Relational Intelligence for the Visionary Activist

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By Deborah Eden Tull

This article is based on Deborah’s new book, Relational Mindfulness: A Handbook for Deepening Our Connection with Our Self, Each Other, and Our Planet (Wisdom, 2018). 

I grew up in a family of activists and change agents. Throughout my life I have been aware of visionary energy as a uniquely powerful and regenerative resource. As participants in the Great Turning, we are profoundly visionary people, and we are often moved to act on our visions. Yet I witness many of us caught in a repeating cycle of inspiration and then despair.

We do not move forward freely because we can be attached to limitations in perception that we are not aware of. We can become caught up in self-doubt or self-consciousness in communicating our vision. We may forget to ask for help or include ourselves in the “whole” that we are serving. We can become reactive rather than skillful in our communications. We may become invested in the belief that there is “not enough time” to achieve that which we set out to do. We may forget that the lens through which we perceive the world can create limitations beyond the existing reality and tough challenges we are already working with.

Our hearts see possibilities beyond the limitations we perceive in the practical world.

Each time we engage in the mind of limitation, we become a little more weary. Our investment in the inner recitation and reinforcement of the practical world’s “rules” often leads us to feel sorrow and defeat. Yet in our hearts we still yearn for the Great Turning. Our hearts see possibilities beyond the limitations we perceive in the practical world.

I believe that the missing piece of the equation is a deeper commitment to Relational Intelligence.

Relational Intelligence is a resource we each have access to deep within, and it helps us to remember that, “It’s not what we do, it’s how we do it.” Regardless of what good work we are doing, what matters most is how we are relating to life and how clearly we are seeing, moment by moment. If we are supporting the mind of limitation and separation while engaging in our work, we are supporting distortion. I believe that as agents of change, we can support one another in a deeper commitment to merging our outer and inner work. Bringing more awareness to how we relate – to ourselves, one another, and to the mind of separation – is a vital component of The Great Turning.

Relational Mindfulness offers a set of principles and practices that support us to break free from the mind of limitation.  The nine principles of RM are:  Intention, The Mindful Pause, Deep Listening, Mindful Inquiry. and Clear Seeing, Turning Towards Rather Than Away, Not Taking Personally, Taking Responsibility, Transparency, and Compassionate Action.

These principles support the shift from an “I vs. you” consciousness to a “We” consciousness.

While these principles came to me through Buddhism, they are accessible to all who want to use daily life as a laboratory for empowering our visionary self while dismantling our unconscious investment in limitation. These principles support the shift from an “I vs. you” consciousness to a “We” consciousness.

Here is a brief description of how these principles can work for us:

Intention. Relational Mindfulness begins with the intention to pay attention more fully to ourselves and to one another as we engage. With intention we can use all of our interactions and communications as a mirror for self-awareness. Our intention reminds us to be open to the field of possibility rather than limitation in how we relate with one another. Our intention reminds us to question habits and assumptions we make, even in the field of everyday relating.

The Mindful Pause. Each time we take a mindful pause and turn our attention within, we invite ourselves to relax and return—from the mind of limitation—to present moment awareness. We pause in order to access the spaciousness within and notice what lens we are perceiving through. When we abandon possibility for the mind of limitation we are able to notice this and re-set. By pausing just for a moment and attending within, we can become clearer and more honest about what we are actually  bringing to the relational field.

Deep Listening. To listen deeply is to listen from full presence. We can think of “shallow listening” as being caught up in surface thoughts, assumptions, and limiting beliefs. Deep listening means to pay attention more subtly as we listen. We might be aware of surface thoughts but they need not govern us. Relational Mindfulness invites us to cultivate deep listening with every opportunity. Only through Deep Listening can we connect and attune fully with our self and with one another. As leaders and visionaries, Deep Listening is our greatest ally.

