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5 Degrees Of Connection: Which Support You As A Leader?

5 Degrees Of Connection: Which Support You As A Leader?

by Ginny Whitelaw. Originally published on Forbes.com

Twice yearly, Chosei Zen holds week-long intensive meditation training called sesshin. It was the first time Justin had attended such a training and, a few days in, he was exhausted. His legs were swollen, his back hurt, his mind was searching for a way out, and yet the sesshin was nowhere near over. At first, he thought only he was struggling, but as he sensed more deeply the people around him, he could feel they were struggling, too. Something in him shifted, where he wanted to “sit” more strongly for others, so they could meditate better. The more he focused on helping others, the more energized he felt. By the end of the week, he described the sesshin as a “fantastic experience.”

What happened for Justin is available to all leaders, that is, all people committed to making a positive difference. It doesn’t require intense meditation—though that is a reliable accelerator—but it arises from a felt sense of connection to something greater than our self-in-our-skin. As we viscerally experience a more wholly connected self, we naturally put ourselves in service of all that we feel a part of. In the outer world, the result is more caring, more inclusivity, more regenerative solutions to the challenges we face and aspirations we strive for. The result for us is regenerative as well: greater energy and experiences we might even call, “fantastic.”

This is an urgent matter for leaders today as our degree of connection has everything to do with whether we operate from an extractive mindset, which exacerbates the social, political and environmental mess we’re in, or a regenerative mindset, which cares for people, the planet and the future. The extractive mindset is our history and continues to shape our systems, institutions and economic models. It extracts what it wants from the earth or from society, treating environmental or social consequences as “externalities.” It treats people as “others” who can be used and abused. It is the mindset behind war, racism, capitalism, gross inequities in health, wealth and education, the climate crisis and collapsing biodiversity. It is destroying the very conditions that support human life and, like it or not, we are the generations who must navigate its consequences.

Yet, the extractive mindset does not necessarily intend to be cruel and it is a natural part of all of us. It arises through cumulative stages of development from our least-mature selves, stages well-characterized in Ken Wilber’s Integral Theory, condensed for our purposes into the 5 stages depicted below. While everyone would say they’re connected to something, who is connected to what changes at each stage, with a crucial inflection point where our energy shifts. Exploring these 5 degrees of connection shows how this inflection point comes about.

5 nested levels of connection related to 5 stages of development – G. Whitelaw

Ego-Centered: It takes a couple years for an infant to form an ego boundary, but once it does, a self is defined, separate from others. The ego’s job is to keep that self alive and eventually meet its higher-level needs for love and belonging, power and self-actualization. This level is an essential part of all of us, but if it’s not tempered by a wider sense of connectedness, it will always be looking out for “Number 1” and extracting from others what it wants.

In leadership, this ego-centered stage has an exaggerated sense of its own independence, importance and control. In relationships, it tends to be transactional and self-serving.

Ethno-Centered: No infant survives without human relationships, and our earliest sense of connection or belonging is to our family. This is the prototype for many groups we’ll feel connected to as we grow into our adult life, from our gender, race and religion, to sports, political parties, professions, teams, organizations and countries. As part of these nested groups, we draw identity and a sense of belonging, and we will do things to serve them, even at personal expense or sacrifice. What characterizes this level, however, is a boundary around who’s in the groups we identify with and who’s not, and the “othering” or extractive nature of how we treat the latter. This stage emerged in human development around 5000 years ago and, according to Wilber, about one-third of adults today operate primarily at this stage.

Examples of this ethno-centered stage in leadership include hiring in its own image, putting group loyalty ahead of fairness, facts or truth, or optimizing resources for its part of the organization at the expense of the whole. History has shown this stage has the potential for incredible cruelty toward those whom it “others,” while in-group individuals can still feel good about serving something bigger than themselves—a dark delusion, indeed.

Rational, Head-Centered: In the maturing child, as exposure beyond one’s family increases and language and logic take root, a stage of rationality is generally reached where one can make cognitive connections with facts, truth and abstractions like democratic values or laws of nature. This is a stage of great cleverness where we figure things out, push scientific frontiers, build new technologies, develop new business models and calculate cost-benefit ratios. This stage emerged about 300 years ago and is the “rational self interest” presupposed by Adam Smith, informing capitalism to this day. Globally, about one-third of adults function primarily at this stage.

