Author of “American Icarus: A Memoir of Father & Country and America on the Couch
Those who despair over the gap between their vision of a more environmentally sustainable, just and peaceful planet and the world as it is can find inspiration in Corinne McLaughlin’s call to become practical visionaries: Those activists, she says, who remain steady in their work over time by keeping their “eyes on the horizon, their feet on the ground, and their hearts on fire.”
McLaughlin, a spiritual and political activist who has taught politics at American University, is coauthor of “Spiritual Politics” with her husband Gordon Davidson (author of the forthcoming “Joyful Evolution”). They are as well founders of The Center for Visionary Leadership and The Sirius Community, and are fellows of The World Business Academy and The Findhorn Foundation.
The following is an edited version of my interview with McLaughlin on her recent book, “The Practical Visionary: A New World Guide to Spiritual Growth and Social Change”.
Pythia: I’d like to start with a simple question. What is your definition of a “visionary”?
Corinne: A visionary is someone who sees the future with both insight and foresight: Insight into the deeper causes and meaning of events in the world, and foresight, or an intuitive grasp of the big picture, such as the trajectory of politics and popular culture.
Pythia: You write in your book that you’ve seen many visionaries fail to manifest their inspiring visions. What do you find is the biggest obstacle most visionaries face?
Corinne: The problem I find with a lot of visionaries is that they’re too far ahead — perhaps their vision won’t happen for another hundred years. That’s why I like to help people focus on “next step” visions that are more doable.
Pythia: Why is being too far ahead of one’s own time a problem?
Corinne: Thinking that something that is far in the future can come sooner leads to unrealistic expectations, as well as rigid and dogmatic perspectives. It can also prevent visionaries from seeing what’s possible right in front of them. Our work is to translate what we might receive from a flash of insight into things that are useful today.
Take for example the recent uprising in Egypt. I could hold a positive vision of how this could all turn out, but I know it’s not going to be as simple as that. It’s one thing to get rid of a dictator. The harder part is to create a viable democracy that empowers people. But what I found inspiring in Egypt is how, during the revolution, the people organized their neighborhoods, created street clinics to help the wounded, and cleaned up after their demonstrations. These may seem like small things, but to me they are examples of practical, effective visionaries at work.
Pythia: You write that as a young woman in the sixties you were inspired by people in government and their dedication to public service — such as President Kennedy and Robert Kennedy — to enter government service yourself. You then went on to work at various Federal agencies, such as the Social Security Administration and President Clinton’s Council on Sustainable Development; you’ve even taught meditation to some government agencies. How did these first-hand experiences shape your development as a practical visionary?
Corinne: I believe strongly that social change isn’t just about demonstrations in the street against the wrongs in society. There is also the path of the social innovator who creates new institutions and the path of the reformer who goes within an institution and makes incremental changes. Based on my own experience, I learned that implementing a vision in an institutional setting involves working with conflict resolution and a whole systems perspective. It’s important, for instance, to have a multi-stakeholder perspective — in other words, you can’t just go charging in with your own ideas, you have to appreciate people’s different perspectives, then work to find common ground and bring the various parties to the table in a respectful dialogue.
Because I frequently encountered obstacles such as old, entrenched ideas, ongoing power struggles, or the lack of staff and money, I also learned to develop patience and detachment. In federal, state and local governments, administrations, philosophies, and policy initiatives change. If your vision aligns with the values of the current administration you’re working with, you can make some progress — but that could all change in four or six years.
Pythia: Together with your husband, Gordon Davidson, you’ve also taught the path of “Ageless Wisdom” for many decades. What has this spiritual perspective brought to your calling as a practical visionary?
Corinne: What I’ve taken from my spiritual study is the wisdom of living a balanced life. My spiritual path has also helped me to be more emotionally centered, to be more understanding of those that disagree with me, and to learn how to let go of some of my power issues so that I can be more effective and bring a sense of humility to my work — while still having the self-confidence to be effective.
Pythia: You write about how easy it is for activists to burn out, and list different ways that they can stay “spiritually sane.” What contemplative practices do you teach activists that can help prevent disillusionment?