Mindful Inquiry and Clear Seeing. Mindful Inquiry means to inquire into our present moment experience, to investigate our personal and collective conditioning. We notice the mind of limitation when it is operating and ask “Is this thought really true?”  “Am I listening to truth or delusion?” We become aware of the amounts of energy that we’ve been giving to stories, and we begin to return to undistorted reality. Given how easy it can be to get triggered in the field of relationship, it is important to have tools that help us to step back when we get caught in reactivity.

Turning Toward Rather Than Away. When discomfort, pain, or fear arises, we turn toward, rather than away from it. Most of us have been conditioned to turn away from or try to escape the challenges we face or vulnerability we might be experiencing. But in committing to being with these feelings we nourish the sensitivity and resilience
that is our ultimate strength as change agents. By turning towards discomfort in difficult interactions, we are much less likely to react unconsciously. We can take better care of ourselves and engage more skillfully.

Not Taking Personally. One of the ways that we maintain the mind of limitation is by taking things personally. We take our thoughts and emotions personally. We take things other people say and do personally. We even take the weather personally. By practicing not taking life personally, we are even better positioned to respond skillfully in any interaction. Not taking personally helps us to stay connected to the consciousness of “We” rather then fall into the lens of “me versus you.”

Taking Responsibility. As we deepen awareness, we learn to take responsibility for our own conditioning – our thoughts and actions – so that we can impact the world around us more consciously. It brings joy to affirm who we really are and to bring our visionary self to how we relate to the world.

Transparency. As we practice Relational Mindfulness, we learn to be
transparent about our experience within ourselves and with others. Transparency helps us to see ourselves and others with acceptance and clear perspective, acknowledging the complexity and contradiction that we can embody in any given moment as human beings. By being willing to be seen and heard exactly as we are, we further release the illusion of separation. This invites others to do the same. Transparency affirms the interconnected self, while judgment and masking our feelings affirms the separate self or ego.

Compassionate Action. When we practice these principles, compassionate action can arise organically. Compassionate action generally does not arise as a concept or idea. It is not a standard to hold ourselves to. Compassionate action arises naturally when we listen deeply and become more present. It comes when we ask the question “What is best for all in this situation?” And let our hearts respond. There is no set prescription for compassionate action. Sometimes its expression is soft and gentle and sometimes it expresses with volume and force.  Yet it is always non-violent. Compassionate action always begins within ourselves and extends outward organically. In other words, true compassion does not take root in our beings until we begin to have compassion for the aspects of our self, and thus humanity, that we have rejected.

We experience aspects of Relational Mindfulness in the Work that Reconnects when we engage in the deep listening of Open Sentences, speak with transparency in the Truth Mandala, or convene with beings of the future in open-hearted discourse. We listen and communicate in ways that help us to open to possibility and respond from our hearts rather than habit.

Relational Mindfulness is ultimately a practice for freeing ourselves from the carousel of repeated patterns.

Yet it is possible to integrate Relational Mindfulness into our life and work in a much more committed way. Relational Mindfulness is ultimately a practice for freeing ourselves from the carousel of repeated patterns. We can identify limiting thoughts as they arise, and release rather than get caught in them. We can support our visionary selves to lead the way, and hold ourselves accountable through the way we listen, speak, and respond.

The principles of relational mindfulness help us to validate relational intelligence with our whole being.  These principles help us to break free and to support one another, through every interaction, in breaking free. These principles help us to find freedom in relationship with our work, with each other, with ourselves, and with our world.

Deborah Eden Tull, founder of Mindful Living Revolution, is a Zen meditation and mindfulness teacher, author, activist, and sustainability educator. Her teaching style is grounded in compassionate awareness, experiential learning, inquiry, and an unwavering commitment to personal transformation. She teaches engaged awareness practice, which emphasizes the interconnection between personal awakening and global sustainability.

Deborah is also author of The Natural Kitchen: Your Guide for the Sustainable Food Revolution . She teaches The Work That Reconnects and for UCLA’s Mindful Awareness Research Center. Eden offers retreats, online courses, and consultations internationally.


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