Four Wisdoms: Reawakening Spirit in Work, the Workplace, and Workers

This article was originally published in Spirit at Work Newsletter, Spring 2002

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The sword conquered for a while, but the spirit conquers for ever! — Sholem Asch

On a flight home recently, I engaged in a conversation with a CEO of a Fortune 500 company who said he felt like most of the efforts his company had put to raising spirit had not worked. His company had created one of the best reward and recognition programs in the nation. They had tied pay to performance and had state of the art performance appraisal process and training programs. They had flexible work hours, family support programs, and a gym with personal trainers and yoga instructors on site. But instead of increased motivation they had experienced a declining morale across the company. All the models he had been taught in business school, bought from consultants, and read in the best-selling books and journals were not working and he wanted a new template. Plus he wanted to feel renewed spirit in his own job. He had reached a point where he no longer believed he knew how to awaken spirit.

Why is it when although the majority of managers are aspiring to increasing spirit within the organization, they continue to get the opposite? It may be because they are missing an understanding of one very simple, but fundamental truth — Spirit is an intrinsic and natural state for all human beings, not one that can be created by external interventions.

In the Western World particularly, the major focus of business improvement efforts has been the identification of external sources of problems and the development of weapons or programs against them. From a very different viewpoint however, the field of developmental philosophy has long held that spirit results from joining harmoniously with the natural working of human processes. This divergence of perspective is very similar to the ancient Greek practices of health and medicine. The god of medicine is Asklepios, and the goddess of health, Hygeia, is Asklepios’ daughter. They work from different philosophies which in turn led to different courses of action. With Hygeia, health was the natural order of things, a positive attribute to which people were entitled if they governed their lives wisely. The function of a physician, therefore, was to discover and teach the natural laws which ensure a healthy mind in a healthy body. The followers of Asklepios believed that the chief role of a physician was to treat disease and restore health by correcting imperfections caused by accidents of birth or life. Asklepios’ followers were interested in treatment, and Hygeia followers were interested in healing. Treatment originates from the outside, healing from within. (see A. Weil, in Spontaneous Healing)

Spirit in the workplace is more attuned to a healing process, a process of making persons whole again. It is a matter of restoring integrity and balance. To understand the restoration of spirit in organizations, one must come to understand the innate, intrinsic nature of the process of human spirit. We must understand that even when external interventions are introduced with successful outcomes, those outcomes represent activation of the natural intrinsic processes of spirit which, under other circumstance, can and probably have been operating without any outside stimulus. Spirit can renew itself. Renewal of spirit is a natural and innate process.

I. Natural Working of Human Spirit: Enabling Regenerative Spirit in Business & Work

Spirit is the vital principle or animating force within living beings, according to the American Heritage Dictionary. It is that which indicates that we are alive and significant, that our life matters. Spirit is interpreted as motivation when it is in a transactional setting, one where others expect something of us. It may be translated as inspiration in an artistic setting where we are seeking to manifest our creative expression. Or it may be perceived as “being centered” in a non-material sense when we are seeking to be attuned with a context. But all these facets reflect the same process. And it is innate in us as humans, working with a natural wisdom all its own.

Spirit is not manifested as calmness, serenity, or happiness even though it is a process of harmonizing a series of entities and elements. In fact, it is more commonly experienced as discontentment with current level of achievement, a challenging of the status quo, and an irrepressible tenacity in regard to principle. In the same way that alcoholic beverages are called “spirits”, the human spirit is a powerful concentration of the essence of, not grapes, but wisdom born of consciousness regarding the “right working” of the world.

In many native cultures around the world there are prototypes for the new template our CEO is seeking. The prototypes are based in a different set of beliefs and paradigms about how spirit works in homo-sapiens; the root meaning is “wise beings”. In our culture we have come to believe we have to “put something into” people for it to be there. The education system, must teach us, the training department must train us. What if the answer was more about providing the space and capability for it to come out of us. This approach is more akin to the practices of many Native American tribes of North American. The processes of bringing youth and children into the tribal community are often referred to as the four wellsprings of spirit or Four Wisdoms. The four wisdoms of spirit in this context might be depicted in the following ways.

