When one takes up an intimate science with life, everything is found to be a field of relationships, both nested and open – patterns that weave in love, wonder and joy, that course as rivers in a floating sea of becoming. All relations are constellations of other relations, greater and smaller, without diminution of the ties that bind or the spaces that allow. The heavens are a mirror to the myriad constellations operating below, the tiny ways that a single word, gesture, or touch makes differences that the universe hears. A stone among many is but a relation in a constellation of relations, that once were a mountain, a great pressure, a star. Nothing can be ordered without the other, all the way around the mulberry bush. The overall effect is not of parts aligned by their mere comings and goings, but of the growth of one body capable of enormous feeling.
– Bonnita Roy, Facebook, 28 May, 2013
Organic beings and environment, however, interweave.
– Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan, What is Life?
Messy coherence is the essence of managing complexity.
– Dave Snowden
In the Circle of Presence we described the movement of outer alignment as a widening of balance. Our journey didn’t stop at that point, however, but kept on going, teaching us that restoring balance is too small a concept, because we saw it as concerning only humans. Here in the Circle of Creation, we are in a process of integrating ever more subtle aspects of outer alignment. In other words, a growing awareness of the constant interweaving and interpenetration going on all the time, a wider embrace than the growing awareness of complexity and interrelatedness referred to in the Circle of Presence. ‘Coherence’ captures this notion better than ‘balance’.
Recalling chapter 5, where we described the journey of transitioning from a more linear paradigm to a more organic one, we realise that this is not about a conceptual understanding of complexity. Rather, it is about consciously embodying and living complexity in all aspects of life, a practice which ultimately leads to a truly generative life. This is no longer about ‘being in relationship with‘, or even ‘being related’. It is an awareness of ‘constant becoming together’ – a constant interpenetration and interweaving that can scarcely be articulated in our subject-object pattern of language.
People engaging in a Circle of Presence learn to navigate in four domains at the same time: observing/witnesssing what is going on in the self, consciously participating in the process with others, observing what is going on in a group and stepping up as leader when necessary and appropriate. All these levels of conscious participation are needed. Building on these capacities, we now take them further in a Circle of Creation, the purpose of which is not (only) to become present in a range of situations but also, through collective inquiry, to actually live life and work in a radically different and novel manner. We are now building on our capacity to operate from a place of authentic collective wisdom in service of action that is unique, authentic and coherent with the world, including ever deeper levels of our selves and as well as time, space and more subtle aspects of life. Thomas Hübl names this evolutionary practice in a question: “Which is the ‘doing’ that we are all connected to?” It is indeed a practice to become a conscious collective or group that is aligned with time and space and with its own intention. Our field of attention is forever widening and expanding, holding multiple dimensions at once.
This process of widening coherence is similar to what happens in a Circle of Presence: the process of inner alignment (in the vertical axis on the map) blends with another alignment that extends from the selves into what is around us (horizontal axis). We move from feeling more in balance with the people in our group to an experience of being in wider coherence with the world around. In a Circle of Creation, too, we can distinguish a number of widening waves, from I-in-Now through We-in Now and We-in-Here to We-Now-Here-and-Potential. Again, these different domains are not areas with clear-cut boundaries, but we separate them out for the sake of clarity.
Focus on: my soul’s calling
Open to: subtle interweaving in my self
Following the maps, and building on the capacity named in the chapter on I and Myself, we naturally seem to come to a point where openings to a truly authentic self manifest in more and different forms than we could ever have imagined. There comes a moment when we can more clearly discern the leitmotif in our life and understand the deeper purpose behind many widely diverse experiences. These seem to converge and weave a life that is not driven by mainstream standards or models, but feeds on the sparks of our own inner creative powers. Often this manifests in what I call ‘patchwork professional lives’, where we engage in many different projects, probably in different partnerships, perhaps combining different professions. This might look chaotic to outsiders, but to us it makes total sense because we clearly see the underlying pattern.
In this process of coming to grips with our soul’s calling – the best name I have found for it – there is a danger that our egos will play their last tricks with us. Some of us play it too small (It is not possible that ‘I’ should do this!), others play it too big (I have a special mission in life and everyone should know about it.) Even when we have overcome this hurdle, we might still tend, when confronted with big social challenges, to project our frustrations onto ‘the system’ (the hierarchy in large organisations, the way parts of society are organised, the government…). The invitation here is to participate fully in life without letting anything from ‘outside’ hold us back from doing what is ours to do.
Doing this will often mean taking a bold leap that results in that interweaving of life, work and passion. In such an arena, the typical notion of work-life balance is obsolete. We live and enjoy a very emergent life, with many projects – paid and unpaid – that speak directly to and from the soul.
Focus on: the collective calling
Open to: subtle interweaving within the collective
By now – as if this journey were linear! – we will have recognised that there is no real separation between I and us: I need the collective to be able to live life fully, just as the group needs my unique contributions and capacities in order to realise its full potential. We recognise that we belong to groups of people who feel called to the same purpose or intention. Building on the awareness and consciousness of all present, an amazing flow can be reached in which each can shine in their own unique way.
This collective flow seems like a magic undercurrent buoying up meetings and gatherings in such a way that the spark of life is ignited in many participants – a sacred crucible that births the innovative insights and answers so needed in our complex and ever-changing environment. At the same time, we need to train our patience muscle and learn to hold a great deal of intensity before we reach this point of collective grace. In the practice of collective sourcing, when we are all aligned within ourselves, we can encompass with our collective attention a much vaster field than we could ever manage alone. The circle itself becomes a much larger conduit, with an exponentially amplified potential for sourcing and inspiration. This is possible on condition that we learn to see the group as an ecosystem of which we – and everyone else present – are an integral part.
Focus on: subtle place and time
Open to: subtle interweaving with context
Living in this constant awareness of the unfolding of life requires us to collect the diverse intelligences from everyone present. The practice of fusion involves a complex journey of unlearning, letting go of our complicatedness in order to find the simplicity of the elegant next step. When consciously living in an evolving dynamic system, we understand that we can only sense and know that one single next step. This allows us to live collectively and continuously in the present moment. If this minimal, elegant next step is informed by and through our collective insights, how much more present would we be to life, to ensure that the next step we take is a wise one?
In the language of Theory U, moving from the bottom of the U up its right side, bringing our novel ideas into the world of manifestation, our Western-trained minds are strongly conditioned to fall back onto our planning and project management skills. How can we stay in awareness, and even expand our attention to the context and the time we are in, without getting caught up by the urgency of mainstream action orientation?
Place and Time, too, are aspects of life with which we are intimately connected and we can learn to extend our attention into these dimensions of our reality. This is how we weave ourselves back into nature and the whole of Earth and life, rediscovering natural rhythms and understanding the powers of a particular place. Greater outer alignment gives us more sensors for the whole system, for right timing and right action, for a sense of what fits.
We-Now-Here and Potential
Focus on: full generativity
Open to: full intimacy with all of life
“What if we ground in a reality that is emerging, always moving and in multi-dimensional and multi-vibrational ways?” This question that came out of a WMtE gathering in the summer of 2011 captures quite well the essence of the last column in our map. If you observe a truly creative group process, life is indeed like a soup with many ingredients that flavour each other. It is a soup that holds a lot of potential, as it isn’t a finished soup that can no longer be changed. It is a soup that is always in becoming, as we are with it, with many surprises, synergies, synchronicities and creative twists. The future is in no way a linear extrapolation through the present from the past. Rather, it is potential coming into manifestation – through our shared attention and intention – in many new forms.
When we are steeped in this paradigm, as we embody it more and more, we start to love this potential, this not-yet-formed mystery, including the phases of not-knowing-yet and other intense moments, because it feels so alive! If all participants in a group own this capacity, then art, play, love and co-creation aren’t far away. We are grateful for the ordinary and in love with the potential. The synergy that shows up leads to a truly generative space where life’s potential manifest in forms, actions and insights never seen before.
Next: 9.1 We-Now-Here and Potential
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It seemed to us that our project was flourishing: 4 gatherings in 2009 and a next one planned in January of 2010. We really felt we were on to something! We started talking about Women Moving the Edge as a separate being, just as we had talked about the CircleBeing. I have already mentioned that trying to ‘define’ something is just a habit of our minds trained to see reality as a collection of separate elements. Soon enough we stopped thinking in terms of so-called beings, while nevertheless retaining the notion that we can share an awareness of potential and resonate with a collective calling, either in a circle of colleagues or in and for a project itself.
Through the diversity of participants in the different gatherings, we learned a lot about the practice and the power of witnessing. “Meeting people where they are and moving the edge while we can.” These gatherings didn’t always go the same way, didn’t always achieve the depth we liked so much – or were attached to? I started to see the whole project as a little stream, meandering its own path. Every gathering was like a flat environment where the stream could overflow beyond its previous boundaries, and afterwards the water trickled back between the banks of the main river. Through these floods the stream was fed by the diversity of women present, in a continuous widening and constant reflection. Without this, there was a real danger that the few of us who were present most of the time and wanted to be in that generative space would circle back on ourselves and get trapped and rigid in our practice.
