Those who despair over the gap between their vision of a more environmentally sustainable, just and peaceful planet and the world as it is can find inspiration in Corinne McLaughlin’s call to become practical visionaries: Those activists, she says, who remain steady in their work over time by keeping their “eyes on the horizon, their feet on the ground, and their hearts on fire.”
McLaughlin, a spiritual and political activist who has taught politics at American University, is coauthor of “Spiritual Politics”with her husband Gordon Davidson (author of the forthcoming “Joyful Evolution”). They are as well founders of The Center for Visionary Leadership and The Sirius Community, and are fellows of The World Business Academy and The Findhorn Foundation.
The following is an edited version of my interview with McLaughlin on her recent book,“The Practical Visionary: A New World Guide to Spiritual Growth and Social Change”.
Pythia: I’d like to start with a simple question. What is your definition of a “visionary”?
Corinne: A visionary is someone who sees the future with both insight and foresight: Insight into the deeper causes and meaning of events in the world, and foresight, or an intuitive grasp of the big picture, such as the trajectory of politics and popular culture.
Pythia: You write in your book that you’ve seen many visionaries fail to manifest their inspiring visions. What do you find is the biggest obstacle most visionaries face?
Corinne: The problem I find with a lot of visionaries is that they’re too far ahead — perhaps their vision won’t happen for another hundred years. That’s why I like to help people focus on “next step” visions that are more doable.
Pythia: Why is being too far ahead of one’s own time a problem?
Corinne: Thinking that something that is far in the future can come sooner leads to unrealistic expectations, as well as rigid and dogmatic perspectives. It can also prevent visionaries from seeing what’s possible right in front of them. Our work is to translate what we might receive from a flash of insight into things that are useful today.
Take for example the recent uprising in Egypt. I could hold a positive vision of how this could all turn out, but I know it’s not going to be as simple as that. It’s one thing to get rid of a dictator. The harder part is to create a viable democracy that empowers people. But what I found inspiring in Egypt is how, during the revolution, the people organized their neighborhoods, created street clinics to help the wounded, and cleaned up after their demonstrations. These may seem like small things, but to me they are examples of practical, effective visionaries at work.
Pythia: You write that as a young woman in the sixties you were inspired by people in government and their dedication to public service — such as President Kennedy and Robert Kennedy — to enter government service yourself. You then went on to work at various Federal agencies, such as the Social Security Administration and President Clinton’s Council on Sustainable Development; you’ve even taught meditation to some government agencies. How did these first-hand experiences shape your development as a practical visionary?
Corinne: I believe strongly that social change isn’t just about demonstrations in the street against the wrongs in society. There is also the path of the social innovator who creates new institutions and the path of the reformer who goes within an institution and makes incremental changes. Based on my own experience, I learned that implementing a vision in an institutional setting involves working with conflict resolution and a whole systems perspective. It’s important, for instance, to have a multi-stakeholder perspective — in other words, you can’t just go charging in with your own ideas, you have to appreciate people’s different perspectives, then work to find common ground and bring the various parties to the table in a respectful dialogue.
Because I frequently encountered obstacles such as old, entrenched ideas, ongoing power struggles, or the lack of staff and money, I also learned to develop patience and detachment. In federal, state and local governments, administrations, philosophies, and policy initiatives change. If your vision aligns with the values of the current administration you’re working with, you can make some progress — but that could all change in four or six years.
Pythia: Together with your husband, Gordon Davidson, you’ve also taught the path of “Ageless Wisdom” for many decades. What has this spiritual perspective brought to your calling as a practical visionary?
Corinne: What I’ve taken from my spiritual study is the wisdom of living a balanced life. My spiritual path has also helped me to be more emotionally centered, to be more understanding of those that disagree with me, and to learn how to let go of some of my power issues so that I can be more effective and bring a sense of humility to my work — while still having the self-confidence to be effective.
Pythia: You write about how easy it is for activists to burn out, and list different ways that they can stay “spiritually sane.” What contemplative practices do you teach activists that can help prevent disillusionment?
Corinne: Many activists just see what’s wrong: they want to stand up to injustice and educate people about it. But I think it’s equally important for activists to hold a more positive vision of what’s right with their country: what’s going well, and what they’d like to grow or see more of. I also like to encourage activists to take some time each day to sit silently or take a walk in nature as a way to be in touch with their inner wisdom and peace — and to remember why they are on this path in the first place.