mark: Let me tell you a little history about this, because this is probably now a good 12, 15 years in the making. When I first starting thinking about the Potentiating Arts™, I really did have a deep seated curiosity of understanding these people I called transformative figures. I was deep into the study of Abraham Maslow at the time and I really loved how he went after his exploration of self- actualization in that he picked people who were really, in his mind, demonstrating that notion of being self-actualized. People like Ruth Benedict. People who exuded that kind of display he called self-actualization. So I was reading Maslow and thinking about these transformative figures. The first thing I said was, “Well they’re obviously self-actualized.” Then I was reading more about his work, about the notion of meta-motivation, and it became apparent to me that these potentiators were certainly motivated in higher ways. I didn’t have a clue at the time what those ways were.
I did know I held a great motivation of my own that I wanted to be like them. I’ll be clear about that. I mean, I had these people, these potentiators, these transformative figures in my life. I admired them. I deeply admire them to this day. I love them for what they were able to do for my life. Did I want to be like them? You know I did. These were my models, my mentors. They changed my entire self-concept and life trajectory. The profundity of this is more than I can say. I really wanted to understand this in a greater way. So I started looking for what I called “the qualities” of these transformative figures, the qualities of these potentiators; their ability to be and catalyze this difference for others.
At the same time, I was studying these growth-path theorists – Maslow, Erickson, Kohlberg, Cook-Greuter, and Jane Loevinger to name a few. I was looking at all the literature regarding the idea of adult development, of development across the lifespan. And I started noticing that — well two things I noticed. One thing I noticed is that all of them talked about interdependence: that the growth path, at some point in time, came to the point where relationship was required. That really had a huge impact on my own philosophical bearings as I believed that all people have value, but I also believed that that value had to be shared, had to be announced, or else it would fail to actualize.
That really resonated for me with that notion of interdependence that I saw all of these growth path theorists talking about at some stage along the way of self-actualization.
What happened right after that is they would move out into this very airy space in the further stages of development where they could really no longer hold onto or articulate the growth path with any certainty. There were no stagnations anymore. You know, Maslow hinted at these “being values” and even potentially beyond the “being values” towards the notion of becoming a well-being. Kohlberg in his final stages starts to get very iffy. In fact he starts to undo some of the things that he was asserting early on. All of them start to get a little wonky at the farther ends because – I think – the further out you get, the more you realize that you already have all those things, those “being values,” those higher levels. They were in you even at the very beginning. We talk about moving out from the personal to the interpersonal to the transpersonal. Well, that transpersonal aspect – or those aspects – are in us already. I’ve seen it in teaching high school kids. I’ve seen kids that have demonstrated more transpersonal qualities than I have seen at my current place of occupation where we teach the transpersonal.
I started questioning, are these really qualities that are developed over time or are these things that are just part of our constitution? It led me to really start carefully rethinking about the nature of these potentiators. There are a couple of realizations that happen here: a) I began to question, if it truly was a developmental stage we could reach? That we get to a certain point and we can become a potentiator? and b) if I could figure out what it was that these potentiators were doing, could I as an educator, could I teach this to someone else?, and c) therefore, could we create an army of potentiators? That was very exciting to me, Walker.
The more I considered all that, the more I began to realize that what these people that I had called my potentiators were demonstrating wasn’t necessarily a quality that they grew towards; – that they got to a certain stage and all of sudden they had these qualities – but that they were simply practices that they kept. And so, I started saying to myself, “It isn’t a stage we reach, it’s practices we keep. t’s available to everybody, if we start to figure out that these are just simply things that we can do day in and day out in this incremental and personally responsible way, in this perfect the world”.
What do I have to do every day to practice this? The only thing I really have to do is start asking myself questions. Am I ready to learn? That’s the first Potentiating Arts™ practice of deep understanding. That’s the extent of it. When I meet you, when I come into any classroom, any organization, whether I’m talking to my children, my wife, my colleagues, a student, anybody, am I really practicing this? Am I walking in saying, “I am open and ready to learn? What have you come to teach me?” It’s not, “How can I defend myself? How can I prove myself? How can I best my competitor?, etc.” This is the first practice these potentiators hold.
