The Ninth Sedona embarked on a theme that has touched several of our lives in
the last five years.
My involvement with the Fetzer Institute has brought me a deeper appreciation
for the integration for “mind,” “body,” and “healing.” These were some of the
topics touched upon at the Ninth Sedona, entitled “Authentic Lives: Vital
Since I have been involved with a pre-existing higher education advisory
group sponsored by Fetzer, I was fortunate at this Sedona to renew relationships
with colleagues with whom I had worked in previous years. This group included
Monica Manning, of the Nova Group; Parker Palmer, who had worked with Maricopa
in several capacities; Arthur Chickering; Sandy and Lena Astin of UCLA; Carol
Leland, and Cynthia Johnson. The ninth Sedona Conferences also
included the Dallas County Community College Group, who had received a sizable
Fetzer Institute Grant to explore institutional formation. The Dallas group,
consisting of Steve Mittelstet, Ann Faulkner and others, proved to be excellent
at facilitation and leading discussion.
Cynthia Heelan has become a strong advocate of exploring both spiritual and
authentic aspects of leadership, and thus came to be one of the major organizers
and facilitators of this Sedona. Arthur Chickering supported us with his advice,
council and wisdom on point throughout the conference.
The question of authenticity became a test for all of us. I had written
pieces on this topic, but it was necessary to clear away some of the vocabulary
and conceptual issues about authenticity to help clarify the issue.
In addition, assumptions were set down in the following precepts and
“If our institutions could integrate the work that people do in them with
their inner lives, our institutions would be ever more creative, ever more
generative, ever more risk-taking, ever more safe and ever more dynamic places
to work.” – Paul Elsner
“If we take time to reflect together on who we are and who we could choose to
become, we will be led into the territory where change originates. We will be
led to explore our agreements of belonging, the principles and values we display
in our behaviors, the purposes that have called us together, the worlds we’ve
created” (Margaret Wheatley, A Simpler Way, p.100).
We can grow if we set the purpose of the conference as follows:
To explore the concept and practice of institutional formation, i.e.,
co-creating and caring for our academic institutions.
To provide participants with ways to begin meaningful conversations and
productive dialogues that foster health and vitality of our campuses (Monica
Manning, Nova Group, Guidelines for the Conference Processes).
Arthur Chickering, who had drafted a manifesto for the Initiative for
Authenticity and Spirituality in Higher Education (IASHE), addressed his
concerns about both the academy’s failure to engage our students and the
tendency of our higher education leaders to be too caught up in the rationality
and instrumentality of their work. According to Chickering, the latter leaves
little time for deeper value-formation and even less time for personal
development among us, our faculty and our students. Amongst our selected
conference readings was Chickering’s Change Magazine article
“Reclaiming our Soul: Democracy and Higher Education.”
Paul Elsner’s piece on authenticity was included as a discussion-starter. The
tone of this article stresses the elusiveness of the conference theme. Elsner
says, in his article:
For several months, I attempted to work and rework an appropriate language
for explaining what I meant by “authentic leadership.” I am not sure that I have
In working with Monica Manning of the Nova Group, the larger struggle with
language became apparent – sort of like hitting the wall. Gifted theorists and
practitioners like Parker Palmer always seemed to bring us back to a safer
cradle of language. Parker’s language seemed always to be to the point. His
words and phrasing had the ring of integrity. His true sounds and words made our
inept language pale in comparison.
Manning’s work with me found her offering a careful paper she called, “The
Language that Invites Inquiry. Manning offered:
Our language should be inviting, evocative, exploratory, respectful,
concretizing and authentic. It should be inclusive without being insipid. It
should help us hold ourselves accountable. It should be appropriate to our
purposes and the academic work place.
We have talked about this work both in terms of individuals and institutions.
When we focus on individuals, then our language should encourage people to
explore how they create integrated, holistic lives in their work places. When we
focus on institutions, our language should foster work places that support
faculty and staff using their talents in ways that provide for productive and
rewarding professional and personal lives.
