Seated in concentric circles and cloaked with white Tibetan scarves of welcome, sixty innovators from the corporate and social sectors joined in dialogue with His Holiness the Dalai Lama. It was September 2006, and they met in Vancouver, Canada for two days. They intended to explore the issues of the world and how building connections between the two sectors could better serve the needs of humanity.
Early in the sessions, the Dalai Lama shared his surprise in hearing their purpose for convening. “There is a Tibetan saying,” he said, “which is trying to fit a sheep’s head on a yak’s body.” The group joined the Dalai Lama in a burst of laughter—the mismatched image a humbling reminder of the complicated relationship between the two sectors. Through this expression he was asking them to face the true challenges of connecting for change, to acknowledge that nothing will come from false gestures of good intention.
And so it continued, provocative discourse punctuated by the hallmark belly laughs and unforgettable wisdoms of a leader who holds the attention of the world.
The event—aptly named Connecting for Change—was hosted by the Dalai Lama Center for Peace and Education (DLC) as one of the 2006 Vancouver Dialogues. The opportunity to meet the Dalai Lama and to establish a connection with the DLC attracted participants from around the globe. Less than one year later, the event proved to be a catalyst for enduring behaviour change, ground-breaking initiatives and endless calls for more—sparking organizers’ determination to identify the fundamental ingredients of its success.
Exchanging PerspectivesThe event had its genesis one year prior in a comment made by corporate sustainability consultant Charles Holmes. Upon hearing of the Dalai Lama’s visit to Vancouver, Charles made a casual suggestion to DLC trustees to arrange a dialogue between the Dalai Lama and select corporate CEOs. Much to his surprise, Charles spent the better part of the next year developing his initial idea of a meeting with CEOs into its final incarnation as Connecting for Change. For him and the many who supported him, turning idea into event became a driving passion, an emotional rollercoaster and an unrivaled source of learning.
“I wish I’d kept a journal at the time,” said Charles, “to recall what I went through in terms of the shift, and when the penny sort of fell around the notion of ‘Connecting for Change.’ The idea of bringing together corporate and social, and not just corporate, was something that was informed by talking with lots of different people who offered their opinions. It was a really good example of the value and importance of sitting with ideas and not immediately acting on them—getting people’s input, reflecting on it, synthesizing it.”
A commitment to exchanging perspectives defined Charles’ process and, in the end, defined the event itself. When participants were asked for their strongest memories, this concept of exchanging perspectives dominated in their minds. Participants seemed to consistently recall it in the form of a story—a story presented to the Dalai Lama by fellow participant Puanani Burgess.
Puanani, a cultural translator and conflict transformation facilitator, stood to the left of the Dalai Lama who watched her curiously from his armchair. After a formal greeting from her Hawaiian heritage, she began: “I come from a little community called Wai`anae on the Island of O`ahu in Hawai`i,” she said. “This story, the ‘Poha and Popo Story,’ took place where I live, deep in the valley called Lua-lua-lei.” The Dalai Lama looked on intently, while receiving the odd whisper in his opposite ear by his trusted translator, Geshe Thupten Jinpa.
Puanani continued, “When my little boy was two years old, his Chinese grandmother, his Popo, would push him in his stroller around our block, which was about two miles round. And in this block there were pastures where there were horses and cows. And Popo would stop to show Poha the horses and cows, because she knew that little children really loved big animals.
“Four times she did this and each time Poha just sat there and waited. So the fourth time she thought—she was seventy-six years old then—‘I’m not going to do this one more time if that’s all he’s going to do— just sit there with no expression.’ So this is what Popo did.” Puanani crouched down to the floor and continued, “She got down on her hands and knees and she went to look at what Poha was looking at. And from where he was sitting, all Poha could see was tall grass. Poha never saw one horse, not one cow.”
Bits of laughter emerged from the group. “So—when she understood what Poha was seeing, she picked Poha up, so that he could see what she was seeing. And in the moment of exchange of vision, change happened.” The meaning pierced the energy of the room, stirring laughter, nods, claps and chatter.