Examples of this rational stage in leadership are the norm, as it’s baked into MBA curricula, economic models and standard business practices. What makes this stage extractive is that it, too, draws a boundary around what it intellectually includes and what it ignores. For example, if it thinks of nature as an inanimate object to be used, it ignores all information to the contrary and devises a legal system that gives nature no rights. If it thinks of science as purely objective, it ignores the role of the perceiver and consciousness (and 100 years of quantum physics), and imagines a world where things exist in themselves, rather than in relationship. This stage puts us squarely up in our heads, largely ignoring the body, and imagines that the partial truth it sees is the whole—another dark delusion.

Flex, Flow, Heart-Centered: As the child or adult continues to develop, a reintegration occurs with what has been cut off or ignored. Just as we might have once closed our eyes (or still do) in a scary part of a movie to reduce its intensity, so the mind also cuts off from emotions and bodily impulses to reduce their intensity. This mind-body separation is at its peak at the rational stage. As we feel more into the body, and work more skillfully with emotions and impulses, we also understand others better and our relationships grow deeper. Less thinking and more feeling, we attune to a wider range of energies—we become more sensitive—and increasingly resonate with the flex and flow of life as reciprocal relationships. We might call this heart-centered connection. It expresses the healing power of love.

This healing has found its way into leadership over the past 30-50 years through increased attention to emotional intelligence, engagement and collective leadership, the neuroscience of relationships, mindfulness-based stress reduction, embodied leadership and diversity, equity and inclusion. The bigger our heart has grown, the more we see what was left out of systems created by our (collective) head in terms of care for people, the planet, and the future. The more we also recognize and reconnect with the wisdom of Indigenous traditions that never viewed nature as inanimate or the individual apart from a constellation of reciprocal relationships. It is from this heightened degree of connection that we can intuit and imagine desired futures, organic solutions and regenerative ways forward that honor this more embracing truth and evolve us as people.

Unity Consciousness, Hara Centered: For those committed to further spiritual training, the experience of connection becomes boundless—what is called samadhi in yoga and Zen traditions. Early on in my Zen training, I recall a teacher patting his belly as he said to me, “Think with this mind,” and then pointing to his head, “Not with this one.” I knew that developing the belly center, or hara as it’s called in Japanese, was central to our Zen tradition, but I thought he was speaking metaphorically. I now know better. The hara regulates the deepest, slowest, most stable breathing the body is capable of, which is conducive to samadhi. It is the center of power (as in sports and martial arts) and creativity (as in birth) and has a direct link to the brain, which can settle its chatter (as neuroscience has shown). It is also a center of intuition, a knowingness with life, which starts to develop even before the separating ego.

When leadership functions from this unity consciousness, i.e., Zen Leadership, it relaxes and becomes fearless, reconciling the paradoxical physical and spiritual nature of the human being. We’re both a particular constellation of relationships with particular gifts and also the whole picture. No wonder we lose our fear; rather than obsessively protecting a temporary physical life, we shift to putting this life to its best use. We’re better able to tap into connected wisdom; in a sense we’re consulting our self. We’re better able to create thriving in the outer world because our inner world is thriving. For unity consciousness to be enacted, it has to be deeper than head-based beliefs, even deeper than heart-felt emotions. It calls for the fullest integration of our spiritual (i.e., energetic) nature with our physical body, from top of the head to base of the hara, or what in yoga would be called the crown charka to the root.

The physical practices for doing this work include deep and old traditions, such as yoga, meditation and martial arts, as well as a proliferation of modern modalities, such as integral bodyworksomatic experiencingtrauma and tension release exercises(TRE), and integral transformative practices.

In one sense, upleveling our degree of connection is the work of a lifetime; as long as we live in an ever-changing body in ever-changing world, there is new work to do. But in another sense, as Justin experienced, it can happen over a couple of days. The inflection point comes as we come out of our head and feel into our body, when we quit thinking about our self-in-our-skin and start feeling the people and life around us. It is not only the key to our most regenerative leadership, but also our best chance at thriving as a people and as a person.

Ginny Whitelaw is the Founder and CEO of the Institute for Zen Leadership.



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Published on Sep 07 2022

Last Updated on Nov 07 2022