An Example

Personal Philosophy: James Hurd Nixon

As an example of a Personal Philosophy, here is mine, structured as a set of Core Principles with some brief descriptions of how I came to embrace them.

I was a leader in the Student Movement of the 1960s, not at the level of a Mario Savio or a Tom Hayden, but the next level or two down.  At San Francisco State, I was Student Vice President in 1965-1966, Student President in 1966-1967, the same year that David Harris was Student President at Stanford, and also I was the first Coordinator of the student-run Experimental College, a model for student-run Free Universities and Experimental Colleges at 100s of campuses across the country.  I’m proud of the fact that the first Black Studies Program in the country began as an area of the Experimental College

After I left San Francisco State, I did some traveling, speaking, and helping other groups of students start Experimental Colleges.  However, after the big Student Strike at San Francisco State in 1968-1969 finally got defeated and the State of California closed down the Experimental College and the other student programs that we had created, I spent a lot of time reflecting on what we had accomplished and where we had failed, essentially following an early version of the Path of Why.

1)  Make the Revolution by Example

On the plus side, our branch of the Student Movement defined ourselves by what we were trying to build not just by what we opposed.  Opposition to the Vietnam War defined much of the Movement of the 1960s and we certainly opposed the Vietnam War, but we believed that we were trying making a revolution to transform the way our institutions and our society functioned.

We were inspired by stories from the Cuban Revolution describing how the Cuban revolutionaries built an example of their revolution in the Sierra Maestra mountains in territory they had captured as a way of testing their ideas and showing the rest of Cuba what they were trying to accomplish.  So, as students, we decided to build an example of the revolution in education that we were trying to accomplish.  We called that example the Experimental College.

Reflecting the success of the Experimental College, led me to formulate the Core Principle of Revolution by Example.  If you want to make a significant change, start out by being the change.  Mohandas Gandhi, the great prophet and leader of the Indian revolution, formulated this principle as “the means are the ends in process.”  If we create a really powerful example of what we want, it can sing to other people and can spread like the way crystallization happens when we drop a seed crystal into a super-saturated solution.

I have been guided by the principle of Revolution by Example in most of what I have done since in my life.

2)  Put the Craft of Business in the Service of Social/Ecological Justice

On the minus side,  I came to recognize that the Student Movement, and the Movement of the 1960s in general, had made a serious mistake by defining business as the enemy.  I realized that business, like a knife or a hammer,  is a powerful tool that can be put either to good or bad uses.  It is certainly the case that some businesses have used the craft of business to produce some very bad results, making money by exploiting people and the environment.

However, if we define business as the enemy, we have a very big enemy.  At the same time we make ourselves irrelevant or in opposition to much of the way people earn their livelihoods and live their lives.  And there are many examples of businesses that have and continue to produce some very good results for their customers, their workers, their management, their owners, and the communities where they are located.

Therefore, I decided to “Learn the craft of business in order to put it in the service of economic, social, and ecological justice.”  That injunction has become a mantra for me for the rest of my life, a Core Principle that I have attempted to use to guide me in my work life ever since.

Pursuing the Core Principle of  ”learning the craft of business to put it in the service of economic, social, and ecological justice” has led me into co-launching natural food businesses, workers cooperatives, public enterprise businesses, socially responsible investment organizations, double bottom line investment funds, regional economic initiatives, and sustainable economic development strategies.  Many of these efforts required “pushing a negative hard enough to turn it into a positive” and many of them have had some of the same type of ramifying impacts that the Experimental College did.

3)  Push a Negative Hard Enough and You Can Turn It Into a Positive

Each semester, the Experimental College invited someone to come to San Francisco State and be our visiting professor.  First, we invited Paul Goodman, the co-founder with Fritz Perls of Gestalt Therapy and the author of the manifesto for young people in the 1960s, Growing Up Absurd.

Saul Alinsky, the prophet of Community Organizing,  accepted our invitation to be our second visiting professor.  I was already quite familiar with Saul Alinsky’s body of work because my friend and predecessor as Student President, Tom Ramsay, had studied with Mr. Alinsky and then come back to State to teach a seminar in Community Organizing for us prior to starting the Experimental College.  We used Mr. Alinsky’s theory and practice to develop and implement the organizing strategy that we used to get San Francisco State’s administration to go along with the launch of the Experimental College.

