When we listen attentively there is neither agreement or disagreement; we are just in a state of attention.
– J. Krishnamurti
Far away in the heavenly abode of the great god Indra, there is a wonderful net which has been hung by some cunning artificer in such a manner that it stretches out indefinitely in all directions. In accordance with the extravagant tastes of deities, the artificer has hung a single glittering jewel at the net’s every node, and since the net itself is infinite in dimension, the jewels are infinite in number. There hang the jewels, glittering like stars of the first magnitude, a wonderful sight to behold. If we now arbitrarily select one of these jewels for inspection and look closely at it, we will discover that in its polished surface there are reflected all the other jewels in the net, infinite in number. Not only that, but each of the jewels reflected in this one jewel is also reflecting all the other jewels, so that the process of reflection is infinite.
– Indra’s net, The Avatamsaka Sutra
The practice of witnessing and being witnessed
Some years ago I posted a question on my Facebook wall: “Sitting with this question: what makes witnessing so powerful? Is it because it links with our deepest soul?” My question provoked a rich crop of answers, some really beautiful and meaningful. The question had been fueled by experiences in some gatherings and learning events. In one of these we conducted a dedicated witnessing circle. This was ‘a listening circle’ where, instead of using the talking piece when speaking, the talking piece became a receiving piece. The person holding it was invited to listen and receive as others shared what they had noticed as his or her precious and unique gift to the whole. This was a very special experience for me, because we could all touch and articulate a layer that we don’t normally give words to. Personally, I was surprised that people saw me for who I was and what I contributed, although hardly any one had ever named it or reflected it back to me before. The richness and the rightness, the huge depth of wisdom, the care and contributions, not just of the individuals but of the whole circle of people – our souls became present! This deep listening and then articulating back is best expressed by the concept of bearing witness. It was basically naming each other’s essence: it was looking, noticing and speaking from the soul level.
As explained earlier, circle practice is key to both the Circle of Presence and the Circle of Creation. When you start practicing the circle, the first thing you learn is to slow down the conversation, and listen more deeply, both inside your self and to others. Over time, this slowing down and this flavour of listening become embodied in your being. When this happens, it becomes possible to see others more deeply: witnessing. This is not the Witness with capital W used in some meditation practice. Here we are pointing to a deep seeing, free of judgement, penetrating through the layers of conditioning to apprehend and deeply honour the core self of the other. To be able to abide in that space of non-judgement, you need first to be aware of and able to hold your judgements about yourself; only then can you look more deeply into the other human being. It is indeed possible to be with one another in such a way that the deepest aspects of ourselves resonate and mirror the deepest aspect of the other. Bonnitta Roy calls it a ‘compassionate embrace’, and it has nothing to do with any form of sentimentality – it is really a deep seeing.
In a way, witnessing is quite simple, yet it holds such deep power. My dear friend Helen wrote: “In essence, witnessing is the simple act of resting one’s naked attention on an object – be it a person, a scene, a thing of any kind – without judgment, but with a simple intention to bear witness.” The power of witnessing lies in this fact of non-judgement and deep respect, creating and offering a space that is truly safe for everyone.
In answer to my Facebook question, Kamyar wrote: “Your soul, and with that your highest potential, only shows up fully in a safe space. Eyes that see deficiencies and look at you as incomplete make the space very unsafe. On the other hand, eyes that witness you in your real power and see you in your highest potential bring healing and safety at a deep level. The first eye creates wounds at the soul level, the second brings healing.” When you are witnessed by somebody else, held fully in that non-judgmental gaze, it breaks your own inner judgmental feedback loop and releases your energy into a bigger space. If you can reveal something to others, if you can show your whole self and they don’t all run off screaming, on the contrary you are received with true respect and awe – there is something profoundly healing about that. There is a dissolving of pressure as a pattern of judgment is released into a bigger holding space where it can subside.
It is clear that this practice cannot be done alone; it is only possible in a group or a collective. Listening the soul into disclosure as we once named it, isn’t a passive listening, but has an active side to it: reflecting back elements people have not seen about themselves. As one names and expresses what another has not yet been aware of, they become more of themselves, and can participate more fully and completely. This creates a deeper collective capacity.
Witnessing is not restricted to looking at the positive, beautiful sides of reality. We are open and receptive to all of life. Albrecht Mahr, one of my trainers in Systemic Constellation work, nailed it in a few sentences: “Reality is kind. First seeing the reality (Yes, this is how it is; even if it is ugly or painful) allows for the change to happen; an unfolding suchness… Keeping up an illusion or hope is a dangerous condition.” The witnessing of pain – seeing reality as it is, pain included – builds on the capacity to witness our own woundedness. From holding our own wounds, we can expand our hearts outwards to be present to others for further witnessing. We need to be able to hold the full range of emotion, from very strong shocks experienced by individuals to the depth of sadness and grief about great collective pain caused by events like wars, disasters or holocaust. Witnessing builds on the capacity to keep our hearts open for great intensity without falling back into habitual patterns of withdrawal, denial or conceptualisation.
I want to emphasise here that witnessing is not at all about fixing problems, or rescuing the person(s) involved. In the bigger scheme of things, that is never possible anyway. It is holding and witnessing pain, acknowledging what is – pain and suffering included, and embracing people with all their experiences, all the while deeply trusting that the people concerned have the capacity to be with this intensity. So we hold with compassion, without solving or acting out. In other words: practicing witnessing in the circle is not the same as being in a therapy group – it has a different purpose. Our priority is not therapy or healing, and yet as we respectfully engage with one another in this way, healing happens almost as a by-product of our learning to open to this interrelatedness. Another difference is that there is no therapist in charge in our circle. Instead, we learn through the circle practice to hold all of life, together. In our circles of Women Moving the Edge, we experienced again and again that our collective container was strong enough to hold deep sadness, pain and loss. We learned that telling our stories and sharing our emotions – when they are heard and witnessed – is enough to open some space to look into the future and glimpse what comes next.
This containing includes holding the so-called ‘ugly, nasty bits’, without judgment. There is huge value in releasing stories from the personal sphere – something you have held close, tight, private and secret, even in shame – into the impersonal sphere. There are so many ways in which we refrain from sharing things with each other, for all manner of very personal reasons. Actually sharing these experiences is what release them into the impersonal sphere. This mechanism of releasing the personal into the impersonal also allows us to be present in life, rather than confined within our skin-encapsulated identities. Releasing from the personal into the impersonal is like allowing my stuff to be the stuff; not even our stuff, just stuff. So often we agonise about our individual stuff, feeling ashamed of it, but everybody has some permutation of this stuff. So being able to release the particular into the universal is very liberating.
‘Ugly bits’ originate not only from individuals, but also from regions, classes, genders, cities, religions, societies and more. There is no end to what can be witnessed, but you need to start small, to build up your inner muscles for this work. If the depth and breadth of an open heart seems limitless, then what about the depth and breadth of a shared, collective open heart? Our experience confirms that collective witnessing and holding of what is going on in any situation provides a way of starting to process the bigger difficult situations playing out at the level of culture, gender, class and society. This intentional collective witnessing and holding is crucial, without rushing to re-solve, as is so common these days. When we do this, curiously enough the tension, the problem, tends to dis-solve into something else. This is why we see the capacity to witness as central in any attempt to change, be it on the individual, collective or societal level.
Opening our hearts in this way, we can reach a place beneath the pain; a place where the contradiction between pain and happiness starts to fall away, then ceases to exist. This is the place of soul, of essence, of the whole of life. It is a place where you are fully at ease with the intensity of any and every emotion, with the intensity of being alive. You don’t get triggered, you don’t fall back into habits, you can stay present to yourself, to others, to the wars and disasters. You can pay attention to this deep intensity and embrace it.
Quote from participant:
One young man shared a story about who he had been in the past that so amazed us – it was so unexpected and so deeply personal – that it completely shifted the space. And all of a sudden the space became safe, for everyone, because one person shared a very personal story. And through that, it opened the way for others to share stories. My own experience, as I was sitting there, observing my own ongoing judgements about these people, as I was trying to learn who they were, the scales fell from my eyes. With every personal sharing that they brought and offered about who they were, I felt as if I witnessed the veils of personality falling away so I could see more deeply who these people were at the soul level. By the end of the day, inside myself I was completely still, without inner words, and in a real state of grace.
