Meeting the Elephant in the Room

The Forgotten Path of Inner Work for Personal and Leadership Development



Part 1 of 8: Increasing our inner freedom

Table of Contents

What does “deep inner work” actually mean?

In the many conversations with leaders and change-makers from diverse sectors (business, non-profit, NGO, government) from all over the world over the past year, people continuously asked us one fundamental question: “What does ‘deep inner work’ really mean”? Numerous schools of thought, ranging from millennia-old philosophies to modern academic approaches like developmental psychology and evolutionary biology, have made invaluable contributions over time to the understanding and fostering of human growth and development. At Evolute Institute, we tried to synthesize the best insights from these wisdom traditions, scientific theories and practices as well as from applied therapeutic process work and coaching. Our motivation was to create a framework for “deep inner work” that can stand the test of time and advance human well-being and flourishing – both in our personal as well as professional lives, because the need for it has never been more urgent than now.

Why is deep inner work necessary at all?

At a global level, we are entering an era of unpredictability and brittleness where established organizational principles of society and economy from the past are no longer sufficient or helpful. The signs of massive systemic disbalance can no longer be ignored even by the brightest optimists. To name just a few examples:

 

Aggravating state of global mental health

Despite advancements in technology and in material living standards of most people in the last 4 decades, we are facing unprecedented mental health challenges. Depression and anxiety have become one of the leading causes of worldwide disability, suicide is the fourth leading cause of death among teens and young adults.[1][2] Both rates have been climbing over the past decades, in particular in the USA where suicide rates are the highest recorded since the 1990s[3]. Two-thirds of young people report serious loneliness[4], and this trend has been rampant even before the onset of the Covid pandemic.[5]

Environmental collapse

We are on the brink of the Sixth Mass Extinction – the first one caused by human activity – with more than 25 percent (i.e. 1 million species) of plant, animal and fungi species facing extinction. The global biomass of wild mammals has declined by 82 percent and three quarter of the earth’s land surface has been already severely altered[6]. Exploitation of natural resources has reached record highs: for instance, only between 2000 and 2014, the world’s second largest rainforest in the Congo Basin has lost an area of pristine forest larger than Bangladesh.[7] Worldwide, we destroy a football pitch-sized area of tropical rainforest every six seconds.[8] In addition to this catastrophic biodiversity loss, we are heading towards 2-3 C° of global warming[9], with devastating non-linear and irreversible chain-reactions likely to follow.[10] Even now, we are already feeling the repercussions of the highest atmospheric CO2 concentrations recorded in human history[11], with the seven hottest years in the past 140 years having all occurred since 2014. [12]

Rising inequality

Since 1995, the top 1% have accumulated almost 20 times more of global wealth than the bottom 50 percent of humanity. U.S. CEOs in 1965 made 24 times more than the average production worker, whereas in 2009 they made 185 times more.[13] In 2022, the average gap between CEO and median worker propelled to 670-to-1.[14] In most Western countries, like in Germany, social mobility has declined in the past three decades [15] and a person’s attainable social status is still heavily determined by the occupational status of their great-grandparents[16]. Even our lifestyle leaves vastly unequal ecological footprints on the planet, with the twenty richest billionaires emitting, on average, 8000 times more CO2 than the billion poorest people.[17] In view of these developments, it is no surprise that people’s trust in their (political, business and media) leadership has hit record lows across the globe[18][19][20]

The problems are severe, and we urgently require solutions towards a healthier state of individual and collective well-being.

But… technology will save us, right?

Some of us might contest that what we need is simply more sophisticated technology to deal with the most pressing issues of our time. For example, if we only found a better way to store carbon dioxide or produce cleaner energy, then the dilemma of climate change would resolve, and we could continue driving economic growth. However, both empirical research[21], the careful observation of historical developments and even ancient wisdom tell a different story: technology developed and applied with our current mindset will only create new problems of the same kind, which in turn will have to be solved by yet more advanced technology. As long as we do not address the “growth-constrained” and extractive zeitgeist of late-stage capitalism and its alienation from the ecological, social and psychological reality, we will only perpetuate our plight.

