Read about Bob's longer story of entering into Japan's disasters below.
Finding My Way, One Story at a Time
By the end of 2013 our funding from G2A was coming to an end; I left Japan just before Christmas and headed home to the U.S. I knew we had done some good work. But I also had more questions than answers. I was stepping into this new role of being a writer, delving deeply into the stories I had heard and discovering what there was to share.
When I began writing the Japanese edition of this book, my friends in Japan told me I needed to begin by telling part of my own story. It was a bit embarrassing to even contemplate doing so. It’s not that I’m embarrassed by my life, but especially in Japan, it felt improper to call attention to it. But I listened to my friends and included some of my life story in that early edition of this book. I remember thinking that I would not share this more personal story in the English edition.
As I began to write the English edition, I came to realize how much my own life journey and this story from Japan are intertwined. The stories put forward in the first half of this book were shared with me because of who I am and what I offered. What I offered came from a lifetime of experience. Indeed, as I showed up to help in the time after 3.11, I often felt as if every single thing I had learned in my life was being called on. Sometimes I had a feeling of being well-used and other times a feeling of being sucked dry. At one point, I told a friend of mine that I felt as if I was drawing on the energy of past lives to maintain my balance. She nodded in affirmation and then said, “And sometime you will need to replenish that well.”
As I found my way into service in Japan, I kept offering different tools, frameworks and ways of thinking that I thought might be helpful to others. They grew out of my own life journey, which I’ll describe here, in concluding this book.
I was born in Portland Oregon, USA, in 1949, into a working-class family with little money. I was born a year and a half after my brother. My mother was of Cherokee and Irish descent, my father of Prussian and English parentage. My father was a tree trimmer for our local electric power utility company and my mother was a homemaker. They didn’t have a lot of formal education – my father dropped out in his second year of high school and my mother was a high school graduate. They didn’t use a lot of fancy language, but what they communicated with their lives was deep love and absolute support for whatever was unfolding in my life.
Because we didn’t have much money, I started working at an early age. When I was 8 and 9, I got up very early on summer mornings and took a bus to pick green beans and strawberries. By the age of 10, I knew I didn’t want to do that kind of work anymore. The year before, I had taken a class at the Oregon Museum for Science and Industry (OMSI) and the teacher became OMSI’s assistant education director the next year. He lived in my neighborhood and I saw him at a store one day. I went up to him and asked, “Mr. Bixby, Is there any job I could do at OMSI?” He thought for a moment and said, “I think maybe there is.” So at age10, I started my career at OMSI passing out handbills at the Portland Zoo inviting people cross the parking lot to the OMSI. I was paid 50 cents an hour; I was also paid in kindness and attention and support. This was the first of many times in my life when a door opened, inviting me forward. Some people have lived a planned life; mine has been one of walking through the doors that have opened in front of me. I’ve been spirit blessed and spirit led.
I worked at OMSI for 15 years. Back then, we didn’t use words like collaboration, innovation and entrepreneurship. We just did the work. OMSI was one of the leading public science museums in the U.S.; it was created by people who saw that something was needed. Back in the late ‘50s, just before my tenure began, OMSI was searching for an executive director for its brand-new facility. Many on the board wanted a scientist, “That would give us stature,” they argued. Donald Stotler, a thoughtful man who was the superintendent of science education for the Portland Public Schools, spoke persuasively from a different perspective. He said, “We need a person who knows how to listen to people.” The Board eventually agreed and the job was offered to Loren McKinley, the mayor of Tillamook, a small town on the Oregon Coast.
Loren knew how to listen to people and I learned important lessons working with him for those 15 years. I worked in almost every part of the museum’s operations – teaching classes, building science camps, day manager for the museum, and fund-raising. When I was a teenager, OMSI was building an agricultural wing for the museum and we needed help from people all over the state. OMSI had been successful at developing fund-raising auctions where businesses donated goods and services and people came to a big auction party to bid on the items – sometimes at outrageous prices. We asked the rural counties around Oregon to hold their own auctions to help raise money. That year, when I was 16, Loren and I traveled to almost every county in the state to help put the finishing touches on the auction and to coach local people on running the auction itself.
Back then - and still now - people in the big city of Portland often thought of people in the rural areas as being conservative and a bit backward. It is a bit like Tokyo’s judgment of people from Tohoku. What I found as I worked with hundreds of rural people all over Oregon was that they were smart and kind and thoughtful. They were friendly. They were ordinary people living full and rewarding lives.
