Notes from the Field: Let’s Meet in Istanbul

Yene Assegid

SubSaharan Africa Bureau Chief, Integral Leadership Review

Yene Assegid“When you reach the Hagia Sofia, go towards the Blue Mosque and take a left – there we will be.”

After a long journey from Freetown, Sierra Leone to Istanbul, Turkey, through Casablanca, Morocco, I arrived in Istanbul and fumbled across this new place to find my little hotel. It had been a little over 30 hours of travel and by the time I reached my bed, I could only collapse into sleep. In the early hours of the morning, I remember a moment of semi-sleep, when I was enveloped by the sounds of ancient songs of prayer. I was not sure where I was. It took time to realize that I had traveled and that I was in Istanbul in a room that had not yet become mine. The prayers were so intense, the voices so clear and ancient. I remember opening up my soul to them and turning over in the sheets to close my eyes again and travel through time, nursed by the sounds sent enchantment and praise to God. I am not sure if I can say that it was meditative. It was certainly something completely new to me, yet, somewhere in my being, I knew that this moment was a gift and opening to a new field of existence.

It was this April. This would be our second gathering for what we had called “Integral sans Frontières”. We, we were individuals from across the world who decided to gather to share and discuss the application of the integral approach to international development. We came from everywhere and on this day we would come together to co-create yet another level of understanding of how we can use the palettes of integral for our individual paintings in expression of our dreams and vision for this world.

Our story started in October 2006, when a small group of international development practitioners met in Perpignan, France to explore ways to support each other in applying the integral approach to international development. All the “I’s” merged in a “we”. This “we” encompassed the world. We meshed together South America, North America, Canada, Europe, Africa, Asia and Australia and birthed a community reflecting the expression of integral through so many cultures and environments. It is an understatement to say that it was great; it was rather a precious gift to witness and experience how much was being done around the world. At the end of the gathering, a beautiful fieldcame into being and anchored its foundation in the four corners of the world.

Personally, I had come to Perpignan with curiosity, enthusiasm and a desire to learn, as well as the hope of having our questions answered. I believe this is also true for most participants. At the end of Perpignan, it seems we went home with even more questions than we came with. Yet, I believe that, collectively, we also left knowing that in this field of inquiry we could indeed count on one another to deepen both our understanding of what is so in the world and how we can use all of what integral offers to raise our efficacy in finding solutions for the great inequities of current global reality. The greatest success of Perpignan, in my opinion, was the birth of Integral Sans Frontières, “ISF”, (integral without borders). Emails, visits and phone calls kept our energy and conversations continuing. Through it all our commitment was to find means to meet again and further deepen that which we started.

About a year and half later we re-grouped; this time in Istanbul, Turkey in April 2008. It feels so good to see that the baby that was born in France had grown to become a toddler and it had just started to take its first steps. And this baby took us for a stroll in Istanbul to a place located a stone throw away from the Hagia Sofia and the Blue Mosque. We were soaked in the colors of this ancient city. Wherever we went, whatever we saw, whatever we heard, we were reminded of ancient history, legends, dreams and visions that are as old as the world itself. This baby was born among close to 20 or so of us in France. This time, the family had grown; there were 48 relatives and many more who sent their energies but could not be part of the gathering. Once more, the whole world was there as we each brought with us our own spheres of existence. There was, however, something different this time. There was something even more beautiful than last time. What was beautiful was the witnessing of how ISF had evolved; it had expanded.

Some say that if you dare to stand like a beacon, your light will be seen by those who also carry part of the light. Gail Hochachka, Paul van Schaik and Emine Kiray stood there with their commitment to organize and to bring us together. We each responded to their call and came with our own light. There are not enough words to express the inspiration that resulted. We shared. We talked. We presented. We learned. We laughed. We cried. We danced. We sat in silence. We just “were”. It was beyond the discussion of theory. It was beyond throwing around Boulder jargon or flexing integral weights to show off muscle definition. It was beyond brainwork. Now this modest field we had seeded in Perpignan was unfolding in the direction of the full expression of humanity.

Diane Hamilton came and spent a full day with us telling us about Big Mind and Big Heart. I had been in her sessions before and did not really understand what was so special about this Big Mind and Big Heart. This time in Istanbul I had a glimpse of how the process of Big Mind and Big Heart can allow us to transcend current stages and for a moment access states of higher consciousness. I was touched by her session because in all the seriousness of the matter she maintained humor and lightness of heart. We traveled with Big Mind and Big Heart up and down the altitudes, swaying from the Feminine and Masculine expression, touching upon the different spaces of the quadrants. For the first time I experienced this process as a vessel to journey inwards and gain a deeper understanding of that which I call “me”. I am not yet able to put in words what we learned other than to say that this session made an opening to loosening our gross level lived knowledge so that we could experience the world in its oneness.

I brought so much of Istanbul back with me to Freetown, to “Salone” as we call it here. The gathering was designed to allow us time for theory and also to allow time for exchange through World Cafes and through presentation of the various projects we are working on. I was given a chance to update the participants on Integral Africa. Although my intention was to present the ups, downs and next steps in this journey, it happened that as I made my presentation I came to realize that the journey of Integral Africa had come full circle. We had gone from the concepts to the formulation, to attempting implementation, to experiencing the challenges for launching, to breaking down and to being now in a space of choice: to get up and continue or just give up. The realization materialized right there as I was presenting. I came also to realize that what we try to do on the outside is a reflection of what is within us, inside. I came to terms with if I wanted to contribute to the transformation of how things are in Africa, then, first I must look to myself and allow the transformation to take place within me first and the rest will come. It is about shedding light on the fears, anger and anxiety that may lay low in the shadows and releasing it, so that I can allow myself to truly be a channel for change. I believe that to be a vessel for compassion, love and evolution, it takes our willingness to go to the places of vulnerability and alliance with ego in order to let Big Mind and Big Heart take the driver’s seat. Diane always starts her session with “Control” to get permission to conduct her session. Unless I give myself permission to be all that I am, I can’t possibly be a conduit for the change and transformation I envision in the world. I thank God for all the challenges and obstacles so far, because these obstacles have been a sources of learning and wisdom.

