Transcript #27 Dara Blumenthal : What Does It Really Mean to be Human in the 21st Century?
I recently had the opportunity to go to New York City. While I was there I met up and recorded this conversation with Dara Blumenthal.
Dara has spent most of her life contemplating the question of what it really means to be human in the 21st Century. It's a fascinating question and one that is also close to my heart.
Dara is a facilitator and coach, but more than that, she is someone with a deep love for people and the planet. We talk about how to self-author your life, the power of vulnerability and how we can change the world through having open conversations and allowing ourselves to experience pain and suffering.
Dara: Who I am? My name is Dara Blumenthal. My training is in sociology, I have a doctorate in and a masters in critical theory. I'm certified as an integral facilitator, I work as a developmental coach and I'm also dabbling at teaching meditation in certain circumstances. But that is a bigger goal for my life, to teach meditation.
I've been working on work for the last 5 years or so since I left academia. I was teaching cultural studies, and then I've just been working directly on organisational culture in these intervening years. I've done organisational design and organisational development. I focus more now on leadership development and team effectiveness. I think one of the most important things for humans and people who do work in the world and work together right now in the 21st century is the level of reality that people are functioning at. The level of reality that people's conversations are held to.
Marcus: What do you mean by that?
Dara: We exist as adults so much in abstraction, and I feel like the modern workplace, all it is is abstraction, unless you are making stuff and work in a factory. But for most people in this information age, everything is an abstraction. So no one is really talking about what is going on for them in the moment, and because of this people aren't really having real conversations. It's fascinating because, at least in the work that I do and in the organisations I've been working with over the last several years, there is this whole movement to be 'responsive', to be able to respond to what is happening. The most fundamental way to be able to respond is to be able to understand what is really going on.
Marcus: How do you get people talk about that sort of stuff?
Dara: I don't know. Well, it depends on the context. I'll talk about an ideal situation. The other thing that I'm really big on right now, or maybe have always been big on but am talking about now, is being in relationship. Being in relationship to yourself. Being in relationship to your friends, family, partner, your colleagues, your team, and being in relationship to your work. And then to whoever your work is in relationship to, also being in relationship there. I think what is really fundamental is increasing our ability to be in deeper relationship in all of these capacities, in all of these venues.
To be in relationship really means fundamentally being in greater intimacy with whatever is really happening. All of the externally focused relationships are fundamentally predicated on the intimacy with yourself. So you can't really be in relationship with your client, you can't really be in relationship with your work, you can't really be in relationship with your partner, your friends, your family, if you are not fundamentally in deep intimate relationship with yourself.
Marcus: Which is the hardest relationship to foster in many cases.
Dara: Why do you think that's the case?
Marcus: I think it's because it is scary. I always find that it is easy to love and trust other people, but when it comes to yourself you sort of know... actually I can't say you, but I... this is personal experience. Everything that I think I know that is going on, and I know there are subconscious things going on that I am not aware of, but you can't lie to yourself. You always know whether you are hiding something or not, and that can be a scary place to go to. You can easily project an image that somebody else's life is going well, that someone else has the perfect job, the perfect family, the perfect home, but you can't project that onto yourself, because you are aware of all the insecurities and the monologue that is going around in your head.
For me it has been a long journey to get to the point where I feel quite comfortable in myself, but it is hard. But to be able to see the good and the value in someone else, I find that has always been relatively easy.
I can't speak for other people, but I have spoken to quite a lot of other people about this, and it always seems to be that inner monologue, or society, or whatever, that is saying, No, you're not good enough. You need to do more, and it's hard to break down that barrier.
Dara: Yes, the scarcity thing is a big theme in our society. I don't remember what it is exactly, but Brene Brown in her Power of Vulnerability teaching, she ties it back to a particular moment in our recent history, I can't remember what it was right now, but she says, This thing happened and since then we have been in scarcity.
So what is interesting is if we set up this polarity of scarcity, the other end of the polarity is abundance. It's really interesting for me to think about how we can get that polarity to flip in our experience. This is a phenomena that often happens in facilitating groups. You see a polarity flip. The conversation is about authenticity, everyone is talking about authenticity, and at some point in the conversation someone starts pretending and the whole conversation becomes about pretending and pretext. So there is this natural flip that is possible, because these polarities are so... I don't know if it's because of how we are wired and make associations, because we are such a highly associative species, but that is really interesting.
There is this scarcity polarity then there is the me and the you. This separation. That is another really fascinating one to think about. I could go in many directions.