We began talking about having regular calls, or coming together regularly locally… but none of those ideas materialised. This was probably because such activities were not part of the action research project; it was more about a longing or a need for continued contact and interaction felt by some.
As good Art of Hosting practitioners, we sensed it was time to start harvesting the learning from our previous period. We started a series of ‘book calls’, wondering how our practice of collective presencing could be used to manifest the book now before you. We came in for another learning that we couldn’t ‘make it happen’ and had to listen for right timing. As ever, we could take only the next, minimal, elegant step, and yet the calls were absolutely precious as we were articulating and languaging our deeper understanding of what this whole practice was about. Much of what was spoken then is part of what you are reading here!
Through all these experiences, we started to see that our practice was not just about collective sourcing – important as that is – but also about right timing and right relationship with place. That is when we started to use the term Collective Presencing, for both the book and its related website.
At this juncture, the universe stepped in, in the guise of Kosmos Journal, inviting us to write about our experiences and findings for publication in the Journal. The seeds for this had been laid a few years previously in a conversation between Judy, Ria, Nancy Roof (editor-in-chief of Kosmos) and Helen, who had already written some other articles for the journal. A first article appeared in the Spring-summer 2012 issue.
Living as an ecosystem
Just as the individual is a process and a becoming – and not at all a fixed entity – so, of course, is any team or group also a continuously evolving and unfolding process. In our search to capture the essence of this particular piece of the puzzle we call Collective Presencing, we came up with the concept of ‘Living as an Ecosystem’. Opening to and practicing the We-in-Now is quite different than what we classically refer to as ‘group dynamics’, as here we transcend all ingrained patterns in any of the individuals making up the group. This is an embodiment of the new paradigm where everything is interwoven and interpenetrating back and forth, while being together with others in the wider world.
Collective Presencing as a whole can be seen as a practice for teams, groups or communities holding an intention to evolve. The We-In-Now is about learning to be, speak and act as a human ecosystem. Observing what is in We-In-Now means noticing that a collective energy has brought us together, is inviting us to become conscious of its purpose and to live out its potential. Accepting what is in We-In-Now means accepting this collective soul journey, which requires us to embrace growing intensity at all levels – ‘not-knowing-yet’ being a crucial and difficult piece of it. The next step, Honouring what is in We-in-Now, means embracing and integrating collective pain, often concealed in personal stories. It invites us to hold cultural pain and deep cultural differences, realising that these will not disappear. Ever. The culminating step is Living what is in We-in-Now, a full embodiment of living – in speaking, knowing and acting – as an ecosystem.
Quote from participant:
We were wondering about: What is the transformative dynamic? What made us come to this point?
Many elements were named…
start from silence…
walk the talk…
contain the pain and destructive forces…
emptying for the whole world…
start from diversity…
trust the system…
listening to life itself…
But the real answer was to me:
A community that has the willingness and the practice to tune into the notes of grace.
In the current mainstream paradigm, the coexistence of the individual and the collective is seen as a polarity, or at least as a tension. We-in-Now, as we have described it in its many facets so far, transcends this polarity and frames the tension differently. A collective inevitably consists of individuals, and we come to see our personal boundaries not as barriers that separate us as distinct beings, but as the interface where we can constantly connect with others and with our surroundings.
In the paradigm of collective presence and collective authenticity, the personal actually borders on the impersonal. Uniqueness and diversity are seen as features of the complexity that is life. Judy, my co-initiator of Women Moving the Edge, started researching the link between the personal and the impersonal before our project took form. Her findings led her to state that “the personal is important as the starting point, as it is the doorway to the impersonal.”
Religion and spirituality in their different forms have mainly offered us a view that shows us the individual on one side and the impersonal (however you want to name it) on the other side, with nothing in between – unless, perhaps some priests to act as intermediaries. Here, we state that the group, the collective, the team can be seen as an intermediate step from the individual to the impersonal and that, on this level, we can learn to integrate the qualities of our uniqueness with the qualities and principles of life. Bonnitta Roy sees the planetary level as a meso-level between the individual and the cosmos. In contrast, I think we need first to practice in smaller groups!
Some people find the concept of the impersonal somewhat cold – as if all the life and juice have been extracted. What I am pointing to here, though, is to living your uniqueness fully in the visceral realisation that life, the whole, this group, can reach its potential only if you participate with your full life force. Judy expresses this in her blog: “My experience is that evolution is freeing itself in and through me. As personality becomes the servant to soul, to planetary and cosmic impulse and intention, the impersonal becomes the outward manifestation of the personal. Convergence into oneness – as evolution, seeking ground in this realm – finds its freedom and unique balance in and through me.” (Blog Judy 110612) Otto Scharmer, interviewed by her, said it in these words: “The capital ‘S’ Self in a very intimate way, is kind of connected with the Collective Self, and actually it serves as the gateway, or it kind of is the vehicle for the Collective Self to come to being.”
In this reciprocal dance between the individual and the collective, the individual provides the gift of vulnerability and authenticity, which opens a gateway for the collective to step through. Any holding back, or fear of being vulnerable, holds back the whole collective. It can feel like a sudden turn-around, realising that in being vulnerable (and sometimes needing to be strongly invited or nudged into that vulnerability), something new bursts through and feels very vibrant and alive!
Quotes from participants:
The juice for me is in the collective where we’re all very present. Inter- independence! It is about the individual being really present (independent) and present to the interrelationship, the wholeness of the collective.
This is very much how I identify myself these days as I see myself as a constant interweaving of different conversations. They all are kind of related, they build on each other, they weave concepts and ideas closer together or weave a new colour in. The cloth that is woven is never finished, keeps on changing and becomes wider, bigger and deeper. And this doesn’t only happen for myself, it also happens in the collective I’m most related to. Mostly women, I notice now.
To take the notion of ecosystem as the main identification means I drop more and more any attachment to form; or maybe better to say: any attachment to stable form. What I am seeking for these days is dynamic balance. There is nothing linear in that, but it is an always moving in many directions and levels.
Our minds, used to separation and distinctions, have difficulty grasping that there is a kind of unity – or similarity – of content and process at different levels, and a kind of fusing of the individual and the collective. Nevertheless, we have to work with our own experience and awareness, the building blocks of our own knowledge – we cannot do otherwise. This is why it is important to have diversity in the circle. What if the experience of We-in-Now is a deep integration of our animal nature – this natural, basic and intuitive stance of always feeling connected, always ready for relationship, that doesn’t think and act as separate beings – as we experience with our cats, dogs, horses and other animals?
As in previous chapters, this one ends with an overview of this part of the map. This is another occasion to remember that going through this process is rather messy and chaotic – it does not flow neatly from box to box as it appears in the matrix!
Observing what is in We-In-Now
Learning to become present in your self is a journey in itself. Learning to become present as a collective is an altogether different proposition. Your body awareness must reach out to another level, where your individual sensing is working on behalf of the group. At the personal level, you can have body awareness, subtle sensing and inner knowing just for yourself. At the group level, our initial experience might be that of wanting the “we-all-feel-so-good-together” experience or, on the contrary, we might hate that kind of group feeling or find it irritating. The next level in, though, is a sense of subtle discernment: where is this group going? Is it moving in the direction of the shared inquiry? How can I use my body-sense to further and support the emerging insights? For this to happen, your senses need to be attuned to clarity, truth, love, support… this is beyond any steps in individual emotional development.
Observing what is in We-in-Now, we notice that this delicate, energetic collective field is much more than the sum of the present participants. Each person shows up with her or his own authenticity, as fully as possible, and gets to see and experience how (s)he is woven into the collective purpose. On the surface it might be clear what has brought us together – a question or an invitation – but what might be beneath that, the collective potential, the collective form of a soul’s calling? We can start to be aware of it only when we engage with each other in this collective endeavour. We soon find that we live in kinship with each other – and with our surroundings. By placing our attention on what may seem at first to be very intangible, we begin to develop our own connection to that collective potential. This realisation will lead to truly coherent creation. Slowly but surely, the song of the collective will appear through all the diversity present.
Accepting what is in We-In-Now
As we move through the collective journey we each hold the circle and the circle holds each of us. We witness and are witnessed. We each open and reveal what we often keep inside – a gift for each, a gift from each. But it might take some time to see the collective potential through all of this; to get a sense of how the diversity will reveal something novel for all present. The not-knowing-yet can take more time than our habitual habits can tolerate, and they will try to kick in. In me, in you. Can we accept this? Accepting what is in We-in-Now? Can we trust the process and each contribution? Can we link with radical patience, trusting that the innovative and emergent will show itself in right timing? Radical patience and radical trust in process and people is a radical act, but a very basic and simple one: just accept what is, right here, right now (including all the ways you don’t, yet).
Honouring what is in We-in-Now
Just as the individual, in her journey of becoming more aware and present, will hit layers or spots of personal pain, so too, in this deeper collective practice, we will hit different forms of collective – or cultural – pain. These unconscious memories can be revealed in the sharing of participants’ stories, and can also pop up through unconscious layers of physical memories. We are not used to recognising these stories and experiences as expressions of collective trauma, and we certainly don’t have a framework for putting them into context.
Quotes from participants:
What happened was that I was already feeling sick coming onto the call, felt OK during the call and then afterwards I had to go and lie down. I really was sick. I found out later on that others had the same symptoms, but at the time it felt like heaven and earth were moving through me – a journey of descent to purge. I could feel in my body the longing to purge, but not quite enough letting go, or something. I was barely conscious. It was quite a violent experience in the physical. I knew at the time there was no way to reflect or analyse – I just had to be present, and then a deep sleep afterwards. ……. It’s taken most of a week for my body to return to a healthy balance again. ……… It felt like something I personally am holding, and it felt like something much larger. Something in the field, yet I’m holding it also personally.
It was also touching me on a very deep level. All the times that I had invited the other women to speak from the place within and to drop from the head, and the already known – the memory – I had asked them from my need to be with me. Be with me in this quest of remembering to be in reciprocal relation with all of matter: the trees, the rocks, the ocean, the flowers and much more. There is magic in relating with ‘life within matter’; magic that we will need in order to heal the wounds of our world and to solve the many intertwined problems on the Earth. But the memories of the witch hunts and the collapse of Atlantis reside also on this level of knowing within, and I am very, very afraid to use this power in a way that might be not life-affirming but manipulative. I need all the others to go there with me, and sense together with me: Is the knowing from within pure or somehow distorted?
All these stories, these experiences, as subtle and real as they are, point clearly towards our interconnectedness, woven together over vast stretches of time and space. This is mostly invisible to our conditioned eyes, intangible to our dulled senses, but still there to notice, and it has a huge influence. It reveals a deeper sense of interdependence, flowing into an embodiment of our systemic nature that has always already been part of us, even if we didn’t realise.
The shared exploration in which we now participate takes on a larger perspective, and we see our own soul’s calling integrated in the collective one. To put it the other way round (as it is so difficult to describe as one continuous unfolding): the collective soul is penetrating us, working itself out through our full participation. We come together to continually inquire and sense into this larger multi-layered collective soul. Do we realise how evolution is moving through us as a collective? As humanity, we are beginning to build this more expansive capacity. We are taking our first steps, it seems; and yet trusting our inner, subtle and collective knowing.
Living what is in We-in-Now
Excerpt from blog:
I can hardly describe what happened in us and in between us. First it was named as a not-knowing, and later also as a not-talking… but then, what is it?
We seem to listen, to tune into, to sense…
the delicate, the subtle, the fine, the intangible…
It seems to be possible to access – in our bodies – the unformed, the unmanifest…
the sound of silence…
suddenly it was there: a connected silence; a tangible in-between space; a sacred space; a space full of possibilities; a generative space…
An essential practice and capacity of this living-as-an-ecosystem is Collective Sourcing – Collective Insighting as Bonnie calls it. It is a new human capacity that we are starting to practice in different groups around the globe. So far, the process has this kind of sequence: coming together around a common theme or question, experiencing and noticing the diversity of perspectives and experiences, hanging in there, moving through a chaotic phase where nothing seems to work, where nothing is appealing, somehow being able to move through that phase, and then things begin to shift and there is a different quality in the air. The not-knowing-yet and the ongoing attempts to be in a generative dialogue eventually lead to a point best imaged as a collective leap. It is difficult to convey how it feels: a higher vibration, gentle sparks, very alive, high energy…. Articulating what we are noticing when this shift in the quality of energy happens, when this collective attention comes together, can make it more conscious to all present and can further hone the shared attention.
This experience feels so alive that people are becoming addicted to being in that space of receptivity for the new. We all recognise internally when we’re in touch with it, even when it’s still too tender to be named. The vibration is raised and we have called it into being by the question and our constant attention, yet we haven’t ‘done’ it. This field of interconnectedness is always present; we need only to rest our attention there. It is likely that at this point in the process there comes a redefinition or an adaptation of the guiding question, because together we have reached a higher vista in the inquiry.
At the outset, we were tempted to label ‘it’ as a new entity – for a while, we called it the Circle Being – seeking, with our conditioned dualistic minds, to make it into another thing-like being. These days, I think that it is more like a shared consciousness of interweaving and interpenetration that gets established. Through that awareness, a new potential is within reach and it seeks to let itself know and be known – and this is possible only through us, the individuals in the group, with our bodies capable of feeling it. It is quite palpable, this quality of shared presence. It’s a change in atmosphere. Things slow down – time shifts. A quality of depersonalisation sets in, and we have left behind our habit of casual talking-for-the-sake-of-it. Now, we speak only when we are moved by the larger purpose, the collective Open Will, which needs a voice through us. One hallmark of this state is when, from the not-knowing-yet space, someone voices a proposal and the rest move authentically and easily with it. When the proposal does not come from this shared attention, no one follows and nothing happens.
Excerpt from blog:
Our closing was an expression of this ‘being tuned’. No one spoke about it, but at a certain moment everything was said, all the last practical questions got an answer, and we all ‘came down’ from the chairs to the meditation cushions. Silently we gave hands and somebody started humming Amazing Grace… everybody joined in… and we were right on time to go for lunch.
Sometimes we would describe this as: “We’ve dropped into the field.” But clearly, we didn’t drop into anything – not something that exists outside of us. Rather, we now embodied the realisation of our shared becoming. We become aware that we are invited into – and engaged and committed in and as the awareness of – this ecosystem, where boundaries don’t have the same meaning they used to. This is how I understand Thich Nhat Hanh’s concept of the Collective Buddha.
Otto: It strikes me that the quality of the collective field here can be described as a clearing in the woods. It has a vertical dimension and an openness. And it is held by a surrounding outer or horizontal boundary. It’s a holding space for the emergence of a new impulse.
Circle of Seven: When you talk about following an impulse, it feels related to what you said about an incubator, a place where there’s an intention to develop capacities to pay attention to life’s intent. Being true to that intent within the boundary of this dedicated time together defines what the Circle of Seven does. We use our own storylines, situations, and connections in service to that emergence. We’re not here for ourselves. I trust that what comes in the flow as ‘my’ challenge or seemingly personal situation has meaning beyond me. Though it is personal, it is respectfully placed in the clearing because we trust it also relates in some way to broader factors that need clarification or realignment.
– Circle of Seven, interview by Otto Scharmer
This collective awareness is aligned with a collective soul level that seems to have a will of its own. Perhaps a more practical description would be that we are ever more in tune with the collective potential we have committed ourselves to. Sometimes it felt like it was not us deciding what we were going to do; the deeper potential was asking us to listen in more attentively to what wanted to manifest in the world through us. It most definitely was not always what we had in mind beforehand! This is what we call Living what is in We-in-Now. It is the constant focus of our listening and deeper sensing that attracts threads of potential that resonate with the original intent of our shared inquiry.
To help us understand this link between the personal and the collective, we often use the metaphor of the mycelium, the vast network of underground cells that permeate the soil to take charge of fungal decomposition. The mushrooms we see above ground are but the fruit or the flower of the mycelium. If the ‘I’ is the mushroom and the ‘We’ is the mycelium, who, then, am I when I drop my separate identity as my place of basic grounding? It might feel frightening at first to drop one’s identity, but it feels so alive that it is quite easy to transcend this subtle fear.
Don’t forget that we are in a process, in a movement, in a becoming. So far, I have never been in a group that has been able to reach this shared awareness and then sustain it for hours on end. Perhaps that is not what is needed. I don’t know (yet). Most of the time we experience a back and forth from ordinary awareness to this space of collective presence. Sometimes it is enough for one person to speak from the place of habitual patterns and the whole energy can dissipate. But the continued intuitive sensing will allow us to move into the collective presencing space again. We can ask questions that lead us deeper into the not-knowing-yet, we can listen for pop-out points that bring us to an edge of clarity and novelty.
We definitely need our gentleness here, the friendship we talked about earlier. It is sometimes quite tempting to get annoyed or frustrated when someone makes a remark with sparks of judgment in it. But we can (learn to) stay in awareness, in gentleness towards one another and let these hiccups pass. Life goes on and there are other times and spaces when the click will happen; all in right context and right timing.
We have been attentively watching what happens when our will is opened collectively. Once we were three participants in this process, and we were able to write a report collectively. All of us were used to writing on our own, directly from source and we engaged with this subtle knowing together to make this possible. In the book, Inside Out. Stories and Methods for Generating Collective Will to Create the Future We Want, Tracy Huston talks about the ‘collective interior’, pointing to this shared consciousness space. We believe astonishing magic is possible from there: bringing forward that which is waiting to be born and take its rightful place.
Implications for the notion of Leadership
Excerpt from blog:
There is no separation between being and becoming;
it is living-as-the-system,
It is living-what-emerges,
no separation between leader and what is led.
There is no border,
What form can leadership take – does it need to take – once we learn to live as an ecosystem? What could ‘being a leader’ mean in the knowledge that you are an inseparable piece of the whole? Like tango dancing, when it is really creative, it is not a dance of a woman and a man, but it becomes ‘a being with four legs’. Who is leading? Who is led? Is there a difference between who is creating and what is created?
In the process of Collective Prensencing, the person shifts her base of identity from her personality to the whole group that is present, the context it resides in and the potential that it holds. Leadership is thus no longer related to personality, but becomes fluid and field-based, residing in each one present. Peter Merry wrote: “… we need to think of leadership as leadership in the Field – regardless of specific formal positions in the structures, etc. And we continually need to implicate ourselves. So there is a shift from “you” to “us”; a world where the One and the Many are transcended but included. ….. This will be in many different functions and levels in organisations and societies, woven together in an ecological holarchy where there is no judgment about the ‘level’, simply natural functional fit.”
So leadership becomes a collective function, taken up in a natural and organic way by each of those present, depending on what is sparked in each of us. In this space of collective awareness, who leads is continuously shifting from one to the other. There might be some who are holding more of the whole, or who are keeping an eye more on the inquiry and the intention, but ultimately we are all in it together. In this way we are able to hold much larger fields of inquiry and much greater spaces of potential and emergence. That is most likely what we are training for in such groups.
Quote from participant:
My experience of collective intelligence and what we can achieve collectively when everybody can contribute what they know/are, is that it’s exponentially greater than anything we can do in following a traditional leader. Makes me incredibly hopeful for our future, because once you’ve seen it, you just can’t deny it. And it’s pushing us into a very intense learning period as humanity.
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.
When we are ready to begin again, from that place we interpret as origin, the place of elemental principles and primitives out of which we are born – something curious happens.
– Bonnitta Roy – Born in the Middle (part2)
Sourcing as collective
Some participants in our first Women Moving the Edge gathering felt very uneasy when we announced early on that we (Ria and Judy as the hosting team) would stop offering content or structure as we had done at the start. Our guiding question was present and clear, the circle practice was known and practiced, that was all the structure we provided. Even Judy, my co-host, wasn’t totally sure this would work out, but I felt confident that the minimal structure was just right to let some magic happen. As hosts of this collective inquiry we knew how to guide the process, but we were by no means experts in the topic, nor did we hold answers to the guiding questions. Actually, the question was a real one for us and we had invited others to join us in the inquiry fully intending to learn from their contributions.
Being in a continuous collective inquiry – and all three words are essential here – is not something you can learn to do from reading a book, nor can it be taught with a presentation. A Circle of Creation is a deep-dive learning situation, around both the practices of circle, sourcing and collective presencing (all of them) and, of course, the content related with the question. In this collective learning space we help each other to experience, recognise and name the process, the practices and its elements. In this way we learn on many different levels, because we immediately reflect on what we experience.
This learning by immersion reminds us of how the old crafts were taught and learned: in a guild, by doing, over and over. By practicing the skills and understanding that there is always more to learn, more to refine, more to understand. Another beautiful model for this immersion is the way a martial art such as aikido brings students old and new together in the dojo. Older students learn as much from guiding their less experienced fellow practitioners as they do from their teacher.
Sourcing was treated extensively in part 4.34. I spoke of how it feels to take your first steps in speaking from this inner knowing, and how the most essential element is to speak from the potential that is present but not yet realised. When we start practicing this in the Circle of Presence, we come to see that collective wisdom is like a puzzle. At first you see only your own piece, then through the dialogue you begin to glimpse a bigger picture that your piece is part of. Finally, everybody is amazed together as the bigger picture emerges into clarity. In collective sourcing, as we practice it in the Circle of Creation, the boundaries between you and me, between cognitive knowing (as in knowledge that already existed in my head) and subtle sensing (or intuition), between chronos and kairos, between feminine and masculine, between’…’ and ‘…’ – all these dividing lines have disappeared. As we leave all kinds of dualities behind and are no longer bound by the dialectical mind, what we come to see is a truly novel picture.
What gives the experience such a different quality is that this happens at the same time for all involved. This energetic quality is as different from everyday awareness as the meditative state. In collective sourcing, we are in a kind of altered state, all together. It is not actually meditation, rather a collective contemplation and inquiry into a topic and a question that speaks to us all. How can I be still as nature, whilst continuing to act as a conscious human being, at the same time as being together with all present in this group? How can we all be still as nature and act as a conscious ecosystem? When we pierce through the veil of the dialectical mind it becomes very clear, alive and joyful!
Through the Circle of Presence process, we have worked to remove all kinds of blockages and are now no longer guided by our conditioning and habitual responses. In itself, this is already an achievement. When we make the leap to a Circle of Creation, we use our capacity to be present to its fullest, recognising that knowledge and insights are created also in this moment. Distinctions between data, information and knowledge fall away as all are tossed into the mix to create novel insights, all the while stirring the pot with right timing and right place. The culture of Women Moving the Edge, as it is now translated in the practice of Collective Presencing, is a strong invitation to live as close to your authentic impulses and inner knowing as possible, because they are all contributions to the whole. Through this collective practice, acknowledgment, recognition and acceptance – of each other and our gifts and contributions – come quite naturally, almost as a byproduct, but are deeply touching and life-affirming. The final experience is one of being fully alive, in the moment, together with real novel insights and seeing the next steps to action. It feels joyful to drop all boundaries, all paradoxes, all dichotomies – things our minds are so good at – to just be part of life itself.
Your centre of gravity has now shifted from being ‘in your self’, within the bounds of what you name and see as your identity, to being in a creative, dynamic and generative space – somewhere ‘in between’: between me and you, between all of us, between humans and animals, between human and nature… There is no more gap between… gaps have disappeared. There is no more ‘relationship with’, but more ‘relatedness’ – and even that does not do full justice to the experience… it is full participation in life. One piece of embodying this awareness came with my own realisation at one point “that there is nothing important any more that I can source on my own. Sourcing needs to happen in and for the collective. My development on my own has reached its limits. The collective now provides the learning edge.”
It is a difficult move for our dualistic minds, our conditioned ways of thinking, even our language. We each need to go through a process of truly not-knowing-yet. Again and again. It is not like learning to ride a bicycle, where once you have ‘reached’ this generative space, you ‘have’ it for the rest of your days. No, next time, in other circumstances, with other people in the circle and another inquiry in the middle, you will need to creep again to the brink of not-knowing-yet, or else you are not generating something novel but just repeating something you have seen before. This is a tendency that slips in quite easily, as our minds tell us ‘we have been here before’. Nevertheless, today’s collective sourcing has a different starting point than yesterday’s. What changes over time is our level of comfort with being in that place of not-knowing-yet, where boundaries dissolve and life is fully present.
It is important to differentiate between collective sourcing and the experience of flow frequently described by sport teams or jazz combos. What is the same is the feeling of being in a flow and being (part of) one big organism or whole. The difference lies in being conscious of this experience and able to translate the feeling, the inner phenomenology and the inner insights into language to express it to each other. Collective sourcing is being in a flow of meaning and understanding together with others, uncovering more of the potential and speaking and articulating it as the flow is unfolding. In collective sourcing, there is no ball, there are no players moving, no music is played. Instead there is a dynamic dialogue and a shared meaning that emerges from the practice.
In the practice of collective sourcing, people become like tuning forks, as all sense into the collective field, the potential, the resonance, the creation of something that was not there before. This is a finely-tuned form of collective knowing that we are just beginning to develop. When we come together in this emergent and generative way, the possibilities of our conversations seem unlimited. We are not trying to create an emergent system, nor are we talking about it. Instead, we become a truly conscious, intelligent and wise whole. In order to really innovate, we must use new ways of accessing information, knowledge and wisdom. Collective sourcing strikes me as a central and necessary skill in this innovation process.
By now, the distinction between collective sourcing and reaching consensus or consent in a group should be quite obvious. Consensus and consent mean that a decision is reached once there are no longer any (major) objections from the participants in the conversation. In collective sourcing, through our unique individual contributions, we collectively start to reach innovative insights and see new pictures arising. The group operating in this way does not form a unity, but becomes a coherent multiplicity. In a way, there is now a collective field that we call ‘ours’, instead of ‘mine’, but it has not glossed over our differences – rather, it has used them to the fullest. In the same way that we, as individuals, have become a coherent multiplicity in life, work and passion, so too can the group become a coherent multiplicity. In my view, the Quakers have kept this collective practice of sourcing alive through many generations (although they use different words and concepts), stating very clearly that what they do is quite different than reaching consensus. (1)
Collective embodied revelation
Sourcing is a direct, unmediated experience articulated in language. Applied to insights and the speech act, it amounts to a verbal articulation that is not first or fully processed in the mind before it is spoken. It is an embodied experience. This is the dance of a truly generative dialogue and collective sourcing. Everybody’s attention is on ‘what is emerging’, and on ‘speaking from there’. It is a deep state of collective inquiry.
It is not possible to experience collective sourcing or collective insighting when your main focus or identity point is in conceptual space. There needs to be an alignment between head, heart and body – your subtle sensing capacity must be turned on, without any emotional attachment at all. Mushin Schilling wrote: “with some people this happens naturally sometimes, then there is ‘silver in the air’ and a mutuality is born that arises as joyful creativity going nowhere… and, not needing to go anywhere, it sometimes also goes to places/spaces that are almost like a revelation.” It is this collective capacity for revelation that we call collective sourcing. Francisco Varela and others have stressed that cognition is always an embodied action, but with sourcing and collective revelation the process of speaking and articulating is also a fully embodied in-the-moment experience. Collective sourcing is always a subtle balance because we are interested in a certain topic and question – which engages our curiosity and conceptual minds – and yet we still need to be without attachment to any specific outcome.
The subtle-level resonance that we experience in collective sourcing is far beyond the group or mass flow or consciousness that we observe in football stadia, or our own sense of pride, for example, when someone from our country has won an Olympic medal. The collective coherence to which we are pointing here relies on the depth of awareness of the individuals present in the group. Coherence in the group, created through shared inquiry, makes a deeper resonance achievable, building on the individuation and uniqueness of the individual, and makes an emergent field possible. The Heart Math Institute has much to say about resonance, vibration and heart coherence.
Bonnitta Roy states (in a Facebook exchange): “… I would say the resonance remains at the animal (subtle energy) level. The subtle-level resonance is like being swallowed by a field, immersion, oceanic – the gestalt of being is fore-grounded. The love feel is like being grounded in the gestalt, but now completely enthralled by the differences, the nuances, the detail, the outline, the ornament, the tiny bursts of creativity that set alight a moment in time, and dance from here to there… a kind of tickling, twinkling of numinous stars – it’s the detail that is awakened, every nuance, every smell, every pitch and tone, hue and timbre… becomes alive.”
Further, Bonnie says: “In the theory of generativity, the ‘we’ is always grounded at the prior level of common ancestry….. Which means, for humans, the ‘we’ is in the subtle-animal realm… The postmodern ‘search’ for ‘we’ is a projection of the rejection of our animal inheritance – we don’t need to estabish a ‘we’ – we are evolutionarily guaranteed this deep inter-beingness. When we reject this (by repressing nature, our animal nature) we begin the long, tragic project of domination.”
And more: “… what emerges with humans is the reflective ‘I’ (the identification of the self)… which opens the possibility for love of other. Other types of resonances are not reliant on the individuation of self-other, so it is not possible to have the same kind of ‘love’. So you see, it is exactly the self, that ultimate sense of separation, engendered by its own reflexivity (that same self that seems to close the door to real subjective resonance), which offers the possibility for a new morphic field to emerge.”
Quote by participant:
I am beginning to understand that what we are calling ‘collective sourcing’ might be tapping into the source of the unmanifest impulse resonating deep in the core of the cosmos. – Helen
Collective Sourcing as Generative Conversation
In his book Theory U, Otto Scharmer gives two models or maps: one about types of conversation and one about related types of listening. I have found these immensely valuable in my work with people, because the maps help them see how they listen and talk and also how they can improve these skills. From these models I learned the difference between empathic listening and conversing and generative listening and conversing. In the book’s images, you see how the boundary of the I, of the self, becomes fully open and almost disappears in a generative conversation. By participating in such a conversation, you are changed by it. In this way it is generative for all involved.
Generative is for me what has ‘more of life’; it seems to be about creating, realising more of the inherent potential. It is also generative in the sense of radical innovation or breakthrough, which is different than incremental or distinctive innovation. Sometimes it is also re-generative, in the sense of healing and eliminating blockages that prevent life from flowing to its fullest.
A generative conversation flow is to be depicted not like a canal, but more like a meandering river. In a generative dialogue, questions have no pre-existing answers and there is no one line to follow. Rather, we walk different paths to finally come to a new insight and next steps at the end, having found many other valuable insights on the way. A generative conversation is a truly creative process: since there is no linear thread to follow, one line of thought will spark another and will later be woven in with what was said earlier, and so on. The core of the challenge – as in creating a work of art – is to arrive at something powerful and interesting without knowing exactly how it will come about or what it might look like. To create a work of art, the artist must journey through a phase of sensing, seeking, reaching… and sensing and seeking some more… until the final product emerges at the end. It is impossible to predict either the process or the final form of the artwork. (using some language from Jeff Barnum)
At one moment, we called collective sourcing a sacred conversation. ‘Sacred’ in the sense that we give it all our attention as something that is very precious to us.
The practice of full participation together
Stepping into a collective inquiry, as an essential part of the practice of collective presencing, requires our full self. In the previous chapter we spoke about full participation in life, as a practice in the leap from learning to become present to living from your soul’s calling. Now, the same is asked from us – all participants together – but this time in a group context and for a larger purpose: in service of the collective soul that is calling. Instead of relying on large-scale change programmes to steer the direction in which the world is going, it seems we are also called to learn, in this next phase of evolution, to truly participate in life. Intentionally participate, not with our egoïc wills and wants (for convenience, habit and comfort), but – from a physically anchored body and a free will – lending our unique capacity, skills and gifts to create collective containers that can allow, invite and awaken spirit in body and matter in different ways.
Full participation requires both a high quality of attention and a clear intention; it means being fully present and embracing responsibility for the whole endeavour. Being in a group or a team with this practice builds on all the levels to become present and put all that into service of the collective inquiry. Rather than each individual body being driven by a separate, habitual will, we allow our bodies and minds to be informed and inspired by an understanding of the whole – coming not from a projection of the conceptual intellect, but directly from the whole.
Full participation together is everyone tuned in, connected directly with life as it is happening in the moment. This is being and becoming in the way that nature is and becomes; there is nothing between me/us and life/source/origin itself! We are all fully aligned in body and soul – or at least we try to be – and our minds don’t dominate, but are part of the alignment. We speak and act from an inner, individual and shared, collective silence; that is our contribution to life right now.
Collective Presencing points to the possibility of participatory collectives consisting of both humans and other sentient beings. Joining a Circle of Creation is a generative process of shared becoming, where a group can be defined as ‘a coherent and dynamic multiplicity’, just as we have learned that individuals can be seen as a dynamic multiplicity (see chapter 6). Yasuhiko Kimura talks about ‘a dynamic multiplicity in and as ultimate simplicity.’ We learn together what Thomas Hübl calls “the competence of movement or the deep participation in the creative process”. Mastering this creative process presupposes a lot of capacities that we will talk about in the next parts of this chapter.
Source/origin/ life is essentially collective. It is already there. The question is whether or not we really participate in the potential it holds. Do we participate in this depth of life, or are we restricting ourselves to participation in the mainstream collective story? Collective Sourcing seems like the next version of collectively participating in life. Fully. The paradoxical aspect seems to be that full participation comes from a place of stillness and not from longing, expectation or willful force. We sit in the void together, sense into what is possible and has potential. It is a practice for any group, team or community seeking to evolve.
Once, I captured it this way:
Collective body wisdom
From stillness and presence
Wait for the next impulse
We know exactly what to do!
In this way full participation is different than collaboration, where we can work together in a pleasant and fruitful way, but which leaves out parts of ourselves and parts of life as a whole. Dancing with life, with source in this way might be what Ken Wilber names the causal body, “a great formlessness out of which creative possibilities can arise” (2). I leave it to Wilber experts to confirm whether this is what he meant, but I like his description!
In this practice of collective sourcing we grow accustomed to the interplay between the individual and the collective, and between the different places that we, as members of the circle, can speak from: are we speaking from the individual, habitual self or as a mouthpiece of the centre or potential? How well developed is our capacity to distinguish these? It might feel like another edge, but we can only try: “Participate as you can, right now.” The capacity for subtle sensing gets refined as we do this work, and as we practice this collectively we learn from each other. We learn to sense more easily when we are coming from source, and also to recognise when others are speaking from that space. The more we practice this collective sourcing the more refined our sensing becomes.
Witnessing the ‘we’
For me, the ‘novelty’ actually is a result of dropping some hidden assumption that has limited thought – and the experience of that produces recognizable energy states (‘highs’)… and when the plug is pulled, then all these insights flow naturally (logically)… … when people share simultaneous insights – it is usually because they discover together, the shared (previously hidden) limiting assumption. And then all the insights just fall into ‘sight’, simultaneously.
– Bonnitta Roy, Facebook exchange
Collective sourcing and collective presencing can be regarded as a new human practice and capacity the hallmark of which is a specific quality of attention and energy, shared by most or all present in the group. This is why in the early days we called it a Circle Being, as our dialectic minds tried to grasp this new experience and objectify it by putting it into some kind of conceptual box. What actually becomes tangible is not a separate being or thing but the shared awareness that we are related all the time in all directions and dimensions – interpenetrating and interweaving – and that we already were, even before we realised this and laboured under the false assumption of separation. Thomas Hübl (3) names it well as he seeks to incite a group “which is not just a collection of ‘I’s”, but “a We without a Them.”
One subtle aspect in the practice of witnessing lies in the choice of what one witnesses, and whether one names it or not. The fact of witnessing something brings it into awareness in a new way, because our attention draws an imaginary boundary around it. That which you put a loose attention-boundary around comes into existence in a way that it wasn’t before. Then, when you remove the boundary by shifting your attention away, it winks out of existence again and returns to how it was before – just as the wave sinks back into the ocean. In collective sourcing you remain aware of the weave of connections, of the space in between. Your identity is less in or on the self, your center of gravity is in the ‘field’, with the connections or the interconnectedness. When we listen in this way, we speak from what is between. It is about going beyond the imprint of being separate.
We can pitch our attention at different levels. As we pay attention to our interpenetration and interweaving, the we becomes present. Listening as an individual requires one to focus one’s attention in a particular way and at a particular level. Being a collective doesn’t mean that we are all listening in the same way or at the same time. It has to do with resting the attention on the collective field of which we are all part, and which we can tune into at any time. The original confusion that had us making a separate object out of it (the ‘circle being’) arose partly from the fact that there really is a perceptibly different energy in a group when everyone has dropped the illusion of separation. The air seems to acquire a certain thickness and slowness. We create what we give our attention to; when we witness and articulate it, it seems we give it a minimal structure.
Quote from participant:
Through in-the-moment accessing of source – in moment-to-moment emergence – this collective we begins to express on this plane of matter, through the larger we. A wholeness of presence in the collapse of space-time opens a glimmer of the mirage on the silver glistening and shadowy sea of the vast unknown. It is as if we drop our fishing lines together, there at the edge. We wait, listen, sense, and together we experience a larger NOW, eternal and yet fleeting, an emergent way of knowing, of inviting the wholeness of potential to be present in our midst. – Judy
From all this, it follows that, in my view, there is no ‘higher We’ that needs a capital ‘W’ (although that is the term Thomas Hübl uses in his current work). Simply enough, it is about dropping the boundaries that we have come to see as natural and real, until we experience all fixed and closed boundaries dropping away. This gives rise to a very different embodied experience on many levels, and we then live and ground ourselves in this manifest form of non-duality, even in everyday life and in inquiries about mundane matters and challenging problems. In this regard we come close to the potential of true dialogue seen by David Bohm as “transforming culture and freeing it of destructive misinformation, so that creativy can be liberated.” Bohm is quoted here by Terry Patten in his paper (2013) Enacting an Integral Revolution. How Can We Have Truly Radical Conversations in a Time of Global Crisis (p.19). Patten goes on to say that Bohm’s injunctions to “suspend assumptions, opinions and judgments, to participate honestly and transparently, and to stay connected to others’ participation are the foundational practices that make possible the ‘higher intersubjectivity’.”
There is a tendency to describe this specific energy in terms of ‘an energetic body’ or ‘pulsing as one’, but we must remain vigilant to prevent dialectic thinking from slipping back in, by stating that there is ‘a body’ or ‘a field’ or ‘a thing’ outside ourselves. The other slippery slope that might lure us to fall back into dualistic thinking is a longing for ‘oneness’, whereas the experience of collective sourcing actually sees, knows and experiences the diversity at work in all its uniqueness (whilst appreciating that unity is where we all come from!).
Digging deeper into his own experience of this phenomenon, Terry Patten writes (p17): “Emile Durkheim (1915) famously asserted that religion originally arose as a way for people to experience themselves as bigger and more alive in the intersubjective field of a group entering into higher states of consciousness.” I guess we are finding a new form of the religious impulse that fits with our current time and its challenges; and it is actually helpful in finding new insights that will lead to innovative solutions.
More on holding space
In a shamanic journey during on of the Women Moving the Edge gatherings, an image came up for me: Women sitting cross-legged and connecting energetically with each other, through their womb space. The intention of this exercise was to envision what is beyond the edge, to look into the jump off point. Where others saw a flock of birds, I saw this circle of women holding between them an energy field appearing as white fabric. To begin with, the fabric looked quite loose, and then as the journey unfolded it became more taut and firm. I related this back to an address by Larry Merculieff, a native elder from a tribe high in the Bering Sea, evoking the outer womb space that women need to create from their own sacred womb space inside; otherwise nothing new will be possible in the world; as a space where the new can be conceived.
We have already seen that holding space is about holding a container in which the potential can unfold. Doing this consciously and collectively we can embrace deeper and wider in the field of possibility; we can weave a more expansive fabric that spans more of a collective potential. To me, this is what the elder is speaking of. I doubt whether only women have this capacity – I have seen several men hold space well. And yet, in general, there seems to be a difference between ‘average men’ and ‘average women’ when it comes to having this capacity.
We are not sufficiently aware of the power of our collective thought forms, our collective intention, our collective attention. Striving to connect with the new when alone can be challenging. In our experience, when we do it collectively, forming a web, the channel of the new is easier to connect with. It’s not ‘just’ imagination. In this way any collective can become a safe holding space in which to be wild, to imagine the unimaginable, the undefined, where the future gets born… In response to the guiding question, a deep desire seems to awaken, opening an awareness that transcends prior ‘old knowing’ (which, because it is ‘past’, has moved from ‘now’ into a brain-data file). Through stillness, an expanded and uniquely new possibility is accessed, which is then synthesised to form a response that in some way takes into account the entire group field.
Distinction between collective sourcing and collective presencing
In its shortest definition, sourcing is a way to access information straight from source or from the unmanifest potential and articulate it right away. Collective sourcing, then, means that all the participants in the group do this, in a shared inquiry with the same guiding question. The complex practice of Collective Presencing goes beyond this one element of collective sourcing to transcend the boundaries of time and space, integrating our animal senses and our being-as-nature. Mushin wrote: “this we-fullness is of utterly humanimal character; as if, when we go through a collective rite of death (and you know that it can feel that way; actually in my experience it was the only way), we get reborn as a collective humanimal with a spirit speaking Sutras and dancing Dervish. Or something similar.” More on this in the following chapters.
The ultimate purpose of collective presencing – and a Circle of Creation – is achieving a more creative and generative life for everything and everyone, where everything and everyone can thrive. It is not just about feeling good, or learning to be present (the latter being the purpose of a Circle of Presence) – it is part of the new story for humanity – the evolution of culture.
(1) Morley, Barry, Beyond Consensus. Salvaging Sense of the Meeting. Pendle Hill Pamphlet 1996
(2) Brown, Barrett C.; Conscious Leadership for Sustainability: How leaders with a late-stage action logic design and engage in sustainability initiatives. Summary of research, excerpted form unpublished Ph.D dissertation, Fielding Graduate University, Santa Barbara, CA, 2011. (p228)
(3) Patten, Terry, Enacting an Integral Revolution: How Can We Have Truly Radical Conversations in a Time of Global Crisis? Integral Theory Conference, 2013 (p 23)
There are three ways to approach the mystery of the divine.
The first practice is prayer. The second is meditation.
And the third, and most important, is conversation.
This section builds on the basic circle practice (see part 3.3). What is explained here might not make much sense if you have no personal experience with circle practice. All elements of the basic practice – framing, check-in, listening, talking piece – are still present, but they assume a more subtle form and deeper meaning. This is what allows the power of a simple practice like witnessing to spread so widely and deeply.
Practitioners of the Circle of Creation see the circle as the minimal, optimal structure needed to form the container for a truly generative space; a generative process of shared becoming and collective insighting (intentionally used as a verb, as we learned from Bonnitta Roy). When beginning circle practice, you learn to become present to your self and to the other participants. Over time your attention can go to the group as a whole. Like David Bohm, who noticed and wrote about the power of true dialogue over 25 years ago, we can reach the point where there is ‘sustained attention to the paradox itself’. This ties us back to chapter 5 where we stated that the new paradigm goes beyond paradoxes, beyond dialectics and beyond the habit of separation. In a Circle of Creation, the circle practice deepens, it has a different quality and consciousness. We not only see how so-called opposites are in reality interwoven and interrelated, we are also aware of and embody this realisation in many different ways.
When hosting a Collective Presencing process, there is no full-blown design (complete with timings) for the process/gathering/project/meeting. Instead, we have a process of preparation – which might be long or short, depending on the coherence of the collective sensing of the hosting team – and an alignment with the rhythm and timing of what is around us. Most of the preparation time is spent in an intense co-sensing of what will be the right guiding question for the gathering. Alongside the guiding question, the inquiry unfolds within the circle practice. The circle holds the space, provides the energetic container in which the potential can unfold and, eventually, be articulated. These two elements – the holding space (the womb-like energetic container) and the guiding question (straight like an arrow) – form the creative whole in which the gathering can unfold. Welcome to the generative possibilities of circle practice!
Speaking from Silence
Quote from participant:
I was noticing what my process is as I go into the silence (at the beginning of a conference call). I tend to start by connecting with self, and sometimes that takes up all the silence depending on how connected I am to my own experience. I start there, and then put my attention into the silence and the other individuals on the call and then somehow it goes above and around into whatever, however, it exists in my awareness of the collective. – Cari
The basic version of the check-in involves those present sharing what is on their minds, in order to become (more) present. When each of us hears what is present in others, we all get a sense of the whole. The check-in process, with each person feeling the permission and safety to bring in the fullness of who they are and to be held in that, always brings a slowing down, creating a really present space – which turns out to be a container that can hold a lot. This space forms the foundation from which the transition into the collective can be made: into a collective sensing and shared inquiry. The importance of the check-in is, in large part, the trust generated in self, in others and in the collective as a whole. Again and again we have come to realise how important a good check-in is for the energy in the circle. Sometimes it might take almost half a day of the gathering, but it is surely worthwhile!
Over time, people’s need to speak about what blocks their capacity to be present falls away. We noticed in our conference calls and gatherings that this kind of check-in got replaced with a deep, shared silence. We got used to being in ‘collective sensing mode’, aware of the collective field and the shared inquiry we were in. It became a newly emerging practice to start in this spontaneous shared silence and let the spoken check-in start whenever someone felt moved to do that. Nobody decides in advance how long this silence will be, it simply lasts until someone picks up a talking piece and starts sharing. The silence can be long; it centres us and brings us into this still place of non-judgment and connectedness. In a way, we start from the bottom of the U, not having to spend a lot of time opening our minds and hearts; we do that in the silence. We came to see that, after a longer silence, the spoken check-in would already bring together elements of the collective sensing – even if we didn’t think of it in that way at the time it was happening. Of course there might still be something preventing someone from being present, and the space is always open to share that.
The previous chapter ended with “I need you, because of us.” What is needed from us is that we share our stories and our vulnerabilities. Some participants experienced an inner back-and-forth about whether or not to bring their ‘personal stuff’ into the conversation, because now it needed to be ‘for the sake of the collective’ and they wanted ‘to get it right’. Clearly, such thoughts don’t spring up from an inner silence! For some it seems hard to fully understand that the simple act of sharing our personal stories is a service to both the collective and the inquiry. Our story, our experience, our sensing, and our sudden insights are all ways of offering our gifts to the circle. This can only happen when we follow our own flow and listen within to what is emerging, what needs to be shared into the collective. Too often we still think that what we experience is only personal and private. We don’t realise that our circle, this collective being, is woven like a fabric. If we fail to bring in our unique contribution, then something is missing in the overall weave and we either don’t see the whole pattern or the fabric will not be as strong. If I hold back – for whatever reason – then the collective insight will not emerge. If one of the atoms holds back, the molecule cannot be formed! Each one of us is important for the collective, because we are part of it, right here and right now. Sharing our unique gift, from our soul’s purpose, is a precondition for the circle to reach a level of generative capacity where the new can really emerge – that one unique thing that only this group of people can do right now, and right here. The collective calling needs each of us in our total presence and fullness to come through.
So the need we just evoked – “I need you, because of us” – is not a failing or a weakness, or whatever other judgement we might lay on it. Rather, it is a deeper understanding of the interrelatedness and interwovenness that we are in the world. So often we still tend to think we are not related in any way. We live under the assumption that “I can manage my own problems and finances, have my own house, and have everything on my own.” While we might believe that we can exist in separation, this is simply not true. Participating fully in a collective inquiry means placing yourself in this relational field, somewhere in between you and me, me and us and all of life.
The practice and group culture that grew out of Women Moving the Edge is a massive invitation to sail as close as possible to your inner impulses – including your needs; because this is each one’s contribution to the whole. Through this practice, acknowledgment, recognition and acceptance come quite naturally, almost as a byproduct, but so touchingly and life-affirmingly. Because it is about wisdom and life, we each need to stay true to our uniqueness and share from that space, both giving and receiving, our selves and each other. The reception generates the next unfolding. At the very minimal level it is about receiving gifts from the others. We need something from each other in order to co-create.
It is good to remember that no conversation ever goes in a straight line, much less so a collective inquiry as practiced in Collective Presencing. We do not try to answer the question in the middle of our inquiry by thinking about it. Rather, we tell our own stories and share our impulses, our knowledge and half-baked insights. Through the connections and segways, and through reflecting on it all, we arrive at new insights related with the question. As we continue to practice, we deepen into the awareness that the details of our lives, the stories that touch us, our recent insights, are all elements of larger patterns. The boundary between the individual and the collective starts to blur.
In any good check-in process, people experience being listened to and being witnessed. This practice of witnessing is also key on the wider scale; we each witness in full attention and presence – not just each other, but together we also listen the group’s unique purpose into disclosure. Yet further out, we learn to discern the spark of life, all through the personal stories and individual insights that we offer. We tend to forget that the group, the collective, the wider ‘we’ cannot speak for itself. This is why each of us needs to raise our voice in our own turn, otherwise there can be no listening for the bigger whole. There can be no listening without speakers. So, then, first individuals enter the circle and use the practice for themselves. When that is accomplished, once each person feels held and able to bring in their voice, then the space can hold the collective as a ‘we’.
At this stage in the circle practice the talking piece assumes a different meaning than it has in the basic practice. No longer a tool that signals who is speaking and who is listening, a device that slows the conversation down, now we invite people to pick up the talking piece from the middle when they feel moved to speak. We are especially invited to speak when our minds are not yet quite clear about what it is we are going to say, but the urge to share is present. After sharing, the talking piece is placed back in the middle.
In general, in the deeper circle practice there is more silence. This silence is not just an absence of talking, it has the quality of a shared stillness, a shared presence. We have often wondered what happens in this shared silence. What are we doing/being/becoming? There is surely depth in a shared, collective and conscious silence – as if we are touching something beneath the phenomena, beneath the words. A deep intimacy can be experienced in those moments. We reach a place beyond language as we sense together into what we are holding. This reminds me of a certain definition according to which, in grounding, we bring the rate of electrical activity of the heart into resonance with the EMG of the Earth. Maybe a shared silence brings resonance between us and with the potential we are inquiring into? The Circle of Seven talks about ‘charging the container’, stating that “the silence is deference to a larger pattern of life unfolding.”
Speaking in a circle, especially at the beginning, can evoke feelings of discomfort, with heart palpitations and sweats, and an inner dialogue telling us ‘don’t do it!’, or ‘what will happen?’, or ‘will I look stupid?’ These tensions fall away when you speak only from an inner silence, when you are moved from a deeper place. Your impulse to share does not come from any ideas or emotions, notions of performing, making a certain impression or whatever habit has us speak a lot in everyday situations. In the Circle of Creation it is different. In the silence, our bodies are learning to embody life as it presents itself to us. Often, speaking from silence means that our analytical mind has no clue what is going to be spoken. For the mind, this can feel quite daunting. (See section 4.4 on Sourcing)
There is an unmistakable, sometimes physical urge to speak that we can learn to notice and start to trust. A story, a sensation, an idea comes up in us, and we don’t know why, but we just trust that and speak it. When later we look back at our conversations, we see that often, when contributions come from that place, they feel right and are insightful. And yet we only see that in retrospect, we don’t see it up front.
Quote from participant:
I only speak when I am physically moved to speak – an unmistakable urge that I completely trust. A story presents itself and I don’t know why and I trust that. Is this a universal phenomenon that is not often recognised? When I look back at our conversations, I see how incredibly right and insightful and apposite people’s interventions are. S. in our circle in Feb.; she kept wondering what this has to do with her cats and that took us to the next level of understanding – totally out of nowhere. That is something we could name, invoke, and consciously practice. Trust the inner impulses that come from a place of rightness, even if we don’t understand where they come from. – Helen
Sometimes we call this ‘listening to and speaking from the middle’. The purpose of this practice is not to convey something to the other people in the circle, but to place your contribution in the middle, alongside the other parts. This is different than the conversations we are used to, where we reply, we agree, we disagree, and so on. Here we listen from an inner silence that allows us to pick up clues and hunches from more subtle realms; it is an active listening for what is present in the subtle sensing of the middle of the circle or the potential that we are inquiring into. It can help to physically look to the middle, not addressing others when we speak, not looking at them when they are sharing. So we are not talking ‘to’ each other as we are to do in a normal exchange, but are building our conversation pieces on each other so that a truly generative space becomes present.
As explained before, the intention of the gathering is translated into a guiding question, which can be seen as this ‘middle’ we listen for and speak to. Perhaps the question is the surface manifestation of something deeper that we are really gathering around, this potential that is not yet manifest. Articulating the real guiding question(s) is an art in itself, because it needs to come from the highest possible awareness. Better still, it comes from a collective Felt Sense – “from this place we interpret as origin” as Bonnie would say – felt this time by the whole team, instead of one person. It can be seen as a seed that falls into a container of presence and will start to germinate insights. Holding a question is like staying with the implicit that lives somewhere between all of us – somewhere in this middle. It is a potential that we like to see, touch, describe. And in the touching, in the connection and articulation, both we and the potential are changed.
However much time we spend in preparation to find and articulate the guiding question, this does not mean that the conversation that unfolds in the circle moves in a linear fashion or that the question is all that is talked about. That is not what happens in the spontaneous life of a circle. While circle practice is the basic methodology, other activities can arise when there is a shared urge for something other than sitting – going for a walk, meditating, drawing to get new insights, singing to raise spirits, dancing to become more free and flexible. Participants often lose their conscious connection with the question, but in retrospect we see the coherence and can notice how seemingly odd comments still relate to the question and the potential it pointed to.
