ObamArete: Politics as Transformation




As you can read from my last post, I went to Washington DC on Inauguration Day, attended the Western States Inaugural Ball, saw Biden and Obama live, and met Nanci Pelosi. The day was a once in a lifetime event with more emotion that you could believe. One might say that on that day History, Politics and Psychology all merged together.

I’ve always loved the subjects of History/Politics and Psychology and particularly the overlap–or bridge–between them. My dad (the son of a diplomat) loved History/Politics and when I spent time with him we watched Morley Saefer and Andy Rooney on 60 Minutes every Sunday night. You might say my mom is a stereotypical Berkeley mom, really into the transformative arts, transformative courses, and books like “Women Who Run With the Wolves.”

Over the years I’ve taught History, Government, Psychology, Diversity Studies, Peer Counseling and Communications. In schools I attended and also in schools in which I taught, these subjects have for the most part been approached separately.

What I did not expect–but which somehow does not surprise me–is that many of the ideas of the Obama Administration sound incredibly similar to a lot of the Psycho-Spiritual-Emotional Intelligence ideas I’ve been exposed to in San Francisco Bay Area transformative course, particularly the ideas from my favorite transformational course called “The Arete Experience!”

And, since I enjoy making word bridges, I found myself last week amusedly coining the term “The Era of ObamArete” to represent that bridge.

I playfully coin the term ObamArete as a word to represent an interesting phonomenon occuring between the public world and the private world. In an increasingly interdependent and integrated world, political awareness and personal awareness are becoming increasingly connected. The truths one discovers at the center of their essence seem to echo and reflect the truths that prove themselves to be true in the world of politics and the public.

Here are some examples:

1) In a transformational course like Arete, one learns that by engaging authentically with others and being with what is present with your relationship, by speaking honestly and truthfully about what is so for you, that you may not always “win” but you will share your ideas, become more who you are and thus make a difference for the world and .
Barack Obama frequently shared that his political motivations were “to share his visions truthfully, and that if he lost the presidency that it would be worth it because he will have still made a difference.”

2) At the core of most transformational work is the awareness of habits and human’s tendency to take things for granted and lose appreciation.
In his book Audacity of Hope Obama writes: “(we all have)…blind spots, recurring habits of thought that may be genetic or may be environmental…one of mine has proven to be chronic restlessness; an inability to appreciate, no matter how well things are going, those blessings right in front of me.”

3) An effective transformational course looks to the transformative power of community.
Obama: “…we can ground our politics in the notion of a common good (related to ‘Commons’, or ‘Community’).”

4) Transformative courses help us check our ego and to get present to our deepest commitments.
Obama: “(Politicians) need to avoid the pitfalls of (and pursuit of) fame [ego], the hunger to please, and the fear of loss, and thereby retain that kernel of truth, that singular voice within each of us that reminds us of our deepest commitments…”

5) One of the main lessons from good transformative courses is that when we give in to stories of blame and resentments about how things happened TO US, rather than “feeling into the moment of our experience,” we invalidate and sabotage our relationship with others and ourselves.
Obama: “I am convinced that when whenever we exaggerate or demonize, oversimplify or overstate our case, we lose…we get caught in “either/or” thinking, such as the notioin that we can have only big government or not government; the assumption that we must either tolerate forty-six million without health insurance or embrace “socialized medicine.”

6) Some forms of transformation help people understand and become present to the notion that we are part of a deeply complex system that is constantly taking new shape, coaching us to have flexibility in the moment.
Obama: “…across America, a constant cross-pollination is occuring, a not entirely orderly but generally peaceful collision among people and cultures. Identities are scrambling, and then cohering in new ways. Beliefs keep slipping through the noose of predictability. Facile expectations and simple explanations are being contantly upended.”

7) Some transformation work is related to the process of expanding our frame of reference.
Obama: “Tensions arise (in life) not because we have steered a wrong course, but simply because we live in a complex and contradictory world.”

8) Notions of “authenticity” are instrumental in the process of true transformation. Obama addresses authenticity indirectly in the next passage.
Obama: “I often wonder what makes it so difficult for politicians to talk about values in ways that don’t appear calculated or phony. Partly, I think, it’s because those of us in public life have become so scripted, and the gestures that candidates use to signify their values have become so standardized…that it becomes harder and harder for the public to distinguish between honest sentiment and political stagecraft.” He later goes on to link this notion with his “audacity to hope.”

9) On the topics of authenticity we writes more.
Obama: “…we long for that most elusive quality in our leaders–the quality of authenticity, of being who you say you are, of possessing a truthfulness that goes beyond words.”

10) In a year-long course I took through Arete co-founder Guy Sengstock called the Transformative Coaching and Leadership Training, perhaps the overarching principle we learned was “seeing another person’s world.”
Obama: “…at the heart of my moral code, and how I understand the Golden Rule–not simply a call to sympathy or charity, but as something more demanding, a call to stand in somebody else’s shoes and see through their eyes…I find myself returning again and again to my mother’s simple principle–‘How would that make you feel?’-as a guidepost for my politics.”

11) Many effective transformative course essentially boil down to creating a safe context in which to challenge one’s beliefs about oneself, others and life, gradually bumping up against challenges and assumptions until solutions are formed.
Obama suggests that the entire legal system and Constitution has the possibility to transform society!
Obama: The (Constitution) also offers us the possibility of a genuine marketplace of ideas, one in which the “jarring of parties” works on behalf of “deliberation and circumspection”; a marketplace in which, through debate and competition, we can expand our perspective, change our minds, and eventually arrive not merely at agreements but at sound and fair agreements.”

12) Many transformative processes include being with both the beauty AND the ugliness of life, and embracing both in while triving for a larger and deeper goal.
Obama: “I love America too much, am too invested in what this country has become, too committed to its institutions, its beauty, and even its ugliness, to focus entirely on the circumstances of its birth.”

13) In an effective transformation course, there is a sense of having been “cleansed” by the experience of being with people. It’s pretty reassuring that Obama on many occasions found that expressing his political visions in a crowd felt cleansing!
Obama: “…as I look out over the crowd, I somehow feel encouraged. In their bearing I see hard work. In the way they handle their children I see hope. My time with them is like a dip in a cool stream. I feel cleansed afterward, glad for the work I have chosen.”

14) Another of the main principles of transformational courses I’ve experiences is that, due to an early wounding (usually from not been seen, felt or understood), we organize our worlds so as to avoid that feeling ever again. Obama is able to skillfully describe that way in which, due to so much disappointment, politicians and citizens construct ways to avoid feeling a sense of hope or optimism about the future, for fear that they will be hurt once again!
Obama: “…the sorts of feelings that most people haven’t experienced since high school, when the girl (or boy) you’d been pinning over dismissed you with a joke in front of her friends, or you missed a pair of free throws with the big game on the line-the kinds of feelings that most adults wisely organize their lives to avoid.”

The link between Obama and transformative thinking and being goes on and on.

My point? It feels like we finally have a president who embodies some of the principles of transformative thinking that I find so deeply present in much of the transformative courses and culture of the San Francisco Bay Area!

Finally, here is a link to an article about the transformative potential of Obama:


One Response to “ObamArete: Politics as Transformation”

  1. Ernest Smith Says:

    Thank you for sharing Scott. I would appreciate your input on some political idealism I have been exposed to recently.

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