One cannot merely follow the timetable we have set for our influence on the world, we must also honour and respect the infinitely more complex timetable the world has set for itself. That timetable is the sum of the thousands of independent timetables of an infinite number of natural, historical and human actions.
– Vaclav Havel
“As Way Opens” is a reference to the old Quaker saying that we should “proceed as way opens” after patient, prayerful waiting for Spirit to move in the world, and open or reveal the way forward.”
– from As Way Opens Birthing Services web site.
What if it is easy?
I would love to live
Like a river flows
Carried by the surprise
Of its own unfolding
– John O’Donohue
This title, this question, is bound to be misunderstood. It is a real challenge for the Western-trained mind! The question does not imply that we should always seek the easiest way, with the least effort and no perseverance. Rather, it says that if things don’t flow easily, then something, somewhere, is not aligned, not in coherence, not in the creative flow. What if it were possible to live always in the ease of an unfolding, natural way?
In our journey of ever widening coherence, we have reached the point of articulating the We-in-here, which can be described as a subtle interweaving with the context we find our selves in. Over time and through different experiences, the notion of ‘connecting’ has expanded substantially for me. Connecting doesn’t only occur with other people. In-here includes the place where we are, and the planet, nature, animals, the stars and the more subtle realms: whatever we are able to sense and relate with. My concept of ‘connecting’ has also had to expand from a linear back-and-forth between an entity here and an entity over there, to an understanding of interweaving and interpenetrating. Both expansions on the concept make the picture more whole and afford us a more embodied understanding of the widening coherence that is possible for all of us.
Widening our awareness in this way, to include the more-than-human world while being in a well-connected circle of humans, seems to make it easier to connect more deeply, to intensify that experience and awareness. The skills of subtle sensing and our growing awareness of complexity and interrelatedness serve here in sensing phenomena like natural rhythm and alignment with the whole of the context we find ourselves in, including the Earth, the invisible and the intangible.
What if it is easy? points to a simplicity that results from a deeper alignment and wider coherence. It is not a simplicity in cause-and-effect. We don’t fall into the trap of making things simplistic – we know full well that we are dealing with highly complex matters. The coherence we are pointing to is not what we normally understand as ‘perfection’ or ‘perfect harmony’. The Dutch Centre for Human Emergence http://www.humanemergence.nl/ once described it as ‘effortless simplicity’ – one of the characteristics they identified in their action research on Turquoise practice (as part of the Spiral Dynamics framework). What, indeed, if a non-linear, emergent life flows easily? What, indeed, if a non-linear, emergent shift is easy?
What if it is easy? builds on trusting the whole systemyou are in.In one of our gatherings, we closed with the inquiry and the challenge of learning how to be in this generative flow even when dealing – collectively – with practical day-to-day tasks. This is where the real trust in each other, in a natural rhythm and in the collective alignment comes in. Do we dare to flow? Do we trust the interweaving when it comes to practical things like doing dishes, preparing meals and cleaning rooms – and beyond to actions in the outside world? Here, I am evoking the practice of reconnecting to the patterns of Life, and of speaking, acting, moving from that connection, rather than relying (solely) on organisational structures and planning. It comes down to inviting embodied awareness of coherence and generativity into our daily and professional lives and contexts. This is how we envision moving and dealing with our complex issues collectively: not by pushing, pulling or rushing, but by seeing what unfolds naturally when we collectively tend to a clear intention. A wise lesson you also find in the I Ching: “act only when you can move gently and innocently, and all will be well”.
From Native American and other indigenous cultures, we know that the concept of ‘relationship’ means connectedness with everything on every level. One of the highest compliments you can give in this culture is: “he takes care of his relations”. This refers to connectedness to all of life: to people, rocks, clouds, wind, water, Earth. The purpose of your life, then, is to be a positive influence on your relationships. The prevalent Western ‘me’-orientation is absent and the habitual ego-self becomes almost invisible. What comes into focus instead is the effect of that self on everything that it is connected with – people, plants, a space, a breeze, a flower; the effect of my intention and my actions on everything around me is what is most important. Relinquishing our human-centric perspective brings us into an equal and co-creative relationship with other intelligences active in our planetary sphere. Most likely, it will take a long time before we can truly understand their nature, or indeed our own evolutionary role in Gaia’s unfolding. Nevertheless, we humans are all indigenous to this Earth. This embodied understanding is crucial for our capacity in We-in-Here.