If I’m thinking about the next Potentiating Arts™ practice, critical reflection, I move this openness to learn towards what am I to make of my learning. Critical reflection is just simply taking the experiences you’ve had, moving into your reflective space, and creatively working with them, for yourself, to put those lessons to work towards further development or solutions. There’s a real pragmatic aspect to critical reflection.
Then finally, when I am talking about first level practices (there are second level practices), the third practice is maturity – “Do I hold the will to believe in a possible person?” I ask that question on purpose because it’s a trick question. If I say yes to that, yes I believe in the possible person, then I’m also saying yes to myself. That’s a critical element in The Potentiating Arts™, because what’s different about The Potentiating Arts™ in relation to other developmental theories or practices, or leadership theories or practices, is that it holds your importance as a potentiator as important. If not more important, then the people that you would potentiate aren’t either. That’s very, very crucial.
One of the things that I’ve realized, as I’ve watched other people, is that the easiest way to cripple a person for life is to make them blind to their greatest potential. The easiest way to become that crippling force is to neglect your own. So we have to constantly be aware that we are also in this game. We’re also building our own potential. If we find ourselves at this maturity gate, at this awareness, insight and discernment, and we go in through this process and we realize that if the current game we’re in, the current relationship we’re in isn’t working for us and our potential – or, in fact, it’s corrupting it, it’s bending it, it’s transmuting it towards something that’s not quite beautiful – then we have to have the courage in that moment to say, “No joy. I cannot help you because I’m being crushed. And it’s not that I don’t love you. I can’t make this work. I have to love myself as well, otherwise we’re both going to go down.” And that’s a hard awareness for people to grab onto, that self-love. It doesn’t make you selfish. In fact, I think it makes you courageous. It makes you potentiating.
Walker: That seems to be such a stumbling block, that place you’re talking about right there, of knowing how to hold your own importance in addition to the importance of another. This is where I’ve seen in my own studies and my own spiritual practice, guru devotion becoming very dangerous. I’m wondering how you see the development of that critical phase of maturity? How do you help someone move into that place where they know that they must hold their own potential and their joy in relationship to another, and maybe even let things in their life die, or move on, or change, without malice?
Mark: That’s a great question. I think the first thing I would say is that these potentiators would take a great deal of instruction from Richard Bach’s “Illuminations: Confessions of a Reluctant Messiah“. If people one is potentiating start to think that the potentiator is some kind of a messiah or holds a messiah complex, that would be the first red flag that pops up. The potentiators that I’ve known are very reluctant to take on that kind of guru, messiah status – because it’s not very helpful. In fact, it can be destructive, as you’ve mentioned.
I would tell you this, too. You know that practice makes perfect day in and day out. Practice, practice, practice. There’s no one-way of telling you that this is how you do that. That’s why you have to keep at it. I can tell you that I’ve been in relationships, depending on the closeness, where I’ve suffered a great deal because I wanted the relationship to work and struggled to make it work when it just wasn’t. So, the “No Joy” factor was not quick to come. I’m willing to put more at it; I’m willing to engage it more deeply. I’m not going to run away from it because of my closeness to it or some challenges that may occur along the way. Like your relationship with your children, Walker, let’s put it that way. As their mother, the No Joy factor is a long ways away versus someone who had harmed you in the past – where the “No Joy” factor could come up instantaneously due to that past history that we learn from.
It’s that place in relating where our experience of our own and our friend’s or partner’s or associate’s potential are mutually and incontrovertibly obstructed, undermined, perverted. You know it when you feel all your potential thwarted, deflated, devalued. Sometimes there just must be a parting of the ways for a fresh breeze to flow through a stagnant, or possibly poisonous, eddy. You get my drift?