This was a key lesson in my life. The world is filled with good people. Some are rich and some are poor. Some have lots of formal education and others little. Some live in big cities, some live in rural areas. Most are kind. A few are mean-spirited – but those characteristics aren’t based on how much money or education they have or where they live. Good people are everywhere. OMSI taught me to encounter people with respect, curiosity and generosity – things I now know are essential for good community.
I left Portland to go to Carleton College in Minnesota. I had my life planned. Having spent much of my time at a science museum, I decided I was going to be a neuroscientist specializing in the brain and nervous system. But life had different plans for me. I soon discovered that OMSI was, for me, really about people, not science. Many years later I discovered that my interest in the brain was actually an interest in consciousness.
In 1970, I became disillusioned with my efforts as a peace activist; the murders of students at Kent State University by the National Guard and the invasion of Cambodia were just too much to bear. I wanted out of the U.S. and a door opened to Japan, just as a door had opened for me a decade earlier at OMSI. I went through that door, spending my senior year at the International Division of Waseda University in Japan.
Almost immediately I felt drawn to Japanese culture. Then, through a visit to a friend who was staying in Kyoto, I met the man who would become the grandfather of my heart. He was 69 and I was 21. おじいちゃま Ojiichama (Grandfather) became my guide and mentor until his death 19 years later. He is still with me today. His son, Naohito, became my おとおさん Otoosan-(father) and just turned 89.
While in Japan, I also met Susan Virnig, a student from Minnesota and Macalester College who, eight years later, would take me as her husband. Nine years after we were married, Annie Stilger Virnig was born. The only grandpa Annie has ever known is Ojiichama’s son, my father in Japan. Our families have been deeply woven together for 45 years with time in Japan, in Washington State, and in Hawaii.
Japan has been where I’ve gone to restore my soul and to find harmony in my life. More times than I can count, in fall, winter, spring and summerI’ve made my way north to Shisendo on the lower slopes of Kyoto’s Mt. Hei and trekked down the Philosopher’s Walk to Nanzen-ji. From time to time I’ve climbed to the top of the mountain at Fushimi-Inari shrine, not far from my host parent’s home in Kyoto. The quiet beauty of Ryoan-ji often calls to me with its silence.
During those years of coming and going from Japan, Susan and I worked with others to create in 1974, the Northwest Regional Facilitators (NRF), one of the early nonprofit community development corporations in the U.S. Through NRF, we developed and managed a wide range of efforts to help people live better lives. We worked in innovative and creative ways to engage people in thinking together about what sort of community they wanted. While we were acknowledged and acclaimed for the work we did, I came to realize that the approach we were using for community development wasn’t actually shifting the underlying patterns that were making life more and more difficult for so many. In 1995, my search for new ideas and new approaches led me to the California Institute of Integral Studies (CIIS) where I began my PhD in Learning and Change in Human Systems.
My time at CIIS opened me up in ways I had not expected. I was exposed to ideas and worldviews and tools and approaches that were far outside my experience and sometimes outside my comfort zone. In some ways, in the beginning, I was still playing it safe – seeing my life possibly changing some, but mostly staying the same. That all started to shift when my closest friend and colleague of 30 years, Robert Theobald called one Friday in the autumn of 1997 to ask me how my day was going. I whined for a while and then asked him about his and in a quiet voice he responded, “Well, not so good. I just found out this afternoon that I have esophageal cancer and have, perhaps six months to live.”
Even now tears come to my eyes as I write those words. Susan and I immediately invited Robert to move to Spokane to complete his life and his work. He moved into an apartment about a ten-minute walk from our home. Being an organizer, I immediately began to do a lot of reading about living and dying and started to weave and host both an intimate and an extended community around Robert. We entered a period of intense life and healing work in which my heart kept being broken open to welcome in more and more of the world.
I intuitively invited four people to come together and create a “healing circle” for Robert. The first time we gathered, we sat together in a small circle around his hospital bed for 2 hours. By the end of that first circle, we knew that it was a healing circle not just for Robert, but for each of us. For the next two years – the rest of Robert’s life – we met together each week in circle, being present to each other and to ourselves. Our purpose was simply to listen openly as we each spoke our own truths. Not to fix each other, but to enter into a sacred presence with each other. Robert’s final days were filled with both agony and with laughter. It was in those final days that I found the clarity and the courage to step away from the relative security of the nonprofit I had served for 25 years. Robert’s death was the portal for my own rebirth.
It has been17 years since Robert’s death and that same circle continues to gather, usually every month or two. The circle has hosted deep transformations in each of our lives. It was where I began to learn more deeply about grief and about joy. It has provided the foundation for most of what I know about being present and being alive.
