A Conversation with James McLeary

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A Conversation with James McLeary

Elizabeth recently sat down with our dear friend Dr. James McLeary, one of the founders of the Inside Circle project and Executive Director of the critically acclaimed documentary The Work, to discuss cultivating vulnerability in unlikely places, what it means to walk around the hologram of an issue, and his experience working through moments of struggle and self-doubt. Here’s an excerpt from their conversation.

Elizabeth Koch (EK): At Unlikely Collaborators, instead of asking people just what they do, we like to ask people what their North Star is. What would you say yours is?

James McLeary (JM): For me, the North Star is a mission; and the mission is to engage my best self, my talents. In the indigenous world, this is referred to as medicine.

My medicine involves empathetic listening which allows me to build trust with others very quickly.

From that place of understanding, I’m able to help them discover their own gifts, or medicine, and use that inner wisdom to heal or remedy a need.

I enjoy and feel compelled to help people and be of service. This calling began when I was young and saw so much struggle and abuse around me and wanted to understand and respond to this oppression. They used to call me the friend of the friendless.

I’ve always been very empathetic towards others and felt a responsibility to respond to those in pain. As a child, I didn’t get a lot of affirmation that I was lovable. My mother never really cuddled me or my siblings. My recollections around my mother was that I was always vying for her touch, and a smile from her or something that let me know that I was lovable. That helped me develop an understanding that there’s a lot of other people out there who don’t feel loved. Since I didn’t feel loved, I could recognize the signs in other people. Those are the people that I would rush to help.

EK: You’re very much a friend of the friendless now, aren’t you? You go into maximum-security prisons and host Inside Circle moments where you actually get these men—many of whom are dangerous both to others and themselves—in confrontation with one another. You actively help them trigger one another, and once they’re all lit up, you intentionally take them inside themselves to find their own core wound so they can begin the process of healing. How do you facilitate this process?

JM: When I show up in front of them there is no other option but to be as authentic as I can be. That's what is celebrated the most wherever I go. As long as I'm authentic, then there is a connection, a respect, and an engagement that can happen between me and the other person. But it’s scary for me to have to put myself in that place initially. It's a hard thing to stand in front of somebody who can—with X-ray vision—see, smell and taste when you are inauthentic. They do not suffer fools.  But once I put myself in that place—and I see that what I feared might happen doesn't happen—then it gives me reinforcement, courage and a habit to keep doing it.

This group of men wants that kind of authenticity and so it helps for me to get in that place to model it.

And once we’re all in that place, then we're able to support each other and identify our own unique medicine. How we might be using our gifts and talents for selfish pursuits, and how we can instead use them as a source of healing and support, for ourselves and others.

EK: By “authentic” do you also mean “vulnerable?”

JM: Yes, authenticity occurs when I am aligned with what I feel and think, and then how I behave. This can feel very vulnerable because I have been conditioned to behave in a way that meets the expectations of others. As a young child, I was told to speak only when spoken to, to never cry or show weakness, and to only show anger in “macho” situations. So I learned that it was safer to hide and repress what I was thinking and feeling from others in order to avoid punishment or being socially ostracized.

Hiding parts of who I am results in withholding all of who I am—which also includes the best of who I am—from others, or staying in the shadows. This thinking and behavior serves ‘the self’ and not others. When I share the best of who I am, and when it serves what others might need, I am sharing the medicine for what ails them.

EK: Is it easier for you to be vulnerable in dangerous situations than in more mundane, everyday situations? Is there any aspect of your everyday life where you shy away from being vulnerable, where it makes you really uncomfortable?

JM: I’m basically an introvert that’s learned how to be an extrovert. So there are times when I’m in a big group presenting a trauma and healing lecture, and I get up on stage and there might be 500 to 1,000 people in the room, all professionals. I’ll be thinking, “Whoa, these people have degrees from Harvard and Stanford, meanwhile I have degrees from second-tier schools.” And so I’m projecting onto them that they’ll think what I might say is really not useful or up to standard. The only way for me to respond is to say to myself, “Listen, I wouldn’t have been invited if someone didn’t see a value.” And so I just need to be in the value of what they saw, and what they saw is what I am. This tends to help, but I still get butterflies and sometimes stage fright.