To illustrate our point (with a pinch of salt), let’s have a look together at the following discovery we have recently made during one of our work trips through Germany:  

 

Yes, it is a beautiful, egg-shaped ceramic pissoir located inside a fuel station along a West-German highway. The astonishing detail though is not the elegant shape of this urinal, but the massive LED-screen located on top of it. That’s right: we use high-resolution LED-screens and valuable resources to mount a display on top of a pissoir, so that we can be bombarded with commercials to buy products we do not need with money we do not have whilst we are emptying our bladders. An achievement the human civilization has been desperately waiting for, tech is our savior! Admittedly, this example is somewhat simplified and exaggerated, but is still raises a valid point: tech alone without the appropriate mindset designing it is very unlikely to make our lives better. Indeed, the list of innovations that once were considered game-changers and silver-bullets for humanity but post-hoc turned out to be existential threats to (a healthy) life on this planet is long: nuclear fission, plastics, artificial fertilizers, DDT, chlorofluorocarbons, combustion engines, rapid production cycles in fast-fashion etc.

As the saying goes, we cannot solve a problem with the same mindset that created it. Jack Kornfield (PhD), a renowned Western teacher of Buddhism, put it very clearly:

 

“No amount of new technology…will stop continuing warfare and racism and environmental destruction. This is a pivotal point in our history. The powers of science and technology now have to be matched by the inner developments of humanity”.

Jack Kornfield, PhD

Inner development for outer transformation

It follows, then, that external technological innovations need to be accompanied by an internal development of our mindsets (to be clear: yes, innovation is important and we urgently require more green tech!). In particular, we need to start questioning fundamental and sometimes barely visible assumptions of our (Western) culture. We need to shed light on the implicit operating mechanisms that hide in our collective shadow and that fundamentally determine our worldview and values:

  • What is our relationship to our planet (extractive vs. nourishing)?
  • What values are socially desirable (wealth & power vs. compassion & responsibility)?
  • What socio-political narratives do we want to tell (economic growth vs. well-being of all life forms)?

 

But inner development does not stop on a societal level. Even more so, the path of inner transformation requires us to face hard questions on a deeply personal level:

  • Do I know what is truly important to me in life?
  • Do I have the capacity to act with clarity and courage in those increasingly complex times?
  • How do I deal with my personal feelings of despair, anxiety, and fear?
  • What is separating me from myself and from other?
  • Am I able to recognize and embrace my own shadows?
  • From what inner space can I be a role-model and inspiration to others?


Inner transformation on an individual level is a requirement for transformation on the systems level. Mahatma Gandhi said that “we but mirror the world. All the tendencies present in the outer world are to be found in the world of our body. If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change.”

When everything around us is collapsing and changing at a dizzying pace, we need to ground us within ourselves and within new types of community and relating in order to find stability, calm, resilience, and orientation. Being able to connect to our deepest core allows us to tap into our sources of strength and inspiration so that we can lead ourselves and others from a compass within.


In the face of imminent environmental collapse, potential nuclear war, skyrocketing economic inequality, and aggravating socio-political radicalization, our capacity to truthfully relate to our own selves AND to the world around us will determine the quality of our personal and collective well-being in the future more than anything else. Recognizing, embracing, and overcoming our own wounding and shadows opens within us the necessary space to cultivate the seeds of growth: insight, competence, vision, creativity, responsibility, purpose, connection, and inner freedom. Liberating ourselves from our distorted, calcified, self-limiting (and sometimes self-aggrandizing) beliefs is the single most effective way of unlocking our full creative powers and catalysing personal transformation – be it on a personal or on a professional level.
The path towards that transformation is what we call “deep inner work”.

“What can we gain by sailing to the moon if we are not able to cross the abyss that separates us from ourselves? This is the most important of all voyages of discovery, and without it, all the rest are not only useless, but disastrous.”.

Thomas Merton

Eight key perspectives on inner work at the Evolute Institute

So we must assume the path of inner development if we want to see positive change in ourselves and in the world. Thus, in this weekly series of articles, we would like to start exploring with you 8 complementary perspectives on the inner work that we foster and promote at Evolute Institute. These 8 perspectives are:

  1. Extending our Inner Freedom
  2. Moving into Higher Mindsets
  3. From Disconnection to Re-Connection & addressing trauma
  4. Healing Wounds
  5. Overcoming Cultural Conditioning
  6. Increasing Psychological Flexibility
  7. Fostering Integration
  8. Wisdom

Today’s article is about the first perspective on deep inner work: increasing our inner freedom.

Perspective 1: Increasing our inner freedom

So, why do the inner work, what is all this developing good for, you might ask?

