by C. Otto Scharmer
That day in school, about halfway through the day, the principal called me out of my class and told me to go home. I asked why? She didn’t tell me why, but I noticed her eyes were slightly red, as if she had been crying.
I walked as quickly as I could to the train station, and from there I called home, but no one answered – the line was dead. I had no idea what might have happened, but by then I knew that it probably wasn’t good. I boarded the train, and after the usual 45-minutes ride, I took a cab rather than wait for the bus to take me the last few miles home. It was the first time I’d ever taken a cab.
Long before I arrived, I saw it. Huge grey-black clouds of smoke were rising into the air. The long chestnut-lined driveway that led to the farm was choked with hundreds of neighbors, fire-fighters, policemen and gawkers. I jumped from the cab and ran the last half mile.
When I reached the courtyard, I couldn’t believe my eyes. The huge 350-year-old farmhouse, where my family had lived for the past 200 years and where I’d lived all my life, was gone. As I stood there, I saw that there was nothing – absolutely nothing – left but the smoldering ruins. As the reality of what was before my eyes sank in, I felt as if somebody had removed the ground from under my feet. The place of my birth, childhood, and youth was gone. Everything that I had was gone.
As my gaze sank deeper into the flames, the flames also seemed to sink into me. I felt time slowing down. Only in that moment did I realize how attached I had been to all the things destroyed by the fire. Everything I was and had been intimately connected to had dissolved into nothing. But no – I realized not everything was gone; there was still a tiny little element of myself that was gone with the fire. I was still there watching – I, the seer, I suddenly realized that there was another whole dimension of my self that I hadn’t been aware of, a dimension that didn’t relate to my past, to the world that had just dissolved.
At that moment, time slowed to complete stillness and I felt drawn in a direction above my physical body and began watching the whole scene from that other place. I felt my mind expanding to a moment of unparalleled clarity of awareness.
I realized that I was not the person I thought I was. My real self was not attached to the tones of stuff now smoldering inside the ruins. I suddenly knew that I, my true self, was still alive, more awake, more acutely present than ever before.
I now realized how much all the material things that I’d become attached to over the years, without ever noticing it, had weighted me down. At that moment, with everything gone, I suddenly felt released and free to encounter that other part of my self, the part that drew me into the future – into my future – and into a world that I might bring into reality with my life.
The next day my grandfather arrived. He was 87- years old and had lived on the farm all his life. He had left the house a week before to go to the hospital for medical treatments.
Summoning all the energy he had left, my grandfather got out of the car and walked straight to where my father was still working on the cleanup. He didn’t even turn his head towards the smoking ruins of the place where he’d spent his entire life. He simply went straight up to my father, took his hand, and said, “Keep your head up, my boy. Look forward.” (“Kopf boch, mein Junge. Blick nach vorn.”)
Turning around, he walked directly back to the waiting car and left. A few days later, he died quietly.
Even after all these years, this moves me still - that little scene of my grandfather walking by, ignoring the ruins of his home, and focusing all his remaining life energy on shifting my father’s attention from reacting to the past to opening up to what might emerge from the future.
It also evoked a question in me that still remains: “What does it take to connect to that other stream of time, the one that gently pulls me toward my future possibility?
It was a question that eventually prompted me to leave Germany to do my postdoctoral research at MIT several year ago.
And that question that draws me still, right to this very moment.
Presence: Exploring Profound Change in People, Organization and Society
Author: Peter Senge, C. Otto Scharmer, Joseph Jaworski, Betty Sue Flowers
Nicholas Brealey Publishing, 2005