A presentation from Walberto Tejeda, Project Coordinator of Centro Bartolome de las Casas, El Salvador described how they started their program of ending violence against women by working with men. It was such an inspiration to hear of this process and its impacts so far. He told us that they just started with five friends and today hundreds have gone through the program. Today, in just a few years, 755 men, from Chile, Honduras and Nicaragua have gone through the Masculine program and transformed their lives to becoming compassionate partners to their wives and families. 220 men are enrolled for 2007 and 2008 in a school for learning the Masculine program, developed by Bartolome de las Casas. I believe that for us in Africa a similar path can be possible for leadership development programs. We can also start with just a few friends. There may not be empirical studies/data to support my intuition that it is the quality of leadership that we must tackle in Africa. The application of the integral approach to emerge a new quality of leadership will change the trajectory of Africa. It is something that I feel is needed and something that many others feel would transform development work on the continent. Now, instead of trying to find this data, struggling to raise funds for it, sweating to convince people about it—we have decided we are just going to start and be present to those who will hear our call and see our light. Coming to realize that the challenge in launching Integral Africa might be not necessarily related to what the program intends to offer, but rather the way in which we should get started.

yene 1In the same breath, something that really touched me was the presentation that Paul Cohen made about his experience and work on Sustainable Communities among farmers’ community in South Africa in Tlholego Village (Northwest) and Thandanani Fruit and Vegetable Growers (Kwa Zulu Natal). He was talking about his project of sustainable economies and how sustainable economies would also encompass ecological programs to sustain the communities in a harmonious relationship with their surroundings. At the end of the presentation, he had a picture. To us, the participants, it was the picture of Paul with a friend or colleague, a black South African man. For some reason, the picture touched my heart. I stood to comment and thank him for the presentation. I wanted to tell him that South Africa brings to Africa and the world lessons on bypassing our anger and restricted gross self to show us the way to transcend all that through compassion, heart and hard work. I wanted to tell him about the time that I heard President Mbeki talk about what he hopes for South Africa and how seeing him from just a few feet away and listening to him talk had showed me that South Africa is indeed a rainbow nation. That being African is not only limited to being of black skin. That Africa is now, as the world is, a nation of all ethnicities, creeds and colors. That in South Africa’s ability to re-build and re-construct its wholeness, it is also allowing us, the rest of Africa and us, the rest of the world, to look to their journey and also aim to fulfill a similar landmark. But, as I stood there to tell him that, I just broken down in tears and could not even speak. I have no idea where that came from, it just gushed out. It is strange to just be there and cry with a room full of participants who have no idea what I wanted to say. It is strange to just stand there and not be able to speak because at that moment I was in a state of realizations that South Africa “ managed”. South Africa, through its people and its leadership, albeit with some usual challenges, has managed to forgive and through forgiveness move forward. Earlier I had had breakfast with Paul and he had told me that it is through 27 years of meditation and reflection that Nelson Mandela reached a blessed state of realizations and enlightenment. He went into prison, an angry man. He came out of prison being an expression of heart, compassion and courage, incarnating the greatness of creation.

Text Box: “If there are dreams about a beautiful South Africa, there are also roads that lead to their goal. Two of these roads could be named Goodness and Forgiveness”. Nelson MandelaAnd as I am typing these word, sitting in my little study on Barbadori Hill Road in Freetown, Sierra Leone, West Africa, Africa, Planet Earth, Universe, all and nothing at once, I wonder whether when we speak of an integral approach, we are ready to look within ourselves and face our own greatness and our own mediocrity. Are we willing to stand in our fullness with all the beauty and ugliness of our being? Are we willing to find in ourselves the one that is able to kill another and commit atrocities and also find the one that can forgive the killer so that a path to healing and re-building is possible? Are we there yet? Are we even on the path or is all this just intellectual discourse? There is a place of acceptance, of surrender. There is a place where the texture of being is literally not felt because it is so subtle and because it just is. There is a place like that where we go when we are showered by the timeless morning prayers we heard from the Blue Mosque, where the words, the sounds and melody has remained unchanged for as long as time has been. And when I sit in silence, typing these words, I realize today is a beautiful day in Freetown. I can see the ocean from my window and it is just there, as it is there every day, only that today is a very clear day, so I can see the ocean. There are days that I can’t see it, when the day is foggy. But the ocean is always there, it is up to me to know that it is there. It is up to me to notice its presence. It is up to me to remain mindful of it because no matter rain or shine, peace or war, night or day, it is always there. In the same way, what the integral approach brings to us, has always been there. It is nothing new. The only new thing is that the approach gives us the language and the tools to see with clarity that which has always been and always will be. As it is up to me to see and notice the ocean, so it is also up to us to see and notice that to which the integral approach is pointing to, beyond the fog the scaffolding of theory, terminologyand jargon.

That first morning when I was enveloped by the timeless chants of prayer and I re-closed my eyes and rolled into the sheets to fully soak in history, so I hope we can also find our way to envelop the world and re-close our eyes and roll in the sheets of our own individual worlds to merge with the world, to merge with that which has always been, so that compassion, love, courage will flow out of our beings.

It is our ability to integrate all of that that will allow us to become a full expression of the universe and the divine so that we are able to spread that expression in the world. This is what I brought back with me to Freetown, Sierra Leone.

This is what happened in Istanbul, for me.