Marcus: I think the separation is interesting. I think that is something that would be really interesting to visit. I was also interested in what you think that the worldview of abundance looks like to you?
Dara: I think it's related to the separation one, because I think if scarcity is in a fundamental way I'm not good enough, I'm not working enough, I'm not... that whole 'enough thing' - it's deeply individualised. The experience of it is as an individual which is fundamentally being separate. I think that the way that we have learned in the contemporary West is to quell that thirst for connection, or in this case the more positive spin, to quell this I'm not enough fear, so instead of going towards connection we go towards consumption.
The whole abundance idea starts to be stuff outside of our self. Materials objects, experiences, things, people, promotion. I think to reorient abundance on this scale with scarcity is that it becomes, Not only am I fundamentally good enough, but I know how to resource myself, I know how to be in connection with myself and others. I know how to fundamentally trust that I can navigate any situation and any scenario that I am presented with, or invite into my life or that I enter into. So fundamentally that ability to navigate your life and to have the skills and the tools to do so, and to know at some deep fundamental level that you are not separate, that you are not alone, I think that's how I would characterize the abundance worldview at this moment.
Marcus: How have you managed to get to that point in yourself?
Dara: I think it's a practice. My life story is that I was invited into decision making about my own life at a very early age, like preschool. I was making decisions about my life, and it was sort of magical. I learned the power of how to make decisions for my life, and I would make a decision and then that thing would happen. Especially because I was doing it from such a young age, maybe honestly too young, but I developed this really strong internal compass. Moral, ethical, judgement compass that I have been working at for most of my life.
Marcus: What do you mean when you say that you were invited into it?
Dara: My parents were like, What do you want to do?, and I would say, I want to do that. And they would say, Okay. So I didn't grow up with a lot of expectations in an external sense. There are always expectations in the family constellation of like, what you can and cannot feel, what you can and cannot talk about, there are always those social dynamics. But when it came to what do I want my life to be like, from a super young age, my parents were like, You tell me. So they really invited me into that decision process about my life. Then they nurtured my curiosity. I still have this joke with my dad where I will say, I have a question and then I have a second question after I've asked you that question. So I've always been asking questions and then they have been answering my questions about life.
I wasn't made to do a lot of things. It's funny because in some ways I wasn't really disciplined, but then on another level I have a huge amount of personal discipline that I've cultivated because my decisions and my expectations have always been my own. That's a really different way of growing up than the average person experiences. That's the thing that when I speak... NYU is my alma mata... sometimes I give a talk to the students and they are like, But how did you just follow what you just felt is what you wanted to do. For me it is a process of mining the things that have been so second nature to me, so that I can help other people enter into that in themselves.
Marcus: I think that is the interesting bit. That space between the thing that I want or need to be doing, what is the thing that I can feel intuitively is the right thing to be doing now, and what is the thing which I feel like I 'should' be doing. It can be a really hard line to find, especially if it is someone who hadn't really spend anytime in that inquisitive, curiosity phase where it is suddenly like, Okay all the things that I have been listening to, all the things that I thought, actually maybe that is not the truth. How do I now find out what my own path is and what is the path that I've told I should be taking. I find that a fascinating question.
Dara: Yes. That as human beings we are fundamentally a creative species. We have done this amazing thing with language, that all of these terms are so loaded. Even if you say creativity people have such a loaded image or a very particular definition of what it means to be creative or a creative. It becomes an identity. But I think it is so fundamental to who we are and I think in the journey of understanding what you want your life to be, getting connected with however you are creative is a huge thing. It probably changes. It might be lots of things, but it is super important.
Marcus: I've been having this conversation around creativity with quite a few people recently and there often seems to be this thing where people will say I want to do some X,Y,Z. I want to do something [maybe directly] creative. I want to paint. I want to do poems. Or maybe it is something more abstractly creative. I want start a project. I want to lead this group of people in something. But especially with the more artistically creative pursuits I've heard this question of Yes, I want to but I haven't really worked out what the point of doing it is yet, so I keep putting it of. We live in a world that I feel has created the idea that creativity needs to have an end result. That you need to be creative to achieve... this. Rather than, my opinion, which is only my own opinion so may be wrong, is that creating something is a chance just to be. It is a chance to express yourself. It's a space where you don't have to have an ultimate goal to satisfy someone else. It's a way of being alive. So it confuses me, but also takes me back to a time where I used to think, Oh I'd love to do all these things. I'd love to write. I'd love to be an artist, but I studied the wrong thing. I haven't got the right qualification. I haven't got the right experience to do this.