Corinne: Many activists just see what’s wrong: they want to stand up to injustice and educate people about it. But I think it’s equally important for activists to hold a more positive vision of what’s right with their country: what’s going well, and what they’d like to grow or see more of. I also like to encourage activists to take some time each day to sit silently or take a walk in nature as a way to be in touch with their inner wisdom and peace — and to remember why they are on this path in the first place.
Pythia: Many people have the desire to bring about a better world, but don’t have an outlet for their visions or ideas. You say one place they can start is with their job.
Corinne: It’s important to keep in mind that we never know how something as simple as passing along an idea or asking an important question might impact someone. A first step on the path of being a practical visionary, for example, might begin by having conversations with co-workers, or by simply creating a better atmosphere at work. It could be setting up a brown bag lunch and bringing in speakers. For some people bringing spirit into the workplace means doing good quality, honest work, or finding a way to give back to their local community; if you’re the boss, it could mean finding ways to support your employees; for others it’s about protecting the environment.
If you’re not within an institutional framework, there are other things that you can do: You can begin by giving more support to those around you, such as your own family. You can bring more of your ideas and visions into your neighborhood and community, such as inviting people into your living room for a monthly dialogue. I did something like this around an area called “transformational politics.” I’ve also organized neighborhood gatherings where we’ve examined how we can better support each other, such as watering each other’s gardens during vacations, exchanging childcare or by borrowing each other’s tools.
I also encourage people to go on the internet and expand their vision by pursuing new ideas and learning what other people around the world are doing. These days it’s so much easier to find a support group around any idea you could dream of — just Google it! Inner work also helps by identifying those old attitudes that keep us stuck in the belief that there’s nothing we can do.
Pythia: Underlying everything you describe is the fundamental idea of inter-connectivity — that we’re all linked.
Corinne: Yes, at heart this is the spiritual perspective that we’re one human family, and at our core we all want the same thing: a good family, a healthy neighborhood and society where we can have meaningful work and pursue our dreams, and where we can have a sense of security. The media is making this sense of interconnection very tangible — it’s not some abstract idea anymore.
Pythia: Indeed in your book you refer to “the world’s that’s to come,” or the “new world that is being born.” Can you say more about what you mean by that?
Corinne: To me the “new world” is the world of practical visionaries creating solutions to the problems we’re facing today, whether it’s poverty, violence, environmental pollution, regulating corporations or the way we treat criminals in our social justice system. But it also refers to a set of common values, or “new world values”: This includes compassion; a sense that we are all in this together; the search for common ground and mutually beneficial solutions; a sense of a whole system and how each issue is interconnected with all the others; and honoring the good of the whole and the greatest good for the greatest number. There’s a sense of the value of long-term sustainability and prevention, versus fixing a problem after it’s occurred, like the BP oil spill. Over the years, I’ve found that when we examined what worked in all three sectors — non-profit, federal government or business — it was these kinds of values that contributed to an effective outcome.
I also describe these values as part of a “new world” because there is a sense of mutual recognition and support among people from different fields who share this common set of underlying principles, and who are helping to create these new solutions.
Pythia: You also write that one of the places we can catch a glimpse of this new world is in reruns of “Star Trek: The Next Generation”: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Star_Trek.
Corinne: The spiritual principles (in Star Trek) aren’t dated at all! For example, because of plots involving interspecies communication, the show dealt very cleverly with problems of racism, and different cultural customs around marriage and mating. The crew had to draw on principles like cooperation in order to accomplish things; they solved problems between themselves by using a mix of courage, patience and tolerance. There were episodes based on spiritual themes like loyalty, the willingness to sacrifice and to give support to the next generation. The writers also raised issues around psychic phenomena, and how some of these powers could be misused. In fact, it would be great if someone could categorize the lessons so someone could go directly to one of the episodes!
Pythia: Going back in time, do you believe the Founding Fathers were practical visionaries?
Corinne: Yes: They had a vision for a better world, and their visions have withstood the test of time. Indeed, when you say “the new world,” people usually think of America — it was even regarded as the new world at that time. The Founders also faced incredible obstacles, and had to be very practical politicians as well as diplomats.
Pythia: Do you have a favorite Founding Father?
Corinne: I would say Thomas Jefferson, for his connection to the earth and the way he understood the importance of the agrarian aspects of society, his sense of democracy and the way he challenged the established order, and his visionary writings that still inspire us. James Madison was also brilliant in the way he sought common ground among the Founders.