Well, one of the best answers to this question is: to enhance our inner freedom, to give us more options to choose from when we act in the world. We want to obtain more inner space so that we do not just automatically react to our circumstances but so that we can respond consciously, voluntarily and appropriately even in challenging moments of our lives.

As the late Dr. Viktor Frankl, Holocaust survivor and renowned psychiatrist, famously expressed:

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

Dr. Viktor Frankl

 

The process of acquiring more inner space and freedom can be viewed from within the field of vertical development. It is important to point out that vertical development is different from skills development (horizontal development), what many of us know from corporate development courses. While the latter only hones certain skills, e.g. becoming proficient at agile project management or learning how to communicate effectively, the former implies a growing capacity and ability to perceive aspects of one’s inner world, to develop a more fine-tuned outer perception, and an enlargement of the inner space so that one can contain more of oneself, of others and the of world (think of it as a “tea cup” or “container”). 

It also usually goes along with a better access to core qualities such as calm, strength, connection, love and groundedness – even in the midst of turbulence, uncertainty and chaos. Gaining access to those core qualities, to an inner sense of purpose, and to a connection with things larger than oneself (the transpersonal domain), can be a tremendous source of strength and power.

Increasing our capacity for self-regulation

This kind of inner work and the ensuing development result in a higher capacity for self-regulation, which is the degree to which we have control over our mind’s functions, states, and inner processes. Thus, it is the basis of self-leadership and of leading others effectively. People on the path of inner development learn to act competently and adequately in different situations, adjusting in new and effective ways to their environment. This is made possible by learning to take different perspectives and dealing with them with a high extent of empathy and compassion.

Connection, strength, groundedness, a sense of really being alive, of freedom, of abundance but also of heightened response-ability (the ability to respond) – these are the fruits of doing the inner work.

Who wouldn’t want to cultivate this way of being, living, and working 🙂?

The question is, then, how can we increase our degrees of inner freedom? A simple answer is hard to provide, and maybe we start our answer with how not to do it.

Controlling the world as the solution?

A lot of people think that inner freedom will be achieved once they have sufficiently reduced their dependence on the outer world, together with stresses and annoyances in their life. They think that their ability of disconnecting from the inconveniences, obligations and drudgery of everyday life will bring them peace of mind and liberation. In our society, we are sold the idea that the most direct way of achieving this (ostensible) freedom and security is through financial wealth. Most of us, at least at some point in our lives, have been swayed by the lure of the promise: “If I only had enough money, I could finally be free, follow my true passions, be nicer to my partner and parents or [you name it].”

The idea is that the more we can control our outer circumstances with power and wealth, the freer we will be – by limiting our dependence from the world. There are numerous examples of this happening right now, e.g. the global ultra-rich hermetically separating themselves from the rest of the world in their presumably apocalypse-proof, freshly built bunkers in New Zealand.

Of course, one could spend one’s life energy on trying to construct an impenetrable fortress around oneself to try avoiding any harm entering from the outside.

Building a sense of freedom from within

However, the way we at Evolute Institute prefer viewing it, is that a deep sense of freedom can only come from within. Imposing our will on the world through control and power cannot be the answer, for we will never obtain enough control. Being alive means being vulnerable – to disease, aging and death, to betrayal and sense-less catastrophe, to hurt and loss, to natural disasters and to man-made action. No matter how much money we pour into those bunker walls, there cannot be an absolute protection from the evils of this world, since we all carry a part of that evil within ourselves. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn made the following painful yet sharp observation in his literary masterpiece The Gulag Archipelago:

“The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart – and through all human hearts.”

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

 

Even when we isolate ourselves from the world in a bunker – at the huge cost of loneliness and of cutting ourselves off from the web of life – we will meet evil and be it only the evil in our own hearts, which, by the way, is an ancient idea that can be traced back to the Bible’s Genesis with the appearance of the snake in garden Eden.

Honoring our interconnectedness

Erecting fortresses around us only detaches us from what the world might need from us. Through our striving for “independence”, we reject all responsibility and this eventually turns us into tyrants – whom Joseph Campbell described as “the man of self-achieved independence”. Instead, we might as well face the unalterable fact of life that we are connected, that we are vulnerable, that we will die and that the solution has to be something else than closing ourselves down. Thus, we must find a way of encountering freedom amidst of it all. Amidst all the annoyances, inconveniences, and pains of the world, we must find that inner space Viktor Frankl talked about. As Philip Shepherd puts it: 

“The tyrant seeks freedom in security; the hero seeks security in freedom”.

