All great wisdom traditions of the world agree on one thing
And that is: everything’s a mess and all is well. We’ve certainly experienced our share of messiness and turmoil in the past year. From a rampant health crises, to an economic and social depression. And from draconic inequities it has highlighted to the violence of conspiracy theorists acting on their own, false reality. And not to forget our biggest threat of climate change and the mass extinction of species due to real changes on our planet. We are living and leading without any doubt in a time of profound mess. How can one be optimistic in a time like this without sounding like a Pollyanna? While we know that optimism is a crucial aspect of leadership that inspires others, what is the ground for legitimate optimism in a time of huge social turmoil and great risks at the horizon.
This true, in-the-bones optimism is sturdy enough to hold up in turbulent times, sustaining the energy of conscious leaders and presenting itself as opportunities. While some would say such optimism is an inherent or inherited state, or the fruit of privilege, my experience in conscious leadership would say it’s available to anyone committed to uncovering the wholeness of who they are. It is available to all of us.
We’ve long recognized a connection between optimism and successful leadership or, for that matter, a successful life. The founder of the Positive Psychology movement – Martin Seligman – found optimism central to those who could manifest their gifts either for personal gratification (like a good life) or in service of something bigger (a meaningful life lead from profound purpose and connected to the emerging future and Self). In many researches into the high-performing flow state and the leadership qualities likely to engender it, positivity and self-transcendence emerge as key traits. Likewise optimism emerges as a key component to emotional intelligence, resilience and well-being, creative problem solving, inspiring leadership and presence. Positive emotions are known to bring coherence to the vibrations of heart and head as well as strengthening our intentions. Optimism is central to the “can-do” attitude of any leader. As Winston Churchill put it, “A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.”
Yet what is that allows us to accept that “everything’s a mess” without getting our opinions and emotions all fired up? It is the second part to genuine optimism, the part that can see through the mess to something bigger, something all embracing, something in which “all is well.” While this expansive experience may arise in a chance moment of grace, it can be more deliberately cultivated in meditation and contemplative practices. The Sanskrit term for it is Samadhi in which we see through the illusion of separateness to the wholeness of who we are and the oneness in which we participate. Psychiatrist Dan Siegel calls it “dissolving the illusion of separateness, the top-down constraints of a personal identity.” Associate professor Otto Scharmer at MIT likens it to “breaking through a membrane in which I lose myself and yet am even more myself.” Little wonder that decades of research into the effects of meditation, show a clear connection to more positive emotional states.
If we look broadly enough—from the development of a zygote to a full-grown human being, or historically from hunter-gatherers to information-agers, or in an evolutionary sense from the simplest atom to a complex brain—we see the messy fits and starts of advancing consciousness. And here we are, in a particularly potent time in human history, with a particular pair of hands and feet with which to dance along.
This is a true ground for optimism worth standing on: feeling into our whole nature, resonating with nature, people, societies and situations of our particular life, we can use anything, including a mess, to live, love and lead well.