Being witnessed (enough) by others builds our capacity to witness our own self into disclosure much more. You will become ever more able to see and witness all the constructs, the judgements, the assumptions, the ways in which you trip your self up. Then all the stuck things, the knots, lumps and rigid patterns can just melt away. When all of those stuck forms have melted away from our habits and patterns, what remains is the availability for communing with nature and life in a different way.
What if we removed fixed boundaries and witnessed the essence?
What if we replaced identity with uniqueness?
Authenticity doesn’t seem to need a fixed boundary to be in a relationship or in resonance…
Quote from participant:
I had an image that flashed in my mind – those mirror balls at discos – catches the light and sparkles, bounces light onto the walls – I had the image of the collective, as a group, a field, acting as myriad little witnessing mirrors for each other. Not exactly a mirror ball, rather a room of mirrors, each person is a witness, mirroring, noticing the others, nurturing them, listening into disclosure their authentic self, in our practice around the circle, what one person says sparks something in somebody. Sometimes it’s a reflection, a rephrasing, a building on, like something reflected back by a bit of mirror that casts a spark on all the walls. Each person around the circle or in the collective is somehow a very unique and special mirror that refracts the light just when it hits them in a certain way, and everybody can see that; and you feel witnessed because the light that bounced off you made that spark and showed it.
Witnessing collective pain
Conversation between participants:
H: There’s this business of wholeness and the understanding that the only way humanity will be able to hold the changes we need to make is in community. I mean a community that is greater than the sum of its parts, because of that mysterious something that happens between people when their hearts are open, trust flourishes, and they take steps they would not have taken on their own. We were wondering what the laws of community are. There are simple laws for swarms, what are they for community? First is: the depth of community is proportional to the degree people can be all of who they are, the degree of self-disclosure of even the ugly bits. Second is: the condition that when someone does take the step to be vulnerable that no one tries to fix them. This describes how we are (as Women Moving the Edge) together – no fixing, a holding, a seeing, a witnessing, an opening to, an embracing, and acknowledging of whatever people choose to bring into the circle. ……..
C: In the wholeness piece – we were noticing that part of the power is also bringing in the ugly bits of the planet – the environmentally polluted, the socially neglected – looking them in the face and inviting them in too! This plays at the level of individual, community and planet.
R: This wholeness and open heart is challenging us – to hold and embrace more of not knowing, more of ugliness, more of uncertainty, as if we are in training around how to keep our centre and our ground, even with all these ugly bits? And there are many ugly bits. And there are many points of light too. I sense it in myself as a real stretch – I have to become a layer bigger/wider; we need to be able to do that. The ugly bits aren’t going to diminish – not on the planet, at least. And besides all that, many things we can’t see on the manifest level, there is all this collective pain from the past – from countries, and wars. It’s big! I feel I have to expand my heart, but also the embodiment of that holding – not only in my heart, but in my whole system.
H: Humanity might be facing some dreadful situations. Our role is to live in grace and joy and be present to that.
Witnessing pain, distress, death and disaster calls in an intense aliveness. It goes way beyond what we like or don’t like. It calls forth a strength that can’t be found in our ego-as-habits, but that links with a deeper current of life. Witnessing each other and being witnessed by others possesses a tremendous healing quality, as an affirmation at the deepest levels of our being. It is probably a recognition that we all come from the same source or origin, and that we all participate in the world soul – ‘world soul’ seen as the energetic template, similar to the personal soul print, but on the scale of the world.
Kamyar, an Iranian friend, said: “There are wounds in this region. Some of them are rooted in the way people and the land are seen. Unfortunately many people who step from the West into this part of the world embody an attitude of ‘knowing’, ‘expert’, ‘professional’, ‘fixer’, ‘solver’… How would it be to make it more visible for everyone – from the Arab world and also the West – that it’s possible to simply witness and be witnessed by the other, and respect the borders of identity? That by itself would be a huge source of healing for all of us.”
Scharmer writes in his book “… going down the U involves a kind of healing of massive wounds that have been inflicted on the collective body. That healing of the collective social body will be one of the central activities of such a process. It’s not just a sidelight of project work. It’s the real thing. And everything else is the context for the healing to take place.” (Theory U p.418) Mystic and teacher Thomas Hübl, too, speaks of the collective aspect: “the next level of healing and integration is a collective process.”
We see and know about so many groups and local cultures that are in some way hurt by other groups, other religions and other cultures. We can imagine, then, that there is much that needs to be seen and acknowledged. Just like on the individual level, it is not about fixing the hurt but about being able to listen to it, to witness and acknowledge it. When you, personally, have ‘done your homework’ – when you have seen and can contain most of your own individual pain – then you are likely ready to deal with collective pain, using the skills and capacities you have cultivated through dealing with your own traumas. For years, Joanna Macy has been speaking about the importance of not being afraid of the pain and the despair. For her, if we don’t look at the pain we cannot open the deeper love. (it is a good idea to check her YouTube videos)
Actually, pain is simply part of life. What seems to make it difficult is how we relate to it. In this regard, it is helpful to make a distinction between suffering and pain. Pain is an intense physical and/or emotional sensation. It becomes suffering, and powerlessness, when we are afraid of its intensity. When we can learn to be present with depth and intensity of pain, then the need to fight pain or seek revenge subsides. Of course we need to judge and condemn all actions throughout history that have caused pain, but in the larger context of history we can see it as life trying to develop more awareness. This is how life has always happened and still does: evolving, seeking its way through manifold experiments – this is still ongoing. The difference with earlier times is that we are now more conscious of it while being in it, while it’s happening. Witnessing pain – as an alternative to war, revenge or withdrawal – means being with each other’s pain, exploring what that pain is about, staying with it and shifting the relationship with this pain to its next stage, thereby shifting the relationship with our collective pain, the pain of all of us.
When you engage in this practice of shared collective inquiry (Circle of Creation), you will inevitably hit some of these collectively held pains and shadows, since these live in and through our individual lives, whether or not we are aware of it. These encounters arise because in this practice your attention is expanding outwards, extending the outer alignment, with a wider reach in coherence. Through our gatherings and continuous conversations in Women Moving the Edge, we reached a point where women in the circle were deeply touched by the immensity of what is going wrong in the world these days. Some felt physically sick and/or emotionally overwhelmed by both past and present pain and suffering – which seems to extend out for some time into the future too. Many today feel helpless in the face of the political (and human) inability to solve today’s challenges. We noticed this particularly strongly in people who feel very connected to their local communities and see and experience how much suffering industrialisation causes to the local fisheries, local agriculture, local craftsmanship and so on. The people in these local communities feel overwhelmed and powerless, not knowing how to handle what is going on now, let alone how to handle the pain of what happened in the past.
The good news is that the same practices and principles we learned on the individual and personal level can be applied to these collective levels. One important principle is that just as each individual is unique, with his or her own soul’s calling, so too is each group and culture unique, most likely also with its own collective calling and unique contribution to the world. This means that we are not evolving into a global culture, where every local culture will be subsumed or unified (as the narrative of mainstream capitalism would have it). Rather, we will come to understand that evolving into ever more complexity means that more and more uniqueness takes form! Each locality, each group, each culture has its own uniqueness to bring to the whole. (Bonnitta Roy calls this the incommensurability of cultures – they cannot be compared or reduced to each other.)
With this comes the realisation that we, as humanity, have inflicted enormous collective pain in attempts to unify all cultures. This collective pain can only be healed through groups of people, collectives. It is only in a collective that we can hold these levels of scale, because the challenges and complexities are too great for one person to hold. In the circle practice, everything can be. You speak what is going on and what needs sharing, and you place it in the middle so it can be held in the collective. It doesn’t mean that you lay your (cultural, gender, class) problems in someone else’s lap; the others in the circle don’t have to take responsibility for it, but they can witness. If pain, in its myriad forms and levels, cannot be part of the circle, then what does this do to life? We split it up and again it is not whole.
Oftentimes, pain guides us to what our souls really want. It tells us what is not really true, good or beautiful. This works on all levels: individual, collective and global. Again, as is the practice on the individual level, the act of witnessing – now collectively on the collective level – will be crucial if groups and cultures are to understand their unique gift to the whole. We are asked to be present to the pain… to be collectively present to collectively held pain. We don’t have to ‘take on the pain’, just as we don’t need to do that on the personal level. We hold it now with consciousness, awareness and understanding of the larger dynamic so the future has a chance of being different.