Early in 2000, I created my next nonprofit – NewStories. We quickly formed a strategic partnership with The Berkana Institute to launch a global leadership initiative called From the Four Directions: People Everywhere Leading the Way. While things didn’t work out the way Meg Wheatley, Christina Baldwin and I envisioned, we were able to connect several hundred people around the world with each other and with ideas about the kind of leadership needed in the world. Our work began to weave the relationships that later would support the creation of the “Art of Hosting” movement, as well as lead to the creation of a learning community of people and places around the world we called the Berkana Exchange. I spent from 2000 - 2010 learning about leadership and re-learning about how to help people create healthy and resilient communities.
Gradually this work drew me closer and closer into Berkana and in 2005 Deborah Frieze and I succeeded Margaret Wheatley as co-presidents of Berkana. In those years, much of my work was with people in Zimbabwe, South Africa, Brazil and India, places where people were working with what they had to create the communities they wanted. My work was to listen, to ask questions, and very occasionally to give advice. My work was to try to understand what was arising in these different places and to try to figure out what it meant for all of us. Each year I took several 3-6 week trips to different parts of the world to observe and begin to grasp what might actually make a difference in our world. Perhaps more than anything, I was learning to listen, to witness and to host spaces in which people could discover more of whom they really were and what they wanted.
More and more I started to see that it was the questions, energy and insights of those younger than me that would guide me. In 2001, sitting together for conversation at Castle Borl in Slovenia with my dear friend Maaianne Knuth opened the way for an inquiry that would be the basis for my PhD dissertation. I felt a new spirit arising in the world, a new way in which people were following a calling to step forward with their enspirited leadership, which I describe in the book on page 32 During this period, I worked mostly with people in their 20s and 30s from around the world in what we called the Berkana Exchange. Together we articulated the principles, values and beliefs which guided our work and are described on page 37.
A New Door Opens into Japan (2010)
By 2009 the US economy had tanked and Berkana’s sources of financial support had plummeted. Berkana morphed into a self-organizing system with a very small mid-level staff with most work done through partnerships. My co-president role was eliminated and I no longer had paid employment. Once again, I was invited to discover more of who I am which meant, as it initially does for many of us when we face this kind of opportunity, deepening uncertainty that cycled into self-doubt.
And then a door opened for this work in Japan. I was presenting at a Pegasus Systems’ Thinking in Action Conference in Seattle in the fall of 2009. There were more than 25 people from Japan present and I started talking with several of them about what was happening in Japan and what I was learning in my work. Several of them asked me to come and work with them in Japan and a new and unexpected journey began in January 2010. My work there would draw both from the Art of Hosting and what we had learned through the Berkana Exchange.
I spent almost six months in Japan in 2010. My spouse, Susan, was a partner in much of this work, and our daughter, Annie, who had graduated from college in 2009, joined us for part of it. She was beginning the next stage of her life WWOOFing, starting at a farm in northern Japan.
We began by introducing social technologies for deeper listening and for speaking up about one’s own hopes and dreams, called “Art of Hosting Conversations that Matter.” While this approach was increasingly popular around the world, it was new in Japan. But there was a hunger in Japan for new ways to think about the future and to consider the meaning of community.
Throughout the year, working with a growing community of people, we offered a range of workshops and events. Art of Hosting quickly intersected with a new movement to introduce the European “FutureCenter” model in Japan. I started to introduce some views, models, and constructs to help people find their way which are now shared in this book.
After Disaster (2011-2013)
Then the Triple Disasters hit. Most of my work in 2011 was outside of Tohoku. It took time to find the right door through which to enter into the disaster region. As I’ve shared earlier, many of us kept gathering to talk about what we could do that would be helpful. Many of us ‒ people from business, academia, nonprofits, and community work ‒ had met in 2010 were concerned about where Japan was going. We were not part of any one single organization, just people who had met, often through the Art of Hosting work I had done in 2010.
The hearts of everyone I knew were broken wide open. We didn’t know what to do. We were confused. Uncertain. We didn’t know how or where to begin. Except we knew we had to keep talking. And we knew we had to be still. We had to listen – to ourselves, to each other, to the surrounding voices and, of course to the kami.
Early on, two key ideas emerged. One was to create spaces in which youth from across Japan, including Tohoku, could gather to support each other. Another was to introduce FutureCenters to Japan’s social sector as quickly as we could. We believed these centers could be helpful models for working with social issues after the Triple Disasters.
To support youth, we launched a series of four Youth Community Leadership Dialogues between May and November of 2011. Each time, we gathered 50 or so people – mostly in their 20s and 30s – in a lovely natural area at the KEEP in Kiyosato for three days.