But somewhere along the line I realised that I was waiting for someone external to tell me that I'm qualified to be this person that I want to be, rather than just being it. But I think it's a hard one to persuade people that they don't have to wait for someone else to tell them they can do something or allow them to do something.
Dara: Totally. So there is that, right? That's getting more into self-authoring. That's how I would talk about it. How are you defining being made up by your own internal sense of who you are and what the world needs.
The other thing that it makes me think about, I was just speaking with my mentor Rob Mathimer, and he has this whole inquiry that drives all of his life around death, because he had a near death experience. He died and he is alive now. That is something that drives him and he talk about a lot. We were just speaking, him and I, before this conversation we are having now, and he said something to the effect of, Every time that we trade our aliveness for something else we enter a delusion that we are going to have some other chance to do it at some other point in our life. So how can we not put off our happiness, or what makes us really alive for another job, or another relationship, or retirement or whatever it is, and deeply enter into the reality that our life is incredibly variable, that we are incredibly variable and that we have no idea when it's going to end. And it ends. It fundamentally ends.
So to try and tie a lot of these things together, in this line of conversation I'm thinking about post-industrial society and doing, and how so many of our systems around work, and how we organise and accomplish work are still really fundamentally tangled up in the logic of being a factory worker. We trade X for Y and that becomes Z, which is totally not how our world functions at all. Not even mentioning how, at least in the States, the dollar has been divorced of productivity for decades. But we still use this simple linear logic of Well, I have to do X,Y,Z. I have to make sure I'm being productive. We use this production logic so deeply in how we organise ourselves and our internal lives, not just the work we do, when we are actually in a very different place socially. Things are way more complex than that. Prediction has gone out the window. Climate change and global warming are a real thing. We don't know what's emerging and we try and solidify things in a rigid way by using this really outdated logic.
I don't know. It's like the liveliness that becomes possible when we start to undo a lot of these dynamics are fundamentally what we need as a species to survive.
Marcus: Why do you think we are so far from that or do you think it is changing?
Dara: I definitely think it is changing. So when I was a college student and I was starting to study mind/body awareness techniques and identity, so this was over 10 years ago, my orientation was, Well, I will have to get a real job, and then on the side I'll volunteer or teach mind body awareness for the people that are interested in it. It's super becoming mainstream now. Everybody has at least heard the word mindfulness now, if not tried to participate in some mindfulness activity. That is a good signal that things are changing. We are trying to become more mindful. It's a good question. The easy answer or the answer I would have said even maybe a few years ago is that we are super disembodied society, which I still think is true, but it is changing. We have yoga and meditation and new practices that people are using to become more connected to themselves. I think the big barrier that we are bumping up against is that we don't know how to have conversations. We don't know how to talk about reality and what is really going on for ourselves. There is the whole gamete of being connected to yourself, having that intimacy, paying attention to your physically, to your emotions, being able to identify and name what is going on for you, having the ability to articulate what is going on for you, and then bringing that into conversation, and then when being in conversation being able to work with your nervous system to a certain extent so that you can actually stay in relationship not only to yourself but to whoever you are in conversation with, so that you can work on that material.
In my view, that is the next big skill set that we need as humans. I think that is why you are seeing this proliferation of coaching and facilitation, and the sort of work that I do. I live in the New York City bubble, at least here it is becoming more mainstream.
Marcus: I think that the idea of the bubble is really interesting. That is something that I struggle to work out sometimes. I feel that there seems to be a lot more people talking about their mental health, their lifestyle and how they can live more inline with their own values, but then I also realise that that is what I do. I go around and talk to people who have navigated difficult parts of life and found an urge to go deeper, to explore and enquire about the deeper meaning behind their life. Then I start to think, are there more conversations going on about it, or is it just because I am at the centre of them? Also because of what I do people come up to me more often, because they know that I'm quite willing to talk about my own difficult things I've been through. So more people talk to me so I get this impression that everyone is thirsty to talk. But then actually whenever I step outside of that bubble, I realise that often that is very far from the case. Often people just don't talk. So I'm always keen to explore how I can step outside of that and not just talk to the people who are already talking about it.
