When We Approach
Change as a Gift
An Interview with Mikela and Philip Tarlow
By Melissa West
Philip and Mikela Tarlow offer seminars around the world in "psychological futurism," empowering individuals and corporations to creatively respond to the unknown shape of our personal and collective futures. Mikela has a social science and organizational analysis background while Philip is an internationally recognized artist. Both bring personal passion and decades of serious spiritual work to their workshops.
Currently on a national tour promoting Mikela's book, Navigating the Future: A Personal Guide to Achieving Success in the New Millennium, I talked with them in Houston where Philip was also attending a gallery opening of his work.
Personal Transformation: "Navigating the Future" offers a ground breaking program for finding new ways of coping in a world of accelerated change. How did you move into this work?
Mikela: In the last six years we've noticed a distinct difference in the concerns that people have: more uncertainty about the future, difficulty in planning ahead given the velocity of cultural change. The work also came out of a time of despair in our own lives when we had left the city where we had been living for eight years, and the organization we were working with so closely.
Philip: For a while we didn't have any up, down, or sideways. We didn't have an identity anymore, and went through a period of deep questioning. You could call it despair in that we knew we could never go back to what we had been doing. It had to be something different, and we had no clue what it was going to be. Out of that despair a new and tremendously creative life was born.
PT: What is the place of despair in the process of change?
Mikela: Despair is the deeply creative moment when you know it's impossible to continue the old way. When you hit that wall, breakthrough is always just on the other side. More and more people are being pushed to that despair point because of the accelerating change and resulting chaos in our culture.
PT: Given that most of us don't welcome despair, what encouragement can you offer for working with despair as an ally?
Mikela: Accept that your despair is valid and important. In this culture we try so hard to fix everything that's uncomfortable. Find people who can give you comfort and support without trying to fix you. When we are surrounded by community, it is a lot easier to go through those dark spaces.
Philip: If you don't feel your despair you can get stuck in it. Despair is a normal part of a cycle of feelings, but if we get too scared to feel it fully, then it can go on and on. Suppressed despair isn't different from any other suppressed feeling, suppressed sadness or even suppressed joy. Suppression of despair blocks chi, if you want to use that terminology, and you're stuck because you're sitting on something that wants to move just like any other feeling.
PT: What is the greatest gift of despair?
Mikela: Through despair you reach out to something new. You find new depths and creativity in yourself. Hope and new life are the natural results of feeling your despair and moving through it.
PT: What do you see people hope for?
Mikela: Hope is a feeling that there's something beyond what you see in front of you: that there's always something greater and more miraculous in the unknown.
PT: So it isn't hope for a particular outcome?
Philip: This kind of hope is based on growing experiences of the essential goodness of human beings and the essential creativity of life. Elders used to be role models who allowed you to hope because you saw they embodied the extraordinary resilience of the human being and the creative nature of life itself. That hope was passed down in a very organic and natural way from the elders to everyone else.
PT: Then hope happens in two ways. First, hope naturally flowers once you move through the threshold of despair. The other way is that hope can be "caught" from elders.
Philip: I have actually experienced that second way just watching my father. He's 87, working on his second book, and more full of enthusiasm than when he was a younger person. If I were living in a community where elders were an inspiration to others, I would have an entirely different understanding of hope and faith.
PT: It sounds like despair is the other side of the coin from faith and hope. We want to jump to faith and hope, but what you are saying is that hope is an organic outcome of either listening to someone who has been through the cycles enough or just trusting that cycle in our own life.
Mikela: I don't think they're even two sides of the same coin. Despair and hope are just integral parts of the same process. You can't have deep hope without having experienced deep despair. In writing Navigating the Future, I did a massive amount of research about what's happening in our culture. There's a chapter that didn't make it into the book that was just terrifying. One very unexpected thing that happened to me out of writing about how bad things are is that I began to feel hope. I can't explain it, but in some ways I feel more hopeful than I have felt in a long time, and in the midst of having more depressing knowledge than I've ever had. Despair and hope are intertwined, both results of being deeply involved in life.
PT: So, allowing ourselves to fully enter into despair stretches our hearts and souls and increases our carrying capacity for life itself.
PT: In "Navigating the Future" you write about carrying the future within us. What do you mean by that?
Mikela: We hold a knowledge of the future in our body. When we get people more connected to their feelings and a sort of kinesthetic sensing of the world, they seem to go to a knowledge of their own personal future. The future does not exist in time; you never reach the future. The future is only touched when you go more deeply into your own experience.
Philip: Our notion of time is just a model. The Aborigines in Australia have a different model so for them it's normal to access the past or the future part of their dreamworld. Just as there are different languages, there are also different concepts of time. Thinking of the future as "out there" in our linear way can lead to hopelessness, like you're eternally chasing a carrot.
Mikela: This whole linear model of the future that you have to run toward pulls you away from yourself. It is a constant looking outward.
