One of my fondest childhood memories comes from a summer I spent at Camp Mohawk in Rhinelander, Wisconsin. My parents sent me there 6 consequetive summers, keeping me off the streets (and out of their hair) until I was old enough to work for the family business.
The summer I'm thinking of was when I was 13 years old. That year, the “junior counselor” in my cabin was a fellow named Jerry. Jerry was passionate about running. He was also a really approachable guy, someone who blended his passion with a wonderful ability to inspire and teach kids.
His inspiration infected me immediately. So much so that I soon starting a running routine in the mornings, even though I'd never been interested in running before. I found myself pounding the pavement outside the camp's boundaries at 5:30 a.m. every morning thanks to Jerry, a ritual I sustained for the final 3 weeks of my camp season that year.
This led to a lot of attention and approval: a trophy for running 100 miles in 20 days, a loss of all my "baby fat", and admiring comments from family and friends when I returned home from camp. More importantly, however, was the self-confidence and discipline it established in my 13 year old brain: a history I draw on still when I start up new projects. I had had - and continued to have - plenty of other structured disciplinary environments, some of which also led to accomplishments I value. But running 100 miles at camp that summer was different - and the reason it was different is important in understanding something about how ideologies work.
Jerry succeeded in striking a balance between discipline, encouragement, education, and - most importantly - getting out of the way. He did this all very informally, staying connected with my concerns and never losing sight of my motivations. The result of his skillful mentoring was that by the end of the camp season, I could claim my running accomplishments as my own.
When people operate ideologically, it doesn’t work that way. The system behind the accomplishment gets the credit. “If you follow our investment guidelines, you're guaranteed to double your money.” “Our nation's manifest destiny ...is to establish the moral dignity and salvation of man..." "Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing."
Statements such as these serve to seat motivation inside of abstract systems of thought. They are sales pitches, looking to provide motivation externally for psychological processes which, if they're to have a long-lasting impact, must be internally generated. Jerry couldn’t run for me, but neither can an ideology. What I needed - and what anyone interested in taking on something and building skill and confidence needs - was someone capable of nourishing the very tentative yearnings I already had without “taking them over”.
Most people who’ve had exhilarating insights that they’ve fashioned into some sort of “system” they believe applies to everyone have trouble genuinely nourishing others for three simple reasons: 1) Their ideology ends up superseding the individual, causing them to stop listening deeply to the person on the receiving end of things 2) Discipline is enforced externally, rather than arising from within the individual 3) The willingness of the teacher/mentor to entertain the possibility of “failure” of his student becomes an unacceptable option - even if such “failure” may lead the student/disciple/client to something more valuable in the long run.
All three of these reasons requires a mentor, teacher, counsellor or anyone required to work intimately with people to stop and develop his receptivity to much deeper levels than most folks in these professions usually do. This can get complicated when a mentor recognizes the value of doing these things, but feels trapped in some kind of ideological system that demands “measurable outcomes” within specific timeframes.
Such restraints dampen progress towards greater self-awareness and capacity even though we know that by far the greatest creative moments in human history have occurred during “looser” moments: informal times where intuition can operate, or where connections unlooked for suddenly occur. Ask Mendeleev, whose articulation of the Periodic Chart of Elements came to him fully formed in a dream. Or the French mathematician Henri Poincare′, who considered intuition inseparable from mathematical induction. Or Mozart, who considered “conveyances, solitary walks, and bed” as his 3 best incubators for new musical ideas.
The emotional, cognitive, and spiritual advances we need to make if we’re to deal with the increasing complexity of the world demand that we get beyond the ideological - and that means, in large part, developing the capacity to loosen up.