Some people are born with unique capacities to sense and communicate with these other-than-human intelligences that seemingly operate from other dimensions. Indigenous cultures have always seen this as natural. Only the Western-influenced world has denied their existence or seen this capacity as freakish. I believe everyone is born with this capacity, and we can exercise it like any other kind of intelligence. However, it seems that each person is unique in the how and what of their capacity to receive information from the subtle. No two people manifest exactly the same knowing. When we leave aside all competition about what is ‘right’ or what is ‘true’ and move toward collaboration and co-creation, this awareness is crucial.
What if it is easy? closes the gaps between the individual and the collective, humanity and nature, tangible and intangible, chronos time and kairos time –because, quite simply, there are no real gaps. Our default thinking here in the West makes us believe that the gaps are real, although on closer inspection they don’t seem to be there. It really can be easy! If it is not easy, then something is out of kilter in our alignment, in the coherence and in the process of generativity, either with the people, or the purpose, or the timing or the place…
Quote from participant:
As you were speaking about the creative tension, I was also nodding to myself about how I feel and experience that in my own life. How I am holding a lot of that kind of tension as well. When it is unconscious, there can be a lot of unpleasant acting out, general dysfunction. When holding consciously, then the whole question of right timing comes into play, knowing when is the moment of release. – Helen
It will be implicit from our subsequent discussion that this incarnation will differ in kind and essence since it must manifest itself not ‘in time’ but in time freedom, and will be transparent.
– Jean Gebser, The Ever-present Origin, p297
Time freedom is being freed from time and thus free for the spiritual.
– Jean Gebser, The Ever-present Origin, p299
Some time ago somebody asked me “Busy?” – instead of the classic, meaningless greeting: “How are you?” – in a tone of voice implying that busy is good, and the ideal state for all of us. I answered: “No, I’m not busy.” He stood bewildered, didn’t know how to respond, or how to take my comment… No, I’m not busy. I don’t like to be stressed, so my schedule is not fully booked. Nevertheless I am doing meaningful things all the time and I am engaged in many, many projects and conversations. I enjoy what I do and over time things just fit snugly in my schedule and flow well.
The pace that Western society lives at these days is profoundly unnatural. People seem to be living in a ‘trance’ – running on and on and on in perpetual motion. Many people see this as normal, but it is not! I call it a collectively shared illusion that life has to be run at (very) high speed. There is something fundamentally unnatural about the pace at which we race around in today’s world. Our relationship with time and with the importance of everything we (think we need to) do is quite out of sync with reality.
Why do we conform to this mainstream rhythm, even when we don’t like it? What if, instead, we were to hold this question in our focus: How can we weave ourselves back into nature? How can we live with natural rhythms and cycles, slowing down with the winter, perking back up with the spring? It is all the doing that seems important, and leaps to the eye, vision-centred as we are. Though the moments in life that touch us deeply and have the greatest value – like a beautiful sunset, a moment of deep friendship, a sudden insight – arise more from a quality of being than (only) doing. The whole point about ‘being’ is that it is invisible if you don’t look for it.
Speaking to friends and family, trying to explain how to live in a different relation with time, is really countercultural – they mostly don’t get what you are pointing to. Globally, though, we are beginning to see a countermovement manifesting in the form of slow food, slow money, etc. The slowing down is there to rebalance us and help us to rediscover our own natural rhythms. The crux of slowing down is not to always act slowly. It is about being present and going with a natural rhythm. It is being in sync with our own individual energy level, but also being in alignment with the context (human and non-human) we are in.
A natural rhythm might not be slow at all – remember the ‘act in an instant’ that relates with the bottom of the U (see Scharmer’s Theory U). But ‘headless-chicken syndrome’ is widespread: no time to stop and sense, people are in permanent crisis mode, no time for reflection, always heading for the next thing in life. In this regard, we need to fine-tune our capacity to distinguish between what feels alive, easily flowing and connected to the source, and what feels (over-)enthused, addicted to intensity and always rushing. It’s important to stay centred in sensing what wants to happen, and to distinguish this from the Western habit of always being on the move.
We-in-here translates as a disciplined practice to first take the time needed to sense, to access our inner knowing and to carefully discern what is right action in this moment. It comes more quickly and easily with practice, but you cannot dispense with sensing at every step. If we look around at the world in this light, we can all see what happens when we don’t do that. Sure enough, things can go quickly if they are aligned, but subtle discrepancies can be important so we need this capacity for discernment to prevent us from falling into this (Western) blind spot. ‘Act in an instant’ is not so much about speed as about a deeper inner knowing that this is the right thing to do right now.
