Love is heart of the matter. Interview with Alain Gauthier.

Alain Gauthier, Board member AR+ Foundation.

Alain Gauthier is a board member for AR+ Foundation. To this Alain brings his decades of experience as an executive and team coach. Alain and I have co-led a coLAB on developmental leadership in response to eco-social crisis, with Dana Carman, in which context Alain and Dana have also developed an action research transformation project. It’s an active collaborative project with people in the Northwest region and called Regenerative Cascadia Collective. We met for a catch-up conversation – at a social distance – on Alain’s deck and overlooking his new vegetable garden. We started to talk about love (well Alain is French 🙂 and then got more serious with the inquiry of how love can be a more explicit element in our work as Action Researchers for Transformation.


Alain: (picking up one of 5 books at his elbow) Here’s a quote from A. H. Almaas [Love Unveiled – Discovering the Essence of the Awakened Heart, 2020] I want to share with you:

“We see love as a result of actualizing the essence of who we are… The soul needs love in a basic and fundamental way. In some sense, love for the soul is like oxygen for the body”. “We need love. It compels our development… We’re not talking about a thing, more like a food that grows our maturity.

Hilary:
Yes! And I want to respond with MLK’s quote on love which has really stayed with me of late. It inspired my poster in the BlackLivesMatter protests in Portland. It goes:

“Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.”

How about we ponder why this topic of love touches so deeply. And from that how do we talk about it so it’s not just mush, but the basis for living. The basis also for how AR+ evolves.

Alain: In the lockdown experience, and also our joint work with AR+, I’ve been reflecting more on what in my youth led me away from love, led me to close my heart, or at least to build a kind of armor around my heart.
I lost my father at age nine. And so my life changed brutally from a wonderful family life in the mountains to a boarding school, near Paris which felt like a prison. I was separated from my siblings and my mother, and was laughed at by my classmates in the first few months there because of my country boy accent and manners.

Hilary
Traumatic times. And at such a young age for you.


Alain
Yes, I realized only later that it was traumatic. And it is a good thing to reflect on it now. I have completely forgiven all the family circumstances, and here in my elder years, I can see and express more clearly how others can avoid keeping this armor on for as long as I did. I’m more curious now how to actualize what is the creative part of me. Andrew Harvey calls it “the divine part of oneself.” And for me, that’s the love that’s there, wanting to emerge and express itself.

Hilary:
As I understand your biography, that creativity, that divine spark if you will, has always been active, but more in cognitive strategic ways, for example in your executive coaching, which I know people have been really helped by. What’s different when you involve the heart? Say you were coaching me on my leadership in AR+?

Alain:
As we are sitting side by side – not so much in a coaching relationship – first I’ll go back to a few moments in my life and share what I have learned and maybe there is something we can both look at.

I’m remembering when I was a student at a French business school, and just walking through the wheat fields with some of my classmates on a pilgrimage to Chartres Cathedral, something important opened up for me beyond the teachings of the school. And also again when I was serving as a French reserve Navy officer, I read a few books about science and spirituality that touched me and reopened a connection with my heart and my soul that I had distanced myself from as a teenager. That reconnection also happened when I was initiated to classical music by a French girl I was very fond of when I was a student.

Hilary:
If I translate this in our shared context. In a way I am asking what do these recollections tell us today. I believe you’re saying look closely at the moments when you already have experienced love. Love is not an alien force or out of body experience. Nor is it an entirely everyday occurrence – it’s the sacred in the everyday when we walk in nature, read certain books, relate authentically, fall in love. And take time to notice the effect. In our institutional education, such as at a business school or in the Military this kind of learning is not at all normal. Anything about love is hard to integrate into a curriculum as something to be actively cultivated. Frankly I am not much of a good job at AR+ despite believing that ARTists need to cultivate this more gentle knowing. And there is no obvious reason for this. I think I am afraid to sound a bit flaky.