PT: In that looking outward, so many of us become afraid of the future.
Mikela: I think our fear of the future is our fear of losing control. Much of the journey of Western history has been a journey of control: controlling nature, controlling insects, controlling everything. I think a lot of people are realizing that life is essentially uncontrollable.
Alvin Toffler coined the term "future shock" to name the feeling that the future is arriving too quickly. You feel overwhelmed and in response you withdraw or try to numb out, losing choice about where your life is heading. But we see evidence of a new kind of sensation that we have termed "future flow." You see it most clearly in young people who are not shocked at the magnitude of change that surrounds us; in fact, they have accepted this accelerated turbulence as a fact of life that allows for new kinds of creativity. Future flow results in an attraction to, rather than denial of or withdrawal from, what lies ahead.
PT: What is left when we let go of that illusion of control over the future?
Mikela: Tremendous creativity!
PT: But if people are searching for safety through control, how can they find it once they let go?
Mikela: Well, even the desire for safety comes out of the model of control. When you start to discover your own essential creativity, you're not looking at things in terms of safety. You're more focused on the process itself.
Philip: Most people share at the end of our seminars that they felt safer than they ever had before. It's not a physical safety. It's a wide open space. There's a safety in letting go that's way beyond the safety of having a security gate around your house.
I think there's also a radically different kind of safety once you give up the illusion that you're totally in control of your own life and the process of change. When you go to the transcendent whatever you call it the feeling of safety is inherent; it's not something you need to strive after. The very nature of the transcendent is safety.
When a little child is out playing and he knows that his mother is at home, he feels safe. If he's not sure that mother's there he constricts and doesn't feel that wonderful wild energy that kids have when they know that mother is home. "Mother is at home" is that experience of the transcendent, whatever way you get it. Once you have that absolute safety, your creativity flourishes and you can let go into the process.
PT: How do you see those processes of individual transformation and cultural transformation informing each other?
Mikela: As information presses in on us, the boundaries between our personal experience and cultural experience are becoming more transparent. We are accustomed to attributing personal feelings to personal events in our life. We need to learn to see that these feelings may be information about what's happening on a larger level than our own personal story. Your feeling of depression may be about your life, but it also may be about what's happening around you. When you start to understand your experience that way, it actually becomes a source of motivation for greater involvement in cultural change.
PT: How is that?
Mikela: When you understand that your feelings are connected to the larger environment, it leads to a feeling of connection and that connection leads you to involvement. When you totally personalize your feelings, it perpetuates a bubble of isolation. Feeling connected pokes a big hole in that bubble.
We're reaching the end of a lot of paradigms: capitalism is no longer working, the economic system is reaching the edge of what is explainable. From the personal to the political, we're hitting the edges of an old system. Philip and I love working with edges. The future lives at the edge. The center of society is always locked into maintaining the status quo. New cultural ideas always come from the edge, from people who have the least to lose. In the same way, our own personal future is found at the edge, in those stray thoughts or vague sensations we ignore because we are more concerned with the "center" of our life.
Learning to discover and ride the edge of our lives is much like a surfer who catches the most productive point on a wave. We are at a moment in history where we must rewrite our fundamental assumptions about economics, career, community, healing. The only way to discover a future capable of delivering the magnitude of transformation our society needs is by learning to ride the edge.
PT: We are beginning the last year of this millennium, a huge edge. How would you suggest preparing through 1999 for the new millennium?
Mikela: 1999 is a threshold between millennia. People will be dealing with death and rebirth energy more than in any other year to date. We are surrounded both by disaster prophecies and some very real challenges. It is no accident that our millennium celebration is seriously dampened by the unknown effect of the Y2K computer problem.
In mythology there is always a guardian who watches the threshold or edge. The function of the guardian is to tell you to turn back. You don't have what it takes to go forward, it's too dangerous out there. Y2K and all the bad news scenarios function as guardians when they engender despair. The good news is that whenever you feel despair, it is always a sign that you are close to a threshold or edge. The future dwells just on the other side of that despair.
So this year, go straight for your despair. It is through feeling your way through these issues that you will discover where the edge lies. Only when you reach the edges of your despair will you be able to see a new world of possibility.
Philip: My recommendation goes back to a traditional Jewish image of the period between Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year: the archer taking aim. During that time the archer carefully takes aim, marking exactly where his arrow is to go. He looses it on the New Year and, since he has spent so much time aiming, it goes straight to the target.
We can treat this entire year as that same long moment. What a gift. Instead of having ten days to sight our targets and aim, we have a whole year. Each morning we can wake up and ask, what does this momentous time mean to me? If I'm being given a whole year to evaluate where I am, and where I want to go in this new millennium, how can I most wisely make use of that gift? Where do I want the arrow of my life to fly? When we approach change, both personal and cultural, as that archer, it all becomes a gift.