Excerpt from my blog:
It amazed me throughout the whole day how easily things would flow, how naturally we made transitions from one way of being together to another. Like M. and I walking down this road, and at a certain moment, not talking about it, not checking watches, not agreeing about it, we just turned and walked back. This is a quality of alignment that is really dear to my heart. As someone said later, Kairos and Chronos come together.
As we slow down, we learn to live in both Kairos and Chronos at once. We release ourselves from planned time and allow ourselves to inhabit a more unstructured time-space, never letting go of our intention. As we hold this awareness in us, this specific kind of knowing and consciousness becomes embodied in us and we can stay present in the ‘fast-forward’ world in a more conscious and grounded way.
Natural rhythm, together with intention, then replaces what we currently know as planning, which too often happens only on paper in organisational multi-year plans or to-do lists at home, only to be overwritten by what actually happens in the natural unfolding of life. It strikes me that so many people – myself included – have a wrong idea about how much time it takes to get things ‘done’. It seems that we are all bad at this, as if we take our wishes for reality, not counting the time it takes to bring ideas into manifestation.
Quote from participant:
I just so want, would love for the masculine to take a holiday and not make plans for a while. Not try to solve the issues for a while. It feels like a crazy, outrageous thing to ask. – Lisette
Tending to a natural rhythm also implies letting systems die that no longer support life. This seems almost inconceivable in our traditional organisations and institutions. They exist and we expect them to endure for all eternity. I spoke before about conscious closure as an important part of the natural cycles of life, including death and birth – a natural rhythm. Living in alignment with a natural rhythm means that the old can die without regret, making room for whatever comes next to emerge and fall into place. Conscious closure gives space for a new way of being and understanding to take a form that we don’t yet know.
As my notion of connection has changed over time, so too has my idea of time. Time is no longer a series of linear blocks that follow on from each other, from history into the present and out into the future. Time for me now is more an experience of all-and-everything-moving-into-the-next-experience, the next moment of the unfolding future.
The biggest challenge I notice in We-in here is combining the practice of trusting the natural rhythm withbeing in a group. Living in a natural rhythm might be known to some, but we really have no clue – or experience – of how to be and do that in a group! What will happen in a group if we all speak, move and act naturally? Fear of chaos easily kicks in. Still, if we look at nature – where no planning happens – we see coherence and beauty all around. So the question here is: how to be in mutual relationship with all of life, the other members of the group, even including our neighbours!? How can we have a collective experience of being natural, wild beings, in deeper relationship with the land and natural rhythms?
Weaving ourselves back into nature and (co)evolution
I remember quite well the moment when I realised the enormous difference between identifying as ‘a citizen of the world’ on the one hand, and as ‘an inhabitant of the Earth’ on the other. Since recognising this difference, I notice more and more how few people actually see the Earth at all – they live only in ‘the world’. Often there is confusion, and people use the two words interchangeably as if they mean the same thing. How strongly the man-made structures, systems and organisations of this world we work and live in are embedded in our notion of reality! How difficult is it to feel part of nature instead of (or as well as) feeling part of the world? We are so used to living in a world built on concepts and ideas that have been translated into stuff and structures. But ‘this world’ has become separated from the Earth and the fullness of Life.
There is – or there need to be – no contradiction between the two. It is about living in the interface nourished by both, being in between. ‘Connecting with the Earth’ can have unfortunate New-Age connotations, but I mean this in a very real way. We do not live in an exclusively man-made world. We are fundamentally part of the living Earth, which remains the world’s wider context. The Earth is our progenitor! As Alan Watts said: “The Earth peoples, (like an apple tree apples)” It is because the Earth is alive that humans have come forth. Are we aware of this scientific fact? Really?? Most citizens of the West behave like typical white tourists in Kenya: just visiting. It feels as if a huge part of humanity has become tourists in our own home, without ever really connecting to this living, life-giving planet.
The rise of humanity was no random evolutionary accident. Of all species on Earth, only we humans have developed the consciousness that makes it possible to dissociate from our natural surroundings, to experience ourselves as differentiated and separated. It is this sense of separateness that has brought us to the brink of catastrophe. This moment in time is dawning like a critical rite of passage that humanity needs to traverse. What lies beyond is an awakening to the realisation that humanity is not separate from Earth. Nobody is. Ever.