As we are able to witness ever more of life, including the really ugly bits of global history, this leads us inevitably to the intensity of being alive in the present era. Some of our participants dived deep into finding out about the state of the world, confronting themselves with all kinds of scientific reports and data. As they connected with this global pain, they felt stiffening and contractions in their bodies. Within our circle they were able to sink below the pain and reach a place of silence, where contractions and contradictions don’t exist. They realised that, from this place, we can be in touch with the new world, the one that will come through a non-linear change we are not able to imagine (yet). From this place beneath the contradictions – between pain and life and, ultimately, between birth and death – we are in contact with the greater container that holds these contradictions and is life itself. I think we are starting to open to the ‘real’ depth of life – in other words, evolution.
The ability to think trans-locally, to be with the pain, the dying, the old identity, while also sensing and ‘midwifing’ the birth of the new is an emerging skill set that will be required of more and more people. We will need to learn to access it quickly and in many situations. So much of the old is dying and there is so much that needs to come forth immediately. It seems that as the stakes get higher, ever more presents itself to be held – turbulence, pain, confusion. The symptoms of dying systems seem to be all around us, in some form or other, and although things have not yet totally collapsed into chaos, still there is a lot of uncertainty and change around. How to hold space for the deep wounds of the past on the one hand and the unmanifest potential of the future on the other, whilst still being able to hold it all together? We must honour the cycle of birth, death, birth, death, birth… without pause. The entire world is wrestling with how to do this graciously and to keep doing it without burning out. There is no end to this wave of birth and death, how to stay with it in hope and beauty and believe that what we are co-creating, however small, is worthwhile?
Sometimes it is difficult for people in the circle to see how their individual stories relate to the collective ones. They are not used to thinking systemically, they don’t have the embodied experience that they are always part of a bigger picture. Back in the days of feminism we used to say: ‘the personal is political’. We can now paraphrase this and state: ‘the personal is systemic’. Personal or individual pain always has something to do with the bigger picture, is part of broader patterns that are neither healthy nor life-affirming. A story shared by one person is touching, lived through the bodies of all other participants in the circle. Thus it always becomes a collective sharing, a collective experience. Almost every interaction in the circle releases something from an individual holding-back or wounding into a collective insight. The group can hold such huge emotion, and we don’t need deep analysis, just to hold the experience, like on a plate. Each time a deep story is shared, it loosens in the individual, enriching and increasing the flexibility and vibrancy of the energetic field we are holding together. Connecting our individual stories into something larger can be difficult to see from inside the experience, but over time we see ever more deeply how the stories of pain seem to be stories about how to reconnect with the soul, in order to then listen the world soul into disclosure. The whole context is much wider and bigger and deeper than our individual stories.
Contain and transmute powerlessness
We probably are in for a bumpy ride. We will most likely have to live with much more disturbance, uncertainty and turmoil in the future. Therefore we need to learn how to contain whatever arises in ourselves and in others. Deeply held unconscious fear will come up – fear of not having made it before, as humanity, and fear of not making it this time. The more deeply and honestly we face what’s really going on, and the more clearly we recognise the magnitude of some of the catastrophes, conflicts and wars unfolding today, the more inevitably our feelings of helplessness will get triggered. In many of those cases where we are unable to help, it seems we are preparing to hold a great deal of powerlessness, sadness and grief. The purpose of doing this is not to create more calm and dampen things down, but rather, metaphorically, to create a larger tea cup in which the storms can happen.
That’s where we need the circle, and each other, to hold the massiveness of all this. So that it can be held and witnessed, providing more space that can expand the context. The collective is needed to hold a collective centre and the collective presence to do this on the collective scale. Nobody can hold these enormous challenges alone. Returning to the circle, we know we are held. Together we can hold the power of presence, embrace, contain and witness everything that is present and transmute the powerlessness. Then we can move again with clarity – a shared clarity that can come to the surface through our joint witnessing and a shared new understanding. Our capacity continually evolves and grows, in how it is embodied in our individual selves, our local communities, our bioregions and the whole Earth.
I have been wondering what is the crucial point that differentiates collective witnessing from the pain-related suffering and frustration that has been going on for so many years without changing much. What is it in collective witnessing that makes it less likely that the conflict and the hurt will be repeated? Pain and despair are mostly met with strong resistance. Some people start shouting and screaming because they are so afraid to look it straight in the eye. But shouting back changes nothing. Other folks tend to push it away and withdraw, so that, again, nothing changes. Being more resilient in coping with overwhelming collective pain means collectively acknowledging what is – with an open heart. It is exactly this embodied awareness and intensity of deep pain which is the changing point. It is like the mother’s body that is able to contain extreme levels of physical intensity in order to push a baby out through a very small opening. We can learn something from this natural birthing process about holding pain without much suffering afterwards, and about the ability to transmute the pain, which can be released through the body without leaving scar tissue. One participant in our first gathering wrote: “All initiations have suffering, but unfortunately not all suffering opens into initiation. Initiation can only happen in strong containers… I think we can learn more about – keep our eyes open for – create more – and support more – appropriate initiatory process in our societies.” What if we are in the process of learning to collectively hold the extreme pain and intensity of birthing a new society where everything and everyone can thrive?
Again, we can recognise the full cycle here from acknowledging what is, through accepting what is – humanity has indeed caused so much pain and turmoil – to honouring what is through a deeply embodied realisation that ends the cycles of revenge or withdrawal and, finally, to living what is by keeping the lessons and understanding from the holding and witnessing alive in the subsequent actions we take, never forgetting to keep in mind the potential of what else is possible. In this way we expand from witnessing the wounds of the past to presencing the potential of the future.
Through collective witnessing we are weaving, bit by bit, the net that can hold humanity. This is an energetic net of holding in love. It starts small in each circle, but the capacity grows over time. When a group is engaged in holding and we are confronted with more stories of disasters and pain, we might enter a phase where we feel we can hold no more. In such cases we release the holding and, sure enough, we sink down to a deeper level, drop into the next scale of holding. It is like breathing in and out. We always have the potential to hold more, to move beneath it. Seeing what the next layer is, is where we tap into the potential and another future.
You can imagine that, in 13 gatherings with women, some of the time was spent on exploring – and yes, complaining about it too – the collective pain inflicted on women and, more generally, on the feminine. For me, personally, it was a deep journey of transformation that moved me away from my primary identification as a woman, to being a human developing capacities associated with both the masculine and feminine sides of life, culminating as a creative person in whom all these capacities merge and synergise.
Of course, there is trauma in the feminine: the witch burnings, women’s voices silenced still today. So much of what is described in this book has qualities that are generally related with the feminine: the subtle, the inner, the collective… but there is also trauma in the masculine. From these traumas – and blind spots – we can allow the true gift of each to emerge and create together. That’s why Circles of Creation invite both women and men: to hold and witness the pain that is perpetrated in all things gender-related. The point is not to ‘accuse’ the other gender but to witness how life has evolved, gifting each other strength through the witnessing. Eventually this will bring healing and lead to new and creative action.
The wild is what is
Quote from participant:
Something I think I am starting to understand now about witnessing, is that very flexible, fluid, subtle, non-judgemental witnessing engages. As if this is the gift that human beings bring to the cosmos. In general, we are so obsessed with ourselves and each other that we don’t really engage with the cosmos: it’s just the backdrop to the theatre that we play in. We snap twigs off it in order to build homes for ourselves and such like, but we’re not really engaging with the cosmos. That changes when we engage our self-reflexive consciousness. When we start to practice this witnessing, we inject a different kind of awareness into the fabric of space and time. It really is an engaging with… How do I say this? The world soul comes into disclosure through awakening to itself, when humanity – we, as human beings with our unique kind of consciousness – bring that consciousness into unselfconscious relationship with the cosmos. So it’s not about us. We are bringing the missing piece that we are, with our consciousness. Showing up with it. Bringing it to the cosmos. The image that comes to mind as I contemplate this is a something like a chemistry experiment: injecting solution (a) into substance (b), which then totally changes nature. It transforms into something else; something that’s alive and can go to work in a different way because our consciousness has been injected into it.
Might it be that we need to be held by a place, by nature, by the Earth, to be able to witness all the violence and aggression that exists in the world? I started wondering: is it we humans who are holding the Earth, or is it the Earth and nature that are holding us so that we can hold and witness the pain and hurt inflicted by people? Most likely, it’s a reciprocity with no real separation, a movement back and forth (an ‘interdependent co-arising’). Maybe we just have to look at places: there are places that can hold us and that can hold the wounding and the pain, and other places that perhaps cannot, and we would need to hold them? These questions remain unanswered.