Mark: Restating: it is a practice. It is the third practice that I call maturity. There are really three elements to it: awareness, insight, and discernment. The first aspect develops the awareness of when things might go to no joy. I trust my sacral, or gut, response. When I start getting that churning feeling in my gut, I happen to know that the energies just aren’t in balance. Other people may have headaches, undermining confusion; you may just have other alerting “voices”. It just may feel bad, but there is being aware of that embodied response, or any response, where we’re just not feeling comfortable.
My mother-in-law – when I was down for our recent holiday visit I was telling her about this – said, “Oh, I call that ‘The Ouch Factor’. You know, when somebody says something to you; you can say ‘Ouch! Wow, that kind of hurt!’ to put a marker on that moment of disconcertion, so you can realize, to yourself and to them, this isn’t working.” This will help everyone understand what’s going on. That’s the first level – of being aware that what was just done or what has just happened didn’t feel good, didn’t feel right, didn’t feel potentiating.
Too many of us hide those moments, Walker. We don’t say, “Ouch, that hurt! Did you really mean to do or say that – because that kind of smarted?” And this kind of awareness, this kind of authenticity, is really quite helpful.
As this process continues you move into insight. What am I doing? You ask that. You ask yourself the hard questions in the potentiating practice of maturity. What am I doing that’s cultivating this action? I’m checking myself out here. Am I calling this to me? Where and how am I responsible for what is happening in my life?
There is always a larger reference for seeing and for a neutral perspective that can be potentiating and allowing for all. This leads you to that discernment process we’ve already touched on. This discernment process may be to rejoin the relationship differently, with more honesty, with more forthrightness. You may even call it confrontation, if you want. I call it communication with integrity. I say, “Look, this is how I’m feeling. I don’t know if this is what your intentions are, but we need to have a conversation because I can’t continue as it is” – thus making an opening for greater honesty on my part and greater clarity or possibility in the experience.
Now we haven’t said No Joy yet, but we’ve definitely brought this awareness, insight and discernment to the process. Our discernment may also be, “Look, this is just killing me. This is driving me down. In the long term, there’s nothing I can do here; I can’t be helpful. There’s nothing I can now contribute to this relationship to make it better the way it is. Do you have any ideas?” So the discernment process may be No Joy. The No Joy factor gives potentiators the ability to hold on to their own being, continue to love ourselves, and respect the other person and the evolution of experience between us. What I do know is that potentiators just don’t rush to that moment of “The hell with you”. They go through that process of awareness, insight and discernment.
Walker: This is, as you know, a very similar practice in Buddhism. How am I involved in creating the causes that have assisted this hardship to arise? Its dependent arising, dependent origination. Everything that comes to me is dependent upon my creating the causes for that to exist, and my limited, or vast, understanding of the inherent emptiness of all phenomena. That comes from training the mind – Lojong. When I hear you discuss the practices of the Potentiating Arts™, I hear that discipline of knowing to be aware. To have insight and discernment are also disciplines. But these are practical practices for everyday as well.
Mark: Yes, there are other philosophies that promote similar, if not identical practices – and I find them universal in their application. This is my contribution, my emphasis, to what has been offered already. I do find that what I call first level practices; deep understanding, critical reflection, maturity, work so well together. I tell people all the time, “I need to go work my practices around this”, or I find myself even in a day to day mundane operation, say at the video store, and something happens where it’s almost become automatic where I immediately start working them: “What’s going on? What am I to make of this? What kind of insights can I get from this?” Or moments when I’m in a conversation with somebody when I feel that “ouch”, I’m not afraid to say, “Wow, that hurt” or– “Tell me again. This is what I heard,.Is this what you meant?”
It’s amazing to me how quickly we can diffuse a potentially harmful situation by addressing that “glitch” in the present moment, tracking my inner indicators, my discernment, and asking for presence or clarity from the environment or exchange. A lot of times we talk past each other. I’m saying one thing and you’re hearing another. You may be hearing something from me from the locus of your experience, but I’m trying to tell you something from the locus of my experience; it’s often not the same and we miss each other. You know how many times that happens? Too often! Then we end up in conflict over our agreement. We don’t even know it. We just know we feel misunderstood, feel disgruntled, and are either wanting to aggress to make our point or distance to avoid the incongruence. Either way we lose harmony and optimal connection or potentiation.