After a brief and final translation, the Dalai Lama lit up with a heartfelt smile and knowing chuckle of having been equally engaged and touched.
Experiencing Unconditional PartnershipsDuring the year leading up to the event, Charles steadily shaped the concept of a corporate-social meeting of the minds. He quickly realized that overcoming the thriving stereotypes of each sector would require a uniquely intimate experience. So, for the purpose of the event, he played matchmaker. He ensured each participant had a partner from the other sector with whom he or she could delve into a deeper level of idea sharing.
Matchmaking immediately put some corporate participants on edge, feeling that a noble initiative had turned into a charity ploy. But the partnerships would be unconditional, no strings attached—this was an opportunity few had experienced.
The partnering hooked Anita Roper from the start. An Australian now working in the US, Anita develops social-corporate partnerships for Alcoa. “I would never have been able to justify flying across to Vancouver just to meet the Dalai Lama. As much as I wanted to, there just wasn’t a business cause for me there. But he [Charles] told me about this concept he had for pairing people up, someone as an NGO to a business person—no expectations, no vested interest, but just to come together and see if there’s any connection.”
This no-strings-attached approach coloured the entire event—influencing all the relationships and friendships formed during sessions, meals and the time in between. For Anita, experiencing social-sector connections without vested interests inspired a new dimension to Alcoa’s work.
Anita is used to forging relationships with social sector organizations that express concern regarding Alcoa’s activities. “We want to work with them. We want to understand their issues better,” explained Anita. However, at Connecting for Change she began to consider the incredible opportunity for Alcoa staff to support something completely unrelated to their work. Not surprisingly, the first of such collaborations would be with another participant from Connecting for Change. “Here’s an opportunity where we as a company are really offering something back without wanting something in return.”
Witnessing the Power of OnePuanani’s story and the partnering experiences are only two examples of how participants—although drawn together by the convening power of the Dalai Lama—left inspired as much by the Dalai Lama as by each other. “There were numerous comments from people about moments when they were just amazed by the experience of other participants in bringing about change, and impressed by participants’ unshakable confidence to take action,” explained Charles.
Participant Mike Houck, an American conservationist and the Executive Director of the Urban Greenspaces Institute, remembers one such moment on the second day of the event. He was sitting with other Connecting for Change participants among the 20,000 who had gathered for the Dalai Lama’s public audience. The Dalai Lama was over 45 minutes late, leaving a (thankfully) creative master of ceremonies to entertain the crowd. That is, until his creativity ran out. “It was extremely awkward,” explained Mike, “because the MC had just said, ‘I don’t know what to do now. I am out of ideas.’ So we were all standing there, or sitting, perplexed about what to do next.”
But according to Mike the awkwardness did not last long. “One of our group, Mary, was directly in front of me, one row down. She stood up and started singing ‘O Canada.’ And the woman to her right started singing with her. And the woman to her left then started singing. And I’m not exaggerating by saying that within 30 seconds all 20,000 people—except for people like me who didn’t know the words—were singing ‘O Canada.’ It totally blew me away, and of course the whole lesson from that experience was the power of one. It’s amazing what one person can do should they take it upon themselves to take action.”
For Mike, these moments gave meaning to the Dalai Lama’s message, replacing initial skepticism with understanding. “I tend to be a pretty literal and linear thinker. My personality is more scientific, more linear and less intuitive,” explained Mike. “So I was intrigued to see what the whole ambiance of the Connecting for Change event would be and whether it would stretch me in some ways outside of my normal comfort zone. I guess I was both looking forward to that and had a little trepidation about it.”
Looking Inside OneselfParticipants quickly found themselves facing an unexpected truth: the power of connecting lies not only in connecting with others but also in connecting with oneself. Stephanie Hanford, a Fellow at the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development (University of California, Santa Barbara), remembers how self-reflection was the catalyst of many discussions: “The presence of the Dalai Lama, and all that he represents, brought the participants to a special emotional space where they were drawn to reflection—reflection on their purpose in life and what they were doing with their time. There were a lot of successful people in the room, and their achievements were many. However, the retreat was able to draw these people out of the day-to-day and allow them to ask some very profound questions about how success should be defined, and perhaps even more importantly, what they ultimately wanted to achieve with their lives.”