Our intention to collectively hold a place or a spatial entity can activate it and invoke a poetic response from that place, through birds, animals, the wind, the trees, the sky. The same is true on the scale of the Earth. The Earth is a living being, we would not be able to inhabit her if that were not the case. When humanity learns to hold a respectful intent towards our planetary home – to witness her – her activation will be such that she, too, will bring forth a (poetic) response. Humanity has a function in the wider cosmos, related to consciousness. In witnessing it can begin to find its form.
As was mentioned before, when we open our selves up to the pain of the Earth, and feel that pain in our hearts and bodies, there is a pitfall if we start owning it. If we embrace that pain, hold it in ourselves, take it in and make it our own, we then have to live with this burden. We see this happening a lot in environmental activists. To be clear, witnessing environmental destruction is not the same as carrying it in my own backpack. I do not need to assume responsibility for containing it. When we witness pain, we are acknowledging its existence and allowing it to be. Then, through the simple act of awareness and deep respect, some release will happen.
There were tree frogs telling a story,
then they were listening.
We were listening,
then listened to.
Witnessing going on in all directions.
I could sense ‘the collective’ of the forest becoming more present – almost tangible – than the individual trees.
Because we were, as a collective, witnessing the whole?
It was magic.
It was amazing, fascinating and not anything I had experienced before. We were all in awe of what was happening.
We came into rapport with nature,
as embodied human beings.
We reconnected with our indigenousness,
we wove ourselves back into nature,
the fragmentation undone,
the bridge re-established.
We became wild again.
Another blog excerpt:
Can we meet and greet ‘the plastic bag’ with the same reverence and presence as (idealised) nature? It might not have this memory of itself… nature seems to have this immanent presence, this inner stillness, which is probably why it reminds us of our own inner presence and why it feels so nurturing and restorative to us.
The wild is what is. What a simple sentence, but with such profound implications.
In resonance the wildness is present.
I use the term ‘wildness’ here not as we normally imagine it – like a wild lion in the savanna or drunken youngsters at a music festival. No, being wild is being indigenous, in mutual relationship with all aspects of what exists around us. It is being in resonance with all of life – including being seen, and being witnessed – the proverbial plastic bags included.
We will revisit this interrelationship and the practice of weaving ourselves back to nature in chapter 8.
Chapter 7. Generative Dialogue: We-in-Now
7.1 Collective Calling
If the whole presences within its parts, then a part is a place for the presencing of the whole… a part is special and not accidental, since it must be such as to let the whole come into presence. This sociality of the part is particularly important because it shows us the way to the whole. It clearly indicates that the way to the whole is into and through the parts. It is not to be encountered by stepping back to an overview, for it is not over and above the parts, as if it were some superior all-encompassing entity. The whole is to be encountered by stepping right into the parts. This is how we enter into the nesting of the whole, and thus move into the whole as we pass trough the parts.
– Henri Bortoft 1999
The Circle of Seven
What follows are snippets of Otto Scharmer’s interview with the women of the Circle of Seven in 2003. This interview was part of the Dialog on Leadership research conducted by Scharmer. This particular interview disappeared from the original list of interviews, but is still online.
“What if there was a function that needed to be fulfilled at that time, rather than a destiny for certain people to be together? And it landed on us. It could have been other people. As though life were seeking out an open, eager group that could work this one out, probably as part of what is needed now in the evolutionary pattern of the world community.”
“We began listening for what we were actually supposed to do every time we were together. In every moment, the dedication was to sensitivity, perception, accuracy of expression, and actual fulfillment of the never-ending unfolding of next steps. We used whatever came to us – invitations to meet people, hunches about where we needed to meet together on the Earth, extemporaneous ceremonies that presented themselves to us, arising crises in our families, books that fell into our laps – as the material we metabolised together. That became the whole point of the exercise.
“It was like paying attention to what the ‘partner’ in the Great Field was inviting us into next. We used the name, the Great Partner. It wasn’t primarily about personal ‘initiation’. We were being initiated by invitation from the Partner, as a collective. I’ll never forget when I first understood that. Paying attention, then, became the discipline – collective attention not only to what we imagined we were about, but to what was really being asked of us together.”
“The fact is that every combination of people will have their own blueprint or possibility. One group can’t copy the signature of another group, just as an individual can’t become someone else and fulfill who he or she uniquely is.”
“Deep circle work is still a primary baseline of experience of finer dimensions, other frequencies, and a realm or source that is as real to me as this physical world. But it’s not my only teacher. It was a teacher and still is a teacher. I hold it as a primary vehicle for what I came here to do, because I believe that this circle cares for the world in a way that has a critical influence. There’s no proving that one way or another, but I know it’s true. That’s a really, really big thing for me. It’s part of that function that fell on us.”
I was so happy to find this interview and read these words, because they articulated some of the experience we were exploring. They affirmed that we were not crazy, not wandering down a road that had no meaning! Here was Otto Scharmer interviewing the ladies who formed this circle as part of his worldwide interview process to sense into what was ahead in the world of leadership. I loved it so much that I wrote them an email expressing my wonder and excitement. As life has it, I happened to meet two of them on several occasions over the next years.
What indeed, if – as the women of the Circle of Seven suggest in the first quote – there were different potentials, possibilities, existing in life on this Earth that needed more than one fully unique person to be present at the same time, in order to access a collective inner wisdom? I am not speculating here about whether there actually are such things as collective soul-prints – basically that doesn’t matter. However, I do see very many complex issues and problems that call for deep co-creation between different unique human beings who can access their inner knowing and put it to use in service of a larger whole through collective inquiry. Once you have learned to speak and live from your own unique soul’s calling, you can start to apply the practice in a collective context. Collectively, you are then able to reach out, through your own soul, to the collective soul level – at least this is easier and clearer when your own soul is available to do so. This also works the other way around: practicing collective presencing will enhance your clarity about your own soul’s calling.
From our own experience during the years of the Women Moving the Edge inquiry, we noticed that we were in service of ‘something’ – a potential, a possibility – that wanted to come into manifestation through us. Although it was a loose project, with different participants at the different gatherings and sometimes more than 6 months between gatherings, there was nevertheless a deep coherence that evolved through us, through our collective and full participation. I will write more about this later, but from our experience we can state that the potential that is now accessible in this time of upheaval and renewal can only manifest through collectives of fully present human beings. If we are not aware, if we fail to pick up the signal pointing to the existence of something else that is possible, then that particular potential might remain a lost opportunity.
Art philosopher Etienne Souriau speaks about instauration (in French: ‘l’oeuvre à faire’) referring to the way an artist is ‘invited’ or ‘called’ by the material to make the artwork. Instauration asks the question: why am I here on Earth? This relates to the individual soul’s calling. But what if there were something like collective instauration? ‘Faire exister la verité – ici!’ Bringing the truth into being – here! Obviously, for very complex situations the truth cannot be seen by one person alone; we are in need of many eyes and inner sensing organs to see more perspectives on the truth, more of the whole.
The practice of invitation
Once you have heard the whisper of a collective call and become part of a calling team, it is easy to fall into the trap of becoming the committee that will decide who will be invited and who will not. This is the trap of business as usual, the trap of linearity. We learned along the way that we were neither in charge nor in control of who would show up to participate. We always sent an open invitation to different global networks, and were sometimes quite surprised by who showed up. After some time, I learned to drop my inner judgment about who was supposed to come or not, and instead became keenly curious about what each of these women had to bring.
Sending out an invitation is an authentic opening to other human beings, not a means to earn money. We open the circle to people and we request their presence and participation in the circle practice, just as this is requested from those of us who are inviting. In essence, this is a gesture of equality and trust. An invitation to engage in a collective inquiry with an evolutionary intent can have no emotional strings attached. When you invite, you invite the whole being, with all the consequences that entails for both the inviter and the invitee. What you are inviting into is ‘full participation’ (more on this below). You are inviting the other to bring their full selves into the context of the collective inquiry, without reservations. This requires you to relinquish all thoughts of ownership and desire to control the outcome. (See more on this in section 7.5, Disturbance as Invitation)
For this reason, it is important to be crystal clear about the intent of the gathering (more below). What you intend will shape your invitation, and that will influence who shows up. It can seem that the intention, the potential, has its own agenda, which will define who shows up and who will contribute to the wisdom gathered in this specific event. This is a form of the Open Space Technology principle describing what happens when we live in a self-organising system: who ever shows up are the right people.