Dara: There are two things that come to mind. I definitely think there are at least more national conversations about pain and power happening than ever before. The #MeToo movement is the easiest one to cite. We just had this very public display of negotiating power and gender, with the Bret Kavanagh and Dr. Ford case. So, we are getting a more intimate look into people's lives in this way than any of the generations before us have. The other thing that I think about it, there is something happening, because we are on this sort of exponential time zone right now, in the way that technology is functioning, the amount of knowledge that people have access to, all of these things were on this sort of exponential development curve that is starting to, or will soon, out strip our ability for understanding. The complexity gap is very real, between the amount of complexity that someone can hold and work with, and the complexity in the environment. There is this exponential curve that we are on and part of this is fundamentally these other ways of knowing and being.
Psychedelics is an interesting conversation that is happening right now. I think one of the first things my partner said to me this morning was that psilocybin has just been put on the fast track for clinical trials. And MDMA was before that. This is not the first time these psychedelics have emerged in our society. They have been around for a long time. Michael Pollan has a new book out about this too. Something happened where our parents generation, so my parents were hippies, the 60s/70s generation, when they encountered psychedelics there was this free love thing, but there wasn't a lot of grounding in it. Now we are seeing this thing reemerge in this society and this exponential curve that we are on from our parents generation to where we are now enables us to go so much further with it than they were capable of. Which is all to say that there is an incredible amount of progress in the desire for self understanding, and not just the age old question of What's the meaning of life? but this real desire for understanding self and other, and why we are here and how we do life on this global scale which I think is possible because of our parents generation. I think our parents generation got as far forward as they could in the inquiry, considering their parents generations.
I think there is also this explontial thing happening in being able to process the karma, or the epigenetics, or however you want to talk about the generations that have come before us.
Marcus: What is epigenetics?
Dara: I'm probably going to butcher this, but this is how I understanding of it. So you have genes and your genes aren't just a static thing. They actually fundamentally change how they are expressed over your lifetime depending on what you have been exposed to. Then that gets passed on to you. There was an article I came across yesterday about how, epigenetically, through the paternal line there is a transference of trauma. For example, the trauma that your father was exposed to and the trauma that his father was exposed to shows up in you genes in a way that is open to being expressed in different ways depending on what you are exposed to in your life.
Marcus: So when we start to deal with our own trauma we are actually dealing with the trauma of the generations that have gone before us. That is very interesting. I was driving through Europe with a German friend recently. He is in his mid twenties and he was talking about the work that he does around, a very specific thing for the German people, how the work he does especially with men's circles, is getting to a point where they can deal with trauma that goes back generations and how it's not talked about. That is a very specific example that comes out of a country at a very specific point in time, but we got talking around that idea and how the longer we repress talking about the hurt that we are feeling, and the generations of hurt that came before, we just pass that on, and on and on. It's been going on for centuries. So if we are at all at a point where we are ready to be the people that step forward to start those conversations, I feel that that is one of the most revolutionary things that we can do.
Dara: Totally. So the thing that I want to say is that I feel there is a moral imperative for us to do that. And there is a parallel for me that is so direct in this conversation in what is happening to the planet and our ability to metabolise the trauma that has been passed through us and is in us. I think they are deeply related. Our ability to deal with that is also our ability to deal with the other thing.
So this question that I mentioned to you that has been on my mind a lot recently is, i'll say it in two different ways. One, how do you get someone bought into their own development, and sort of similar, how do you get someone connected to their own pain and suffering?
I was watching a live stream last night of one of lineage holders of the meditation practice that I practice in, his name is Dan Brown, he is a Harvard psychologist. He is like an encyclopedia, he is incredible and he has had an amazing life. Last night he was talking about how someone was asking him, how can you meditate on joy and gratitude and all of these things in the face of utter suffering? If you are exposed to this real visceral suffering, like whole villages being wiped out, starvation, asylum, all of this. He shared a lot, but the thing that really stuck with me, because it gives me a new lens on this question, is because when you work to help someone heal their trauma, the trauma that they have been exposed to, their moral development far out seeds the average person. So the equation of trauma, pain and suffering, being worked with and dealt with directly means that you reach a level of morality that could potentially impact thousands or millions of people. And he gave some some really amazing examples, which I won't do into right now. That's really interesting to me because, not even going into the politics of [the USA] right now, not even do we need these incredibly moral role models, we need the development of morality and the ethics of our society needs to be baked into how we function. It's not. It's not rewarded. I mean, often the opposite of morality is rewarded, at least financially, in our society. The whole continuation of the species is definitely at risk and the way we get to the moral development is through the pain and suffering.