Alain
In my early forties, I spent five years with my wife and son in an intentional community, in the South of France. It was then that I felt the lid started really bubbling off on this issue of love and transformation. Right now I find more opportunities and synchronicities around this line of inquiry. And I am 80 now. For instance, I’m learning how Thomas Aquinas – who was both a great scientist and a Dominican monk in the 12th century – related love to knowledge and spirituality. He was an isolated voice in his time. But he really started a medieval spiritual renaissance and inspired many others in the next couple of centuries, including St Francis of Assisi.
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Hilary:
You were raised a Catholic when the mystical was still part of it?

Alain:
Yes, I was actually a devoted altar boy between ages 7 and 12. There was something mystical in the dialogue in Latin with the old priest serving mass, and in the smoke of the incense rising in the early morning light. I found in these rituals a way to express a kind of love of life itself. Yes, a love for life itself. I would call it now an innocent love, a sense of wonder and awe for the mystery. It was, of course, quite different from the infatuation I experienced later in my teenage years and as a young man.

Hilary:
I wish I had remembered to bottle the infatuations of youth! Obviously it’s the elixir of life. It’s so much harder, but probably much more worthy, to practice a more mature love now – love and power in combination – is my peculiar obsession as you may know.

Alain:
Yes. Reading your recent paper on that subject was quite synchronistic for me. I like this alchemy of love and power. Though you start out carefully referring to affect and power. There are many emotions under love.

Hilary
Yeah. I want to talk about love and power but when I have tried, publicly, I realize it’s better to talk about emotion. It’s more neutral and allows space for fear and all sorts of emotions to be recognized. I recall I almost had people walk out on a big talk I was giving in Scandinavia because I spoke of love in action research. One guy told me from the audience that love is poisoned for him as his wife just left him. Yikes. So of course I needed a more neutral term. 

Alain.
I am under the influence of a recent book by Valarie Kaur on revolutionary love [“See No Stranger” 2020]. She is Indian and was brought up in the Sikh tradition by her family who has been in Southern California for two generations. She’s in her mid thirties with two young children, and tells stories of her life as an anti-racism and peace activist. Practicing revolutionary love for her means to love others, love one’s opponents, and love/take care of oneself – which is often challenging for an activist. Her experience and the practices she uses and recommends really touch me, the more as I am listening to her reading her book with a lot of care and passion.

Hilary:
I hear you locating parts of yourself through these readings and studies. Remember our inquiry together inside the coLAB earlier this year? We were identifying our developmental edge. You were talking about moving more to embrace a heart-centered and embodied way of living. Now it sounds like you have a more compelling vocabulary and additional resources, but it’s very much in the same direction. What do you think this could mean for what we are up to in AR+?

Alain:
It could mean loving one’s activist soul and tending to the heart. I don’t mean just loving friends and neighbors. That is not so hard. I’m thinking most particularly about loving one’s opponents. And that brings us back to the question of how to love. To love my opponents, I first need to wonder what it is like for them right now, to be curious about them.


Hilary:
The path of love starts with a sense of curiosity. Same as science. Rather than judging or pigeon-holing my opponent, I can pause and encourage myself to inquire into what’s holding them where they are, into where I am and whether it’s possible to bridge the gap between us. What else you have been reading?

Alain:
I am focusing on anti-racism right now, as a very striking illustration of the domination instinct or paradigm. Having read White Fragility [Robin Di Angelo: White Supremacy] last year, I am now part of two book clubs, one reading “My Grandmother’s Hands” [Reesma Menakem: “My Grandmother’s Hands, 2017] and in the other one we’re reading “Me and White Supremacy” [Layla Saad: “Me and White Supremacy”, 2020].

Hilary:
Gotta chuckle at how many books are here. And book clubs. Well at least you make time for you beautiful vegetable garden too!

BTW Lara and I are using “My Grandmother’s Hands” as a resource in our RAIR coLAB. We’re trying to meet the moment. And of course there is too much to meet. Can you say more about love and the implications for the BlackLivesMatter movement. Just noting that we’re two white Europeans in Portland during an explosion of riots. How are you making connections?

