Temenos Retreat – A Journey of Change
Temenos is a retreat experience created and inspired by the life work of Siraj Sirajuddin, who is also my personal coach. Siraj has been using the Temenos retreat format in his work with organizations that are undergoing change. This past weekend a group of 5, including Siraj, headed up to Berkeley Springs, West Virginia, to beautiful mountaintop log cabin called Kayser Ridge that is used throughout the year for various sorts of retreats. The group itself was not formerly connected through a work setting – we had all chosen to join in this experience to 1.) Learn Siraj’s techniques for facilitating group change through experiencing them as a group and 2.) Explore our own life journey and our own dreams and visions for the future of our individual work
Backing up a bit, let me explain a bit about the concept of this retreat. Temenos means container in Greek. The container can be thought of in this context as the space, energy and interactions created between people. A marriage is a container. A group at work is a container. A set of people on a retreat is a container. Just use your imagination to think of all the containers you step into and out of in your daily work. The significance and usefulness of this concept lies in the acknowledgement and respect given to the container while contributing to the development of its potential. What I mean by this is that by ‘naming’ and using the word ‘container’, we have consciously acknowledged that we are more than loosely networked individuals – we have purpose as a group and goals to reach. While we are in the container, we give our full attention to its purpose and growth.
As a change agent sharing this technique, Siraj both observes the container and participates within the container. Siraj moved in and out of these two roles, guiding the container and modeling the techniques for us to practice and learn. On the retreat, Siraj was mostly inside the container – as he modeled the activities and responded to others as a participant, but at times he would stop us and say he was stepping outside the container to give us the meta-level view of what he was observing about our container. As a change agent, practicing the meta-level view of observation of course requires an extra level of thinking and abstraction. And even purely just as a participant, the listening required during the entire weekend (11 or 12 hours each day) was intense.
A short blog can’t possibly do justice to the experience of the Temenos retreat. However, I would like to share some of the techniques and learnings.
This was our ‘entry’ mechanism – a familiar round of introductions by each member of our group. We shared briefly our inspiration for coming and hopes for the session.
Siraj gave an introduction to the timeline for our work and introduced us to his big-picture model for change agency. Suffice it to say that within the introductory framework, there was something called Personal Vision. To achieve personal vision, one starts by creating an Influence Map, which we did next.
Influence Maps are pictorial representations of our life stories. Each person independently reflects and draws the events of his or her life that they feel compelled to share. The maps can be depicted in any way and with text if desired. When everyone is done, we take turns telling our life stories. Each person in our retreat took 1.5 to 2 hours for the sharing portion, including time for some open questions at the end. You have to experience this to know – but what happens is that a web of incredible emotional, intellectual, and social connections is built between all the members of the container. We found not only during this exercise, but emanating from this exercise over the course of the weekend, that connection points between us spanned experiences of pain, growth, struggles, places, relationships, and much more. One person commented at the end: ‘It is absolutely riveting to realize how little we know about other people.’
After completing the maps, we stepped outside the container to briefly record our learning from this exercise. I noticed
- Listening is a form of respect and is an art and a discipline.
- Influence Maps involves intense storytelling of a very personal nature. These create empathy hooks between people and connect the space between the members of the container.
- Small changes in awareness of the person that sits opposite you have a large impact on how you interact with them in the present and the future.
- Later presentations are more intense – I believe this is due to the slow build of safety in the container – that people feel more able to share more about their past and think of things they might not have initially depicted on their own maps. I like to say of this phenomenon: ‘the connections become thicker’.
The next exercise we did was Clean Slate. Clean Slate is an essential element of the change process. It combines a look back over your past and a hard look at the present. So here is how it works. Each person answers first this question: How have, in the past, one or more of the ‘container’ systems you have been in failed you? You answer this with 5 or 6 examples and then continue with answering this question: How have you failed these container systems? The group reassembles and shares the results… This process clears the air through acknowledgement and forgiveness and allows you to move into a better pattern. In some organizations Siraj has coached, the organization has benefitted from this cleansing activity so much that they have implemented variants of ‘Clean Slate’ on a regular basis (similar to say a retrospective) with incredible success. My learning from this section was entirely related to the second question and how it interplays with the dysfunctions described in my answers to the first question. I was able to explore my own accountability as a player in the ‘containers’ that I perceived as having failed me.
After Clean Slate, we went on to draw our Mandalas. Mandalas are picture/symbolic representations of our future. How do we see our personal future in a picture without words? Each drew and we followed with presentation, comments and feedback. At this point, the container was so resilient and comfortable for everyone that I sensed a vested interest by each participant in the future vision of each other person. This aspect of the retreat was extremely intense for that reason. As a group that had JUST come together, that did not know each other well, we were able to bond over the network of shared past-history story elements to appreciate fully the future visions and positive outcomes for each other.
Compelling Shared Vision
The next step break up into pairs to create a picture of our Compelling Shared Vision. In an organization this would pertain to the organizational container represented by the people doing the drawing. In our case, we paired with people we knew from our retreat without an organizational context, but we still came up with amazing shared visions of a future that we might support each other with. We brought forth all those shared personal connections from the Influence Maps to weave a new tapestry for the future. These maps combined the personal and the shared into one. It was a little hard to get started since we are not related to each other through a work environment, but we did achieve beautiful shared visions anyway. Each team of two shared its drawing and explained it to the others. We ran out of time to then create a shared Mandala which would have represented our more global shared vision for all four of us. You can imagine how this might be useful with an executive leadership group in an organization. This was very powerful sharing and visioning.
At this point day 2 was almost over and some people had to leave early. We wrapped up by exploring the process of ‘exiting’ a container and re-entering a different container. Based on the changes we experienced in our ‘retreat’ container, how would entering back into our ‘family’ containers be difficult or different and how would we ease that process. This discussion helped us understand the impact of change on the surrounding environments and how other containers could benefit from our changes, but only if respecting the new (container) – the one we were entering back to. My take away from this and the whole weekend in general was that the web and sphere of influence is complex. It is an interaction of containers with each other, of a container with its participants, and of the participants with each other within a container. All of these interactions are dynamic and changing over time and over space.
We also covered some more advanced concepts of Siraj’s work:
- attributes of a container (too many to mention and we only covered the surface of each)
- typical archetypes (influencers in service of the container) in organizations
We each checked out by summarizing our appreciations to each person and wondering how we would absorb all of this into our professional and personal lives. It is really the beginning of a fascinating journey of change. We will stay in support of each other and reconnect through social media.
To my fellow participants, thanks for a wonderful experience!
To readers who want another participant’s view of this retreat, please read this blog by Peter Stevens, Scrum Coach and Trainer!Explore posts in the same categories: Art used for Change, Experience Report, Influence Maps