Monday, February 28, 2011

what you focus upon becomes your reality

On the February 19, meeting of the Association of Appreciative Inquiry, Philippines, []I was to explain the concept and the methodology of Appreciative Inquiry in less than 30 minutes to newcomers and guests. I was challenged because I knew thirty minutes wouldn’t do justice to the beauty and the essence of Dr. David Cooperrider's work. It is totally unfair to read off a list the principles and the method for something that can be so powerful and effective in creating deep transformations for individuals and communities.

Choose your words and structure, said my conscious mind and my left brain. Be comprehensive and tactical, said my left and right brain together, ask questions and involve your listeners. Use a story, said my heart and my right brain. All that you need to tell them already lies buried within the depths of their intelligences. They already know what you want to tell them. Just let their deeper wisdom surface and let it dance with what is on your mind.

I gave heed to my right-brain’s thinking.

So there was this King, I said, the father of the person who built the beautiful Tajmahal. He was a Mogul and he ruled India in the 16th Century. He was kind, benevolent and referred to as Akbar the Great. The period in Indian history before and after his death was known as the Golden Age of growth and prosperity. Besides being a good and powerful king, Akbar loved dialogues, debates and dabbling in the arts.

He had a Hindu counsellor by the name of Birbal whose character; personality could be compared to that of Solomon the Wise. Akbar and Birbal fables are popular in India and they work the same way as Aesop’s fables do for the rest of the world. Akbar and Birbal liked to keep each other intellectually challenged and sharp during times of peace and calm in 16th century India.

One freezing evening in Delhi, Akbar looks out onto the royal gardens and wonders out aloud, “Birbal, do you think that there could be a man who would dare step into that freezing pond in our gardens?” Birbal from experience knew that this was bait to one of their famous mind games. He figured, he might as well take it up right away rather than wait for the King to push further. “Oh, sure, your majesty, for a fair purpose and under pressure any ordinary person can last a night standing in the freezing pond,” he replied.

“I dare you, Birbal for a bag of gold that you cannot!” exclaimed the King. Birbal smiled and took up the challenge for a bag of gold coins.

In a matter of minutes, the scene was set. Birbal wrapped in a Gandhi-like loin cloth stepped into the icy cold water as the sun disappeared over the horizon and the moon began to rule the night. In the palace balcony, the King lit a lamp, ordered a sumptuous meal and some drinks. He perched himself onto a large, warm sofa to watch Birbal’s pride and honor freeze and crack in icy waters of the pond. Birbal found the centre of the pond and stood chest deep in the water as the moon began to brighten and the night’s temperature began to plunge. This was showdown at high moon!

All night long, the King puffed away at his Hookah, drank wine and kept propping himself up to enjoy the show. His servants and guards dozed off on their spots but Birbal stood steady and deep in the water that was getting cold by the minute. Hours later, the moon surrendered to the dawn’s light and as the sun peeped out from the east, Birbal, to the awe and surprise of the King, slowly stepped out of the pond, put on his shirt and turban and walked up to the King for his bag of gold.

“In the name of the Almighty, how did you do it Birbal?” roared the King, “What’s your secret? Did you consume some special herbs, a magic potion that kept you warm? How?”

“No secret, your Majesty, it is all in the mind, it is all in the power of focus. What you focus upon, O King, becomes your reality. If you focus upon the cold you will feel cold, if you focus upon the darkness you will be lost and if you focus upon failure then you will fail. That is the secret, your highness!”

“What did you focus upon Birbal?”

“Sire, the little lamp that you lit by the side of your sofa as you sat down to watch me, I focussed upon that. All night long, with all my heart and my entire mind I saw nothing but the lamp; I sensed nothing but the warmth that radiated out of it. I saw nothing but light and I felt nothing but the comfort from its glow.”
That is the power of focus. That is the way of those that appreciate what is good, what is powerful and what is life-giving. That is the essence of being inquisitive and being curious about what CAN be improved rather than what needs to blamed and repaired. That is the power of looking at life and systems as secrets to be unfolded instead of problems to be solved. Appreciation represents love, forgiveness and gratitude while inquisitiveness represents curiosity; curiosity ignites creativity and creativity builds and constructs.

Out of sheer habit and past conditioning most people look for things that do not work, things that they fathom to be problems. We focus, many a times, on the tunnel at the end of every light; we focus on a little chip, a crack on a marble masterpiece rather than appreciating the rest of the beauty and marvel that the work of art represents. When a child is weak in arithmetic we pressure her to become better at it rather than focussing and strengthening her skills in music, arts and literature for which she might have a natural aptitude and a passion.

In his book, How Full is Your Bucket, psychologist Tom Rath talks about how his Grandfather and the rest of his family focussed on his strengths as a kid rather than his weaknesses thus letting him lead and succeed at a life of his own choice and happiness.

Focussing on strengths and on what gives life is more than plain positive or proactive thinking. It aligns itself totally with the value and the psychology behind why successful corporations across the world invest so much in articulating and refining their vision and mission statements. It aligns itself totally with what Peter Senge in his book; the Fifth Discipline refers to as creative tension. We, as people and groups, are drawn towards what we like and hope and we are also driven away from what we dislike and fear. Both these tensions are powerful and both of these natural forces create the environment and the energies for our success. The only minor difference in favor of what we are drawn to is that “what we like” can be placed on a distant horizon while what we dislike and move away from disappears from sight and sense after a certain distance and time. One more factor in favor of a distant, powerful, distant vision is that it can be moved further up and away when we reach the first horizon.

A living example of this power of the positive vision pull, this power of focus towards a bright horizon is the life and the success of Filipino boxer Manny Pacquiao. As a kid he dreamed big and in his youth he achieved it. Recently, after winning dozens of fights and being declared a billionaire, in an interview with Ms. Dyan Castillejo he was asked what lay ahead for him and he smiled and replied in English, “Let’s just say I have reached my horizons and then suddenly my horizons, I realize, have expanded!”

That is the power of focus towards the positive, towards the light, towards Birbal’s lamp and in the essence of all of Dr. David Cooperrider’s principles.

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