Over time, I have been amazed by the power of the question when it is held in this open way. We have noticed through our different gatherings that these questions keep working in us. Pieces of insights show up later, after the gathering too. It humbles me and prompts me to be very careful about how we name and articulate these questions. This explains why it can take so long to get it ‘right’. It is a practice that calls for subtle alignment – it can’t be rushed or forced.
The purpose of this ‘deeper’ circle practice is not the same as that of the basic version. We might say that, in a Circle of Presence, part of the purpose is to become deeply authentic – something that implies, among other things, a lot of individual development. The other part of the purpose is gaining awareness of interrelatedness, because we want to access the collective wisdom that is present. (In Scharmer’s terms: it is a movement from levels 1 and 2 to level 3 – what he calls emphatic listening and conversation.)
By contrast, in this deeper circle practice we seek to reach the next level, level 4 as described by Otto Scharmer, the level of generative listening and conversation. This generative capacity is not something that can be switched on or off, it is only through ongoing practice that it can be mastered, one step at a time. I understand this generative level as being aligned with all of life. For our normal identity, this seems strange, even frightening, because it can only happen when we give up the boundaries that we habitually identify with, which always plunges us into the space of not-knowing or not-knowing-yet. But it is only our habitual way of knowing that now finds itself in uncharted territory. This does not mean that there is nothing to know in that territory, or that there is nothing to find our ground in or on.
Deeper circle practice will definitely contain more moments of silence, more sharing of what has never been spoken before, more relying on very subtle inner nudges, more things we have never done or seen before, more articulation of new insights. It is not only being thoroughly conscious of being alive, but an embodied awareness that life is always evolving and always moving through us and all that is around. Accordingly, my idea and experience of myself and this group I am in is also changing profoundly: boundaries blur in this expanding and embodied understanding of what life – and our inquiry – is really about.
The biggest hurdle to reaching this generative space is perhaps the requirement to give up seeking to control the outcome. This might be a stiff challenge to our ingrained habits of discussion and debate – it is even a challenge when we are attached to empathy being the main quality present. No attachment means no attachment at all. This feels like a peaceful emptiness, all the while remaining engaged with the others and with the inquiry. Sometimes ‘no attachment’ means saying nothing at all, while staying present and not closing down our selves or the conversational field – leaving the conversation simmering, not letting its potential collapse with judgment or help or remarks of any kind. When we are all able to hold the conversation open in this way, a limpid clarity can arise. By not seeking to control the outcome, we open up the huge potential of emergence. By keeping our sensing open, we might see and understand what transpires of its own accord, what insights, joy and radiance life is offering through us. (see also next part 7.4 Collective Sourcing)
Articulating subtle knowing
To access the generative space together we need to train some abilities that will support this. First, there is the ability to be aware of the deeper, inner or subtle knowing; then there is the ability to articulate this knowing. The first might be a more ‘feminine’ competence, the latter a more ‘masculine’ one. The real challenge lies in combining these two. Our Western-trained minds and bodies are not well prepared to do this with ease.
Being in a Circle of Creation provides a context in which to train these muscles, as we start experimenting together. The circle gives the space to try out speaking from and being in that deeper knowing. What usually starts off as a tiny voice in the back of our mind is given space and now invited to be shared. The pace of deep listening and shared silence creates a container that enlivens all the senses to inform this knowing and exercise senses other than those which have our preference. This leads us to an embodied sense of learning and knowing, and we learn to speak from a place that is not downloading (unconscious) beliefs and ideas that we had beforehand, but is coming from a place closer to source or origin. The more we experiment and dwell in this space together, the more easily we are able to access it.
Learning the skill of articulating embodied knowing is not like learning a new language – the words we already have in our vocabulary are good enough – it is more about overcoming the habit of not speaking it; we are not used to voicing anything that has not first been processed by our habituated mind. We need to learn, and claim, that this tacit knowing is valuable in its own right, alongside all the analytical and conceptual knowing, whilst still discerning what makes sense in the context at hand and what does not. Accessing and articulating the collective felt sense is a skill like any other, that can be developed by practicing it.
Disturbance as Invitation
It is part of common circle practice to embrace disturbance. Disturbances, if held in a conscious way, make us aware of unconscious boundaries we are holding or of blocking energy in the movement of the widening field: the proverbial stranger who comes in, a perspective we don’t like, judgements about what others are saying, or other unconscious shadow elements we hold. Integrating the disturbance requires us to widen our perception, widen our perspectives, widen our holding space, maybe even reword our guiding question! It is always an invitation to open wider – either the mind or the heart or the will – perhaps even all three.
If some participants in the circle can gently and lovingly hold presence for any kind of resistance or disturbance, crafting new connections in the invisible matrix of life, shifting and lifting the veil of unconsciousness, then resistance in others begins to lessen, to soften, even becoming a field of love that holds receptivity and collaboration. The whole that we are able to see and embrace now extends to what wasn’t possible before, in much the same way that science has stretched its horizons ever wider, towards the beginning of the universe and its vast scales in time and space, as well as embracing the infinitely small quantum world.
There is a lot of underlying disturbance in the world – in our daily lives too – asking us to be present to and hold more and more. We have noticed that when groups come together to exchange and sense into what is happening, all participants are drawn into a huge open heart. Opening for the stranger, for the other perspective, creates a deeper connection – one that people are really longing for and that has a resonant feel and vibration. Opening the heart also releases the pain, allowing us to realise how intimately pain is connected to joy and love.
A major element in systemic constellation work is listening or looking for what is missing in the system. When we notice in the circle that we aren’t on track, that the conversation isn’t generative, that there is no co-creation, that we aren’t building on what is unfolding, then looking for the disturbance – or what we are missing – might be a way to get back to the generative space.
Embracing the disturbance is also about welcoming the stranger into the circle. For us, in Women Moving the Edge, this showed up in the form of different participants for each gathering. It was not just an in-crowd – participants from previous gatherings – who returned. We always had new people. ‘Disturbance’ and ‘strangers’ are an invitation to embrace more of the whole. We realised over time that these newcomers brought in the diversity needed to move along in co-creative ways and prevented us from getting stuck in our own little group-think. At one point, I became a little cautious about the old crew wanting to repeat their experiences. I wanted us to be on the next edge, which might be totally different to where we had been before. A disturbance can also speak through timing or place that are not ‘right’; much more about this in the next chapter.
There is a distinction to be made, though, between embracing disturbance and being sucked into the emotional realm. Stories about wounding and trauma are sometimes not only shared, but even dumped in the middle of the circle with an unconscious and implicit expectation that others will solve it. People can go through tough times and are sometimes in sore need of healing. In a Circle of Creation, we do not react to the story, we stay away from our own habitual ways of acting. Neither saving nor empathising, we hold the story and the pain in the attentive silence of the group. The sharing is witnessed with respect, but only the part of the story that relates to the inquiry and holds a collective meaning will be integrated into the unfolding insight.
The power and practice of witnessing allows an individual to step seamlessly into a functioning collective, and a collective to seamlessly embrace the new and be transformed by the embracing. With each embrace, the old collective dies and the new is born. The witnessing is of everything – the inner and outer, the individual and the collective, human and all of nature. Part of the practice is to speak that which is witnessed, and to witness that which is spoken. Part of the practice is to speak what is witnessed as it is experienced – in joy or in rage, in sorrow or fear or indifference. The emotional charge is part of the meal, to be digested by the collective body. The more the collective body can metabolise, the broader the range of its possible responses to that which transpires in the greater whole.
Participating in the web of life
Excerpt from blog post:
Being in conversation about this, listening ever more deeply to what was arising in the middle of our circle, I suddenly reached a level of these subtle layers that I hadn’t reached before. I saw in my mind’s eye a huge web, a kind of irregular woven fabric that was torn and broken in many, many places. It looked like a woolen fabric eaten by moths, no pattern to discover and holed in many places. I realised that this was the archetypal energy level of connectedness and collectives. These holes where made by fragmented thoughts, over and over again. Thoughts about me! Me! Me! About separation, silos and fragmentation. All such thoughts influenced this energetic level, which was starting to die off and decompose.
As I took in this image, I realised why we need to gather in circles, over and over again, because it is such collectives that can heal this fabric of being a collective, of being in connection with all of humanity, all of earth and all of nature – maybe all of the universe. In that moment I understood the deep meaning of the web of life, I understood the many stories, myths and fairy tales about weaving, knitting, mending, stitching… all images about restoring the connective tissue in the greater web of life.
Coming together, as a collective for the sake of darning the energetic fabric of the collective and keeping it strong; that is probably what circles have done through the ages, consciously or not. This is what we need to do now, too. Even as fully individuated individuals, we need to do this now. These circles, these collectives are not about conformity and all being the same; they are collectives of fully conscious unique beings bringing their intention and attention together for the sake of the whole of life. We have a role to play in bringing forward that collective potential.
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.
Next: 7.3 Deeper Circle Practice
Download this article: Baeck 7.2 Practice of Witnessing 11:17
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.