The Real Work
It may be that when we no longer
know what to do
we have come to our real work.
When we no longer know
which way to go
we have come to our real journey.
The mind that is not baffled
is not employed.
The impeded stream
is the one that sings.
– Wendell Berry, Collected Poems
It is easier to write about collective sourcing and generative dialogue than it is to actually sit in it – at least when starting the practice. … although this writing is a challenge of its own! A generative conversation is a strong provocation to our habitual minds to serve the process of wondering, not-knowing-yet, seeing what emerges in the moment. This willingness to be of service to the mystery is grounded in the assumption that the people participating here and now are the right people, have the power, knowledge, insights, wisdom and capacity to do this. It invites a thorough suspension of all previously known ways of having a conversation, accessing knowledge and so on. It calls for a quality of profound presence and intense curiosity both. It requires a real beginner’s mind, not excluding our collected knowledge to date but putting it in service of the new. Ultimately, we are in search of a clear, embodied, collective knowing. An inner knowing, related to nature and the cycles of life; a knowing that integrates all of who we are.
Brian Swimme, in his series The Powers of the Universe, gives many examples of the massive tensions at play during the creation of the universe, as this evolutionary process reached a point where it had never been before. Swimme describes how, at this point, the whole universe is just ‘hanging in there’ until some kind of resolution emerges. I find it so nourishing to hear him speak about these powers when I see where we are in the world at large. We need to build capacity to hang in there a little longer…
This means staying for long enough in the not-knowing-yet. The underlying prerequisite to be able do this is the capacity to keep the space of possibility open until collective clarity arises from the generative space. This ‘not-knowing-yet’ is not a mental not knowing – “I don’t know the answer, but somewhere in the world there are experts who can answer this question.” Such a response would apply in a complicated system, where as long as you (or the experts) analyse the data for long enough you will find a solution that works. The not-knowing-yet we are pointing to here is not even about collective intelligence or collective wisdom, where we will see the full picture of the puzzle by the end of the conversation. No. The not-knowing-yet in a generative space resides at a different level. It is a not-yet-known – by anyone, anywhere. The challenge is to strengthen our ability to sit – and to live – suspended in the void with no clue of what is next.
The not-yet-known is always a place we have not been to before. Even if we have been in generative dialogue a thousand times, it remains a place of novelty and real innovation. It remains a place of uncertainty, of full suspension where we have only vague clues about what might be next. Every time our edge of knowing – individually and/or collectively – moves further; what we didn’t know yesterday is known now and a new edge is already right there in front of us! This is not only about conceptual knowing; the edges we hold in our emotional habits and in how we relate with subtle ways of knowing seem even more daunting. In this phase of holding the process of not-knowing-yet, we are challenged to move the edges of these subtle and inner fields. The barriers asking to be transcended might be self-made or cultural. The difficulty lies in the fact that they are so ingrained in us that we don’t even notice that we hold on to them for dear life and for the sake of our very identity.
Holding not-knowing-yet, as a collective skill, asks for absolute commitment to the shared inquiry, otherwise unconscious reactions (Scharmer’s downloading, the habitual patterns I mentioned earlier) easily take over. Sticking to the circle practice can offer a structure to prevent this from happening. Many people find it quite scary to stay in this uncertainty. We, in the West, are strongly identified with our (mental, conceptual) knowing, so the impulse to retreat to the safe space of default behaviour and downloading (the knowing) can be REALLY huge! Not knowing can feel like entering a void or teetering on the edge of an annihilating precipice. Hanging in at this point means trusting that even if nothing (generative) seems to be happening – we don’t know how, when, where, what – the shared and continuous sensing and observing will guide us, because there is always more to discover from the subtle layers of reality if we hold fast to our intention. One sound piece of advice: start with observing your self first. Bonnitta Roy aptly calls this attitude and practice ‘staying in the search space.’ It is not a void, but an active engagement that seems to create a vortex that draws what is needed to itself.
In a Circle of Creation the boundaries of the open space are held, on the one hand, by the guiding question, the intention and purpose and, on the other hand, by the circle practice and the energetic container that has been built ahead of time by a hosting team. All these boundaries enclose an energetic space where the process of not-knowing-yet can be contained and can compost into new life. The shared engagement in the collective inquiry gives priority not to finding a solution or answer within a certain time frame but to reaching the generative space. This puts time in a different perspective and, most likely, calls for more time – at least in the beginning. As long as no collective clarity has arisen, we stay in this not-knowing-yet, questing ever deeper for the unmanifest potential that is in need of us. This might occasionally mean that decisions are not taken, even though the need for decisions might seem urgent. Nevertheless, we do not move unless it is from a collective and generative clarity. In this context, the ‘downloading’ attitude would be to quickly search for some kind of consensus or majority. Clearly, though, in this context we want to go beyond consensus, consent or known agreements. If we are willing to let the process of aligned knowing unfold, then sooner or later it will do so. Living in this unfolding, it becomes crystal clear that life is always changing, always evolving, always different, moment by moment. Of course it always and already was this way, but now we are participating in it consciously and intentionally.
Being collectively present, in the now, with our shared inquiry, is not only about finding novel answers or insights, or even manifestation or co-creation. More than this, it is about being in resonance with unfolding evolution, and being conscious of this. ‘Holding the space’ and ‘holding the not-knowing-yet’ are the names of the process forms that can maintain the creative tension until emergence shows up, in the shape of something radically novel; like the point when a universe with no living cells tips to a universe with living cells. Evolution on Earth spent millions of years in this tension before a few cells somehow emerged and gave life to nucleated cells. At the present juncture in evolution, the capacity to hold the space for this creative tension and the willingness to tolerate the process of not-knowing-yet needs to come from a collective. It seems we are practicing doing this with smaller collectives, which will most likely expand to larger ones later in the evolution of humanity.
It is obvious that this type of generative conversation or collective inquiry is quite different to “effectively communicating a defined message”, which is how Terry Patten defines ‘rhetorical speech’, distinguishing it from “speaking trans-rhetorically to investigate the unknown…” (p10), which points to this ‘not-yet-known’. Charles Savage describes it beautifully: “from the arrogance of knowing to the humility of discovery”. (in a personal exchange, autumn ’09)
Why is it so hard (for us, Westerners?) to be in not-knowing-yet? What appears is always new and surprising, isn’t that appealing enough? So many preconceived ideas and judgments reside within us that are ready to jump onto the podium and declare that they hold the truth! There is so much presumed knowing, without any conscious engagement with the actual situation and question at hand. There is so much identification with what we (conceptually) know. For most of us it is a struggle to keep coming to the situation afresh, with new eyes, fully present in the moment. How many times do we have to experience this cycle before we can trust it and move through it with grace and ease? In my own case, I know that I still have a way to go before I master this quality.
Staying in not-knowing-yet, holding the creative tension, requires the ability to hold ever more intensity in the body, without escaping into action – reaction or downloading – when things start heating up. This ability is first gained and then enhanced by any training or personal practice that includes conscious embodiment as part of the focus. This can be part of an individual daily practice, whatever that might be. The core of this capacity is concerned with holding the tension of uncertainty – in other words the tension of creation, of what is not yet – and gently sensing what is coming to the surface. In this case it is the tension of co-creating new insights, with each other, the surroundings and all levels of reality; collectively fully participating in life. Robert Fritz states in his book, The Path of Least Resistance: those who are able to hold the greatest creative tension (and not confuse it with personal emotional tension) are able to create the most. It is about being able to hold and maintain your centre in the midst of uncertainty and chaos. In the words of my friend and Aikido master Bob Wing: “It is OK to lose your ground, but to lose your centre is bad.” We’re being asked to hold the vitality and sense of urgency as we develop the capacity to sense into what wants to emerge.
Quote by participant:
The first night (of the gathering) I was in existential angst. No stated goals, outcomes, handouts, and the experience of the Void. What will we do for 3 days? It was a deep point of transformation for me. This is where life comes through. We don’t come up with the same old answers. And in this space new questions emerged. What hasn’t been, can show up. Magic, but uncomfortable magic. And so profound.
People who are familiar with (Western) Tantric practices understand the notion of holding the energy high and not releasing it too soon into any kind of acting out. Through practice you can learn to hold higher and higher levels of (sexual) energy without coming to a release. There is no end to what you can experience in this subtle journey of discovery, and the energy waves that move through your body are ever more subtle, but really exquisite. Holding intensity means holding the bubbling energy – this feeling of being totally alive – and you can always choose to go one more step further before surrendering to a final release. As one of our participants once asked: “Can I hold that much joy?”
I have already talked about the capacity to collectively hold collective pain, wounding and trauma. This is of course the other end of the spectrum to the sexual pleasure just mentioned, but it points to the same capacity: holding intensity. Thomas Hübl says: ‘being present is being more intensive in what we are doing’. Holding disturbance in a present and conscious way (part 7.3) also belongs to this capacity of holding intensity. Sometimes this phase of holding the not-knowing-yet can feel like a collective initiation; it begins by feeling frustrated, but later it is powerful. It is a ‘groan zone’, part of any participatory learning process. Helen described it as: “being in the unclarity, waiting for the sediment to settle, waiting for the waters to still.”
Holding intensity evokes many layers, which Bonnitta Roy has distinguished as follows (in an online forum of a course):
– holding the not-knowing, the creative tension
– holding the intensity of pain and emotions
– holding the vital, primordial energy of life
– holding the cosmological energy, which is huge
To hold them all, your body-mind needs to be open. This means that contracting patterns or habituated forms – on all the levels evoked above – have been ‘deleted’ or integrated/healed, allowing the energy to flow through mind and body without being captured or interpreted by the mind (our narratives and other ego stuff), opening for more of the life force.
Listening and searching
Otto Scharmer said (in an online talk about Education in Aarhus, Denmark) “A leader needs to be a black belt in observing and listening.” Listening is the foundation for all new forms of leadership; it is the foundation for all social innovation today.
The section on the Deeper Circle Practice describes how we learn to speak from inner stillness and how ever-more-truly-shared silence seems to enter the group naturally when we are aiming for generative dialogue. We come into a rhythm and pace of speaking and listening that is both waiting and searching. We suspend everything that no longer works and listen deep inside ourselves, into the collective container, into the context and into the unmanifest potential. We are not questing into known concepts and acquired knowledge (only), rather we are accessing and adding information that is beneath the surface, coming from the aquifer of intuition, stories, images, past experience and more. We are listening for salient points, for clarity and newness. Not-knowing-yet as part of a generative space is a state of openness and uncertainty, constantly sensing into the future and its potential so that at a certain point a clarity arises that is from an altogether different paradigm. It is an active, engaging and open waiting until the inner and the outer align in all participants.
These periods of silence are not experienced as an absence of words; they have a quality of freedom in them: the freedom of being present and being able to listen for the next impulse. It is being like an empty tube and listening to the intangible, the land and the wisdom to be uncovered. It is a restful quality, quite unlike the frantic behaviour that has become so commonplace in mainstream society. In the Theory U process, it is the phase of letting come, hearing the emerging impulse through our collective sharing. Dropping into this shared still point, we are creating a holding space for a very generative kind of work. Because it is so full of freedom, it carries all potential!
The practice of shared silence often brings collective awareness into being – the collective being conscious of itself, as a collective. This awakening can even happen unexpectedly in the unlikeliest teams, people and contexts. The quality of the one(s) hosting the conversation – their capacity to be silent, at peace and at rest – has an impact on the group, although we still don’t really understand how this works. Holding an inner alignment in silence might play a big role in birthing the new collective way of being and how we hold the emergent.
In the searching, we have noticed an aspect of curiosity – What is next? What will happen? – and, maybe more surprising, a longing. Curiosity might be the more cognitive aspect of this longing, which in itself has more of an emotional tone. Both express a specific kind of relationship with what is possible and not yet manifest.
Poem by participant:
At the heart of our relating I see that we need to be mindful and to listen deeply.
Listen… listen… listen…
it has come up over and over again.
Listening to the land
Listening for the wisdom
Listening for answers
Listen to the call
Hearing the invitation
Radical Patience and Radical Trust
Not-knowing-yet requires us to let go of our habitual patterns of creating solutions and outcomes. In this phase of not-knowing-yet, when nothing new seems to come up quickly enough, when the collective space stays silent, anxiety can easily creep in. When this happens, it is showing us that we are still holding on to some expectations. How uneasy we can feel when nothing seems to be happening! The strong need to know and to have some (quick) outcome kicks in, together with a compulsion to fill the void. When nothing seems to happen, it is hard to hang in there, to just stay with this not-knowing-yet.
These unconscious expectations are so subtle that we hardly notice them – until the point they are not met, when we get frustrated in one way or another and fall back into our habitual patterns of reactiveness. There is much to learn and become aware of at this stage. Our expectations and longing to know get in the way of what we are seeking on a deeper level: to participate directly in life and let something truly novel emerge. Part of clearing the space for the field to become generative is exactly the work of bringing those expectations into consciousness and releasing them. This is how I understand the Buddhist injunction to ‘abandon all hope of fruition.’
In order to achieve a truly generative collective space, we need to let go of all attachments, including our sense of urgency. In essence, urgency is a judgment, an emotion, not an objective fact. It can therefore be seen as an emotional attachment that people can be very invested in. A sense of urgency is a kind of fear. Confronted as we are with so many problems in the world, this is a difficult reality to grasp. What does it take to stay with “It is enough to sit together in not-knowing-yet”, without rushing into repeating known ways of working and so-called solutions?
All around we hear conversations about change and transformation, also about what needs to die. The current mainstream pattern for change is: first observe and see what is, then judge what is, and then try to change what is. What we are proposing here is fundamentally different: observe what is (including my own and our shared assumptions and habitual responses), and then accept it – quite different from judging and seeking to change what is. The practice of being in not-knowing-yet is also a practice of not judging, staying centered no matter what. The challenge is to be like an open tube, an instrument ready to receive a tone from a potential that is ready to manifest. All of a sudden we realise that ‘what is’ is not what we thought it was at all! The practice is to (simply) observe, accept, honour and live what is. Only then can we see, sense and know what becomes possible in a new way. There is a strong tendency to move too early into sensing the potential, skipping the current reality and trying to jump ahead through a gap, absenting our selves from all that is actually present in the here-and-now.
Giving up hope, attachments and expectations, really letting go is an act, which is not without impact. To take whatever happens as the only thing that could have (as one of the principles of Open Space Technology invites us) without attaching to it in any way – either positive or negative – bespeaks a radical trust in life. Just this: this is it. Trusting that life is meaningful and worthwhile, even if we don’t see it at first. Going with the flow, relaxed about outcome. This seems to be a good guide for life in general.
Radical trust in life means radical trust in the process of our shared inquiry; sooner or later some clarity will arise. This implicitly includes the notion of radical patience. Holacracy, a new governance practice, embeds in its process the principle of ‘not deciding until the last responsible moment’. This is so unlike the common practice in our institutions and organisations to set up structures, rules and regulations before anything has even happened. When you actually hold an intention with radical trust and patience – and this also means radically trusting the participants in the group – radically new insights can come through and life can happen in you, me and between us. It feels so alive! The personality, scared of the void, doesn’t know or trust that something will come up on the other side of this not-knowing, but at some point you take a leap and jump, trusting that ‘something’ is there from another level and of another quality all together.
Quote by participant:
I suppose ‘moving the edge’ (the practice of Collective Presencing) means to me becoming more comfortable with the unknown or the invisible, so that it becomes more of an interesting companion than a source of blocking terror.
Notice and allow emergence to happen
We had not made a decision. We had just stopped talking when we knew.
– Tom Atlee, Tao of Democracy.
We have already touched on emergence: “Emergence is the manifestation of something really new, the novel that never existed before. An example of emergence from science is what happens when hydrogen and oxygen atoms are combined; it makes water. The wetness of water is found in neither hydrogen nor oxygen, it emerges from the interaction of the two; it is an emergent property. The scientific concept of emergence is now finding its way into mainstream conversations, but is not always well understood. In the realm of collective intelligence and wisdom, we talk of emergence when connections have been made between different elements – like different insights from diverse participants – that lead to a totally new feature or insight. A potential that was not known or even possible before, has come into existence, and we notice an innovation in products and/or processes.”
Wikipedia’s definition of emergence mentions how complex systems arise out of the multiplicity of relatively simple interactions. Generative conversations, too, are complex systems, and so they hold the potential for the emergence of new dynamic patterns. However, the gestation period needs to be long enough – just like a drop of water hanging from a blade of grass, it needs to be full enough of its own weight to fall in its own time. Then we have arrived collectively in a fully connected space, like dropping together through the bottom of a wet paper bag to find ourselves floating in timeless space where really powerful thinking, feeling and sensing can happen. In these unfolding moments, the knowing that arises has a limpid clarity, a simplicity (not simplistic) and a rightness to it. It is a knowing that has an utter naturalness to it – as if this is something we have always known how to do. It is easy to miss it if you are looking and waiting for something spectacular; because oftentimes it is about seeing the extraordinary in the ordinary, or about connecting obvious facts and simple meanings to drop into a deeper shared understanding.
The precipice, the gap between what was known and the emergent: is it hard to cross? Or is it fun and exciting? There seems to be a delicate place where the multidimensional field of this circle transcends our two-dimensional language. We sense a potential, it often proves impossible to describe. Our language, with its labels, is very limiting in this regard. Nevertheless, it is simple enough if we are present to our inner felt sense, just as it feels, and we make the effort to language it; or follow the collective flow just as it presents itself right here in the moment.
I remember one instance in a gathering where we all came back from a break, each taking our place on a cushion or a chair, some starting to draw and doodle with the many art supplies that were lying around. I put on some music, as not all were present yet. More women started to draw… there was no need to turn the music off… we reveled in the shared silent space of music and drawing… and it came naturally to its own organic end. Life is here, it doesn’t need to be ‘done’ or planned. Another example from another gathering, right at the end: some wanted to leave straight away, while others wanted the freedom of not rushing back into their lives… we stayed undecided on the level of language and decisions taken, but the sun called us out and with no agreement or conversation about it we all ended up on the lawn in front of the house, talking in little groups of two, three or four. This is what I like about living in emergence, some things are spoken about and agreed upon, but there are still things that just happen, as if the collective does its own thing and we are just entrained into it.
When people who are able to pool open mind, heart, and will come together, you can reach a collective understanding and embodiment of a very specific and collective capacity: holding the space open long enough for emergence to happen. The whole point is that there is absolutely no way of knowing exactly what will emerge in terms of process, content or insights. The pattern of increasing complexity that is present, combined with ever more uniqueness in each participant, expresses as new properties present in the emergent.
For all the challenges that are present and imminent in the world, I believe that this is a very important competence. In a way, we are able ‘to leave our slippers at the door’ and take part in these collective inquiries so that these new properties can lead us to the new ways forward – the new that needs to resolve and regenerate what is no longer in balance.
Not picking the apples before they are ripe
When we operate from our old mindset, there will come a point in the process when some new clarity has shown itself, and we will assume that the sourcing is over and done with. We tend to forget that we are in an ongoing process of inquiry, discovery and continued sensing. Sometimes more waiting is needed, as we are still learning how to understand the messages and insights arising from the inner and subtle planes. We have seen many times that groups or teams reach a novel insight and understanding and revert back to their normal planning mode, infusing their novel insights with some unconscious management stuff, only to learn later that how they had translated the insights into action was “off” and that the new insights were quite different to how they had understood them in the first place. So, space needs to be held continuously open until full clarity arises and the inner alignment and outer balance have settled. Once this has happened, action can proceed smoothly and easily.
In addition to the metaphor of the drop of water falling from the blade of grass, we came across another one about apple trees: often the fruit is picked before it is ripe. That is painful and the fruit does not taste as good, it is not as nourishing. In this practice, we are being invited to allow our fruit to fall, not to offer it too soon or allow it to be picked too early. This goes counter to the relentless pace of our professional and, increasingly also our personal lives, the demands to produce without space for regeneration, rest or nourishment. We are under constant pressure to pluck our own underdeveloped apples and give them to the world too soon. This leaves each of us feeling depleted at a soul level, ever more frequently to the point of breakdown, burn out and illness.
Another useful metaphor is the soup that needs time to simmer and cook. Sitting in a collective silence and a shared not-knowing-yet, we are building a strong container – one that can hold whatever needs to cook. So much of what we do in the world is not wise because it’s not properly cooked (half-baked!). We have not left the diverse ingredients together for long enough to allow their flavours to mingle and stew, keeping the lid on it until it’s ready. The agentic bias of our mainstream world, the let’s-get-down-to-action-in-the-world, tends to open the oven door too soon, so that the soufflé flops. Because we feel we have to stick with the timetable we came up with before the start, we get a distressing amount of flopped soufflés going out into the world. What or where is the knowing of the moment when the apples are ripe for picking, that the stew is just right to eat, that the soufflé can hold its own form? Again, it’s in the collective listening and the shared sensing that clarity can come to light. Sometimes it shows up as a subtle ‘quickening’ that illumines with bright clarity what needs to happen next.
The edge is so alive!
With enough practice, you can come to a point where being in the creative tension of this not-knowing-yet becomes a desired state. With practice the anxiety can drop away to be replaced by a sense of comfort. There always comes a point – even for the members of the hosting team – where nobody knows what is going to happen and where what is happening is totally new and unexpected. These days I just love to be in that space, because the not-knowing-yet is so full of creativity and excitement; it feels so alive! It seems to me that this kind of edge is where life really happens; all the rest is just repeating what has already been. (More on this later.)
Quote from participant:
I am amazed when we can get to that edge – almost on to something – so much is right there, just beyond our grasp – that is really the generative space! It is very seductive! It has a lot of juice.