I think these practices offer a remedy for this pandemic scenario. In that moment of time, when I’m confused or not, I don’t quite understand enough to be able to say, “Wait a minute! Help me understand. Say that again. Is this what you meant? This is what I heard”, I need to buy myself discerning time. And those things prevent us from moving into conflict and into relationships of violence. If I don’t do that, then I hang up the phone or I walk away, Then I begin stewing for the rest of the day while hurting myself, mostly, but I’m also hurting everything around me. The whole field of my being is negative and everything I touch is polluted by it.
Then I get to the point where I’m boiling over and I launch on you – the person of my reflections – with this tirade that might not even be remotely real. And you’re stunned, “What? That’s not what I meant.” So I just spent my whole day wasted instead of taking a moment to say, “Wait a minute.” In some ways these are just real simple communication practices. But I do think that having them ready – being able to say, “I have this practice of deep understanding, critical reflection, maturity”, has really helped me greatly. Those are the key gateway practices to what I call second level practices that really then allow us to engage in community and to work into relationships at a much deeper level.
Walker: My question here is in the next level of practices. Is pragmatism a bridge between the first and second levels? And if so, how have you been influenced by the pragmatists you’ve studied and admired, like William James? Can you speak to that a little bit?
Mark: That’s a really great question, Walker. I’ve been thinking a lot about this recently, because I’m contemplating writing an article on this, on what I call neo-pragmatism. It’s interesting to me that if you look deeply enough at pragmatism, you realize that it holds that notion of everyday transcendence. It holds a practical, everyday transcendence to it. It’s about being present for this moment. It’s just becoming aware of who you are in this moment and honoring the authenticity of that awareness. There needn’t be anything more elaborate than this – although many devotions, esoteric schools, ancient religions are predicated on just such elaboration. However, I think they all boil down to the above statements – developed and penetrating awareness in the present moment of the present reality.
As we move into the gateway practice of Maturity (awareness, insight, and discernment, AID) and into the world itself, we start to really get at the pragmatics of these potentiating actions: that there is something that conjoins us towards some greater purpose. It allows me to link together these relationships, these very pragmatic relationships, and look for ways to put our collective knowledge, our collective wisdoms in the world, to work in the world towards some common purpose. If I take a very liberal vision of the AQAL model that you and I have talked about, I can follow the I to the We – you know, the valuing to the interacting, the relating aspects – the axiological and the ontological of the upper left and lower left quadrants. But where the Potentiating Arts™ takes on this everyday transcendent pragmatic aspect that you’re talking about is when, all of a sudden, we move into what I would call the Us quadrant; the lower right. There, all of a sudden, we’re taking on a much deeper context.
Wilber would call it his “Its” quadrant, but I like a more Jamesian orientation towards this lower right quadrant, because I like the notion of what we can create together. We’re residing in some ways within the ontological. Now we’re interacting together on this, this notion or product we want to bring into being that is only in our thoughts, that we’re trying to create. We are trying to create something here. So, when I start thinking about second level practices they come in pairs now. I’ve changed this a little bit. I think that the first thing that we do is empower authenticity.
There are two practices involved in Empowering Authenticity. Naturally, they are Empowerment, and Authenticity, and they work together. In these practices I am actually asking a very simple question; “Am I ready to cultivate the best in myself and others?” Now I’m in this Us space. This very pragmatic space when I ask that question, “Am I ready to cultivate the best in myself and others?” This really begins to actualize that interdependent space that I spoke of earlier. It starts to make it come alive. And again, empowerment isn’t something I give you; empowerment is something that you hold within your own being. If we’re each feeling empowered towards some common purpose through that Us space, then we can really do some amazing things together.
