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Aligning Hearts, Minds, Body and Spirit: The Emotional Labor Behind the Tree of Engagement


By Nora F. Murphy Johnson, PhD


In the quest for transformative change, whether in organizations, communities, or individual lives, understanding the dynamics and drivers of change is critical. The “Tree of Alignment,” a metaphorical concept, provides a comprehensive framework for fostering environments that are conducive to meaningful and lasting change.


This blog post describes what it feels like to do the work (rooting, illuminating, navigating, acting, and welcoming), as well as what we may specifically experience physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. Spoiler alert: It’s a mix of “good” and “bad” feelings that reflect the natural ebb and flow of deeply transformative work. While it can be challenging and uncomfortable at times, it also offers opportunities for profound growth.


Rooting

Rooting is a reckoning with our personal and ancestral histories to identify and carry forth what is most precious, reclaim agency, heal wounds, and rewrite narratives.


Rooting involves delving into one’s personal and ancestral histories as a strategy for transformation. This approach enables individuals to ground themselves in their identities and histories, providing a solid foundation for growth. By uncovering, understanding, and healing past traumas, and reclaiming narratives, individuals can build a strong sense of self from which they can then grow. This strategy is crucial for ensuring that the transformation process is built on a well-understood and authentic base.


How this might feel:

  • Physically: This work can bring a sense of grounding and stability; conversely, it might evoke physical discomfort as buried traumas resurface.

  • Emotionally: This strategy can stir up emotions like sadness, grief, or anger as one confronts painful histories. It may also elicit feelings of pride, empowerment, and a deep sense of connection.

  • Mentally: Rooting requires mental resilience to process challenging insights. It can be mentally exhausting but also enlightening, providing a deeper understanding of oneself.

  • Spiritually: This can be a spiritually fulfilling experience, fostering a profound sense of belonging and continuity with one’s ancestors, or it may trigger spiritual questioning and doubt.


Illuminating

Illuminating is the shining of a light on our present state with unflinching courage, even when we are embarrassed, ashamed, afraid, or confused, so we can see clearly–sometimes for the first time.


Illumination is a strategy that focuses on bringing clarity and awareness to one’s current state. It involves bravely confronting and acknowledging the truths about oneself, even those that are uncomfortable or difficult to accept. This strategy is essential for dispelling illusions and gaining a clear, honest understanding of where one stands, which is crucial for informed decision-making and effective transformation.


How this might feel:

  • Physically: Implementing this strategy might manifest as tension or alertness as one prepares to confront difficult truths.

  • Emotionally: It can evoke vulnerability, discomfort, and anxiety, but also lead to emotional liberation and relief upon facing and accepting these truths.

  • Mentally: This strategy demands mental courage and honesty, which can be mentally taxing but also rewarding as it clears the fog of denial or ignorance.

  • Spiritually: It can lead to spiritual awakenings, offering new perspectives on one’s life purpose and values.


Navigating

Navigating is honoring tensions in the process rather than solving them as we bridge the creative expanse between our existing circumstances and our envisioned transformation.


Navigating the tension between current reality and future aspirations is a key transformative strategy. It requires balancing acceptance of the present with the vision for the future. This strategy involves wise decision-making, continuous learning, and adapting based on newfound understanding. It’s about embracing the journey, with its uncertainties and potential, as a critical component of growth.


How this might feel:

  • Physically: Navigating can produce a sense of restlessness or fatigue due to the constant balancing act between current realities and future aspirations.

  • Emotionally: This strategy can lead to feelings of frustration and anxiety due to the inherent uncertainties, but also hope and excitement as one makes progress.

  • Mentally: It requires mental agility and resilience, challenging one’s ability to adapt and deal with ambiguity.

  • Spiritually: This can be a spiritually challenging phase, as it often involves questioning and redefining one’s beliefs and values.


Acting

Acting is trusting the process–even when we don’t know what the “best” next step is, knowing that we may need to leave some places and relationships behind as we move into a healthier and more liberated reality.


The strategy of Acting involves taking conscious, deliberate steps towards change, guided by insights and principles derived from the transformation journey. It’s a proactive approach where individuals apply what they have learned, embody their principles, and make choices that align with their authentic selves, including leaving behind what no longer serves their growth.


How this might feel:

  • Physically: Taking action can bring a sense of vitality and energy, or physical exhaustion from the efforts of making significant changes.

  • Emotionally: While it can be empowering and fulfilling, taking action can also provoke fear and doubt, especially when leaving behind familiar situations.

  • Mentally: This strategy demands focus and determination, which can be mentally invigorating or draining.

  • Spiritually: It can reinforce or challenge one’s spiritual beliefs, as actions taken may profoundly reflect or redefine one’s understanding of their place in the world.


Welcoming

Finding ways to be comfortable with uncertainty, and learning how to let go of false urgency and impossible ideals of perfection.


Welcoming uncertainty and embracing change is a vital strategy for transformation. This approach involves letting go of rigid expectations and perfectionism, which can hinder progress. By being open to new experiences, even those that are disorienting or challenging, individuals create space for innovation, growth, and unexpected opportunities.


How this might feel:

  • Physically: Embracing uncertainty can lead to physical sensations of unease or openness, depending on one’s response to change.

  • Emotionally: This strategy might evoke anxiety and discomfort, but also curiosity and a sense of liberation from old constraints.