So when I started studying with Mr. Alinsky himself, I was already familiar with his approach to power as the means to accomplish your ends,  formal and informal power structure analysis, and the role of the Community Organizer.  However, as he told his stories and gave us a much deeper appreciation for the nuances of Community Organizing in different situations, I was most struck by one of his central premises that I hadn’t encountered before.  ”If you push a negative hard enough, you can turn it into a positive.”  And the corollary, “If you push a positive hard enough, you can turn it into a negative.”

It’s hard to communicate how important that principal has been in my life since.  Pretty much every time I’ve encountered a difficulty or a set back, I’ve tried to look  really hard at it, “push it,” to see how I could make it into something good.

Later on when I studied Aikido, I realized that this martial art was based on a physical and energetic expression of Alinsky’s principle.  In the practice of Aikido, over and over, an attacker comes at you with some kind of punch or grab.  You blend with that attack and then redirect it into a pin or a throw.  You turn the negative into a positive.  Taoist Philosophy is based on the interplay of positive and negative and you can see the whole I-Ching oracle as a way to turn negatives into positives and avoid turning positives into negatives.

I deeply appreciate both Aikido and Taoist Philosophy, but when I face a difficult problem, I still hear Mr. Alinsky saying:  ”If you push a negative hard enough, you can turn it into a positive.”  And, when something really good happens to me I also hear him cautioning, “If you push a positive hard enough, you can turn it into a negative.”

4)  Remember Your Self

As I began to transition from the social activism of the 1960s to the spiritual activism of the 1970s, I became fascinated with William Butler Yeats’ A Vision, which presented a model of psychological types, a map of the realm between lives, and a theory of history, based on a geometric model of intersecting gyres.

However, In Search of the Miraculous, in which P.D. Ouspensky explicated the “Fourth Way” teachings of G.I. Gurdjieff,  took me farther.  It had the same kind of explanatory scope as A Vision, but it also had clear guidance for putting the theory into practice.  That guidance can pretty much be completely expressed in the injunction, “Remember Your Self.”    

By “Remember Your Self”, Gurdjieff and Ouspensky meant, among other things, to be aware of your awareness.  This teaching is similar to the Buddhist practice of mindfulness and the Yogic practice of being conscious of your consciousness.  When I first started trying to “Remember My Self”, like pretty much everyone else, I found that I was constantly talking to myself.  My mind jumped around from one idea to another, pretty much completely out of my control.  My psychology was made up of a set of not-so-well integrated self fragments that really didn’t communicate with each other very effectively.  I had a lot of trouble clearing my mind, focusing it, and experiencing the unity beyond all that diversity.

However, over time and using various consciousness practices, like paying attention to my breathing and meditating, my mind came to be more under my control and, in fact, a “Self” emerged that stood behind and above my mind and and my sub-personalities and my body.  That Self gave me some unity over time and throughout different situations and some guidance for how do a better job of experiencing my world, reflecting on it, and acting effectively.

I believe that’s the “Self” that Gurdjieff and Ouspensky wanted us to “remember”.  Without remembering it, we constantly get ourselves into trouble.  When we truly remember it, there is little we can’t accomplish.

5)  Embrace Spiritual Democracy 

For a few years, during the 1970s, I set out to experience every Guru or spiritual teacher that came through the Bay Area.  I missed some of them, but I spent time with an awful lot of them.  I consistently found them to have interesting and sometimes profound insights and significant personal and spiritual power.  However, everyone of them had some kind of serious flaw or blind spot that ramified out adversely impacting themselves and their followers.

I came to recognize that the individual is too small and imbalanced a vehicle to bring through a significant influx of spiritual or any other kind of power.  With a Guru-follower model, the followers get the full imprint of the Guru and its tough to separate the true teachings and wisdom from the personal idiosyncrasies and flaws.  I realized that the era we are entering requires a new model of Spiritual Democracy, requiring Circles of Leadership – made up of people who “Remember themselves” and balance each other out – to bring through the integrated, coherent influxes of insight and power that we need.