Sarah Whatmore, professor of environment and public policy at Oxford University calls it “more-than-humanism”. Man is not the measure of all things. In our journey of growing awareness of interweaving and interpenetrating, after connecting the lost bits within ourselves and connecting more deeply with each other, the next step is to return to a reciprocal relationship with the Earth, to “allow myself to grow into the soil.”In one of our gatherings,it dawned on us that our guiding question held the new insight into this: the need of the Earth is not only a problem, it is an invitation to become fully ourselves. It is sometimes called ‘a relational turn’, having an intimate relationship with the natural environment as with one another.
… the integration of nature-environment-indigenous cultures with the ‘new age’ or ‘green’ phenomenon is not merely a descent to ‘pre-’ forms of consciousness, but it is a return to ancestral roots, in order for the new consciousness to evolve. It is truly something deeper that is evolving through us – through phenomena like ‘the re-enchantement of the world’ (to use Bhaskar’s term) or as Eisenstein says ‘we are falling in love again, with nature’ – these are not ‘regressions’, but the important prior steps to the new.
– Bonnitta Roy (online, link no longer exists)
Maybe ‘weaving ourselves back into nature’ is still too small a notion. Perhaps the wider context is that we are weaving ourselves back into co-evolution. I felt very humble when I truly realised how we, as human beings, co-evolved with all that is around us, visible and invisible. We are so used to thinking of ourselves as at the top of the food chain, immutably and forever. But humanity is an inherent part of evolution and we co-evolve with the Earth, just as a certain butterfly has evolved over time to feed from a specific flower. In this regard, we humans are quite small and equally at the mercy of these greater forces.
It is this deeper and wider awareness that ultimately ties us humans back into nature and the Earth as a whole. It is a relatedness – interweaving and interpenetrating – that goes way beyond the concept of sustainability. A notion that comes closer is ‘thrivability’ – when and where all that exists can thrive. True partnership with Earth or with nature is nothing other than using our free human will to choose consciously for this overall balance, instead of going with the prevailing paradigm of separation and fragmentation. We do have the free will to choose ever more balance, in and on all levels of existence. When we weave ourselves back into nature, into Earth, into Life, we are the conscious part of that ecosystem, and onlythat. Being the conscious element in the whole in no way implies that we are the most important! Step by step, we arrive at a lived experience of the oneness of humanity-as-a-whole with Earth-as-a-whole.
Bonnitta Roy redefines sustainability and thrivability as integrating our animal nature back into our daily lives. She calls this one of the major human shadows: we are unaware of just how much we have inherited from our animal ancestors. We consider to be exclusively human – and therefore intrinsically superior – many of the features that are actually found in the animal realm: altruism, the experience of bonding, taking care of each other, the ability to play, and many more. When we allow our actions to be grounded in the wisdom of co-evolution, they will be regenerative in nature, nothing else is needed. Remembering the Earth as our true context and connecting back to her offers a next level of wholeness.
One capacity which have we inherited from our animal ancestors is an effortless connection with all of nature. For many of us this capacity is buried beneath layers of cultural conditioning, but it is still there. We are all indigenous in some way. Embedded in our DNA is the knowledge of how to live in resonance with the land, the animals, the stars and the wind. Some call reconnecting with this capacity ‘re-wilding’. David Abram (author of The Spell of the Sensuous and Becoming Animal) makes the point that we have lost that wild side and we need to reclaim it. This goes far deeper and wider than just noticing and respecting nature, beyond just coming into relationship with a place. He points to an embodiment of this wildness, this core quality of freedom and spontaneity, that relates to the archetypal, the instinctual and the natural. We are mostly blind to how domesticated we are and how deeply ingrained our social conditioning is. The wild harks back to the wonder of our childhood, the joy of walking barefoot, the release of getting totally drenched by the rain, the awe of looking over a cliff, the aesthetic arrest of a majestic sunset.
In everyday society, being wild – behaving in ways, which depart from the cultural norm – holds many negative connotations. Often, though, if we are not blinkered by our cultural lenses and shackled by our social conditioning, ‘doing something wild’ is a very ‘common sense’ thing to do. We needto reconsider and reevaluate this notion of wildness. Being wild does not mean being crazy or out of control, although our conditioning tells us to fear ‘it’. Isn’t thatcrazy? Being fearful of nature… of our own true nature?! How do we dissolve the barriers in our own minds that keep us feeling apart, separate from a direct and transformative relationship with wild nature? It is our own wildness that breaks through all of that.
