Christiana Figueres is one of my heroes. As executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, she was the architect of the Paris Climate Agreement in 2015. When she talks about how they pulled off an unprecedented international agreement on climate change, the scale of her accomplishment becomes even more impressive. I will say more about that in a moment…. Along with the reason why I’m pitting her against self-help maestro Tony Robbins.
But first, a quick plug: I’ve got a new Medium article online – if you sometimes get the jitters around public speaking, difficult conversation, or anything else, I hope you find this useful advice on how to connect with your inner calm. Please enjoy, clap, and share!
And second… coronavirus. Wow. What a difference a week makes. Besides my work as a keynote speaker being impacted by conference cancellations and postponements, our Sisters retreat in Tuscany in June is now under serious threat. But these are as nothing compared with some of the deeper impacts of the virus, and even more so, the fear of the virus, which is getting stoked on a daily basis by the media. I am sure that a great many small businesses, especially in countries that depend heavily on tourism, will go to the wall before this is over. It is going to cause a great deal of suffering.
In whatever way, and to whatever extent, you are being impacted, you have my sympathy. Let’s keep calm, wash our hands, and carry on. (And let’s also keep it in proportion – after all, in the long run climate change is a much greater existential threat.)
Okay, on with the blog…
The other day I was listening to Christiana Figueres being interviewed onstage at the Royal Society of Arts in London (I thoroughly recommend the video in its entirety – informative, entertaining, and inspiring) in which she described how, in the run-up to the Paris COP, she and her team realised:
“We can’t settle for what is good, we have to push for what is necessary.”
All in secret, they set about building an enormous network of companies, religious leaders, and other influencers – in every country around the globe – and built a system that would enable them to respond to what was happening in the negotiating room in real time.
Christiana’s co-conspirator, Tom Rivett-Carnac, a former Buddhist monk, was inside the negotiating room, and would get the nod from Christiana if one of the negotiators wasn’t playing ball. He would then call his secret team, who were located in a completely separate building, and the hidden network would swing into action. Someone on the team would call a person who would call a minister who would call the person in the negotiating room… and with the support of this network of allies, Christiana would get the result that she wanted.
But what I loved most about this conversation was the response that Christiana gives to a question towards the end of the video, which is very much in keeping with her Buddhist philosophy, and is at the same time both deeply personal and totally universal:
“At one point there was a huge knot in the negotiations because industrialised countries were refusing to accept their historic responsibility, and were blaming developing countries that all future emissions were going to come from them. And conversely developing countries were blaming industrialised countries that they had caused climate change – which is factually true; it’s not ideology. And they weren’t even able to talk to each other about this. There was a constant blaming going on, and a constant “who is the victim of who?”.
And my Buddhist studying at that time had made me realise that if you get into the victim/perpetrator role, that all of us have in so many aspects of our life, that that victim/perpetrator role is one that is completely impossible to win. Because the moment I accuse you of being my perpetrator, you will not stand still. You will then turn around and tell me that I am actually your perpetrator….
And I also realised that I was doing that in my own personal life. And I had viewed myself as a victim, and had pointed accusatory finger at my former husband, who I had identified as being the perpetrator. And it was very clear to me that as long as I embodied that reality, what I was responsible for was not going to untangle itself. And because what is true at one level of the system is true at all levels of the system, my first responsibility was to take myself out of that victim/perpetrator role. Because if I continued to do it, I would see all the countries continue to do that, and we would never have gotten to the Paris Agreement.
So it wasn’t until I did my own little homework, and it wasn’t easy, and I’m still working on it (laughter from the audience), and took the edge out of that and began to see that this really is a completely fruitless and endless discussion that helps no one. The only way out was to exit that and to see everything from the observer role, which is what you’re taught in these Buddhist practices. And lo and behold, and although it took a heck of a lot of work, and quite a long time, it was when I shifted that that I began to see the shift in the international negotiations. I’m not claiming a direct causal link, but I’m also not claiming that it was coincidence.”
(Cue massive applause from the audience.)