What holds that together in concert with having that empowerment is also the potentiating practice of Authenticity. Am I ready to become my authentic self? And for us to hold that Us space well, I have to be able to hold that level of communication with you. You have to know that, if I’m feeling strained or “ouched” or excited or enthusiastic about something that we’re going to do, I’m going to be authentic in the way I’m going to communicate with you. We’re not afraid to offend as we’re agreeing to not be in that offensive/defensive space. We’re in this empowering space where we’re trying to empower this idea, and to be able to have real conversations, real discussions around something, because we trust each other, we honor each other, we’ve created this ecology where we can be our true self and it’s welcome. That gives everybody an opportunity to really be their authentic self. This empowered authenticity really drives this Us space that you’re talking about forward – this pragmatic aspect. It comes alive, Walker. It potentiates us and our world together.
Walker: That makes me think, actually, about how – for my work with nonprofits – this Us space could potentially be this space of the mission statement coming alive for nonprofits. This is where we have the trust in the mission statement of the organization. We have the trust in the medial space where we’re all going to engage for the benefit of each other, the mission of the organization. It’s a difficult thing to be aware of.
Mark: You said that this is hard. That’s the truth. When it comes to people, I have found there are very few simple answers. I would not ever call these practices a quick fix or a manipulation or coercion or a deception, or a way to intimidate. They’re not designed for forcing or manipulating agreement. They’re designed as a set of practices to help you become better with yourself and with others. In your example, what you are trying to do is to help potentiate your potential as well as those whom you find that you are leading, teaching, parenting, or working with in community. It’s not a quick fix. This is a daily practice. And that’s what’s really great about this. I can be practicing this all the time. Today I may make a mistake, and I may think, “Ah, I made a mistake. What did I learn?” I don’t quit. I keep practicing. You know, I’m looking at becoming a maestro at this stuff. I want to become the best and the joy is that it is ever evolving.
It’s like anything that we do that’s worth doing, we practice, we practice, we practice. There is never a place where I am going to get to where I can say, “I’m done,” because as soon as I say, “I’m done”, I become undone. Every day is another opportunity and every opportunity – everything, every relationship we have, is an opportunity to learn, an opportunity to grow. Ultimately what happens is that – my hope of what is behind all of this – is that we find a way to cultivate synergy.
Of course synergy is the last practice. That last pairing is potentiating the practice of Cultivation and potentiating the practice of Synergy. Formerly I called these Eco Unity. But here we’re asking ourselves, “Am I ready to participate fully within this community of potential?” As you are talking about your nonprofit that you’re working with, “Am I still guarded?, Am I still carrying defenses? Have I created a wall. Have I created a castle?” And if I have, then you’ve got to ask yourself the question, “How do you move a castle?” You can’t. You’ve got to figure out a way to transform those walls into bridges.
We have to become ready to participate. This is the final stage, the final preparation towards moving to that place of synergy where I become a well-being in this process. I mean, that’s really my ultimate aim. Maslow would say that the ultimate aim is to create a synergistic society. I can see that. I happen to agree with Maslow that someday, some collection of human potentials is going to figure out a way to do this. I have no doubt we will; I’m an optimist. But I think that what’s part of that and what is required within that is that I and you become well-beings in the process. That’s the requirement. We can’t have that society without this. And I think that’s been the missing piece for many leadership theories – they haven’t seen the very equal relationship that, as I become my best self and you become your best self the world will become perfected. Until we find that balance point we’re not going to reach that final destination that I think someday we’ll find. In my lifetime, maybe, but someday I think it can happen. And I’m optimistic.
Walker: What advice would you give to someone interested in participating in that synergy? What’s the first step?
Mark: I would ask them a very simple question, Walker. “Are you ready to learn?”
Walker: What if they don’t know the answer?
