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Demetra Anagnostopoulos speaks about her participation at the Vancouver Peace Summit

By admin | October 18, 2009

Demetra Anagnostopoulos is the VP of Event Coordination & Funding Strategy for WCCC-US and also the Director of Global Client Solutions and Marketing for Interaction Associates. She reflects on her participation in the recent 2009 Vancouver Peace Summit.

“I am on the train returning from the Dalai Lama Center’s 2009 Peace Summit in Vancouver. What an extraordinary experience. Not only did I find myself in a myriad of “small miracle moments” over the course of the four days, but the experience of being there with colleagues in our field such as Meg Wheatley, Peter Senge, Peter Block, Dawna Markova, Wilford Welch, Juanita Brown — and our own Samantha Tan, who co-facilitated a World Cafe for a group of 120 business and social sector leaders — was inspiring. Charles Holmes, a new friend to me and Interaction Associates (IA), is a sensitive and brilliant designer, and was the gracious host of the Conversations for Change session that ran in parallel with the Peace Summit itself. I was lucky to go to both.

However, of all of the moving stories, the deep connections, the substantive dialogue, the Nobel Laureate panel with His Holiness, Betty Williams, Jody Williams, Miraed McGuire, Desmond Tutu’s daughter (he was unable to make it) and Mary Robinson, one part stood out. It was a single part of a single dialogue on the meaning of one word: COMPASSION that sent my synapses into overdrive with his Holiness’ validation of Interaction Associates’ mission and work in the world.

The dialogue lasted for about two hours, and in the midst of the rich conversation (and a clear statement by all that peace is NOT “Kumbaya and flower-children”, but hard hard work that requires you to put your life on the line every single day) the Dalai Lama intervened and said, “It is now time to make some clear distinctions, so that we all understand what we are talking about when we talk about the word ‘compassion’.”

He then proceeded to make the distinction in this way: He said that there is a basic level that transcends all ,and that is that we are all human beings on a planet with other living things, and that we all have the right to exist, survive, and have a happy existence. He went on to describe how we get ourselves into trouble along the way, and one of the ways is to confuse “compassion” and “attachment”. He said that when one sees another human being and perceives that human being to be a part of him or her (much like a mother or father with a child), that the perception of association or ownership — the emotional connection — with that other human being is “attachment”. This attachment is, by its own nature, biased. It clouds judgement, as well as one’s ability to do several things:

-See that person clearly for who they are;
-Not feel responsible or anxious about the actions and outcomes associated with that person;
-Be able to help that person exist in the world without pity or dependency.

And attachment happens instinctively and without question . . . it is unconditional in many ways, but because of the emotional content associated with it (I perceive you as a part of me and therefore I am identified with you), it interferes with our clarity of thinking, and sometimes our judgement or ability to make wise choices. We become less able to take action that will ultimately benefit that person because we are afraid of abandoning our attachment. This is where he said that people confuse “compassion” with “pity” — when attachment is what’s driving us.

Compassion however, as he defines or perceives it, is the ability of a person to disagree with or push back on a stance, issue, or idea put forth by another human being — but to hold the understanding and awareness that the idea is separate from the human being, and that the human being by virtue of being a living entity on the planet has the right to survive and pursue a life of happiness. He was essentially saying that compassion is one’s ability to separate an idea from a person and to detach the idea from the validity of that human being’s existence in the world.

Aside from the fact that all of the skills, tools, and strategies that we teach and practice at Interaction Associates are directly aligned with this concept, what had a further impact on me was when the Dalai Lama said, “and it is this ability to have compassion and to separate the ideas or issues from the human being that requires the most education, because it is not always a natural thing to be able to do. It’s a practice like martial arts.” He used his own practice of martial arts (I believe it’s aikido) to say that using energy and pushing back to protect a human being from an idea that is destructive or wrong or damaging is not a bad thing — rather, it’s the use of violence against that being that’s bad and wrong. Push against the idea/stance, not the person, because he or she has a right to exist.

That he sees the true skill of true compassion as a practice, a learned capability, something that requires education is completely aligned with the mission and work of our company. At the end of the day, our values of Human Dignity, Stakeholder Voice, and Principled Action are what represent this ethos and underlie so many of the tools we have taught over the last 40 years.

This realization, that His Holiness sees skills — and in our language that means things like the abilities of inquiry, pressure-testing another’s thinking, agreeing to disagree, giving feedback that’s hard without hurting another person or messing with his or her dignity, and making (in our case) organizations places that are worthy of the human spirit — as the skillset required for peace in the 21st Century only reinvigorated my own commitment to the work that we do in the world and its true value at a pure and basic level, at a human level.

At the end of the day, and strategically, we have chosen to focus on and work with leaders, teams and agents of change in organizations for clear and compelling reasons: So that those who lead, those who follow, and those who support action that affects people inside organizations are equipped with the ability to use their own microcosm within an organization as the world that they can change… because as the Dalai Lama and Betty Williams both said, “It starts person by person.” When each of us can change the small part of the world that we inhabit by using skills and tools that create and nurture this idea of compassion, then together we can change the world that we all inhabit together.”

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