It doesn't answer the question, but that's what you made me think about.
Marcus: We talked about this the other day as well. The aversion we have towards pain and suffering is, I think, something that, not everyone, but most people are taught to avoid that or maybe not even taught, but learn from the world around them that that is the thing that we need to avoid. We need to seek pleasure and to avoid all pain and suffering. But really pain and suffering is an inevitable part of life, and so to avoid it is impossible. If we have the understanding that avoiding pain is impossible, and we know that we have to go through pain, then it feels better to learn how to navigate pain and how to learn from pain and to be able to ultimately be able to move through that pain, than it is to repress that pain. But it is not something that we generally are given tools to do.
Dara: Yes, that's right. I think, it is Bradshaw, who really pioneered this work in getting in touch with the infant self. His work is fascinating. One of the things that he says is that your parents keep you from feeling the emotions that they cant feel. We learn fundamentally from our family systems. So off the bat, if our parents can't feel pain and suffering, if they can't feel fear... maybe they can't feel happiness, they keep us from feeling those things so they don't have to feel them. Because it is too scary for them. I just think the invitation is that we have to learn how to sit with it. Not only is the outcome that you become a more morally responsible person and that you could impact thousands of people, but that you... what I believe is real is that you can't just shut down part of your sensing system or your feeling system. You can't shut down pain and expect to have really high experiences of joy. You just can't. That is not how we work. We are incredibly sensitive beings and most of what we do in our daily lives disconnects us from that sensitivity. If we are able to sit and ground back down into our sensitivity, or train your mind and your systems so that pain and suffering are energy and motion, that it has a different texture and a different flavour but you don't sink down into it... that's like the watered down buddhist perspective.
Marcus: We have nearly been talking for an hour. I was wondering if there is anything that you are thinking about at the moment or keen to explore more that you would like to talk about now?
Dara: I feel like I did a lot of that, especially how do we get people bought into their pain and suffering? How do we get people bought into their development? The alternative to dealing with your pain and suffering is that you numb out or you become an addict... however you deal with it. I think the people who think that their lives are going pretty well, and they are not suffering from addiction, they are probably numbing out. Netflix and chill. Binge watch that show.
Marcus: I had this conversation the other day with a friend, the feeling that it is imperative to get people to start talking about the difficult bits in their lives, and she said, what about the people that get up and go to work, they are relatively happy, they don't do any self inquiry, they just come home and go to bed. What's wrong with that? They are not causing any harm to anyone and they are getting by. I wasn't sure. I didn't have a firm answer, but my assumption was that if someone is not dealing with the things that are going on and just gliding through life, then they may be in a place that they are okay, but what about the people around them? Is there some moral duty to search out the things that are happening in your life? To search out the hidden traumas in your life so you can help be part of creating wider societal change, or is it okay to just be like, I'm not that interested in exploring myself further and I'm happy to come home and watch Netflix. I'm happy to just stay in this bubble and not explore.
Dara: It's a good question. I think the level of complexity that we live in and the degree to which, even if we don't want to acknowledge it, the degree to which we are fundamentally connected. If nothing else, this planet we live on connects us. There are multiple ways. We have to stop thinking about ourselves as individuals. I think that's a big deal. We are in such a highly individualistic society, and I think this is one of the fundamental changes we are going to see in the next few decades, is that this craving for community and real connection is the only way that we are going to be able to persist.
I think there is that piece of it, and I think we are in this post-modern flat lands thing, where everyone gets to have their own idea about things, and it's all the same, and everything we do, like going to work, cooking dinner, watching Netflix, spending time with our children, it's all the same, there is no value judgement. I think that we have got to get rid of. We need value judgements that are humane and are not built on a dominator politics, but are built on a developmental politics. Those are some sketches of ideas.
You can't do someone else's work for them. They need to be ready. I think increasingly we are going to find that the situations and the dynamics we find ourselves in are going to outstrip our capacities. So I also think there is something fundamentally compassionate and human about saying, If you are not showing up for your life and you are not taking care of your aliveness, not only are you just dying, and living a sort of dead existence, you just are not going to be able to cope.
I mean we are talking about genetically engineered humans, the future is now. We need to make serious ethical judgements pretty soon. I mean really already, or years ago. We need the capacity to do that. More and more people are negotiating this at the level of their daily lives. Less and less, the decisions we make over our own lives are being externalised or exported to an expert. There is less expertism as we take more matters into our own hands. I think we are going to need to be able to negotiate these dynamics.