Mark: Well then, that’s the place to start ruminating. That’s the place to start looking. What’s preventing my learning? Why am I satisfied with my dysfunctions, my pain, and my defenses? I’ve worked with first time offenders in the court for drug abuse, alcohol abuse, domestic violence. I happen to know that that’s the first confrontation with individuals like this. They have to confront themselves. They have to begin to recognize their own place in this.
When I worked with people, with men who batter, the first thing that I had to hear from them was that, “I’m in pain”. Then I knew that was the real root of it. “I’m in pain.” As long as I’m hearing excuses, as long as I’m hearing “This is how my dad did it, She did this to me, She made me do it”, whatever – as long as I kept hearing all those defenses, I knew I could make no progress. I just had to keep finding ways for them to look at themselves, whether it was through personality type or to get them to understand who they were.
When I worked with them, I never went after their crime, as many of the trainers would do. I went after them. I wanted to find that place where they could finally say, “I’m in pain.” Then we could go to work. That practice of deep understanding could be turned around on themselves. “Who am I? What am I about? Am I ready to learn about myself and my own self location or am I still out there blaming others for my lot in life?” Leading into these whole practices of inquiry and reflection. It was transformative for those men.
Walker: What are some of the projects you are currently working on?
Mark: You know I have a lot of things going on. There are a lot of people who are responding to these practices. I’ve been very blessed, lucky in that the people I’m in satellite with are also seeing value in this set of practices.
I’m in the process of finishing one book and writing another. One is called the Alchemy of Human Potential, which is really about the philosophical underpinnings of these practices – an eudaimonistic philosophy, the philosophy of the good seed. I won’t deny it, I’m a person who believes that all people have value and so I come at it from that angle. I don’t believe that evil is born into this world. I think it’s a product of neglect. As I’ve just described, I’ve worked in the penitentiary system, so believe me I’ve seen destroyed souls. I have met people in there that I would not ever want to see walking free again. So I’m not naïve here. I don’t believe these practices could help everybody. But I do believe that if we began to work these practices in our schools, in our communities, in our organizations, in our interpersonal relationships, that we could possibly produce a lot less neglect, and therefore, create less opportunities to create these people that do unthinkable acts/ We would, quite simply, have a better world.
So, yes, I’m not naïve to what’s out there nor am I a utopian. However, I do believe that these practices could be a great resource for teachers, leaders, parents, marriages, and community builders. The second book is the Potentiating Arts, and it’s really just about this pragmatic approach to these practices with exercises and opportunities for individuals to explore. Beyond that, I keep doing my practices day in and day out looking to perfect my own life.
Walker: And now that you’ve transitioned into the position of Editor of the Integral Leadership Review, how is that feeling?
Mark: I think we’re in a really interesting space in this whole thing that we’re calling integral leadership because integral leadership itself is a unique construct. In some ways it’s really about leading at the integral, leading at this whole, at this complete space. And so, if we stand in this integral space and we work from it, what we can see are the opportunities to become more of a radiant force that – force may not be the right word – radiant influence, in that we can move across disciplines and within disciplines, becoming transdisciplinary. Transdisciplinarity is something that we talk about all the time. But unlike other disciplines, other ways of being, other leadership theories, vectoring in on this whole, pressing in on what we call integral space, impinging upon it, pressing down, what the integral space offers to do is to hold all of these theories, these ways of being, these developmental processes, adult development processes at the center of this integral whole, and radiate outward as a way of looking at the problems and issues of today’s society. So for me, it’s very encouraging to be part of that awakening process of working from this integral space and looking at solving these problems from this transdisciplinary, transpiritual, transcultural perspective.
Walker: It’s very exciting. How did you meet Russ? I’ve always wanted to ask.
Mark: Actually I met him through Mariana Bosezan who was a former doctoral student of mine. She was doing her research on integral leaders, and I was the chair for her dissertation. I didn’t know Russ – and she said that he would make a good committee member for her; she knew him. So that’s the first time we met. Then in conversation, I happened to share some ideas and he encouraged me to publish. Then we just slowly built a friendship over time. I now consider him a dear friend.