  • Mentally: Welcoming uncertainty requires mental flexibility and openness, which can be both challenging and exhilarating.

  • Spiritually: It can lead to a renewed sense of spiritual connection and understanding, or feelings of spiritual disorientation.


Overall

Together, these strategies form a comprehensive approach to engaging fully with the transformation process. Rooting provides a strong base of self-understanding, while Illumination ensures clarity and honesty in this foundation. Navigating allows for a balanced and informed journey towards change, while Acting serves as the application of learned insights. Finally, Welcoming ensures flexibility and openness, which is essential for continuous growth. Each strategy is interconnected, highlighting the multifaceted nature of personal transformation and the importance of a holistic approach to growth and self-realization.


In general, people we work with through the Tree of Alignment often share that they feel the following:


  • Vulnerable: Engaging with the Tree of Alignment often involves a degree of vulnerability. It requires openness to introspection, self-examination, and sharing personal experiences. Not everyone wants to do this or has the support they require. It’s important to gauge readiness and to have supports in place as needed.

  • Insightful: People working through the Tree of Alignment often experience moments of discovery and insight. These can be both exhilarating and challenging as beliefs, behaviors, and identities are confronted and reassessed. Changing one’s identity can be profoundly unsettling–even terrifying. It’s important to care for and celebrate people’s true selves, letting them know that they will not be abandoned when their external identity changes.

  • Emotionally Exhausted: The process can be emotionally intense, with feelings ranging from discomfort, despair, and resistance to relief and liberation–sometimes simultaneously. This intensity can be overwhelming, causing people to shut down or even experience harm. It’s important to center wellbeing and go no faster than the group can manage.

  • Empowered: There is a sense of empowerment that comes from actively engaging in one’s own growth process. Participants often feel more in control of their lives and more aligned with their values and goals. It’s important to create opportunities in the process for people to live into this power.

  • Supported: Being a part of a group going through a similar process can create a sense of community and support, making the journey less isolating and more enriching. It’s important to create a community where everyone in the process can experience a sense of inclusion and belonging.


While we often judge some of these to be “good” feelings and some “bad” or to be avoided, we have found that they are all important. The goal is to move through them with skill, presence, and grace.


Recommended Reading

Below we share five resources that have helped us think about Rooting, Illuminating, Navigating, Acting, and Welcoming. These books serve as valuable guides, helping us to both recognize and navigate the complex feelings associated with each step in the transformative journey. Whether through personal anecdotes, scholarly research, or compelling storytelling, each book enriches our understanding of these pivotal strategies and how we can effectively implement them in our pursuit of transformation for more whole, beautiful, and liberated realities.


RootingBeloved by Toni Morrison: Morrison’s “Beloved” is a haunting exploration of the importance of connecting with personal and ancestral histories. Set in post-Civil War America, it focuses on Sethe, a former slave, and the ghost of her daughter, Beloved, symbolizing the enduring trauma of slavery. The novel underscores the need for reconciling with our past to heal and move forward, blending personal and generational narratives to highlight the significance of understanding our roots for personal and communal liberation.


IlluminatingJust Mercy by Bryan Stevenson: Stevenson’s memoir “Just Mercy” spotlights the need for courageously confronting present injustices, especially within the criminal justice system. It shares the author’s experiences as a legal advocate, revealing the systemic flaws, racial biases, and human costs of wrongful convictions. The book emphasizes the transformative power of empathy and compassion in justice work and challenges readers to confront their biases and advocate for reform.


NavigatingThe Alchemist by Paulo Coelho: “The Alchemist” by Paulo Coelho is a tale of self-discovery, following Santiago, a shepherd, on his quest to find his personal legend. The novel emphasizes the importance of listening to one’s heart, pursuing dreams, and staying true to personal values. Santiago’s journey illustrates the necessity of aligning actions with core principles, embracing challenges, and learning from life’s obstacles to act wisely and fulfill one’s purpose.


ActingThe Fifth Discipline by Peter Senge: In “The Fifth Discipline,” Peter Senge introduces the concept of “creative tension” as a driver of transformation in individuals and organizations. This tension, arising between current reality and future aspirations, is portrayed as a source of motivation and learning. Senge advocates for leveraging this tension to foster innovation, growth, and the bridging of gaps between present circumstances and envisioned goals.


WelcomingWhen Things Fall Apart by Pema Chödrön: Pema Chödrön’s “When Things Fall Apart” offers insights into embracing life’s challenging moments as opportunities for growth. Drawing from Buddhist teachings, the book advises on finding peace and wisdom amidst turmoil. Chödrön encourages a mindful and compassionate approach to life’s uncertainties, advocating for openness and curiosity, letting go of rigid beliefs, and embracing change and impermanence as pathways to personal and spiritual development.


References

Chödrön, P. (2000). When things fall apart: Heart advice for difficult times. Shambhala Publications.


Coelho, P. (2014). The Alchemist, 25th Anniversary: A Fable About Following Your Dream. HarperOne.


Morrison, T. (1987). Beloved. New York: Vintage.


Stevenson, B. (2015). Just mercy: a story of justice and redemption. Spiegel & Grau.


Senge, P. M. (1994). The fifth discipline fieldbook: Strategies and tools for building a learning organization. Currency.

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