The first problem in finding language lies in the challenge that Parker
Palmer articulated as he developed the foundations of the Teacher Formation
program at the Fetzer Institute. His hidden agenda, as he described it, was “to
explore the ‘spirituality of education’ with minimal use of traditional
spiritual images and of the word ‘spiritual.’” We may agree that it is the
spiritual life that we mean when we refer to “the inner life.” We may
acknowledge that a diverse set of spiritual traditions can enrich our
understanding of this inner life and the ways to connect it with our “outer
lives.” We may even find ourselves growing in comfort with words that have
traditional religious connotations. Still, we run the risk of using language
with which we, as a core group have become comfortable because we have struggled
with it, while the larger group that we want to invite into dialogue is put off
by the same terms.
The “s” word (spirituality) gave us no small trouble. We reasoned that it
would be “off-putting” to many and inviting to some. Our secular society builds
walls to keep out such language that suggests spirituality’s role, especially at
our workplaces. Yet it is the absence of our own awareness about what Parker
Palmer has called our “inner-landscape” that prohibits true connections with
In the academic community, we strain under the conventionally accepted coda
of objectivity, empiricism and the scientific method. Such important foundations
of the academy, as they are, do not let in the emotional, the subjective, and
the intuitive processes that often really guide us through life. It is as though
our emotional points of view and our passions contaminate the objective,
detached approach of the empirical method.
Once we got into the exercises facilitated by the Dallas group, we began to
probe our inner motivations of why we do certain things as leaders. This
required presidents of colleges and heads of departments to describe an
experience that included a follow-up action in the role of leader.
True introspection of why we act, what options we choose, what motivations
are imbedded in our decisions, can only come about by reaching that higher plane
of authenticity. This was a powerful demonstration, and I found myself blurting
out to a colleague after the session, “Holy Smoke! This methodology really
works!” Then I began to think about how many inauthentic actions I carried out
in my long career. This last illustration only touches on a number of valuable
exercises and approaches the Dallas group taught us in learning to look at our
Shortly after the Ninth Sedona, a handful of us went directly to China. It
was fun to observe a culture whose people often showed both warmth and
genuineness, but who were also caught up in deference to authority, pleasing
superiors and a lot of the same dilemmas we all face in American society. My
visit to China allowed me to carry the Ninth Sedona and my thoughts about what
I’d learned and apply them to a larger culture than my own. Some of the features
of that culture seem to stand out more clearly when I saw authenticity, or in
some cases, the lack of it.
My last weeks in China involved a trip to Tibet. We traveled for a couple of
days to a high mountain lake known for its spiritual power, at about 18,000 feet
elevation. We stopped and talked to members of nomadic tribes, who basically
move from grazing locations to their herds, almost completely dependent on
climate; weather, seasons and the rhythms of nature dictate their day-to-day
lives. Tibetans have an uncanny sense of their surroundings because they survive
or perish by their understanding of these rhythms. Caught navigating a mountain
pass without a sense of time of day or shifting temperatures (which can range
from 100 degrees Fahrenheit in the shadow of a mountain face, to the fading sun
of a diagonally-placed outcropping), can mean death to the unwary. There, a
mountain stream with strong current can disappear at 4:00 PM because the
glaciers 2,000 feet above them have frozen the source in a matter of 45 minutes
to an hour. The same stream, at 11:00 the next morning, can be a torrential
flood after the hot sun induces thawing in the Himalayas because of the sun.
What I loved about Tibet were the lessons to westerners like me about how numb
we can be about our surroundings, our motivations – indeed, our inner life. The
nomadic Tibetan has that all in balance; he is completely conscious of color,
sound, the winds, the river rapids, the seasonal flora and fauna around them.
Most of all, they have reached a higher spiritual consciousness because of their
heightened awareness, compared to our somewhat stunted awareness, living in
Paul A. Elsner
President and Founder,
The Sedona Conversations