Finding a sense of wholeness and belonging in the modern world

by Ned Hamson and Frank Heckman

The sounds of turbulence in the world today can be heard in cries of ultra-nationalism, globalism, radical expressions of individual and communal rights, a new pantheon of approaches to spiritual life, and a host of calls to rigid fundamentalism.

        People all over the world are looking for guides, answers, clues as to how we as individuals and as groups can enter the next millennium with any sense of hope, security, or courage.

        We see this as a global search for a way or means to create a new individual wholeness in which all aspects of life are united -- a way of being that does not separate art, work and spirit from each other.

        This search for a defining spirit, energy, Élan for the age ahead is at one and the same time as new as the most recently decoded genome and as old as when humankind first began living together as clusters of extended families.

        To today's radical fundamentalists the only answer to the ills and insecurity that came with advances of the ages of science and industry is to re-establish a community that integrates social, economic and religious life under a single set of rules and expectations. In this way the community and individuals within it, they believe, have a better chance of surviving the turbulence of the world today. A majority of people in the world today, however, seem to simply refuse to believe that individual freedoms have to be given up to the community to survive. Their search as individuals and as members of communities is to find a way that honors both community and individual and shows ways through which we might harmonize or re-unify art, spirit and work.

        This defining spirit or Élan is one of unity and honored diversity. The ground upon which many of us will find or give meaning to this new Élan is at work because it is at work where most of us still struggle with the fact that we can't be ourselves there; at work, we can only be workers. When Frank and I began looking at all of this in earnest,
it seemed that the means to establishing this new Èlan could be best described as a desire to live an open life.

In search of an open life
        We, as part of our culture, community, family, and the land on which we live, are held together by myths, stories, tales and how we think and believe about ourselves, our kinship and those seen as not like us. Our
"worlds" used to evolve within those boundaries of shared experience, intentions and actions. Now all of these bounding horizons are broken. Today it isn't uncommon to see a chemical engineer from Malaysia working for a German company in the United States, or an Australian mother setting up space on the World Wide Web to discuss and seek counsel in dealing with her autistic child. Ideas are pouring back and forth into the various cultures stirring up and affecting the beliefs that hold them together as never before. Our cultures, communities, families and we ourselves are struggling with these transformations. Against the backdrop of these global motions we ask : "What is my society? What is my group? What am I?"

        We'll find ourselves caught between self-preservation and the challenge of opening up to a new social image of our world.

        To see what new images of our planet may look like let's listen to what millions of working people from all over the globe (44 million in the US alone) are saying they want out of life:

        I want to succeed and grow

        I want to bring the whole being that I am to what I do; not check
my soul at the door

        I want to make a difference by contributing to my community,
society, our world!

        Working women and men from Asia, Europe, The Americas, The Middle-East and Africa say they want to experience the totality of existence -- an Open Life -- and not a bounded and broken life. What they have in common is the courage to look within and beyond and to trust what appears to be a deep sense of belonging, of wholeness, of connectedness, and of openness to the infinite.

        Paradoxically many of these people think they are alone and feel they can't share these values. They would be thrilled to find out that they have literally millions of allies across the planet who share that same essence. The desire to experience an open life is not confined to any particular race, culture or religion. People are simply saying to the
world: "We are all human beings, sharing common intentions, aspirations and experiences."

        Our rapidly changing world penetrates our lives, shifting our perception and shaking the foundations of our common understanding of ourselves, land, family and culture. That's when the urgency arises to re-establish order, to make choices and act.  One choice would be to protect and defend our social identity against these external forces. It isn't difficult to understand -- with the example of the disintegration the former Yugoslavia still before our eyes -- that this leads to more bounding, separateness and falling apart.

        The other choice is that we realize that we are not just biological beings reacting to external threats but that we are, by our very presence, the future!

        We are purposeful human beings who can and always have collectively and actively shaped their future.

        Considering the breadth and depth of the global events, changes and forces invading our lives, we no longer have the luxury of time and space to block the rest of the world out of our local worlds. It seems to catch up with us every time. What might give us peace and strength is to realize we can change our lives for the better, yours and mine, if we start from the whole working back to the parts. In other words, we can actively shape the future by expanding our own, group and cultural boundaries to the scale of our whole planet.