Someone drew a circle that left me out,
But love and I had the wit to win,
We drew a circle that took them in.
– Edwin Markham
Over the years of practicing the Art of Hosting Conversations that Matter, I have learned much about the art of invitation. In the beginning, I invited from the personality level, with quite some emotional strings attached. In my case, that translated as a feeling of trepidation about approaching people with ‘my stuff’. Later, I learned to invite more from a soul level, sending the invitation out far and wide into the universe so that it could reach the ones who needed to come. Living from my deeper calling, I can now reach out to others just to sense if this particular invitation resonates with their unique calling or not. You could say we are inviting people energetically from our heart, but the most important point is that we are issuing an open invitation and not looking for a specific outcome.
The first form that the collective calling takes is the collective crafting of the invitation by the hosting team. When we are doing this, we are actively sensing what this specific gathering will be about. We then send the invitation out from that potential, and from the unique beings that we are. We try to come as close as possible to this potential and to articulate the invitation from that place, because that will invite the other participants in. An invitation emanating from a collective alignment can release a resonance and an answering alignment in those invited – how the call manifests for them in that moment.
Inviting people in this way makes sure that you invite in diversity. In the case of Women Moving the Edge, we had women of all ages from a wide range of backgrounds and professions; many showed up without even being able to articulate clearly why they were coming, but with an inner knowing that they had to be there. Still, these were mostly white, Western, middle-aged women, although curiously enough we twice had a young pregnant woman in the circle.
Inviting people into a collective inquiry is quite different than inviting them to participate in a workshop or a meeting. This specific inquiry is happening because you and others feel a call to engage in it. By sending out an invitation you are asking if others want to join this shared inquiry. This is another version of “I need you because of us”. My/our need to gain clarity in this particular topic is an invitation to others to join and participate. We need each other – in presence and uniqueness – in order to co-create. Our need or our invitation is like a gift to others to be and to become more of who they are.
Intention as guiding question
Long before we articulated this whole journey as an action research project, we knew that being in a continuous collective inquiry was important, because we were always curious about what was coming next. In the Art of Hosting practice, the very first conversation with a client expressing interest to take a participatory approach with their team or stakeholders is always about clarifying the ‘real’ purpose of their wish or plan. As Toke Møller, one of the elders in this global network, would say: “Clarity of purpose is the invisible leader”. In the kind of collective inquiry we have in mind here, ‘purpose’ is to be understood not as ‘goal’, but rather as ‘intention’. We always worked with an intention articulated in the form of a question, pointing to a potential that can manifest only when we all put our best selves into the mix. This guiding question will act as a riverbed to guide our collective inquiry; it will somehow – loosely – set the boundaries and scope of the field of potential that we can collectively sense into.
Stated as a question, the intention becomes a lightning rod for the collective inquiry that the circle always is. For every Women Moving the Edge gathering, the first step would always be sensing into the guiding question around which our collective inquiry would take form. As the hosting team, we would spend a lot of time collectively sensing into it, through a series of conference calls. We were meticulous about ensuring that every member of the team felt happy that the question was articulated just right. Only then were we satisfied and sure that we were all aligned to the same inquiry, the same shared purpose – maybe to the collective calling?
The articulation of the question comes from the level of soul – at least to the best of our ability – so that it speaks of a deep potential and is not just a surface-level expression. Just as the poet who knows that the word he is trying on in this specific line in the poem is not the right one and keeps searching until he finds the perfect word in the perfect sentence, so we sense together into the wording of the question that will guide our next inquiry.
In the many hosting calls running up to the actual gathering, finding and articulating the question is the major work. This is the biggest part of the preparation work. For the hosting team, it means going through the process – which the participants will also go through later – of not knowing what wants to emerge, leaning in to grasp at least some sense of what it is about. We must go through this same process for every gathering, and once we hit the bottom of the U, there is a collective sense of “This is it!” Sometimes it can take a long time to gain full precision and to check whether the question is truly inspiring and uplifting. After this work is done, it remains to send out the invitation to others to enter the container formed by the circle process and the guiding question. Then more of life can happen.
This calling question would always be mentioned in the framing of the gathering, right at the start. It would also be written (beautifully, with illumination) on a flipchart and visible to everyone throughout the time of the gathering. There is power in formally and deliberately speaking the intent: first of all as a reminder to all present of our purpose in coming together (some participants don’t remember the exact articulation of the topic); secondly, clearly articulating the intention seems to have influence on the subtle layers of reality, thereby helping to make the intention manifest.
Practitioners of collective presencing believe that it is important – always and everywhere – to clarify the intention of any gathering, call or event. Why is intention so important? It seems that by setting an intention, and then speaking and articulating it, we make an energetic connection with the potential implicit therein. As if intention and potential are different facets of the same whole. It will be clear by now that speaking the intent and inviting into collective inquiry is quite different than setting an agenda or offering a detailed plan of action (which will tend to lead to disagreement, sometimes even argument and conflict). The guiding question acts as a boundary or membrane, framing the scope of the inquiry and its attendant conversations. Beyond that, there is a high level of not-knowing-yet what will arise from the collective inquiry.
Quote from participant:
When I was participating in Women Moving the Edge, it wasn’t until I was driving home that I realised: There wasn’t really any agenda!! Only holding the possibility, and how absolutely powerful that is. Plugging into the divine, the collective…. whatever the heck it is called!
The ultimate touchstone of friendship is not improvement, neither of the self nor of the other: the ultimate touchstone is witness, the privilege of having been seen by someone and the equal privilege of being granted the sight of the essence of another, to have walked with them and to have believed in them, and sometimes just to have accompanied them for however brief a span, on a journey impossible to accomplish alone.
– David Whyte from Readers’ Circle Essay, “Friendship”, 2011
In the global networks of practitioners of practices like Art of Hosting, the World Café and Open Space, people don’t hesitate to name friendship as the element that makes it possible, even easy, to access the deeper levels of emergence. Bill Torbert also talks about ‘friendship as developmental force’ – as opposed to business, which is cloaked in too many layers of lesser awareness. He describes an ‘alchemist work party’, a gathering of consultants who each have their own (small) business – most likely all people who have found their unique gift and calling. This particular form of friendship does not imply that we interact with each other every day or every week. Rather, it means that as professionals or fellow practitioners we share on such a deep personal level – again and again – that trust, respect and friendship inevitably ensue. I always felt some unease in naming this element of friendship, because it was not the same as the friendships I had 20 years ago with my women friends. What, then, is different?
Being together in a group using the circle practice over a longer time, or with people who practice circle regularly, there grows a level of basic humanness with each other that strongly resembles how friends are together: gentle and near. We deeply know and understand that nobody is perfect, we see the flaws in each other and in ourselves and still we stay in relationship, sharing our stories and our vulnerabilities and co-creating together. We stay together in the conversation, even when things get difficult and nobody knows what will be the next step. As in all friendships, we see the uniqueness of each participant and there is no need for us to all be the same or think alike. There is a deep trust in each other’s motivation to be in this shared inquiry or journey; we acknowledge that everyone is doing their best and wants to contribute to an outcome for the good of everyone involved. As Chris Corrigan stated it: “Friendship is an emergent property of good relationship and good collaboration.”
Another difference with ‘normal’ friendship is that it is coupled with a shared awareness and consciousness. The resonance of friendship includes assumptions about what life is about, what time we are in and the importance of hosting ourselves, or the art of becoming present (as described in the Circle of Presence). Added to a normal friendship is a deep shared trust in the unfolding of our future story; we all (hold an intention to) come from origin or source and we are all invited to live more and more into the unique beings that we are. There is an inner knowing that we are in a radical transition time on Earth and we all want to learn and spread the requisite skills for this journey. An essential ingredient is the shared practice of being perpetual learners and constantly reflecting on where our actions and thoughts originate. This makes for open minds, wide open hearts and innovative creations. Taken together, all these dimensions make it possible to land quickly on the same wavelength (even if we haven’t met before) and to step into a collective inquiry – a collective calling – for the good of the whole.