I re-encountered a version of the Guru problem with the founders of start-up businesses.  The problem is so prevalent that it has gotten the name of “Founders Syndrome.”  The founder of a business has to hold onto his or her vision with such ferocity, usually in the face of initial indifference or outright opposition, that the founder loses the ability to distinguish between what are their unique core insights and what are just their personal idiosyncrasies.  That’s why it is so often the case that the founder of a start-up isn’t a good CEO when the business enters a significant growth phase and, therefore, has to be replaced as CEO for the business to thrive.  In the business sphere I wound up formulating this Core Principle as “Entrepreneurship is a team sport.”

Spiritual Democracy is important in all our endeavors and, in the end, all the best leadership comes from Leadership Circles.

6)  Make Sure that Nothing’s More Important Than Family

I’m the child of a single mother.  My Mom, Helene Hurd Nixon, was a great mother, teacher, poet, and educational leader.  She died last year at the amazing age 102.  (She usually attributed her long life to a combination of maintaining a positive attitude and always eating her vegetables.)  I was fortunate to be able to live with her and my wife, Jane Brunner, for the last 14 years of her life.

For most of my early years, I was blessed with a wonderful family that was the tight little circle of my Mom and me.  She built a great life for us.  She believed in the “positive approach” rewarding me with her unstinting attention when I was on the right path and trying her best, except for a few clear limits, to withdraw her attention to guide me to change when I was doing something that wasn’t so good for me.  Through everything, I always knew she loved me and I loved her back.  I tried to replicate that family reality a few times with the wrong people and it didn’t work.  As opposed to being  commitment phobic, I actually was commitment tropic.

However the Circles of Leadership that I have helped put together – to undertake the many projects, companies, and initiatives I have collaborated in launching – have all shared some of the sense of family that I leaned from my Mom.

Then, 16 years ago, Jane and I fell in love with each other and built a multi-generational family living together with my Mom and participating  in the larger family that includes her daughter and son, their spouses and five children, my two children, and Jane’s many many relatives and relatives-in-law.  So once again, I am blessed by family, but now it has grown from being a very small one to being a very large one.

And I do my best to make sure that “Nothing is more important than family.”

7)  Love the Creator with All Your Heart, All Your Soul, and All Your Mind… 

I grew up a Christian, of the Lutheran persuasion.  I even spent my last two years of high school and my first two years of college at a Lutheran parochial  school on the way to becoming a Lutheran minister.  That didn’t work out and I spent the decade of the 1960s without a spiritual practice.

But in the 1970s, I undertook a journey that led me back to an appreciation of many of the deeper truths of Christianity.  Out in the beautiful natural world and deep within the inner world accessed by mediation, it became totally clear to me that there is a unity and a connection that pervades the whole universe.  Just as it is possible to form/find a coherent Self that unifies and guides our minds and bodies and emotions and sub-personalities, so also I have been gifted with some glimpses of the universal unity that underlies all of the different realities and conflicts and wonderful elements of the physical and the human universe.  For me, these are glimpses of a Creator who provides a pervasive unity that our complicated and fragmented world is built on and aspires to.

These glimpses are well worth all the work required to attain them.  They offer witness to a Creation built from a foundation of love aspiring to a full manifestation of love.  The Creator behind these glimpses has given to us, as a people, the profound challenge of the freedom to make our own choices in this diverse fragmented world and to make our way back/forward to the unity that was and will be again.

So, in solidarity with my Christian roots and in recognition of what I have learned since, I try to do my best to “Love the Creator with all my heart and all my soul and all my mind and to love my neighbors in the Creation as myself.”

In Conclusion

To these seven Core Principles of my Personal Philosophy, now, I’ve added the Three Principles  of Planetary Philosophy: One Planet, One People, and One Purpose.

These ten Core Principles give me the confidence to, here in the later portion of my life, take another run at joining with circles of other people, banding together  to make our contributions to the transformation of our world in the ways that are required for us to find our survival, create our visions, and, ultimately, attain our salvation.

January 24, 2012