        Based on the shared experiences, needs and our highest aspirations (which people are already expressing), we can collectively create new images for our future and our planet. When we experience a larger picture and a sense of wholeness, the questions,  What am I, What is my group, What is my society, now have a context in which they are no longer separate identities, or choices.

        Now, I can be a Philippine woman with an American degree, working in Japan, Vietnam, China or France and ... succeed and grow, bring all that I am to work and make a difference in the world. A new social image of the
planet, in which we all have a hand in creating, gives me a sense of belonging, of wholeness and connectedness without having to forsake my love and respect for the roots of my upbringing.

Open Life Workshop
        We created a workshop, The Open Life Workshop, to create a space, time and structure in which people around the world may begin to act upon their needs for and create an Open Life.

        The Workshop is structured like a journey which will take you far, deep and beyond, with and without others, expanding your horizons with your feet on the ground.

        You examine and discuss the events that have changed the world over the last decades, share your sense of deeper purpose and higher aspiration as human beings.

        You work through and gain an understanding of how the turbulence in the world directly effect your local culture, group and yourself.

The Journey
        Through examining the history and telling the tales and myths of your "group" and culture you begin to understand what is valuable about your collective past and worth carrying with you into the future.

        As you examine and bring conscious attention to the unfolding of your own life you begin to "re-member" the parts of yourself that have become separate or isolated. The sum total is greater than that of a broken life (Are work, play, family, art, black, white, religion separate?) This consciousness or "knowing that you know" puts you in the center of your life, a powerful place from which you may initiate action.

        A raised awareness of your changing environment; a new appreciation of your collective and personal histories; and a renewed understanding of yourself and your abilities will set the stage for creating the most desirable Open Life future. (The Open Life Workshop is both a personal and collective quest leading not only to visions of a desirable future but also into meaningful dialogue on what you are willing to commit to and live

The Return
        The next step in the workshop is putting real effort into turning the desirable future into something achievable both for yourself and others by planning and designing realistic actions.  The real joy and treasure is to walk out of the workshop with a new and heightened awareness of yourself, a shift of mind, knowing that you are: a vital part of a planetary home in your own culture...actively pursuing an open life,... shaping the future and touching many others as you go.

        The Open Life Workshop is based upon and models the precept that people are responsible for their own learning and that they learn best in dialogue about their direct perception of the environments in which they live. In that sense The Open Life workshop, for the course of two days, creates an open life space, the ideal learning environment where people can work creatively, enthusiastically on their own and in community with others.

Information about the OLW
        Some of the ideas on which we based the Open Life Workshop came from the late Joseph Campbell, the great interpreter of the sacred traditions, and Peter Russell who proposed the idea of the global brain.

        The design of the workshop is based on the concepts of flow (Csikszentmihalyi) and open systems theory (Fred and Merrelyn Emery and others).  This ecological approach has the advantage that people can simultaneously learn in the context of self, community and environment. The open systems/flow design gives the process its integrity, but leaves enough creative space to make the Open Life Workshop applicable to all the different cultural situations.

        We believe that there is an important place for art and movement in the workshop. It is a universal language which can, as nothing else, express the mystical, a sense of awe, wonder and reverence as well as social outrage, pain and darkness. It will help through dance, song, painting, sculpting, multimedia, whatever seem appropriate to the local and cultural situation, to bring back the sacred and awaken the soul.

        The objective is to raise the level of our consciousness. When many people would experience this shift of mind, a change in the perception of themselves, their conspirators (conspirare = to breath together), others, their environment and the World/Planet Earth, a different and positive future will begin to unfold immediately.

        The challenge is to prepare for and organize enough of these events to stir up this "planetary motion".


Ned Hamson is the senior editor of The Journal for Quality and Participation and Frank Heckman is the co-author (with Ned Hamson) of After Atlantis: Working Managing and Leading in Turbulent Times (Butterworth Heinemann, 1997)

This article was published in New Renaissance, Volume 8, Number 4, Issue 27.