Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I will meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about
language, ideas, even the phrase ‘each other’
doesn’t make any sense. – Rumi
“You know what your problem is? You’re too good at seeing both the pros and cons of every situation.” Those words came from a former boss of mine who was somewhat frustrated with me at the time (fifteen years ago) for failing to take sides on an issues. (More specifically, I was failing to take his side.)
Although they were spoken in frustration and were meant as more of an insult than a complement, I have always been grateful for those words. They’ve been some of the most clarifying and helpful words spoken to me in my own self-discovery journey. (Incidentally, that wasn’t the last time I heard similar words from a male boss.)
At the time, though I may have blushed a little at his annoyance, I had a wonderful a-ha moment about a quality I possess that is both a strength and a weakness.
I can sit comfortably in the grey zone.
I don’t need a world painted black and white, true or false, right or wrong, good or bad. Most of the time, I am more comfortable in the centre line between the yin and the yang. I like to probe the depths of both the black and the white and find the grey buried underneath.
In the past, when I’ve been in leadership positions that have required decisiveness and clear direction, this quality has been a bit of a stumbling block. Staff would sometimes get frustrated with me when I’d show up at meetings with more questions than answers. On the other hand, when I invited them into the grey zone with me, there was usually rich and deep conversation that wouldn’t have happened with a more black and white leader.
This is why I am so thoroughly enjoying the work I’m currently doing. When I teach or host conversations or work one-on-one with clients, I invite people into spaces of exploration and questions. Together we explore the beautiful shades of grey in the field beyond “wrongdoing and rightdoing”. I get to ask good questions – the kinds of questions that don’t have immediate answers and require us to practice sitting with them. In classrooms where there are strong-minded, dualistic thinkers, I invite them into the common spaces and help them find shades of truth in the other’s line of thinking. I am happiest when I have helped people poke holes through the boxes in which they’ve placed themselves and they can begin to see that there is light outside the box.
I take Jesus as my model for how to live in the grey zone and still serve as an effective leader. His greatest frustration was with the church leaders who got so lost in rules and doctrine that they didn’t leave room for grace and compassion. Jesus lead as a storyteller whose strength lay in relationships, conversation, and deep and meaningful questions. It’s ironic, isn’t it, that what we now most commonly associate with Christianity today is narrow-mindedness, when Jesus was one of the most radically open-minded leaders in history?
I’ve always found it interesting that Jesus chose to never write anything down. I’m sure he knew that writing things down would give people throughout history the excuse to turn his words into black and white proclamations.
Instead of doctrine and laws, Jesus left us with stories full of grey areas. He invited us into that field beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing.
I am sure that many of the people who resisted Jesus were just like some of my students, who express frustration that there are no clearer rules for right and wrong in the subjects I teach (eg. writing, facilitation, creativity). It’s easier to live in a world of black and white because then we know what’s expected of us and we know when we’ve crossed the lines.
But, unless you’re a police officer enforcing the law, most of the world doesn’t function that way.
We all have to live in the grey zone.
My mandala practice is one of the most beautiful ways I’ve found for living comfortably in the grey zone. Mandalas invite us out into the field that Rumi speaks of, where “the world is too full to talk about language, ideas,” and “even the phrase each other doesn’t make any sense.”
Mandalas invite us out past our linear, problem-fixing mindsets, into a circular world, where truth leads us down spiral pathways instead of straight lines. They help us shift out of the space where language and logic box us in, and into a space where colour, shapes, intuition, prayer, circle, and meditation open the sky above that field.
When I invite people into mandala conversations, we explore the shades of grey that were missing when they first looked at the issue through a black and white lens. After our conversation, they are invited to bring their questions to the mandala where the questions and the ambiguity become things of beauty rather than obstacles to be wrestled with.
I often struggle a bit when I’m describing my mandala practice for people, partly because it’s hard to describe something that engages primarily our right brains with words that reside primarily in our left brain. The grey zone doesn’t translate well in a black and white world.
But the more I do it, and the more I coach people in the process, the more I recognize its value.
We need tools that will help us find meaning in ambiguous spaces.
The mandala is such a tool. I invite you to learn more.