Alain:
I am heartbroken by the suffering and pain that keeps to be inflicted on Black people and other people of color in the US, generation after generation. There are of course many layers to the issues of implicit bias and racial injustice. When people just react physically and emotionally to violence or oppression, there is not much room for curiosity, inquiry or wonder about what motivates their opponents to act as they do. I saw you ran a paper in ARJ about working with police officers. Loving one’s opponent is hard work. Valary Kaur talks about this “labor of love,” but it can get us beyond this stuck position of who is bad or wrong. Am I willing to engage in this type of labor with Trump supporters, right here and now in the US? What had led them to to take this position? Am I willing to listen compassionately to their way of making sense of the situation? In my case, I do my best to practice compassionate observing/listening from a distance because I know so few of them personally.

Hilary:
Listening, observing. Then there’s the dialectical twins of aligning and experimenting that are also necessary to have a complete learning experience. Or so say very wise action researchers.  I feel we so often want to leave out the possibility of aligning and experimenting. So I get tired of the endless listening and observing, as I endlessly tell everyone! Listening and observing is utterly necessary, but I say we linger too long there. We can substitute lingering and dialogue for action. Analysis is not insight. Do you think the bridge is to listen with one’s heart. It cuts through a lot of detail. Heartful listening can be a keen form  – I want to say efficient – of knowing toward action. When we listen like that, it is often obvious what to do. Without a whole bunch of analysis.

Alain:
That leads me to want to talk more about power and love. In your paper you describe a developmental movement of love and power from separate to their interweaving.

Hilary:
Yea. That is where Bill Torbert and I got to in our work together a few years back. It was based on deep listening, Bill’s keen ability to talk about stages of development and my letting go of upsets around oblivious sexism. We were bringing curiosity to the issue of gender relationships in the growing consciousness of what since became #MeToo. And then I started to take theatre classes to see how we can express without endless wordiness.

Alain
So I read and garden and am part of several book clubs. You’re in a theatre club?

Hilary
Actually one of the theatre pieces Im preparing in my online class involves personal storytelling. Strangely enough, being Irish, I was horrified to learn that I had to tell a story. Stakes are high when you’re Irish as we’re all supposed to know how to tell a great story. Like I expect you as French to know a good bottle of wine! So we had to go into our childhood and tell a story from that. While I didn’t have the trauma of going to boarding school in Paris, I had the trauma of losing my young brother in a tragic accident. In a way it amounts to the same thing – the family breaks from prior certainty and is forced to embrace a new unthinkable reality. For me the question I carry from this, or one of them that animates AR+,  is how am I at home? How do I and we find refuge with others in this new reality unfolding on our streets? Part of me fears the woke mob and all its violence. Part of me sees it all as action around a big shared question. How can we live a good life at this time? How can good people make community with one another?

Alain:
In your paper you had 3 cases and I saw the same story repeated three times from different communities that fell into conflict. And it’s one I know all too well from my own experience in various communities. There can be this traumatic and complete breakdown of community among what we would call good people, awake and alive people. When confronted with significant conflict they fail as a community.

Hilary:
I don’t know very many communities that manage to do well with conflict. Innocently I remain hopeful about AR+. Do you many intentional communities that have thrived over the years?

Alain:
Frankly, No. Yet the challenge of finding my place and our place as a group in a community like Portland is as important as ever. That’s what we are trying to clarify by going together through the formation stage of the Regenerative Cascadia Collective. This issue of working lovingly with conflict is crucial. It’s probably why we insisted on including “going slow to go fast” in our learning agreements. Which means taking enough time as a group to deepen our appreciation of each other as some tensions arise, session after session.


Personally and as compared to a few years ago, I have a greater tolerance for periods of confusion and for taking more time to sort it out by embracing conflict. Building that capacity to practice “revolutionary love” is more and more important to me.

Hilary:
It’s worth spending a few moments on the way in which to speak of love is kind of taboo. Right? We can write about it in books, but we can’t write about it in scholarly articles. This paper you’re commenting on is my first attempt to push that envelope a bit. I guess there’s so much confusion about what love it. MLK got it right. But then there with so much confusion about the most important things in life. We go to school to get extreme clarity about, you know, Quantum Physics. But the importance of love in our lives? Much less the many types of power, positive and negative? Better to examine the rules of esoteric chess games in scholarly circles than to engage with love. Yea, yea, there are exceptions!