The Dalai Lama undoubtedly provoked this intensified atmosphere of self-reflection. Although he was often the focus of everyone’s attention, his words repeatedly put the spotlight back on individual responsibility—much to the satisfaction of participants like Stephanie. “I see him as having the convening power and helping to dictate the mood. But ultimately, the success of the Center or of the dialogue itself depends on the individual participants and what they are desiring and willing to pursue.”
The outcomes of this event would indeed depend on participants’ will. The Dalai Lama could only serve up wisdoms and reasons that may nudge participants along as leaders of change. With forthright simplicity, as usual, he offered this:
“I feel the individual, oneself, is of course, very important. So, taking care of oneself or looking out for oneself is very justified. But if you look deeper, then one individual no matter how able or strong a person, without society, he or she cannot manage, cannot survive. That’s clear. That’s a reality…In modern times, …individual futures very much depend on unknown other people, other continents. That’s reality. So therefore, just for one’s own interests you have to take [into consideration] others’ welfare, others’ well-being… Change or events in the outside world eventually affect us.”
Being in the Presence of a Role ModelSheri Flies, Assistant General Merchandising Manager for Costco, is a woman committed to personal growth, savouring every moment of self-discovery. A unique encounter with the Dalai Lama affected Sheri emotionally and spiritually. Her voice fills with emotion in the retelling of it: “The Dalai Lama is walking out and as he walks he has his hands together and is sort of bowing to everyone. He stops, he turns and he bows to me, just to me. And then—he takes my hand. All I could say with tears in my eyes was ‘thank you.’ …It was one of those highlights of my life.”
Though not everyone felt the Dalai Lama’s touch, his palpable energy opened unexpected and unknown spaces of experience.
For some participants his aura overwhelmed and inspired. As Anita explained, “When the Dalai Lama walked in, I had the impression that if he told everyone to jump out the window, probably half of them would without even thinking about it…It was that power, that aura, …that made me realize something was happening here in terms of the presence this person had.”
For other participants his values and ethics focused the group’s intentions. As Mike explained, “People tended to react to one another with a lot more thought then they would otherwise.”
And for yet others, the Dalai Lama’s simplicity and humility gave participants permission to be themselves. “People were telling me how this was the first conference they’d ever attended where they could take off their armor and be themselves,” explained Charles. “Authentic conversations and dialogue occurred by virtue of a bunch of things, obviously including the presence of the Dalai Lama, who motivates or instills in people a desire to rise to something higher than their egos.”
Understanding the Work AheadBut the Dalai Lama’s presence was not enough to obscure the challenges of the day. Ultimately, participants found their motivation in the unfortunate reality that we have far to go. Participants would need to build the road along which others could travel.
“I’d thought we’d passed the point where there was still that very strong distrust between the two sides,” explained Anita. “That was a huge surprise, wake up call, call it what you like, for me who’d really thought we’d moved past that in the debate. But we haven’t, it was clear.”
Over the course of daytime discussions, evening dinners, presentations and dialogues; in the midst of camaraderie, new friendships and new experiences of self, there were stereotypes, doubts and fears of “the other.”
Charles continues to receive emails and phone calls about new initiatives that have stemmed from the event. But he knows the event was but a teaser to society for the real change that is needed. While capturing the stories of success, he is fine-tuning the template for replication—with plans to hold more Connecting for Change events in the near future.
Though change feels complicated, the issue is simple, and was perfectly articulated by the Dalai Lama during his first dialogue with the group:
“I believe every human profession or human activity is actually meant for human beings, meant for humanity. Human actions are for human beings—particularly in today’s world. I think in the past, maybe, different sectors carried on work more or less independently. Now today…everything is interdependent, interrelated. That’s the reality. Under these circumstances, it falls on us to work together.”
Written by Stephanie Sauvé. Stephanie is a freelance writer who helps individuals and companies tell their stories. stephaniesauve.com