My Journey Developing Eco-System Awareness With Theory U

Part I: Answering the Call for Meaning in the Afternoon Of Life

Helio Borges
12 min readApr 15, 2023
Sunset in Puerto Azul, Venezuela. Image: Helio Borges

“We cannot live the afternoon of life according to the program of life’s morning, for what was great in the morning will be little at evening, and what in the morning was true, at evening will have become a lie.” Carl Jung

This article is the fourth of the series “These Times Are Made for Misfits.” Due to its length, I have divided it into three parts. This is part one. You can read it in Spanish here.

A seven-year cycle of my life ended in March 2023. When I started this journey in 2016, I was a 65 years old man searching for meaning.

I know a new cycle had started because the seeds of the future I sowed years before began to sprout.

I´ve been in the belly of a whale, spat by it on unexpected shores, gone into mazes with no exit, and traveled long inner journeys to fight my demons.

On the road, I met wonderful people and created marvels with them. I have made mistakes, said I´m sorry, moved on, and loved them all.

Now, seven years later, I am younger and wiser than I was before. Hence, I am an optimist because my actions are grounded on an ecosystem awareness that interweaves my intention with humanity´s best future possibilities.

Thank you to everyone who has accompanied me on this beautiful journey.

Diving Down the Leadership Iceberg

In March 2023, at the start of the Ecosystem Leadership Program in Uruguay, Laura Pastorini said to the 180 change makers gathering there:

“First of all, we are going to work on our intention. So, I will ask you three questions: First. What am I here for?”

I began writing about making new contacts and showing my latest projects, hoping to find new business associates, and so on. Then, she said.

“Now, let´s answer from a deeper place inside us. What am I here for?”

I don´t remember the exact answer, but it was certainly much shorter than the first one. She spoke again and said,

“Let’s go deeper inside us and answer, What am I here for? “

The answer emerged like a buoy in the water,

“To be in service of whatever the field wants from me on this occasion.”

I stared at my answer, and a dialogue started within me:

— My past self said: “I have traveled seven thousand km to have some agency.”

— The present self said: “Well, I was invited, so the least I can do is to be in service.”

— The Self of my best future possibility said: “This place is full of wonder, so let emergence and flow lead me.”

At a deeper level of knowing, I knew this would be a time I would cherish for the rest of my life.

I had become the observer of my actions while releasing control of the possible outcomes, so I tuned in to the source from which everything worthwhile in life originates. I felt grateful, happy, and fulfilled.

It had taken me seven years to reach this level of awareness.

It All Began With a Call From Within

In 2015, I was 65 and lived in Venezuela, a country on the speed road to hell. Ten years before, my 25-year career in corporate finance had ended in the bonfire of burnouts. I recovered from it thanks to the loving care of my wife, who held the space for my healing. Part of the healing process was to find an activity, and she encouraged me to enter the real estate business. So, in 2015, I had been a realtor for ten years, and yes, I had an occupation, but my life lacked meaning.

My problem was not at the level of doing but at the level of being. Studying Positive Psychology and Ontological Coaching helped, but more was needed. Something was missing at my core, and I did not know what. Then,

a colleague coach shared on Facebook information about a new course from MIT. It had an odd name, u.lab: Leading from the Emerging Future.

At the time, Venezuela suffered a Complex Humanitarian Emergency caused by the military dictatorship´s way of leading the country. Therefore, I was curious about that new leadership course from MIT, designed to solve the world’s most pressing issues.

In the first live session, I was mesmerized when I heard Otto Scharmer say,

“Like astronauts, we shoot for the stars in our careers and lives. In the middle of the way, we pause and look back and think not only on planet EARTH but also on planet SELF, and we ask ourselves: What is it that really matters to me? Who am I, and what is my real work to do? What’s the story of the future that I want to be part of?, that I want to be a contributor to? These deeper questions mark the headway into the deeper territory of leadership.” Otto Scharmer. u.lab1x 2015.

Upon hearing those words, something inside me shifted and immersed me in the program because I wanted to know that territory thoroughly. Even today, the energy of those words sustains me in challenging times because back then, I felt that Otto was talking to my deepest Self, waking Him. From then on, all I have done is do my best to tune in to that call.

In those early u.lab days, I looked for referents beyond the facilitators collaborating with Otto, specifically within the Lat Am region— people I could look up to traveling on their u.lab journeys. I found two, although they were from Brazil — Jeanine Saponara and Marcelo Cardoso. Through the years, both have continued to be examples of passionate dedication to their transformational work and have signaled the direction for my journey. Later on, I would lucky enough to be associated with some of the best people I have known in my life, but in those early days, they were the ones.