And it also struck me that her approach is very yin, focusing on the outer result as a reflection of the inner state. To change the result she is getting, she changes herself.
This contrasts with, say, Tony Robbins. When I thought about this, it was almost comical. I don’t know Christiana’s height, but looking at her standing behind a podium, or with other people, I am sure she is a LOT closer to five foot than to six. Compare her with Tony Robbins, who is a giant of a man – due to a condition called acromegaly arising from a tumour on his pituitary gland, he put on a huge growth spurt in high school, ending up at around 6 foot 7 inches, with the characteristic large hands and feet, and Desperate Dan jawline. (Richard Kiel, the actor who played Jaws in two James Bond movies, also had it.)
But the contrast I’m thinking about isn’t really the physical one. I’ve got great respect for Tony – he is amazing at what he does, a total NLP ninja – and it hit me that, compared with Christiana’s yin-ness, Tony is very yang. He’s big, he’s loud, he’s somewhat domineering. His events are characterised by thousands of people getting enormously over-excited, desperate for the opportunity to be “cured” by the man, as if he is a modern day Messiah.
Although his technique hinges on altering their inner state, often by delivering a visceral shock to their system to jolt them out of their habituated pattern of thinking, it still feels to me like it is something he does to them. He is subject and they are object. They are broken, and he fixes them.
This video of Tony curing a stutterer would be a perfect example, with the tagline: “30 years of stuttering, cured in 7 minutes!” It really does look like a modern-day miracle. (“Lazarus dead for 4 days, resurrected in 5 seconds!”) And I defy you not to get a lump in your throat at the end. I totally did.
Of course, both Christiana and Tony are both yin and yang. Christiana had to bring a whole load of yang to the party to assemble that global network of leverage points, and Tony’s greatest masterpiece is possibly himself, having done deep work on his inner state to achieve spectacular external results. So I’m definitely cherry-picking these two narrow instances to illustrate my point – but I hope the point is made.
So where am I going with this? I believe it has deep implications for the way we try to address the challenges facing the world right now.
In the past, we’ve been holding out for a hero (to channel Bonnie Tyler). We’ve wanted a big, bold, brave, Tony-type person to come along and fix it. If we could just find the right hero with the right superpowers, everybody will be saved.
But now, my belief is that we need a different kind of hero – and if you’ll go and take a look in the mirror, you’re looking at one. We can’t sit around waiting for somebody else to come and be the subject to our object. Our problems now are too big and too interconnected for any one person to save us.
So I, for one, am going to be taking inspiration from Christiana Figueres, knowing that I have to do my own inner work before I can start to create any worthwhile transformation externally. Our present reality is the outer projection of whatever is going on inside (getting close to) 8 billion heads and hearts. When we heal ourselves, we start to heal the world.
As the saying goes: you give a person a fish, you feed them for a day. You teach them how to fish, you feed them for a lifetime. Likewise, you give a person a miracle, you help one person. You teach them how to work miracles (or remind them that they already can), you help the world.
Following on from last week’s earthling/extra-terrestrial theme, you might enjoy this episode of the After On podcast in which Rob Reid talks to astronomer Avi Loeb about a very unusually-shaped object currently passing through our solar system, and the possibility that it might not be a naturally-formed object (i.e. it might be a product of an alien intelligence). More about that Oumuamua asteroid in article form here.
Oh, and the ET theme also led me to listen to this podcast: This Movie Changed Me, from the On Being network. This particular episode was about the movie Contact, which I hadn’t seen since soon after it came out in 1997…. So of course then I had to watch the movie again. It has stood the test of time well. Primed by the podcast, I especially appreciated the dynamic between Jodie Foster, representing rational science, and Matthew McConaughey, who plays a priest and represents the faith-based perspective. Recommended!
If you want to learn more about Christiana Figueres, I also recommend her TED Interview with Chris Anderson. You will learn a lot more about her background (specifically how her father went from being a rebel in exile to president of Costa Rica, where he abolished the army and committed the country to environmental stewardship), and about her unique brand of “stubborn optimism“.