Alain:
Did you like Love and Power by Adam Kahane?

Hilary:
Yes loved it. Actually we did workshops back to back last year. He on love and power, me on eros and power. I think he has the less scary title. And his is a very good book. I like it a lot I believe because it comes out of his experience. I think we could say it’s a developmental approach using different forms of dialogue as a way to take action.

Alain:
It’s so easy for us as human beings to relate as if the other is an object. Dialogue is hard.

Hilary:
I just went through a very difficult experience of this myself recently. I was teaching a program and let’s just say shit hit the fan for all sorts of reasons, only some of them my own stupidity. One woman perceived me as offensive and didn’t want to speak privately with me. So my only option was to agree to just hear all the blame that wanted to be expressed in public. Ouch. It was a bit traumatizing that it had to be done publicly. Anyway I had my wits about me enough to really listen, which took a lot of the sting out. Like you mentioned earlier, curiosity became my focus. As in what is really happening here? What is her upset really about? And a bit of a miracle happened. Once I understood what was at play I could make a genuine apology. We never had any two-way inquiry, but at least we brought forward the possibility of something new. And with an audience. I won’t recommend it, but yea it was a significant learning for me. And now I have come to see it as a necessary stage to what may come later for any of us in the shared experience. Love, I guess, sometimes looks like expressing a lot of stored anger and trusting that transformation is possible. If we pretend all is well nothing shifts. For those who have not had access to power, that first expression may be venting and rage. We have to make space within for that.

Alain:
I love the quotation you have by bell hooks.

“The practice of love is the most powerful antidote to the politics of domination.” – bell hooks.

 When we are willing to go through some of the more challenging aspects of listening with compassion to one’s opponent, then we can use the word wonder. It’s not just curiosity.

Hilary:
It’s wonder-full. Still I really don’t think our shaming, cancelling, call out culture is the way to go. It just adds trauma to trauma. And we can’t easily align.  But easy for me to say as I have lots of privilege so the chances of being called out is higher.  I am a bit biased. Still it feels like the guillotine – got a little out of control in France, right!

Alain:
Your thinking helps me see the resistance we have in our collective work to being clear about power. I have not really studied power. I have seen it at work and worked with it when facilitating retreats for more than 100 teams, but it’s time for me now to look more deeply at power. For me, a sign of maturity is the willingness to be in that dance of love and power as much as we can. I like very much the distinctions you and Bill make between the forms of power. You bring some insights from feminism which are helpful too. I wonder what are the conditions for people to feel and behave like peers when we tackle difficult matters. Let me check: were there men at the head of these learning communities that were unable to move beyond their conflictual stage? There is a gender piece here, isn’t there? 

Hilary:
It’s a practice, isn’t it, to acknowledge that all groups have conflict and that we can create some guardrails for the inevitable – even treat it as a wonderful opportunity – when conflict happens. We may want to be all equals and we are not.  This is part of  the art and science for good ART. The art of ART includes multiple stakeholders and also voices. For me it’s part social science, part philosophy, even divinity school training, all these things. Love was actually part of the divinity school training I had. Good to remember that previous training. More and more it feels like this is exactly what is needed to advance our capacity for ART.

Alain:
Love is essential to being a catalyst of catalysts.

Hilary:
A catalyst touches the heart. And we teach best what it is we desperately need.

Alain:
I’m very glad to hear that you now have a book contract to write more about ART. You will be a broadening and deepening all this. I’ll be one of your fervent supporters.

Hilary:
Shucks.  The practice of capacity building for ART is all really coming to life in the various coLABs. Glad we’re leading a new the CoLAB for developmental leadership at a time of eco-social crisis. It’s a good one! We start in November.

Alain:
Yes. We all found it insightful for us, in different ways. Together we made the mayonnaise take shape, as we say in French – because we just love food as an expression of the love for life. 

Hilary:
Vegan mayonnaise right. I can’t wait. Alain I am deeply grateful for all you do in supporting AR+.