Dreaming of Changing the World

I had this crazy dream of creating a critical mass of change agents to spark the transformation of Venezuelan society from below. The u.lab in Spanish would be the way because by finding the funds abroad, we could capacitate hundreds of Theory U change-makers at a meager cost. Three people can change the world, so Maria Antonieta Angarita, Marietta Perroni, and I set out to do it.

We went to a great start when Barrett Values Fund, from the UK, gave us a twenty thousand dollar grant in 2018. With that money, we allied with the Universidad Metropolitana in Caracas and capacitated two hundred change agents from Venezuelan society.

Ronda alrededor del Saman. UNIMET. Proyecto Hikola, first cohort

We did it in three cohorts of four months, each with the same program that MIT offered, with the final cost of one hundred dollars for each person ($100/P). We could not believe we were prototyping a Values Based Societal Transformation for Venezuela. We were excited, engaged, and looking for ways to scale it.

Like Jonah, I Fell Into the Whale’s Belly

In 2019, things got complicated. Venezuela was cut off from foreign funds and was subject to financial sanctions because a dictatorship took over all the political powers. While blood was on the streets, massive infusions of black money from corruption and drug trafficking created a real estate bubble populating Caracas with huge luxury residential and family buildings — all empty. My finances took a hit due to my decision to phase myself out of the real estate business because I did not want to do anything with that energy.

I thought I had a way out of that madness when my wife won a Diversity Visa for residency in the US, which we obtained in Bogotá because there is no US embassy in Venezuela. When we were going to leave for the USA, COVID-19 struck the world, leaving us locked down well beyond our visas expired. To add insult to injury, when they gave us our new DV Visas, they annulled the visitor´s visa. So, today, we are outcasts of a country where we were, at least on paper, residents. To make matters worse, that is the country where my wife´s family, my younger son, and one of my brothers reside. We are cut off from our families, and our best hope is to get a Visitor´s Visa interview in two years.

Later, in 2021, I had meaningful conversations with my friend Francisco Miraval, an Argentinian residing in Denver, Colorado, who is part of the u.lab community and a brilliant philosopher. He said to me several times that my journey reminded him of the journey of Jonah, the Jewish prophet of Nineveh, who tried to run away from God because he knew that He, in his infinite mercy, would not hurt the Assyrians, whom he hated because they were a real threat to Israel. He kept running away from fulfilling God´s will — do nothing to the Assyrians; until 2,500 miles from home, he fell off a cliff in the south of Spain right into a whale´s belly. Like Jonah in the whale, I did not understand what was happening to me in such a dark place — I did not see what Francisco was seeing.

There is no worse situation than a merciful God when you want to see your enemies get what’s coming to them. Jonah wants to do things his way and ends up in the belly of a sea monster. Father Richard Rohr

I was angry about the loss of my country to a band of thugs and by the loss of my plans to start a cultural transformation from below. I was frustrated by the loss of our opportunity to escape that mess and depressed by my financial situation. I had been left empty-handed and did not know what to do. Worse still, I began to question my decisions for reasons of integrity. I felt like a castaway.

Much of my earlier work with men and spirituality was teaching them how to trust their time in the belly of the whale, how to stay there without needing to fix, to control, or even to fully understand it, and to wait until God spit them up on a new shore. It is called “liminal space,” and I believe all in-depth transformation takes place inside of liminal space. Father Richard Rohr.

Jonah´s ordeal lasted 2,500 miles back to where he had started running away. There, the whale spits him on a beach. When Jonah realized where he was, he said nothing; he did nothing; the trip back home in the belly of the whale had been the “liminal space” where authentic transformational learning occurred to him.

Mine would last four years.

How do you keep faith in God, Who, even though, at a deeper level, you know is there for you, lets you drown in the belly of a whale for 2,500 miles? A God who gives you a little hint of hope when the monster opens its mouth and water, fish, and everything else comes out of it but you? And you drown again? And again?

You don´t! You lose faith. You deny God. You make mistakes. You feel guilt. You repent, and the whole thing repeats again and again and again. A liminal space is not a monastery with voluntary silence to pray and fast. In a liminal space, you remain against your will, your faith is tested daily, and you live in bewilderment 24/7/365.

And yet, once you come out of it, everything you have been through makes sense, moving you to feel grateful, more humble, wiser, life-loving, and seeing renewal and hope everywhere.

A Learning Journey Designed Specifically for Me

Now I know that once you set an intention and choose a path to follow, you can only see the beginning of it because very soon, “The Field” chooses a learning journey for you that probably does not have much to do with your carefully well-laid plans. But that journey will make a difference for you and the system in the long run. The problem is that we cannot see it because, complexity-wise, we are shortsighted and emotional beings. As Nora Bateson implies, the more complex the system is, the more difficult to perceive the right path to follow.