Members of the new Art of Hosting community in Japan, as well as several practitioners from outside Japan, came to hold the space with us. Using organizing principles from Art of Hosting, we shared our grief and hope, ideas and fears. We stayed together to dream about what could be. The sessions were deep and heartfelt.
People from Tohoku joined us for each session. For many in the disaster area, it was hard for them to imagine how they could take the time for themselves, with so much needing to be done. But we encouraged them, believing that there was something important going on, that what we were doing in these sessions would eventually be helpful for all in the disaster areas.
Members of the new Art of Hosting community in Japan, as well as several practitioners from outside Japan, came to hold the space with us. Using organizing principles from Art of Hosting, we shared our grief and hope, ideas and fears. e stayed together to dream about what could be. The sessions were deep and heartfelt
In these sessions we began to establish how important it was to pause from demanding work and take time to reflect and connect with others. Relationships were kindled and reinforced in these four sessions at the KEEP, with both marriages and projects being born along the way! In our work we were able to begin establishing the importance of dialogue as a place to discern what important and to find a path forward.
For more than a year, all of my time had been donated and a number of people stepped forward to support this work. Finally, in the summer of 2012, we were successful in raising funding to support this work. A grant from Give2Asia allowed us to begin to put our ideas into action on a larger scale. The time from the summer through the early months of 2014 passed in a rush. That work and journey form the main body of this book.
Early in 2014, I was at my host parent’s home in Kyoto when I woke one morning with the certainty that this phase of my work was done. There was some terror in that recognition: Who am I then? What will I do? While there was grief along with the fear of the unknown, there was also a lot of gratitude. We had brought FutureCenters into Tohoku to help people listen to each other and to begin to create a new future, together. I had helped many people learn more about hosting dialogue and FutureSessions. They could continue this work without me, and without the complexity of translation. They would develop deeper skills as dialogue hosts as they went along. No matter what, I knew that Japan would always be important to me and that there were several things I saw that I could do. But it was time to turn my attention back to my country of origin and to other parts of the world.
Since then, I’ve realized that I am a connector. I build relationships. I have done so all my life. Given life and opportunity to do so, I’ll continue this work of connecting people, listening to them and learning with them well into my late seventies. It is the work of my heart. I’ll slow down some, but this is my life.
Frankly, I don’t care so much these days about saving the planet or changing the world. My gaze is a bit closer to home; to here and now. I trust the tenants of Enspirited Leadership. I know that as more of us step into our calling, as we return home and embrace who we each truly are, shifts happen.
I know that as we connect with each other and as we enter into the silences of our own unique spiritual journeys, we increase our capacity to enter the journey of our calling.
And when we take time to reflect, invite indifference and embrace the ambiguity and uncertainty of life – we find our way. We blaze trails as we find our own.
 Robert Theobald was an internationally noted futurist and socio-economist. Born in India and educated in the UK and US, Robert was the father of the Guaranteed Annual Income concept in the US and author of 26 books calling for a new society, including Avoiding 1984, Rapids of Change, Reworking Success and many others.
 NewStories is a US based nonprofit corporation founded in 2000. It is based on the idea that we change our world by changing the stories we tell ourselves about our world and our lives. Bob currently serves as Co-President. See http://www.newstories.org
 Christina Baldwin is the co-founder of PeerSpirit (www.peerspirit.com) and author of numerous books on the power of circle and the power of story. Christina’s wonderful work with Circle, mentioned in Appendix B, formed the foundation for our “From the Four Directions” work.
 I met Maaianne when she was co-founder of Pioneers of Change (www.pioneersofchange.net), a vibrant, pre-Facebook community of people in their 20s and 30s determined to live authentically and make a difference in the world. Shortly after the beginning of this century, Maaianne returned to her native Zimbabwe to found Kufunda Learning Village (www.kufunda.org), a place of inspiration to many around the world.
 The Willing Workers On Organic Farms movement is a globally-connected, regionally-based network of places where people learn how to work with the land in more sustaining ways. Usually offered room and board in exchange for a certain number of hours of work each week, WWOOFers, as they are called, travel the world, work on the land, and learn about life.
Invite Bob to Support your Community
Bob and the team at NewStories love to be invited to support communities and organizations in finding their way forward, to find their afternow. Bob can give a talk at your conference, run a 2 hour, half day, or multiple day workshop or custom design an experience that fits your community’s needs, whether that’s finding a “new normal” after a disaster or preparing for the possible now in light of the changing times we are facing.
To get a taste of Bob's talks, please check out the following: