The Spontaneous Unity of Family in Flow
Amidst these wildly changing times, an unprecedented shift is occurring in the timeless dance of workplace and family life. Forced to limit in-person interactions to curtail the spread of COVID-19, most employers in some way loosened requirements to report to work in a physical setting. Employers counted on these measures to keep their employees and organization safe, while also finding ways to keep the work of the organization going forward. The remote working arrangement that many employers offered did, in many ways, achieve these objectives. What employers did not count on, however, was the wake-up call that this arrangement has initiated.
Now, a historical moment has emerged that is radically shaking up the old order of work/life balance. It is being coined by economists, scholars, and media outlets by a number of titles: “the Great Resignation”; the “Great Reshuffle”; and the “Great Reset” are perhaps the most familiar. All point to the same phenomenon in which workers, after several years of being forced to rebalance their lives while working from home, are choosing to leave their positions and/or take pay cuts in lieu of going back to a daily in-person work schedule. It is creating a watershed moment for the employer-employee relationship, in which the old contract of what constitutes a meaningful exchange is being fully re-written.
Consider the current situation for Rachel*, a divorced mother of two young children, whose employer has recently announced that all employees were required to come in at least four days a week, after two years of giving the full ability to work from home. “The last two years have been incredible for us as a family,” Rachel said. “We are truly in each others’ lives every single day. When one of the kids has a need, I am able to quickly go to them because I am right there, and my employer has come to expect these interruptions (which are minimal, because we have set rules at home). For example, just the other day, one of my kids had something challenging happen at school, and really needed to talk about it shortly after coming home. I was able to have this impromptu conversation in the moment in which it was needed, which helped her to clear her mind so she could have some enjoyable free time before starting homework. That emotional support I could give her was because of my ability to work from home. And, my partner is also here most of the time. So when I am occupied with a work requirement and I cannot respond, he is able to often pick it up, and we can trade off as needed.”
In addition, Rachel continued, the arrangement has enabled unexpected opportunities to emerge that have deepened their family bonds as a supportive unit. “I have a chronic health condition that can create challenges for me with my energy levels, and it can affect how I am able to engage in my day. Being in each others’ lives the way that we have, my kids have also learned how to take care of me too. This has been so valuable for all of us, and it is helping me to raise very caring and loving kids who tune into the needs of others. I am also able to take care of myself more appropriately by responding to my body’s needs when they emerge. How could I possibly give this up by going back to the office four and eventually five days a week? My profession is important to me, and this place is all I’ve known for 13 years. But now I see that there is a different life that is possible, and I can’t go back. I don’t know where I’ll go, but I can’t work there anymore.”
Rachel’s story shows us that the title of “the Great Reshuffle” is perhaps the most accurate for what is really going on in these present times. So many have been forced inside – both literally and figuratively. Forced physically inside, they have found themselves also being forced to look inside themselves and their life. For so many like Rachel, there has also been a wake up to family life.
Of course, not everyone has created the levels of intimate support that Rachel’s family has managed to co-create. For many others, the forcing inside has led to breakdowns and breakups. It is well-known that the realities of neglect and abuse have skyrocketed these past two years (divorce, addiction, abuse, depression, and overdoses have all risen during the pandemic). These trends are indeed troubling, but they were not born during the past two years. Rather, they all point to a much longer-term trend that is fueled by a cultural context that emphasizes our separateness rather than our unity. We see this emphasis in all parts of our culture, with consumer products and mass and social media outlets turning the importance of individual tastes, preferences, and opinions into an algorithmic science.
Yet, despite these disturbing trends, the possibility of a “Great Reshuffle” illuminates a path to a new future of a different order. Rachel’s example, along with a rising mass of others, suggests that there is perhaps no better time than this very moment to rethink, reimagine, and reshuffle the ordering of our conscious energies and priorities in our life. Going a step further, this is the moment in which we can collectively shift our focus toward arguably the greatest influence on all of humanity: the family unit.
When we hear the word “family,” a wide and complex array of memories, emotions, stories, and images can flow through us. Family experiences and relationships are deeply formative, and therein lies the power and potential of the family system. But, so much of the strength of the family system has been tried, tested, and eroded in a culture that places supreme value on extrinsic rewards (e.g., money, consumption, pleasurable escapist experiences, fame, etc.). While it is easy for each of us to point the finger and find someone to blame, the truth is that each of us is both at the effect of AND a contributor to the currents of our cultural context. The Great Reshuffle gives each of us the opportunity to make significant adjustments to how we live our lives.
We have, in our given moment, the possibility to dramatically shift the center of our lives from work and economics to family and well-being. When we pause to really see, as the pandemic period has offered so many, we spend a large amount of conscious energy on work, and all that work affords us. In this work-earn-consume paradigm, family life can often feel like something to manage or “balance” as a trade-off (which feels like a cost). What would life be like if we chose to invest the same amount of psychic energy into family that we do in work and consuming? What if all the hours we spend sweating work deadlines, tasks, and promotions were instead directed toward the well-being, growth, and flourishing of our family members?