I somehow had a vision that the Women Moving the Edge gatherings would go on in time – maybe for ever? – and that the gatherings would be held and organised, in the longer term, not only by Judy and me, and that over time there might be local circles that could hold it. It would do away with the need for me to travel to the US and Judy to Europe. Within that vision we started thinking about apprenticeship for some women who felt they would like to learn how to hold these gatherings. Soon enough this vision collapsed as the two women applying for that role stepped back and we were back on our own. We had to learn the hard way that this was not a linear path, and we had to follow the meanderings of life and its unfolding.
We came to see this experience as another instance of linear thinking creeping back in. We didn’t yet see very clearly how this practice of continuous collective inquiry and sensing could lead to manifest action in the world. The prototyping and cristallysing that Scharmer was talking about at that time (around 2008) didn’t seem enough. In many of the instances we saw around us it looked as if, once the group had gained its new insight, it would step out of the sensing and start ‘doing’ it – in the old way.
Instead of succumbing to this temptation, we kept on sensing, wondering: what is emergent creation? What does it feel like? What does it look like? In the step from the fourth gathering to the fifth, we realised that we had shifted our prime attention from ‘staying in individual alignment’ toward ‘collective alignment’ – and then into action. It occurred to us that we were moving out of the bottom of the U, and up its right side. Judy said: “I think it is a hard one to be with. How are we with staying in our energy and this more action orientation?”
You are being drawn forward through a strong attraction. Follow the inevitable course of events. Yield to the path set out in front of you, the path of least resistance. Be guided by the way things are moving. You are involved in a series of events that are firmly connected. This can open up a new time. It will bring fundamental success, profit and insight. It is not a mistake. The call has come. Let go of what is past. A new focus is emerging. Dim your discriminating power so old habits can dissolve. The whole world must follow the times and the seasons. You are following a righteous idea inherent in the time.
– From the I-Ching – 17
Observe what is in I-in-Now:
Observe the threads in your life as you look back into your past, notice the signs life gives you, register the invitations coming your way – open your self to more than what mainstream society has told you to expect and to do. Observe what is in I-in-Now is about listening deeply for what is yours to do. Holding this question for some time, using it as a regular practice, cultivates your senses to become more receptive to signs in this direction. The point is simply to observe, without making too big a deal of it, because then you would be trying too hard!
I notice that many people also need to observe and discern what is not theirs to do. We live in interesting and inspiring times, with many innovative projects and gatherings on offer. It therefore behooves us to listen deeply to where our contribution is really called for and in what form. It is an act of subtle discernment in yourself to know what is yours to do and what not. Most people need some new practices to be able to do this.
Accept what is in I-in-Now:
Once you connect with your calling at this profound level, there can no longer be any question whether it can be done or not. If you question and refuse the call, you step away from being present to it, and into a place of trying, doubting and guessing.
As you practice accepting what is in I-in-Now, you will most likely notice some resistance or grandiosity in your personality. Simply observe it and let it go. Accept what is and participate fully in life, as the unique person you are, with your unique gift – trusting the subtle signs and inner knowing more than ever before.
We cannot escape the deepest need of our Soul!
– Johannes Schmidt (during a training called Deep Change)
Honour what is in I-in-Now:
If you truly honour your unique gift, you will recognise at the core of your being that, somehow, this gift is a contribution to the whole. You can see yourself as a unique human being who has power in the greater scheme of things. Not power ‘over’ the financial, social, economic and industrial systems, since you are unlikely to be in a position with that kind of hierarchical power. Nevertheless, there is power, in the sense of influence in the web of life, in doing what you are good at and what you are meant to be doing. Deepening the movement of ever greater generative capacity in yourself also means opening that capacity to wider and bigger systems, and stopping blaming and judging them. Don’t forget we are all immersed together in this curious and fascinating endeavour of creating the new and the novel, while nobody knows how or whether things will turn out OK.
As you honour your calling, you will discover that you know inside what to do next. You might not see the end or the ultimate goal – most likely not – but life seems to guide you, offer hints and support from unknown or unexpected sources. Honouring also means working with your inner knowing or guidance in combination with the little nudges and hints coming from ‘outside’… you are bound in this web of life, you are part of the soup… and it feels vibrant to participate fully in it!
Live what is in I-in-Now:
Over time you will notice that the gaps between your life, your passion and your work will disappear. Your whole life is now an expression of your uniqueness; all inner differences and paradoxes have now been resolved in a sort of mutual implication of opposites, consciously embracing the different parts in our selves.
The concept of self, rather than implying a unity, in this way is perhaps better described as a coherent multiplicity.”
– Trish Nowland via FB
To be committed means we are willing to make a promise with no expectation of return;
a promise void of barter and not conditional on another’s action.
In the absence of this, we are constantly in the position of reacting to the choices of others.
The cost of constantly reacting to the choices of others is increased cynicism and helplessness.
The ultimate cost of cynicism and helplessness is we resort to the use of force.
In this way the barter mentality that dominates our cultures helps create a proliferation of force.
The use of force is the essence of the past we are trying to transform.
Commitment, the antithesis of entitlement and barter, is to choose a path independent of reward.
It is a choice made in the absence of reciprocity.
This is the essence of power.
– Peter Block, from Civic Engagement Series
Here we are. We have made the leap, jumped into the river of our deeper calling. We are in a space of Open Will, where sometimes what we feel called to do makes little sense in the culture that surrounds us, but we will try to do it anyway. Other people might not understand what it is we do, as we create a unique offering to the world and to life, as a unique person – a ‘coherent and dynamic multiplicity’ (a concept borrowed from Trish Nowland via Facebook).
There is joy and contentment in the simple everyday pleasures of life; doing practical things and meeting people with pleasure and warmth, almost devoid of any mental content. Being at ease with the mundane tasks of life in all their simplicity provides an unexpected opening into more presence and generative capacity. I empty the busy mind so typical of the denizens of Western society, creating space for a silence that lets me listen to life. What comes through is what I am truly curious about and what I deeply long for.
Go where the juice is – The practice of living from soul
In creativity, origin is present.
– Jean Gebser, The Ever-present Origin, p.313
Living from soul is in essence only expanding the notion of becoming present, as described in the Circle of Presence, to every moment and every area of your life. It includes fine-tuning where you need to be going – or not. Many projects and events are interesting and could be somehow related with your life’s purpose. The clue is carefully calibrate your sensing so that you only engage where you really need to be and can truly learn or contribute.
Even in daily life, you can practice orienting yourself much more directly, sensing moment by moment: what am I called to do next? Is going to the birthday party of a dear friend really the right thing to do? Do I feel energised by the prospect? Or should I stay true to my energy level and appetite and work in the garden instead? We all need time to slow down and listen within to be able to make these fine discernments. What has juice for you most likely includes being more creative than is usual in our programmed mainstream lives. What is your natural way of being? Do you even know? What does it mean to be in your own flow, connected with your own energy and spontaneous impulses? When I talk of impulses in this context, I don’t mean impulses that come from our habits (in my case that includes snacking on too many cookies and chocolate). Most often what blocks us from following these authentic, spontaneous movements is fear, doubt and habit.
For some time I held the question: “How do I stay out of the way so that life can happen through me?” One of the clues is: go where the juice is! Don’t let a lack of imagination hold you back, but keep on sensing what is life-affirming and what isn’t. Keep your senses open to where you are energising (or saving) the old system and where you are creating the new, in whatever way, big or small.
Through this practice, you come to a very different relationship with your own volition, as if you were now somehow coupled on to a different locomotive. Your will is no longer fuelled by your personal (habitual) wants in the same way as before. Rather, you just want to spend your time being and doing what you were born to be and do! If we attend carefully to our inner impulses and subtle energy levels, we can listen ourselves into disclosure, as our deepest being begins to peek out from under our ego entanglements, our judgments and frustrations, our wanting-to-do-it-right.
This is my understanding of the notion ‘non-dual’; not a non-duality where we merge or become submerged in an amorphous whole, but being so utterly absorbed in embodied, creative expression that all gaps have fallen away. There is no sense of clock time and you are just happy with what you are doing. You are immersed in what is now arising in your unique being, with the playful energy of a child moving effortlessly from one activity to the next. Young children always go where the juice is for them, and we are now invited to remember that energy and reintegrate it into our adult lives.
