Engaging Soul and Story: Telling Our Story to Our Future

Engaging Soul and Story: Telling Our Story to Our Future

 Ian Wight PhD FCIP : April 2018


 ‘Soul’ is the theme of the upcoming national conference of the Canadian Institute of Planners, in Winnipeg in July 2018. One of the conference sub-themes is ‘Soul and Story’. I’ve been contemplating what ‘soul-story’ I might want to tell, from my work-life experience of ‘professing planning’. When might my soul have been particularly at work, in my work? In what respects might my planning have been ‘soul-work’? (following on from my earlier reflection on ‘joining soul and role’).

We all have stories we like to tell, about something… possibly even about one’s self on occasion. What story might we tell about our ‘professional-self’, its growth and development; how we have evolved, and how we might still be evolving? For planners especially, there is also the angle that our professional role can be read as ‘telling stories to the future’ (as Doug Aberley related so well in his contribution to the Millennium issue of Plan Canada). For this is when we might expect to hear our soul speaking to us, for us, in a way that might well quiet our ego in some respects – letting our larger Self out of the closet a little, highlighting our ‘prof-essence’, tapping into our ‘be-coming’.

If we are attracted to story-telling, might we also be curious about what kind of story we’d like to reach for. Such stories can perhaps be too easily told, in effect, as our ego speaking for us. Our ego is often ‘on deck’ in our professing (especially when other professionals, from other professions, are in the mix); this can produce a particular narrative – an ego-story. By contrast, we might want to feel more into the story that our soul is telling us – our soul-story. I encountered this distinction in a ‘circle-of-trust’ retreat, based on Parker Palmer’s work.

A reflection exercise at the retreat involved us identifying ‘story-lines’ that might get pieced together into our own ‘soul-story’. As I retrospectively surveyed my life-time in planning, I found that I naturally gravitated to comparatively ‘charged’ personal professional experiences, that particularly registered as ‘inner landmarks’ that could not but be part of my story – that had ‘stayed’ with me, that got ‘built-in’ to what I came to profess. I came to see them as occasions when I was striving to better ‘join soul and role’ – albeit unconsciously or inadvertently at the time. They became my very own ‘articles of faith’, some ‘soul-story-lines’.

With the benefit of hindsight I can see more clearly now that these involved ‘soul-stirring’ sensations – still very much with me – that had me engaging in some ‘soul-tapping’ moments. These were occasions when I gained some clarity about some key inner/inside-goings-on – that seemed to be getting ‘outed’, without any particular ‘trying’ or ‘efforting’ on my part. Here’s some of the soul-story ‘lines’ that surfaced during my reflections in the circle-of-trust, that became de facto ‘articles of faith’, manifested in my professing over the years:

Life over Land; People over Uses: What is planning really about? Some early ‘question-wrestling’ around: Is planning about land and how it is used, or about people and how they live, work and play? (from my first professional planning practice experience, around the mid-to-late 1970s, in the Peace Country of Alberta). I continue to have an antipathy to ‘just’ land-use planning.

The Complexity Beyond Problem-Solving: Some early wondering around: Am I too accepting of planning as essentially ‘problem-solving’, or could I really be ‘up’ for a more complexity-embracing conception? Such as ‘paradox-embracing’, or ‘contradiction-accommodating’ – and perhaps some acknowledging of the irreconcilability of certain ‘permanent contradictions’ (between territory and function, or town and country, for example)? (This was my soul processing some of my doctoral studies, around the early to mid 1980s).

The Provisionality of All Knowledge: An enduring attraction to ‘All is but a woven web of guesses’ (Xenophanes) – encountered when writing my doctoral dissertation (around 1985) – and still with me in my email signature block. Bequeathing an inquiry disposition, from the depths of my soul. A chronic curiosity now expressed as a propensity for ‘wondering, pondering and beyonding’.

Organizing Hope, Pursuing Dreams: An insight, around 2000, of ‘hopes and dreams’ as THE stuff of planning. This was informed by early efforts to apply then recently-discovered ‘integral theory’ to my professional planning practice. I’ve been ‘into integral’ ever since, and appreciating the related easier accessing of more subjective realms, such as soul and spirit.

Privileging Place Over Space: A deepening curiosity about the primalcy and potency of place, vis-à-vis space, and my formulation of ‘space-place transformation’ as a possible ‘macro-mission’ of sorts (in the built environment professions context) (from my teaching experiences, especially a course called Inquiry by Design, around the late 1990s). One of my regular ‘go-to’ books nowadays is The Soul of Place, by Michael Jones, and I am most alive these days when writing about place, placemaking and planning in the context of well-being.

Essencing My Professing: My ‘strap-line’ formulation – ‘Leadership as Service: For Good, In Love, With a Smile’ (also in my email signature block) based on my ‘Spiritual Activism’ elective course experience (Human Ecology Program, Strathclyde University, 2009). This is currently being developed in the context of U Lab work, seeking to apply Theory U, to develop the self-awareness of practicing professionals (presencing awareness, of one’s professing essence, one’s prof-essence).

Letting My Soul Speak: My mantra-making, at The Bield (near Perth, Scotland), during a ‘Quiet Day’ program in September 2010 (while on an academic leave): Doing well by my Self / Being well Together / For the wellbeing of All / In all Our well-becoming. Showing up as a whole being – body, mind, soul and spirit.

Professional-Self Design: My praxis-making and ethos-making work (Quiet Resolve; Agency in Communion) in my UM CP Professional Practice course, from around 2011 on. Integrating minding (thinking), hearting and souling.

Soul-Role Sensing: The recent/current emergence of a conviction about my professing of ‘planning as place-making as wellbeing by design’ – and of professional development as ‘professional-self design’ (with praxis, ethos and poiesis as the ‘makings’ of a professional).

What’s the story here? The reflection involved plumbing my deepest values and beliefs in my professing context, and a related ongoing effort to integrate them with my ‘theory and practice’ – all the time noticing their pivotal role in that ‘integrating’, in my praxis. Is it any wonder that – in my soul – I am now wondering about another deeper conception of the planning I seek to profess: planning as soul-work? Professing as the meshing of the personal, the professional and the spiritual – in one’s Self and, more specifically, in and through one’s soul. Planning as the place where I get to ‘join’ soul and role. Might any of this emerging story resonate – with others given to plumbing their soul in their work?

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Ian Wight

A Canadian Scot. Ex-professor, now senior scholar. In re-firement. Passionate about (planning as) placemaking, as well-being (by design). Advocate of transformative professional learning, as professional-self design. Attentive to the making/s of professionals via praxis, ethos and poiesis.

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