Quote from my blog:
We dived deeper, trying to understand what is ‘being wild and natural’– as is part of our guiding question.
… untamed, but with a structure…
… listening, tuning in to oneself…
… intangible, but present…
… beyond articulation…
… so alive, but like a whisper…
Listening to the land
But the old, aboriginal idea of how are we to live – and when I say aboriginal I don’t mean Australia, I mean wider than that – is actually the dreaming of a human being, the logos, the intelligence of a human being, can only go so far. Then there comes a point when you actually need to get dreamt by the land itself. Now that sounds rather esoteric, but actually it’s been a common policy in tribal groups all over the world for thousands and thousands of years.
– Martin Shaw in an interview
From my Greek friends – both named Maria – I learned that the Greek language recognises an element of the soul called Kaimos. “Unfortunately”, they say, “English seems to have no equivalent to describe it. It is a longing of the soul to be reunited with our land and sea.” I recognise this from my own experience. When I was without a home of my own for several months, I noticed a deep longing for a piece of land I could have a relationship with over a longer time – even if I only rented it. I am a gardener – ‘by nature’ or the result of 200 years of professional gardeners in my ancestry – and during those months I became very aware of my longing for a simple life on the land.
I have already spoken of the reciprocal relationship between humanity and the Earth, between people and the places where they live. The question of which came first is not applicable. People and place, humanity and Earth, have evolved together and will continue to do so. In reality, there is no separation outside our rational mind that sees two different ‘things’. What is core, inescapable, is the relationship. There is a constant mutual influencing of people with their families, communities and culture, and of people with the places where they live and work, just as the landscape influences the people and their culture. The Western idea of separateness is an illusion. Listening to the land is a practice that can be learned and honed over time. It is one example of how we can weave ourselves back into nature.
How does one set about coming into relationship with a piece of land, with this place?First of all, it means tending it, respecting it, giving it attention and care. When I visit other people’s homes, my first impulse is to step out into the garden, to look around and see the place – witness the life that is there. Giving are can be expressed by doing a myriad of small things: tending the plants, removing the pieces of glass and plastic you find around the place, bringing some flowers into the house, sowing some new vegetables, planting a new tree or shrub, walk around in the region. Tending to the details and the beauty is essential. I have done many such simple things in every place and garden where I have lived. Such gestures give me a grounding place to start my journey of living there. There is profound value in this simplicity. At the very least, you feel grounded.
When I first heard of ‘listening to the land’, I wasn’t sure exactly what it referred to. At that time, I wasn’t aware that I had been doing this all my life: really noticing this particular piece of land, this garden, this field. Sensing what it is calling for: this path should be here, so that it flows with the slope of the land; the resting place should be there, under the tree that will provide some shade in summer; at this spot, the soil is better for this type of plant; this spot is always in shade, so the ferns will thrive here. Evidently, the power of witnessing does not apply solely to encounters with other human beings. We can extend it to the places and nature around us.
As you start to practice this kind of witnessing, you learn to recognise the subtle field of a place. Some places have distinctly different energies than others. We can sense this in homes and public buildings, and it is the same kind of energy we can notice on different pieces of land. A good friend of mine, born and raised in Switzerland, needs rocks beneath her feet to feel really at home. People who have been to sacred places know that these hold a vibration that can be quite strong and tangible. Many of us will recognise this phenomenon from visiting churches or other age-old places of prayer.
Quote from participant:
From the constellation (around a conference about the state of the world), which for me turned into a constellation about the state of the Earth – this experience of being neutral with the Earth, just noticing – that was the nourishing factor for her (= Earth). That was reinvigorating her immune system. It became so quickly about us humans, and what we need to do and how we need to organise ourselves – how much is it ‘I want to do it’ and how much is it ‘something wants me to be with it’? – Lisette
At a gathering called Powers of Place, I was struck by something one participant said: “places are witnesses”. And indeed, so they are! They store the energy of what people do, both positive and negative, and hold that energy over time. We do leave an imprint on the land, whether intentionally or not. Later, if the imprint was life-enhancing, we can benefit from this stored memory. If, by contrast, the land has hosted painful historical events, we might need to relate with the pain and grief held there. In this awareness of interconnectivity between people and places, again, the qualities of deep listening and mindfulness are crucial. If places are witnesses, we better relate to them in a conscious and respectful way.