Philip Shepherd

 

This requires us to open up to life, to dare to feel and to become vulnerable. It demands us to let go of our self-stories, to connect with both our intellectual and somatic intelligence and to relax into the present. It is about sensing what the present moment requires from us, because our freedom is found in relationship and in willingly chosen interdependence with the whole, not in isolation from it. Our wholeness is found in the attunement to the present moment, and in our conscious choice to face our demons and to make sacrifices so we may be redeemed by our chosen values and our committed actions.

Dismantling our intellectual and emotional walls

At Evolute Institute, we employ different consciousness-expanding and heart-opening techniques to help our participants carefully dismantle those emotional and intellectual walls they have been building up over years. With every brick tumbling down from these walls, our participants can relate more directly and deeply with what reality is truly confronting them. People start reconnecting with themselves, and eventually with the “wholeness” of their lives. We train their capacity to be fully present, so that they can open up, get to know intimately their fears and hopes, and relate to them with more compassion and equanimity. We help them notice and gradually expand their innate space of inner freedom, which allows them to move from reactivity to consciously chosen behavior. One of our EvoLEAD program participants – a CEO of a tech company – described his journey like this:

“I’m much more present than before, less chased by thoughts in my mind. I experience a new sense of openness and groundedness, which helps in my conversations with my employees, in negotiations. It helps me in determining the direction I want to take my company to. I’m less ego-driven and more focused on my company’s vision and mission. I’m also kinder to myself - sometimes when it’s 2pm and I feel I have done a lot already that day I simply go home and enjoy my time-off – before the EvoLEAD program I would have never allowed myself to do this. I have found a new relationship to my sense of responsibility.”

CEO of tech company, EvoLEAD participant

Another lens through which to look at the enlargement of our inner space is the leadership mindsets framework developed by author and organisational development expert Martin PermantierSo in Part 2 of this 8-part article series on deep inner work we look into how thinking in mindsets can be used to accelerate personal and professional growth. Check it out here:

Part 2 – Deep inner work – Moving into higher mindsets

 

Want to find out more about our work or participate in one of our programs? Schedule a call with us here

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References:

[1] WHO 2022 https://www.who.int/teams/mental-health-and-substance-use/world-mental-health-report

[2] https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(21)02143-7/fulltext

[3] https://www.commonwealthfund.org/press-release/2020/new-international-report-health-care-us-suicide-rate-highest-among-wealthy

[4] https://www.gse.harvard.edu/news/21/02/combatting-epidemic-loneliness

[5] https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/71/su/su7102a1.htm

[6] Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services  https://zenodo.org/record/3553579.

[7] https://www.science.org/doi/10.1126/sciadv.aat2993

[8] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/jun/02/football-pitch-area-tropical-rainforest-lost-every-six-seconds

[9] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2022/sep/08/world-on-brink-five-climate-tipping-points-study-finds

[10] https://www.science.org/doi/10.1126/science.abn7950

[11] https://doi.org/10.1126/sciadv.aav7337

[12] https://www.noaa.gov/news/2020-was-earth-s-2nd-hottest-year-just-behind-2016. 

[13] https://inequality.stanford.edu/publications/20-facts-about-us-inequality-everyone-should-know

[14] https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2022/jun/07/us-wage-gap-ceos-workers-institute-for-policy-studies-report#:~:text=A%20study%20of%20300%20top,%2Dto%2D1%20in%202020.

[15] https://www.oecd-ilibrary.org/sites/03b3c8b6-en/index.html?itemId=/content/component/03b3c8b6-en

[16] Sebastian Braun, Jan Stuhler: The Transmission of Inequality Across Multiple Generations: Testing Recent Theories with Evidence from Germany, in: The Economic Journal 128 (March) 2018, 576-611.

[17] https://www.oxfam.org/en/5-shocking-facts-about-extreme-global-inequality-and-how-even-it

[18] https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2022/06/06/public-trust-in-government-1958-2022/

[19] https://www.ippr.org/news-and-media/press-releases/revealed-trust-in-politicians-at-lowest-level-on-record/

[20] https://www.axios.com/2022/01/18/distrust-in-political-media-and-business-leaders-sweeps-the-globe

[21] https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/13563467.2019.1598964

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