There is a great deal of material that is ‘about’ systemic process-& very little to demonstrate ways of being, perceiving, and communicating from ‘within’ systemic process…The need to make this jump is urgent. The systems are not over there; we are utterly of & in them… There is a deep mishap lodged in the illusion of possible control of living complex systems without nth order destruction. Nora Bateson.

I don´t know about contexts where people can linearly plan their lives: grow up — study — work — form — a — family — retire — die because, in most cases, life, death, and everything in between are unpredictable. However, almost everything in society is organized, partially or totally, around that principle.

Of course, our emotions and the system’s pressures are sometimes hard to resist. If you pay attention to the critics, you will react, losing focus. If you are too careful and avoid making mistakes, you will get frustrated because errors are unavoidable in complex work. You will lose your way sooner if you deviate your attention to what others are doing.

On the other hand, at a deeper level of knowing, you know that even though you do not see results, you should refrain from action and stay with the energy of your intention. It is a matter of gathering the courage to persevere and stay connected with that energy, staying true to your intention, and paying attention to your attention. That is why Otto´s advice is so important to keep on the right track, regardless of the context.

“The one thing that I know is when you don´t know what to do… do nothing. In other words, stay with the connection, do nothing, fully pay attention with your mind, heart, and will wide open. Out of that connection, something will emerge that will inform the next step”. Otto Scharmer. Ecosystem Leadership Program, Uruguay.

The Essense of Faith

While in my “liminal space,” experiencing all the vicissitudes explained above, one thing remained untouched — a steadfast commitment to my chosen path. I stumbled upon Theory U when it emerged from MIT’s womb and stuck with it. Although I put all my marbles into it, it was not a gamble. It was a matter of quantum resonance, which David Bohm discusses in Wholeness and the Implicate Order. Once you are connected with that wavelength, you feel you are in another realm.

Against everyone’s advice, I decided that this newborn Awareness-Based Systems Change methodology would be the tool of choice to prototype my future. Common sense indicated that, having been 40 years younger; I would, eventually, have had an excellent chance to be successful in a reasonable amount of time. At 65, no way. Hence, I knew beforehand that changing careers so late in my life would make my path more difficult to travel. In reality, I did not realize how much uphill it would be.

Nevertheless, I persisted in Theory U because I felt great whenever I explained what it was about with friends, in a business, at a gathering, or a webinar. Whenever my wife and I met with friends, someone asked me, “Helio, what do you do for a living?” I knew I would feel her kicking my leg under the table while her deep green eyes signaled me, “Don’t speak about it!”.

Speaking about it made me feel younger and connected with a higher purpose; in other words, it made me feel alive because I stopped worrying about the future and concentrated on the present moment. For the first time in my life, although I could not yet see practical results, it was a joy speaking about my work.

“ein Lesetipp in komischen Zeiten”

In March 2020, at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, I read an article by Otto Scharmer, Eight Emerging Lessons: From Coronavirus to Climate Action. Upon reading it, I translated it into Spanish, sensing the issues Otto treated in it were of such importance that they needed to be communicated to a broader audience beyond his usual English language readers. I had been translating Otto´s articles into Spanish to serve the Venezuelan Theory U community, but this time it was different. I sent the translation to Rachel Hentsch, Communications Lead of the PI, asking for her permission. She told me that she was going to speak to Otto about it.

On March 19th, the day of my 70th birthday, I received an email with the subject “ein Lesetipp in komischen Zeiten” (A must-read in strange times). It was by Otto, thanking me for translating his article into Spanish and telling me he had put a link to my blog at the top of his writing.

By the end of the month, while I was being locked down in Venezuela for good, Otto´s article had been translated into ten languages, and Rachel had invited me to be part of the Spanish track team of the Gaia Journey, the landmark online event of the Presencing Institute during the COVID-19 lockdown. I was experiencing in my flesh how the airwave produced by a butterfly could cause a typhoon on the other side of the world.

The whale spat me on the GAIA Journey´s shore when I needed it the most and when I was most needed.

At that moment, Mechi Bidart, Laura Pastorini, and Antonio Moya La-Torre were building the Spanish Track Team of the Gaia Journey. I fell on it as if descending in a parachute from nowhere.

Next: Part II: Holding On to a Golden Thread — Teoría U en Español



Helio Borges

Executive & Team Coach & Mentor. Cultural Transformation Change Agent & Consultant. Twitter: @hborgesg. Instagram: @heboga. FB: helio.borges.35. Uriji: @hborges