retreat pic

Beyond The Bounded Grounds

April 1, 2015 //

How can I take my “retreat self” home, to live & breathe beyond the bounded grassy grounds of the retreat center?

I’ve just returned from the IDEX Academy, which brought a globally sourced faculty together with U.S. based donors/philanthropists to cultivate creative, collaborative, culturally competent ways to up-end inequality through giving (locally and globally).

During our last circle, someone wondered how to be as authentic, vulnerable, connected, and radically honest in donor-grantee relationships, particularly when historical memory (both individual and institutional) is long.  It’s a question that I’ve often asked myself – how can I be my “retreat self” in the “real” world?

As I pondered this question on the journey home, my first instinct is this: it starts with a personal practice – a radically honest relationship to self before relating to others.

Professor Mutumbo Mpanya, fellow faculty at the IDEX Academy, offered the following:

Everything we see in the world, we see through a glass. Glasses of psychology, biology, culture, ideology…We will never meet reality naked. So, if we want to work together, we have to negotiate our perceived realities with humility.”

What I take from Professor Mpanya is that the first step in bringing my “retreat self” to work is to become, and remain, critically aware of the “glasses” I’m wearing that deeply color my perceptions of others and the cultures/contexts in which we meet.

If I come to donor-grantee relationships with an unresolved need for affirmation, the “glasses” through which I perceive my grantee partners are colored by that need, particularly because there is a power differential created by money.  Do they really like me?  Why are my ideas not being implemented?  Am I important here?

I think it is best to get clear with myself first:  What is my purpose?  What do I bring to this relationship? How do I show up in a way that inspires trust and demonstrates equity?

There are many routes to increasing self-awareness, no prescriptions here.  But, to come to the table with an awareness of our own limitations and biases begins to create the conditions for authentic relationship.

Because, let’s face it, the “work” many of us do, particularly in subverting inequality, is done in and through relationship.

It follows that if the courageous intention to be my “retreat self” starts with a rigorous honesty and personal practice in listening in to my own intentions, limitations, and purpose, the next would be a willingness to practice listening in to others.

Wherever we may be in the timeline of a funding relationship – at the start, in the middle, or at the end – the simple act of listening can be a radical one.

Listening without agenda, interruption, or re-direction is actually a sophisticated skill set.  In retreat settings, we are often scaffolded to practice deep listening in highly structured pair and group exercises. In fact, those are the moments where my heart and spirit feel most nourished by having my vulnerabilities witnessed and standing as witness to the courage of my peers.

Deep listening notices what is being unsaid, body language, energy and context.  Deep listening requires that we are quiet in body and mind – not forming our next question or thought.  It can happen in formal meetings, over meals, while walking together, over the phone – the essential intention is that the listener seeks to truly understand.

What if we routinely practiced deep listening with grantee partners, and were willing to shift our agendas based on what we hear?

Also, relationships do not exist in a vacuum. They are situated in a wider ecosystem of relationships within an interconnected set of social, political and economic systems.  It is very possible that the problems grantees are trying to tackle with my support are not going to be solved singularly by this relationship, no matter what the funding scale.

A lesson to take from the study of leadership through ecological resilience is to pay attention to the wider planes, the connected problems and strengths, and to examine what’s happening through the lens of intersectionality and interconnectedness. Listening can then broaden from listening to a person to listening at landscape level.

Listening at a landscape level is helped immensely by continuous connection with people who have different vantage points and perspectives.  Part of being able to access my “retreat self” is staying connected to my “retreat friends.”  In fact, becoming embedded in an ever widening network of others with similar aims and values is the secret gold of any cohort experience.

One of my long cherished notions (and one that I practice vigorously) is that friendship and vocation often intertwine as fellow travelers become meaningful parts of our own ever evolving development as humans and global citizens.  I no longer overestimate the value of logic; nor underestimate the value of authentic friendships with colleagues and peers who are willing to tell the truth about what they see in themselves and in me.

The final “aha” here is that my “retreat self” does not exist in a vacuum either, it exists within the courageous and authentic relationships that are often carefully cultivated in retreats settings.  So, the path ahead is not forged by perfecting some mythical version of myself; it is to invest in relationships at every level that call my best self into expression, and pay that forward over and over again.


  1. Dana Kawaoka-Chen on April 2, 2015 at 7:40 pm

    Beautiful reflection Pia. It echoes a quote Alissa Hauser recently shared with me from Buddhist teacher and author, Pema Chodron: “We already have everything we need. There is no need for self-improvement. All these trips that we lay on ourselves—the heavy-duty fearing that we’re bad and hoping that we’re good, the identities that we so dearly cling to, the rage, the jealousy and the addictions of all kinds—never touch our basic wealth. They are like clouds that temporarily block the sun. But all the time our warmth and brilliance are right here. This is who we really are. We are one blink of an eye away from being fully awake.”

    These are important reminders that when we are our most authentic selves, when we align our core values with our every day practices, transformation is possible! Thank you for sharing your reflections and encouraging the rest of us to lean in as well.

    • Pia Infante on April 5, 2015 at 6:50 pm

      Thank you, Dana, for reading and for sharing this Pema Chodron quote. It seems revolutionary – the notion that there is no need for self-improvement, but I would posit that we do need self-awareness. Thank you for your continued partnership as we make our collective way forward.

  2. Amy on April 3, 2015 at 11:31 pm

    This is the second time I’ve come back to your post to read it. I’ve been in deep reflection mode post IDEX Academy, replaying all the nuggets of wisdom in my head on “shuffle” and “repeat”. I’m so moved by your words, presence, honesty, vulnerability, and just your extraordinary self. I learned so much from you… and I still have much to learn from you (I will be reaching out). Thank you, Pia!

    • Pia Infante on April 5, 2015 at 6:52 pm

      Amy, thanks for dropping by (twice) and for your kind words. Your courage in vulnerability was a powerful catalyst and mirror for my own offering at the Academy. Looking forward to making the road by walking with you, and all of our “retreat friends.” Sending love and regard your way!

  3. Mike Van Horn (@mikevanhorn) on May 4, 2015 at 8:50 pm

    I have a different point of view. I suspect that 99% of the good done in the world is done by people who have an agenda, want recognition (or at least a tax write off), who make judgments about those they are benefiting, who feel distracted and hurried, who have a huge ego, and have a lot of other stuff going on in their lives.
    I think that the greatest benefits to the most people come when two or more selfish, greedy, power-driven people who don’t trust one another hammer out an agreement with lots of safeguards. They look good, they receive benefit, but so do a lot of other people.
    If we have to rely on enlightened people to do good, we’re all doomed. We’ve got to set things up so that imperfect people can do things where selfishness and altruism overlap for the good of all of us, because there are so many more of these folks.

  4. piainfante on May 17, 2015 at 4:31 pm

    Hi Mark,
    I apreciate this sentiment, and deliberated for a bit about it. I think it is a both/and that will get us futher. I, do, though double down that the “how” does indeed matter:

  5. […] This post originally appeared on The Whitman Institute’s blog. […]

    • Pia Infante on July 9, 2015 at 11:54 pm

      Thanks for the repost, IDEX!

  6. […] post by Pia Infante. This post originally appeared on The Whitman Institute’s […]