This is the culture change that each one of us can facilitate, and it starts right at home. In the landmark 1990 book “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience,” the late Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi leveraged decades of research from multiple fields to give us the concept of flow. Flow experiences are situations in which conscious attention is unusually well-ordered, with thoughts, intentions, feelings, and all senses focused on the same goal. The result is an experience in harmony. Chances are that we have all experienced flow at one time or another. It is marked by a loss of self-consciousness, a sense of novelty, and an altered sense of time. It is being completely tuned in, usually with an inner calm and confidence even in the face of intense challenge. The “family in flow” is a useful and powerful aim that could serve as a vehicle to transform the family unit, the members in it, and the various communities the family touches.
How might family members co-create the conditions for flow to occur as the norm of family life? Below are a few first steps that a family can take to create a home life that is best depicted as experiencing “spontaneous unity.” “Spontaneous” in that each day will present unexpected and unplanned moments to create flow experiences for each individual; and “unity” in that the family experiences a sense of deep interconnection with one another around a strong sense of shared purpose.
- Proclaim Individual & Shared Purpose & Values.
Start with reflecting on and sharing why you, your family members, and your family as a whole exist, and what you stand for. By engaging with all family members in a process of individual and collective introspection, you will be going a long way toward setting the solid foundation for your shared focus, choices, and actions. Each individual, and then the group as a whole, can reflect on questions such as these:
- Why are you here?
- What are you uniquely meant to change in the world? As a person? As a family?
- At the end of the day, what do you and your family believe is most important over all else?
- What do you and your family want to be remembered for?
- What do you and your family hold as most sacred?
- Activate Purpose and Values through Concrete Opportunities.
To fully create a flow experience, it is not enough to stop at your ideal purpose and values. You have to put them into action through the identification of real paths of contribution for each family member. For example, if your collective family purpose is to advance learning and education in the world, how can every member of your family actively participate in this purpose, regardless of their age and/or life stage? Part of this might include everyone engaging in ongoing formal learning, such as classes, workshops, webinars, podcasts, books, etc. (both individually and collectively). For certain family members, they might take on a mentoring or tutoring role in the community. For others, it might take the form of advocacy work to create access opportunities to education. The key is to arrive at a common purpose and to help each member activate their individual purpose and unique gifts through what is shared as a family.
- Engage in a Daily Family Flow Practice.
External forces are quite powerful, and there is no shortage of distractions that regularly work at pulling the family unit apart. Failure to turn inward toward the relationships of the family every single day can diffuse attention, distort divergent goals, and amplify conflicts. A shared daily practice by all members of the family can help to build a spontaneous unity throughout each day, even when all members are not together. One such practice might look something like this simple, three-step approach:
Step 1: Attune. Simply pay focused attention on each other, and on your own personal experience as well. Get curious. Listen deeply to what is arising within you (thoughts, feelings, sensations) and between you. Release judgment, which shuts off your ability to tune in.
Step 2: Discern. Now that you have noticed what is arising in your interaction, be deliberate in interpreting and making meaning. Is what is arising in you coming from a place of purpose in unity with flow? If you are feeling a sense of joy, love, and/or peace, without attachment to any outcomes, those are good indications that you are. Or, is it coming from a place of personal ego needs that may work to separate us? If you are feeling tension in your body, getting defensive, or experiencing anger, fear, or anxiety, chances are you are not in flow. Go back to step 1, getting curious about what is triggering this response.
Step 3: Choose on Purpose. Each moment presents an opportunity of choice. Once you have discerned that you are in flow, make the choice that enables you to act on your purpose. This may or may not be the easy path. But you know you have chosen the path of purpose by the levels of peace and sense of knowing that you experience, even sometimes in the face of adversity.
Underpinning all of this, at the basis of any family in flow, is the fundamental principle of unconditional loving acceptance of all – including of yourself. Success is predicated on each member self-emptying by releasing judgment, cynicism, fear, and the need to “fix”. Simply being with each other, without the need to change anything, paradoxically is the very force that can change everything.
As we continue to face unprecedented shifts amidst the Great Reshuffle, let’s seize this opportunity to make this the new age of the family. Family can be where the melodies of compassionate love are sung. And, taking these melodies outside the home,they work to harmonize with our communities, and life in the world.
Jason Miller has over twenty-five years of experience as an Organizational Development leader, coach, and consultant. Jason currently has his own coaching and consulting practice called Inner Sound, and serves on the leadership and faculty team of the Hudson Institute of Coaching. He cultivates a more purpose-led approach by helping clients to shift focus from outward achievement and external validation to inner wisdom, joy, creativity, and contribution. Jason has coached and developed leaders and teams across multiple industries and Fortune 500 clients–including Google, Amazon, Panera, OhioHealth, Accenture, Caterpillar, The Gap, and Fidelity Investments. In Columbus, Ohio, Jason is husband to Confident Parents Founder Jennifer Miller and father to a teenage son. Learn more at Inner Sound Coaching & Consulting, LLC.
- Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience.