The Ninth Sedona

Authentic Lives: Vital Institutions

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 Institutions.”

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 commentary:

“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 really succeeded.

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 each other.

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 inner selves.

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 modern society.


Paul A. Elsner

President and Founder,

The Sedona Conversations


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