In a way, we just become naturally who we are. That might seem pretty ordinary and nothing special, but it is unique! It becomes possible to be present with life, and not just with the world. The voice of our ‘monkey mind’ is no longer constantly prattling, so the natural self can be heard. This process seems to be easier to detect when we are in an easeful setting or a natural environment, and our identity or personality has subsided to a low profile. The challenge is staying as close as possible to this natural self, even when we are in an environment that pushes us in another direction. After a while, we stop wanting to go there because it doesn’t have enough life in it.
Live in not-knowing-yet
To live an emergent life is to be guided by your inner knowing and sensing, and by life’s feedback in response to what you have done. Understanding this feedback is not always easy, as there can be many ways to explain or understand an event. Which interpretation to choose? Which is ‘right’? Sometimes we just don’t know, no matter how deeply we try to listen. At such times, we have to live for a while in a state of not-knowing-yet; we try a next step and notice what it brings. Staying in the not-knowing-yet in a conversation is difficult enough (more on that later), taking it on as part of your day-to-day life is something altogether different!
Excerpt personal diary:
“Here I find myself, at the bottom of the U, letting go… and oh, the ego wants so badly an image, an idea or a project but no, nothing comes. So this is the experience, not because it takes you by surprise, but because you decided to live in this way… nothing to hold on to… sometimes it feels like a deep and big black hole, an emptiness… oh my God!”
When there is no clarity, perhaps you have to wait a little longer. There are times when we have the merest hunch about the next, tiny step; at others our inner sensing might know exactly what the next step should be. There are yet others when we just try it out, we probe and reflect afterwards on the feedback we got from the system, from life. Lived in this way, life becomes more like a dance, following the energy of what is really going on. The point is to see life as a journey into the unknown, an ongoing unfolding without a destination or a fixed plan with a certain outcome. In short: we learn how to become a participant in life, instead of being in control.
At the moment of taking the leap, there is often a clarity of new insights and ways of being, seeing and taking action. Most people find it very difficult to bring this clarity back into everyday life, however. After the illumination, we tend to fall back into our habits. How, then, to integrate the new insight into daily life in a coherent way? If we listen to our call, we go through many trials, which we can see as purification or rehearsals to be able to respond to the call. Remaining in this state of not-knowing-yet in an environment where everyone is continually asking you when things will be done (When will your book be ready? Is the renovation of your house finished? What have you decided?) is not possible on your own. You need a firm collective ground that holds you and can provide you with the strength and courage to stay with it. Having some friends or a circle, and having practices that support you to live this new consciousness is of utmost importance.
Don’t believe in money
For many, taking the step into actually living an emergent life means quitting the ‘one job’ that brings a predictable sum of money into the bank account every month. This brings us face to face, straight away, with the hurdle of financial security – and with it, security in general. For many people, this is the ultimate reason why (they think) they cannot follow what life is telling them to do. During several Women Moving the Edge gatherings, the money system (how it is organised) and its related capitalist culture (the values that go with it) were part of our inquiry. We learned a lot about it and I would like to share some of that here.
Life has more in store for us than just ‘a job’. Everyone has a call from deep within – be it in a job or in self-employment or something altogether different. The soul’s call is alluring when we start to pay attention. In principle we all have the power to choose whether to answer Yes or No. To be at peace with saying Yes to what our soul holds in store for us, we need to expand our story beyond the mainstream narrative around security, finances and how the current economic system works. The current core assumption seems to run something like this: “I need to make sure that I make enough money for my survival and my living.” Note the emphasis on ‘I’ and ‘my’! I have learned that this loop – I and money and survival, back to I – is much too small; too small for the soul and too small for the soup of life and the multitude of networks and influences we live in. If we take the leap and trust more in life, resources – not always in the form of money – can show up from different sources. The loop expands to include all kind of types and sources of support. I see more and more people whose professional lives resemble a patchwork, with different kinds of paid work mixed in with unpaid projects and resources coming in from different, even unplanned sources.
Money has become our mainstream illusion of safety, next to trust in big organisations and in ‘the system’ as a whole. However, as many people all over the world have already discovered since the start of the current financial crisis, things can change quite quickly and dramatically. In the West, the capitalist system is deeply ingrained in our culture, so that we believe that this is really how it is and it cannot be changed. Many years ago, I found out for myself that I could not think outside the box when it came to money, although I could do so with many other topics. I had to read a book (The Future of Money by Bernard Lietaer) to truly realise that our financial and economic system is built on concepts and ideas with a certain intention in mind, and not on what is real, in terms of life-affirming or life-generating goods and services. If we were to change the design of these systems we could and would create very different results.
At one of our gatherings, all of this was packed into a single sentence: “Don’t believe in money!” As this line wove itself through our conversation, it became clear that the problem is not money itself, but the myriad unconscious assumptions that are intricately intertwined with it: security, survival, identity, the list is long. After reading Lietaer’s book, I became more determined than ever not to let a perceived scarcity of money (which is nothing more than a feature of its design) come between me and my life, between me and what I sense is mine to do when listening to my inner call. This has meant trusting (or trusting more than before) in all the networks and resources around me, and ultimately in the very mystery of life. It boils down to an interweaving of my individual, unique life with what is unfolding throughout the rest of life, in evolution, in the universe in general. The ways in which life will support my needs will emerge from this mystery of full participation and ‘being in the soup’, not only from my organising and planning.
Since the moment when the link was broken between money creation and real gold, the financial system has morphed into a ‘conceptualisation of money’, where there is no longer any link with tangible goods and real wealth. This conceptualisation – called derivatives and many other obscure names for complicated fabrications – is a feature of a complex society, and it might even be a harbinger of its impending collapse. The monetary system is a man-made construct, a bubble that will probably burst sooner or later.
Many people find it difficult to talk about money, whether it is setting a price for a service provided, or stating an amount that you want to offer or give. Is this not a mirror of the bigger system? Because the economic and financial system seems so complex, so enormous and overwhelming, we would rather just not think about it, withdraw or hold back, or try to solve it all on our own. From early on in our series of gatherings, we sought to unravel this difficulty. We began to see how the combination of unconscious capitalist culture and (catholic) religion induced us not to talk about money – at least not openly. There is uneasiness, even taboo, when we step outside of the tacit contract of ‘paying-as-transaction-and-then-we’re-done’ and seek to enter instead into a conversation and a ‘relationship-that-includes-talking-about-money’. We are just not used to it, and all manner of murky entangled topics creep (unconscioiusly) into the scene.
Moving from ‘financial transactions’ to ‘relational exchange’ requires a radical shift. And what might happen if we were to put the unfolding of our soul’s calling (and its related competences and capacities) in the middle of the exchange – not even what we have done or offered, but how we are serving life with our true authentic gifts as they surface bit by bit? When we change the conversation in this way, and begin to exchange thus in a wider web of relationships, interdependencies and intimacy, then something magic starts to happen. I see true wealth as an abundance of life force; that seems a far better definition than “wealth equals money”. In these new terms, what is meaningful to exchange seems to be our true gifts, and not coins or bits of paper or electronic numbers. What if everybody were to follow their deepest passion? Wouldn’t the outcome be that Earth, and all life on and around her, would thrive?
In addition to the many other gaps (or polarities, or contradictions) we already construct, we tend to make many gaps when money is involved: a gap between those who have more money and those who have less, a gap between what is paid for and what we actually love to do – the list is seemingly endless. One of the core principles of circle practice is “offer what you can and ask for what you need”. This practice regularly runs into difficulties when what you offer or need is money. Something holds us back from restoring money to its rightful place in the circle of life, along with everything else. There is a deep-seated assumption of separation when it comes to money. How to close this gap? How to weave ourselves back into the mutual exchange of life, money included? A simple illustration of how resources flow can be seen in how flowers give their nectar to the bees and the bees carry the pollen to other flowers, thereby creating more life in an interwoven web of interrelating. When we weave ourselves back into the seamlessness of natural life, we can attract a sufficiency of what we need; it might be money and it might be other things money can or can’t buy.
After many conversations with organising teams and people in business, the clue to creating seamless ease and flow seems to be maximum flexibility around money. I understand this to mean being able to trust when there is less money, and being perfectly able to be happy with a simple life, but being equally able to charge business-rate fees for your work when the context you are in calls for that. Being flexible means being ‘respons-able’ in all kind of situations regarding prices, fees, offerings, gifts and so on. When we can do this, all the various elements related with money in our culture are disentangled from the sums in your bank account: security for later, survival, wealth, identity, savings etc. If we can achieve this, we can live with money in full freedom.
