On Magic and Meaning

"Our past is sedimented in the present and we are “doomed to misidentify ourselves, as long as we can’t do justice to where we come from.”  - Charles Taylor.

You may have noticed the word magic popping up in our blogs. It’s a word I use cautiously with some of our participants, some of whom are from large corporate businesses . As a colleague recently said. “my only concern about the word 'magic' is that it can easily be seen as flaky, a bit 'woo' and not grounded in reality." In the context of leadership I feel that magic on it’s own runs the risk of over-emphasising charismatic leadership, and in focussing entirely on meaning one might overlook the power of not knowing and letting go writes Jane Riddiford.

Magic and Meaning speak to me of changing worldviews; the tensions they elicit invite a closer look at history and a consideration of how we got here. Richard Tarnas who wrote the epic book, ‘Passion for the Western Mind’ describes how major paradigm shifts came about through changes in our cosmological story.  In contrast to the pre-modern world in which our identity was inseparably connected to nature and the wider cosmos, the modern mind was empowered in new ways through focussing on parts rather than the whole. Brian Swimme and Mary Evelyn Tucker describe how the power of Galileo’s telescope revealed that “the stars were no longer gods. We realised that they are giant balls of gas and that the planets, including our own, rotate around the sun.” In an effort to provide a physical explanation for this new heliocentric universe in the 17th Century Descartes laid down a mechanistic code. Nature was seen as a great unfeeling machine made up of separate parts. The human mind became the seat of all that was sacred. As we struggle to deal with the environmental crisis, it is all too easy for those of us with green sensibilities to vilify the mechanistic worldview. I feel that this is where appreciating history is important. It is worth remembering that in many ways the Cartesian split, between mind and matter enabled individual thinking to develop in unimaginable ways. This artificial divide which in effect separated man from a reverential relationship to nature, also freed the scientific study of matter from religious concern and the control of the church. No longer beholden to inherited stories of a cosmos imbued with magical forces of good and evil, we became empowered through our own powers of observation. As Richard Tarnas puts it, through ‘solar logic’. In this seemingly bright new world understanding through myths and legends and deriving meaning from the land and the wider cosmos were most often thought of as irrational, primitive or as my colleague said, “a bit woo”.

I enjoy the material benefits made possible by the last three hundred years of scientific progress. However as Thomas Berry explains, our reliance on the literal at the expense of other ways of knowing means that the more we have discovered scientifically about the universe, the less it holds meaning for us (Berry, 2006). I also find it helpful to reflect on the leadership implications of the Cartesian split; the fallout of which we have all in one way or another inherited. With no sense of intelligent life left, other than in the mind of the privileged human, it is easy to see how we treated the earth as a commodity and leadership as a job of commanding and controlling; both land and people. Most of us would agree that we are living in uncertain times. The fragmentation of our world and the consequences for both planet and people is calling for new understanding of what we now know; i.e. that we are not living in a machine but rather we are an integral part of a delicately balanced interconnected, expanding and evolving universe. Magic is a word I am still hesitant to use in a corporate workshop. However I do encounter a growing recognition beyond the usual suspects, that the present and the future are calling for an integration of different ways of knowing. It is a call is for a new kind of integration that might rekindle and combine more connected and arguably ‘magical’ ways of knowing with scientific ways of knowing; in other words with the power of solar logic. As Richard Tarnas describes; stepping into a more connected paradigm involves ways of knowing that are deeper than daylight can comprehend.

Students from Quatar campus presenting their pieces from the Free Fall writing exercise. 

Students from Quatar campus presenting their pieces from the Free Fall writing exercise. 

I have collaborated over the last few years with quantum physicist Jonathan Halliwell, former PhD student of Stephen Hawking. Amongst other things, he has been supporting me with my own doctoral thesis. Jonathan describes the downside of relying purely on rational ways of knowing: “Science has become so good at stringing together the long sequence of facts which make up the history of the universe that our logical understanding of it has vastly outstripped our ability to truly grasp what it means in human terms.” Along with my colleagues at Global Generation we have worked with Jonathan to shape what science has revealed about the origins of our universe into a mythological framework which can provide a sense of place, purpose and inspiration in the education of young people. Now through involvement with www.GameShift.co.uk we are melding meaning and magic, physics and myth into a powerful intervention for business. We call this offer; The Cosmos Process. Recently I led a workshop for a group from the Quatar Campus of the Carnegie Mellon University. At first the students were a bit surprised by my “broad” (mythical-scientfic) take however they soon understood its depth and value, particularly as an intercultural narrative that is big enough to include difference and diversity, certainty and uncertainty. In this story we are all related. In other words we are all made of star-dust; as a seven year old pointed out, “That means we are all Starinese.”  At the end of the day the group from Quatar found their own meaning through a process of Free Fall writing. What they had to say confirmed my feeling that the time is ripe for us to break free of the constraints of the Cartesian code, and find both meaningful and magical ways to occupy our own origin story; the universe story.

The workshop for Ashridge Business School 

The workshop for Ashridge Business School 

“The story of the universe is a song of love, of passion, of uncertainty, of fear, of birth, of creation. No deadlines. No ending just a collection of starts, of existing, of being. A Kaleidoscope of emotions. No losers, no winners. A beautiful being created. Born. No judgement. Experimenting. Where rationality did not limit my brain. I could be anything. Everything. I am with you. I am us. Always Forever” – The Cosmos Process Participant