I’m also a little fearful even coming into small groups. I might be about to facilitate a small group and there’s a voice inside me saying, “They’re going to see through me.” Then it says, “Do I have what it takes to stand in what I know can be an overwhelming pain situation and not disintegrate into my own pain, so now you have two helpless people in pain?” I had to learn how to hold my pain and hold their pain and not take it on. Through practice and experience I’ve been able to hold myself in those places with more confidence.

EK: You use this phrase a lot: “to walk around the hologram of any issue.” When I think of walking around the hologram of a situation, I think of it as a type of social perspective-taking. Imagining this incident from as many different perspectives and points of view as possible to create more of a whole picture, a more inclusive picture, rather than just what my personal take is, what my personal pain is. It takes me out of my small, limited perspective within the confines of my Perception Box.  

I find this helps me a lot when I’m faced with people who annoy me or frustrate me. I try to ask myself, “What would their point of view be?” Even if I don't know them at all, I imagine what their point of view is, knowing that they're dealing with their own pain, their own challenges, their own traumas, their own belief systems. Everyone's perspective is just as valid as any other's in terms of how they relate to the situation. There's no emotion that someone could possibly have that isn't valid. It's true to their situation.

JM: Just to add to that, I’ll give you an example. The hologram is made up of my own belief systems and my values. And so I may be looking at the perspective, which I did for quite some time, that white people were bad and they meant people of color no good. I picked that up when I was four years old.

I remember sitting on my grandfather’s lap down south and he was telling me stories. I could get a sense of his breathing and his muscle tone and the tone of his voice, all of which was joyful and relaxed.

Then all of a sudden he stiffened up. I could feel it. I could feel it in his leg. I could feel it in his breathing as his chest was moving in and out and the tone of his voice got harder and crisper. Unbeknownst to me, there was a white man who was walking behind me and towards us; and as he walked by, my grandfather said, “Good evening,” and he said, “Good evening.” And when the man was out of earshot, my grandfather grabbed me by my shoulders and said, “Boy, don’t you ever trust white folks.”

Now, I didn’t really know what a white folk was, but because I loved and trusted my grandfather, he directly inserted a belief block that you can’t trust white folks and white folks mean you no good. That belief block just sat there and that was my perspective and viewpoint until I explored and experienced other possibilities. What is a white folk? Is there such a thing? Do they all mean you harm? What does it look like when they do mean you harm and what does it look like when they don’t? That’s an example of walking around the hologram. Those different viewpoints added more beliefs to my belief system (or Perception Box, as you call it), which kept me moving around the hologram, so I could then reframe situations where I might initially knee-jerk into that belief that white folks are bad.

EK: We all face pain and adversity in our lives. The moments that challenge us most can also be opportunities to learn and grow. When was a time that you can remember that your ego took the biggest hit and how did it maybe serve you?

JM: There was a time when I was in law school and I had to write my thesis paper. The professor who was assigned as my thesis advisor—we just didn’t get along. I have no idea why. Every now and then, I run into somebody who is actively trying to hurt me in some way. This was the situation: the professor didn’t help me; she wouldn’t check any of my work or even answer my calls. Then she ended up charging me with plagiarism. In law school, that means you have to go to a mock court and the justice was dispensed that way. So there was a court set up for me to go and defend myself against plagiarism. The Dean of Students tried to get in touch with this professor to set up a time and she was dodging them. When they finally set up a time this professor didn’t show up.

Until the point when I was adjudicated and the charge was dismissed because it couldn’t be substantiated, I felt shame and guilt as if I had actually done something wrong.

EK: Was there anything that you learned from that? Maybe something that serves you now?

JM: What I learned was in the space of not knowing. That I just had to keep putting one foot in front of the other based on what I knew about myself instead of imagining the worst—getting thrown out of law school—and the public shame of that. “You were in law school, but got kicked out?” That kind of thinking. While imagining what could happen, I learned to do reality testing and ask myself, “Is this true? Did you do this? Is the worst you can imagine, is it true that it could happen?” When I just kept doing the reality testing as a defense against feeling so crushed, the responses kept ringing out, “No, you’re right. This can’t happen really. You’re exaggerating. You’re catastrophizing.”

I continue to use a status check in for myself when I sense that I’m not in alignment. I determine how I’m feeling physically and emotionally, the current story I’m running in my head, and what I want that supports my highest self. This exercise provides me with good enough clarity to be authentic and responsible.

EK: Thanks for sharing your heart with us, James. You show us all that being vulnerable is truly the bravest act of all.

JM: I’m so grateful that we can have these kinds of conversations.

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