Feeling called, being a caller
In a self-organising network, nothing happens unless someone steps up, opens a conversation and makes something happen. Our world might not (yet) be a self-organising network, but if we relate with life and the planet, instead of with the world, then we are always already in one! One example of a natural and organic globally structured self-organising network without any hint of formal organisation is the Art of Hosting network. From years of observing this network in action, we have come to understand the power and necessity of being a caller to make this work. There seems to be a specific leadership role in calling something into being, be it a new organisation, a novel way of working or the realisation of some new potential.
A caller is someone who feels something needs to be done, who makes the first move and invites others in . Being a caller does not mean doing it all on your own. A caller is not the leader in the classical sense. Rather, he or she probably has the shortest line to the soul of the organisation or the heart of the possibility. In the beginning, when things don’t yet have any shape or form, the caller is essential. If the caller steps out at the beginning of the process, the whole thing will collapse. We could say that the caller holds, on an energetic level, the full potential of what can become possible.
Sometimes we see a few people or a small group stepping up as the caller for a certain project. Together they hold what can become possible over time. Being the caller does not mean that you know it all from the start – rather the opposite! The calling comes from a deep listening, both inside and outside in the world. Then, at a certain point people feel they have to do something, they have to speak up, they have to initiate. They take a first step in a journey that is always into the unknown. There can be long periods of not knowing, because in the messiness of life we are not in control and cannot plan multiple steps ahead. When you are the caller, however, there are certain things you can and need to do: you set the frame, the vision, the values, the quality, the guidelines. While you cannot know exactly how it will go and what it will look like, nevertheless, you hold the walls and the foundations – the potential of the whole project. How the details will unfold over time depends on so much more: the interweaving with other people, synchronicities on all kind of levels; we get some clues, meet the right people, hear about the right book and then magic can happen.
In one person’s words, being a caller is like “a breakthrough in being responsible and getting for myself that there isn’t anyone else (any more). It’s no one else’s fault if we are not doing things the way I want.” I myself complained for a long time that I was always the one that initiated new projects and wanted for once to join a project that someone else had started – until it finally dawned on me that initiating novel projects was what I had to do, that this was my contribution to the whole. That was the end of my complaining, when I finally surrendered to this greater Open Will. On the one hand, it feels great; on the other hand it can be intimidating: “Oh shit, I’m leading this!” If I am an acorn I cannot resist growing like an oak, and there is no use complaining that I am not a daisy in the meadow. It is here that Scharmer’s ‘voice of fear’ shows up in its many different forms: fear around scale, around empowerment, around taking leadership, around… (fill in your own). More and more people across the world are realising that they can step up and that nobody else (not politicians, not business leaders or any one else) is going to do it for them. The key seems to lie in forming a new relationship with our soul’s purpose and stepping into our fullness, naked and courageously intimate with life. Because, just like all life, my highest self is participatory.
As was spoken in one of our Women Moving the Edge gatherings: What if following your passion/bliss/joy/pleasure were the way, and creating the new world were a by-product? Life is happening anyway, whether we participate fully or not.
Wisdom consists in doing the next thing that you have to do, doing it with your whole heart and finding delight in doing it.
– Helen Luke, www.applefarmcommunity.org
It might be obvious by now that living an emergent life in resonance with your deeper calling is an act of what Otto Scharmer calls ‘open will’. In other terms, we could say you have landed in the stream of evolution and, in full awareness of that, you surrender to it. If we engage in life in this way, our normal kind of decision-making apparatus simply no longer applies. The ‘Getting Things Done’ approach is not geared to this kind of generative living. I have to let go: surrender my calling, my life path, my will, and relinquish everything to life. That means leaning into the mystery, as you would lean into a wind tunnel, trusting you won’t fall on your face.
Living in Open Will, you allow yourself to be guided by those unique inner prompts, calls and synchronicities. You no longer worry about having some kind of over-arching strategy or label for your role. You go with the promptings of your gut and all the other feedback from life. Sometimes you say yes to something and later you have to pull out because the inner message has changed. Life wants us to be well, so if what you are doing feels heavy in any way, then it goes out the door. This doesn’t mean that anything can come and go on a whim, because often your soul is insistent and requires quite some long-haul persistence. You learn to be present to the call moment by moment.
There seems to be a paradox in letting go of our habits and known strategies, letting go of our free will only to then surrender ‘to being used’ by something else! That is exactly what Open Will is about. The good news is that life only wants you to be you, your ordinary self, in your own unique way. This simplifies your life in some way, because all that remains is what really matters.
I need you because of us
Following this path, you inevitably reach a point where you need other people who also live from this place of inner inspiration – not just for encouragement and support, but also in order to realise (even) more of your potential. I well remember the moment when I realised that I could no longer evolve on my own. In this practice of participating fully in life, I need others with whom to share and express more of what I am able to see and do. I need a collective (a group, a team – whatever you call it) to be able to go deeper into myself, to become more of who I am; not in the personality-habit sense, but in order to shed ever deeper layers of those habits and reveal more of what is latent in me. We need each other – I need you, because of us.
In a morning meditation, Les realised: “… how being in this circle calls me to be no more and no less than fully present. ‘It is not up to me…’ meaning: ‘I don’t have to do this by myself, I’m part of the collective’, and ‘it is totally up to me….’ meaning: when I’m not present (and coming from a known story), the full resonance potential of the group doesn’t manifest.”
In our Women Moving the Edge gatherings we often repeated one of the agreements of circle practice: “Ask for what you need, and offer what you can.” This is a splendid agreement that can help make every group into a leader-ful one; everyone is invited to take responsibility for their own needs and passions and to offer their stories and gifts in service of the whole. Over time, though, we realised that there is more beyond this paradox of need and offer. As one woman put it: “No person alone can follow their own soul’s calling.” If we are on the level of soul, my need seems to be an offer, or at least an invitation to others. “I need you” then becomes an expression of interdependency, and the whole thing flips: the gift of my need becomes an invitation to others to be or become more fully who they are. The gift of need as invitation – my Western-trained personality is still trying to come to grips with this.
Quote from participant:
When this idea about need was present at Women Moving the Edge, it wasn’t about ‘neediness’ at all. It was about needing and inviting the other to be fully who they are, at the deepest and widest level; for that person to be appreciated and wanted for being that. It was about authentic interrelationship and interconnectedness in a way that we don’t often relate. For a soul to be needed as a soul is a huge opening.
In the Art of Hosting network we have a frequently-quoted saying: “It is kind to ask for help. The one who cannot ask for help, can not be trusted.” This saying comes from the Nuu-chah-nulth tribe of first nation people on the Pacific West Coast (Canada/Vancouver Island). The word that covers all of this is ‘Aphei’. These people hunted whales with harpoons, so it was clear that if a tribe member took on a task that was bigger than they could manage on their own, they endangered not only themselves but everyone else on the hunt. While the saying speaks about the importance of relationship in community, it is equally true for all of life. We need to stand together. This is what we need, this is what we can offer: to stand together in our soul’s calling, because it cannot be done on our own. We are so much more together than alone. There is beauty when we recognise, acknowledge and articulate the ways in which we need each other.
Quote from participant:
I have had this image recently of there being a Helen-shaped-(w)hole in the cosmos. My job now is to unwarp myself. My conditioning, upbringing, education, survival strategies have warped me away from my authentic original shape. Until I can massage myself back, re-find my authentic original shape, I am not quite fitting in the cosmos. That whole feeling of there being a Helen-shaped hole as a place where I slot, where I fit seamlessly, and where I belong, is not a solitary place. There are others in proximity, in closeness. When we come close together, it is easier for each of us to step into who we really are, nothing more, nothing less. We cover more bases. It’s the diversity we have together. We only exist in this interconnected whole. This whole is evolving together, that is why I cannot evolve on my own. I am really sensing the limits of our language here. It doesn’t speak this language of interconnectedness; subject-verb-object never speaks of the reciprocity.
In chapter 7 we will explore in depth the power and practice of witnessing, seeing each other as we really are – the soul who recognises another soul, because a full integration of our soul’s calling requires the recognition (through others) of oneself as “exemplary of our authenticity” (words from Bonnitta Roy).
I need you, because of us.
I need you, because of the web of life.
Can we live as the Earth?
What if the need of the planet, of Earth,
is an invitation to all of us to become who we really are?
to reach our full potential?
– excerpt from blog