As Ann Rafferty begins to talk, her hazel eyes seem to shine a bit brighter. She sips on a cup of tea and describes how it came to pass that she, a communications specialist at the Los Alamos National Lab, now spends her Saturdays helping young adults reflect on their lives.
“It happened about a week after I finished Leading by Being®,” she says, referring to the Academy’s foundation course in personal leadership. “I knew I had to do something, so I hung a sign outside my house that read 'Dragonfly Center,' and posted flyers around Santa Fe inviting young people to 'discover' themselves.”
Within days, a handful of young men and women had expressed interest, including a teenage girl who appeared at her front door in tears, clutching one of the flyers to her chest. She told Ann that those two words — 'Discover Yourself' — had “gone through her like lightning.”
Ann could relate. She'd felt her own lightning strike two years earlier, when she'd seen a local newspaper ad announcing the Academy for the Love of Learning's three-day introductory workshop to explore the question, "Who Am I?". Ann knew herself as a pianist, a master of English and Irish Literature, a mother of two, a successful businesswoman and, for the past seven years, a distinguished employee at the Lab. But who was Ann Rafferty, the human being?
She signed up at once, and from the moment she entered the first session, she knew she'd arrived.
"I felt as safe and relaxed as I'd felt in years," she explains. "Aaron Stern was the facilitator, and he created this incredible field of connection. I could feel it physically: here I could be seen for who I was, not for what I was doing."
The weekend workshop convinced her to commit to the entire Leading by Being® course, ten four-day workshops over two years. Slowly, she began to surrender her "achieving self" to a softer, more authentic self, whom she calls the "ordinary Ann."
"Leading by Being® helped me learn to go beyond polarities," she says, "to reject the idea that we must define ourselves as this or that, as mother or businesswoman, scientist or father. Releasing that concept was incredibly disorienting at first, but the course facilitators were there, holding us as we balanced on this razor's edge of self-understanding, thoughtfully taking ourselves apart."
Ann recalls the skillfully-led activities, rich intellectual discussions, reflective meditations — even moments when her group of thirteen sat in silence, Quaker-style — until someone had something to say. And there was the time Aaron gave the group an hour to make plans for dinner.
“A disaster," she laughs. "At that point, none of us knew how to even recognize our needs, let alone express them."
Indeed, identifying her "deepest needs" did not come easily for Ann — and nearly did not come at all.
It was as if a new muscle was formed at that moment, a new understanding that allowed Ann to continue her exploration with Leading by Being®, and ultimately unblock her "authentic self." By the end of the course, she says, she felt capable of "standing in a coliseum" to proclaim that she, Ann Rafferty needed connection — real, human connection — the type she grew up with in rural Vermont.
"I lived with a huge family in a tiny town,” she says. “My family and community were such an integral part of me, I couldn't imagine myself outside of them. It was like a log, floating on the river. The log isn't aware of the water, but the water holds it up all the same."
Today, Ann meets weekly with fifteen teenagers dedicated to her Dragonfly Center. Through creative role plays, discussion, art projects, meditations, dance and other activities, she helps them connect to each other and discover their place in the world. She's seen them shed artificial postures they've been wearing, open up to "outcasts" they might have otherwise shunned, even commit to travel to the site of the next natural disaster, to be there for people in need.
At work, she’s found herself interrupting her day to console a distraught coworker, or to offer extra support to an ambitious young woman, new on the job. Recently she facilitated a workshop for a group of scientists who'd heard of her work with the Dragonfly Center, and wondered if she could help them, too, reconsider their lives.