Wisdom One: Being “spirited” is a natural state of being for human beings. If you examine yourself for a moment you can observe that you only notice something called your spirit when it is blocked, that is when it is not flowing. That is because human beings want to be filled with spirit. Further it is a natural state for humans, in fact a natural wisdom of the human design. It emerges as a result of striving to be in perfect balance within ourselves and with the world around us, and to bring all systems into smooth running where energy can be exchanged freely among people and other living systems. When we are out of balance we have a longing to return to it. Business improvement processes can take advantage of this tendency to return to the natural condition of “open spirit”, one that is not blocked or impeded. Business improvement leaders instead tend to assume that some people will not be “motivated” and do not care to contribute rather than understand that this is a natural desire, even a longing, within human beings.

Wisdom Two: There is an in-built natural power in each of us that enables returning to this natural state. A second innate wisdom of the human spirit is that it has a natural in-built balancing power of its own. Human beings can and do renew their own spirit routinely without therapy, incentive programs, or even pep talks. It is part of “Mother Nature’s” gift and will work naturally when not prevented. The greatest single defect in modern management today may be the idea that workers cannot be motivated without some act on the part of management or some program to wake them up to what is important. This idea of external intervention has been preached so long in organizations that workers have in many cases even come to believe it themselves and blame external sources for their lack of spirit. But if you examine your own life you will notice that there is a natural restoration of spirit after periods of grieving, disappointment, or failure. Business leaders have not chosen to join with this innate power and wisdom in a work setting, and to allow Mother’s Nature to do her work.

Wisdom Three: Spirit is affected by relationships between ourselves and the context or worlds of our lives. A third innate wisdom emerges from the fact that the human spirit is whole and integrated and at the same time is connected with the systems in which it exists. What is happening at home affects work, and vice versa. What is happening to our physical health affects our mind. But also what is happening with the raw material of our trade as we work, affects spirit. When workers know they are working in ways that pollute the environment, even when they create justifications and defenses, the spirit is effected. When workers are asked to create products or services that they know are less than what is needed, or less than they are capable of, their spirit is inhibited. Again, these can be hidden from us by the nature of rationalization that is offered, but the spirit is not fooled. It seeks a way to keep itself alive, even with “lies” for awhile, if that is the only choice. If you observe for a moment your own processes, you will see that not only does the spirit strive to be alive at every moment, but will try to make sense out of any relationship in which it has to maintain itself. If we understood this nature of interconnectedness between our spirit and the world to which it connects and the search for equanimity in that connection, then we could join with the natural tendency of the spirit to be working toward harmony with its surrounding worlds.

Wisdom Four: Spirit is dependent on alignment between our personal thoughts and actions. A fourth innate wisdom of the human spirit is the indivisibility of thinking and behavior processes. When the human spirit is open and flowing it is because an experience of alignment exists or it is seen as possible to achieve alignment between a person’s understanding of how higher order values get played out in the world for the benefit of all and the actions that the person takes in their own daily life. In modern organizations there is a tendency to work to change behavior through coaching, rewards, and discipline since these are things that can be seen and managed as external sources. Without a great deal of consciousness in this process however, we may divide us from our spirit by creating conflict between what is thought and what actions are taken. A change process that does not seek to bring conscious alignment between thought and action risks dividing a person against themselves, which will divert the spirit and send it in search of wholeness again.

In part two of this series, we’ll see how regenerative processes are necessary for renewing spirit in workplaces, and how organizations in harmony with this natural wisdom gain competitive effectiveness in their market.

Sr Fellow Social Innovation, Babson | Best Selling/Multi-Award Winning Author | Regenerative Paradigm Educator

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