Sunday, November 08, 2009

One for the road...

There were some 30 of us from over 20 different countries spread widely across the 5 continents. The age group varied from early 30s to the late 50s – and I was clearly on the upper quartile. Almost a third of the group were women – though none of the kind to set my heart racing.

We were gathered at an ancient chateau (Bellinglise - it is said Joan of Arc was imprisoned here) converted to an inn – an hour’s drive north of Paris for a company training programme. Situated in the midst of thick woods - the setting was idyllic. The chateau lighted up in the evenings – with the moon reflecting on a lake – looked like an enchanted castle (read a poem of Alan Seeger dedicated to Bellinglise by clicking here).

Being a veteran of many such courses and conferences, I arrived with a small pouch of cynicism in my carry-on duffle bag. My misgivings didn’t turn out to be entirely unfounded – as the faculty came across as - at best - mediocre and the course contents also pretty elementary. But, I didn’t mind. The food was outstanding at every meal, the pace of the programme was relaxed and the schedule light – leaving enough free-time to do our own stuff be it going on long walks and cycling in the forest, soaking in the Japanese tub or simply hanging out at the open bar.

going 'solo'
By the end of the 3rd day a little boredom was beginning to set in. So, when we came to know that the penultimate afternoon has been set aside for ‘solo’ personal reflection by the participants – even the most laid-back amongst us thought it was becoming too much of a ‘time-pass’ and the facilitators were probably taking it a bit too easy.

There was no guideline or brief on what we were supposed to do in those 2 hours of solitary “retreat”. It was meant to be a period of free thinking on any subject – professional or personal – trying to cut off any extraneous thoughts or distractions. However, 3 conditions were stipulated. First, all of us had to leave our mobile phones and Blackberries behind. Second, we had to go it alone – unaccompanied by any of our course mates. And finally, we could chose any place inside or outside the chateau premises except that we were not allowed to go back to our own rooms – throwing cold water on what many of us were secretly contemplating.

breaking the mould

So we dispersed in different directions with our ‘Moleskin’ Notebooks in hand -somewhat skeptically. We saw Bob – from Edmonton, West Canada - heading out towards the Spa, Dimitri – the American-Greek - positioned himself beneath the large cypress tree and the 4 Koreans walked out in a group – chatting, blissfully ignoring the very specific instructions. Tony – our Chinese colleague – who was always half asleep with his persisting jet lag ambled across the drive way looking a bit disoriented and the Americans disappeared into the forest. I chose the lonely trail across the lake.


putting the pieces back together

We all strolled back in around teatime. The usual chatter that surrounds the mid-afternoon recess was missing. People weren’t pensive – but they were palpably quiet. Slowly we adjourned once more into our team rooms. There was a look of expectation on every face - about “what next?”, when Kris – our rakishly handsome and charming Flemish facilitator walked in. But, he was clearly far too seasoned to be drawn easily in to telling us where do we go from there. Wearing a beatific smile, he stared at us quizzically, waiting for one us to break the silence, which - by now – seemed almost ready to burst.

the melting moment
Burst it did and how. Don’t exactly remember who – it just could have been any one of us – suggested that, we could probably share our individual experiences with the group. This caused a virtual eruption around the room. It was as if our collective sensibilities had been assaulted, threatening to violate of our right to privacy. The individual reactions brought to the fore the cultural differences among us. Some were downright offended, others exuded a sense of outraged modesty. The French vehemently shook their heads in dissent; Tony asked “why ?” looking genuinely flummoxed; the girl from Romania got emotionally worked up; the Americans were more vocal – tho’ restrained - in their objections; the lone Korean in our team withdrew visibly further into a shell and the 2 of us South Asians didn’t seem to quite understand what the fuss was all about.

from stand-off to take-off
From the rumblings and murmurs it appeared that we were fast approaching a veritable 'stand-off' that was going to - almost ineveitably - end up in a churlish ‘walk-out’. But then, suddenly - came the moment of meltdown. I think it was Bob who took the lead and said that, he was comfortable about sharing his experience without revealing the details – as they were intimately personal. Soon the trickle became a flow and others followed – as if on cue.

Little wonder, each one’s journey was very different from the rest. But, there was no mistaking that - in our own way - each of us (the four-some Koreans included) had touched a deeper point of consciousness. The result may not have been 'life transforming' – but it had certainly brought home some significant realization – perhaps, disturbing for some – but nevertheless important. And, who knows – it could just be working away insidiously in the sub-conscious to bring about a change – hopefully positive, which we’ll only see much later in retrospect.

take home
In those 90 minutes or so, the atmosphere in the room changed as we discovered a new chemistry of trust and mutual respect between us. That evening the bar was less boisterous – but every one seemed to enjoy their drinks more and even the food at the dinner table tasted better, as did the wine. The women appeared much nicer too.

Looking back, even if this was just one thing we took back home, it made those 5 days very precious and memorable. For me the bigger lesson was, learning - be it in a course or in life - doesn’t always come from cramming but giving ourselves the time and space to reflect.