From the many stories told at that beautiful gathering, we realised, too, that places invite or call us. On the people side of the co-evolution, we can relate and co-create (or not) and thus leave an imprint (both manifest and energetic) with our actions. We are called to walk the land, to listen, hold and witness every feature of the place that draws us. When we ‘land’ in a place in this way, we enter into a conscious commitment between humans and Earth. Thus, our intention can ‘activate’ a place, which can then become a conscious partner in co-creating. The place is given a seat in the circle of life, and is indeed honored as the very seat of the circle. In this way, there is an interaction between containing and being contained. We are invited to be contained by the place – it holds us – but it wants us to reciprocate and contain it.If places are calling us, then people can listen, respond and co-create. Without place, without context, without story, without consciousness, without clearly-stated intent, there is nowhere for a creation to land.
For many, being in nature puts us in contact with the sacredness of life. Stepping into conscious relationship with any place – whether natural or manmade – also links us to this sacredness. This conscious relationship with the place where we live restores to us the experience of being rooted, at home, belonging – just like animals and all of wild life. This relationship is not just to this particular place but to the planet itself, the home of humanity and so many other beings, both incarnate and intangible. When we engage in this conscious relating, we can sense which life-affirming actions will heal and restore the place or enhance its inherent qualities. It will bring us to our next level of balance and resonance.
My relationship to the land where I live is mostly a solitary one, as I like to wander through the many details of what needs and wants doing in our garden. Yet this action research project was about the collective, as we were trying to understand this We-in-Here. Our penultimate Women Moving the Edge gathering challenged my limiting beliefs in this regard. We had previously used the metaphor of all being empty tubes: if we then connect with each other we have a bigger tube that can capture resonance and insight on a bigger scale. What, then, if we were to do this in connection with a place?
Quote from participant:
We can sit in a circle and source together; can we now come together and source with the Earth more explicitly? Life on Earth depends on us learning how to do this. If we don’t, life on Earth will not withstand what’s coming, with climate change, and with the systems being knocked out of sync, there are too many perfect storms waiting to manifest simultaneously. – Helen
Was I willing to step into a deeper understanding of how land and humans interpenetrate each other? Going beyond respecting the environment, to a lived awareness of the co-creation that needs to happen between the land, and the stones, and us as human beings? Could we infuse stones and land with new memories? New information? It sounded pretty far out to me. And yet it seemed like the natural next step to take, and so that is what we did.
We were called to visit the landscape in the south of England, most particularly the stone circle at Avebury. In years before, I had visited this little village inside the huge circle of massive stones, both on my own and with friends. Each time I visited, – out of the blue – I had started to cry. Surely that place held some energy that stirred some of my own inner strings; totally unconscious to my mental mind! Now we were visiting with a collective intention of – somehow – recoding the stones for the time we are living in. We had no plan, no map of where to go or what to do, just a strong intention, which had emerged from our collective sensing in preparation for the gathering. As we tried to decide where to go and ‘do our work’ after lunch, it was clear that there was no alignment between us. We could find no agreement or coherence at all. And so we each went our own way, about the little village and among the stones. I understood that we all had to sense more deeply, beyond any imprints from eons back in history. This was about here and now, and I had to clear my sensing organs from the imprints of earlier memories. At some point later on, we were finally able to come together and collectively place the building blocks of our collective co-creation with the local landscape. It was both impressive and intense!
We can only listen to the land effectively when we are willing to listen to all of ourselves. There might be times when we are unwilling to do this because it threatens our social persona. Of course, we will never know for sure if our ritual in Avebury really did move something in the desired direction of more balance and coherence. I do know that it shifted the awareness of all present in a fundamental way. On that day, the sense of interrelatedness with stones and landscape, with the memory of times forgotten, was etched permanently into each of our beings.
Quote from participant:
When I move out into nature – which I feel more and more I need to do now – when I just go out into my garden, or look out the window, I feel so held, and so part of the whole, and so belonging – but not (just) belonging to humanity, but belonging to nature. And I find that when I step out of that, and step back into ‘the world’, that’s when it’s possible for me to feel lonely, and/or alone, And that’s where it’s possible for me to feel alienated, or to imagine feeling alienated, and to imagine other people being alienated, or feeling alienated from others. But the moment that I shift my witnessing onto the natural realm, it’s like the boundaries fall away and I just become part of it. And I feel welcomed and belonging. That’s just an amazing discovery for me – to have become conscious of that. It’s made a big difference to me. – Rachel
A poetic response
Quote from participant:
I am haunted (in a mystical way) by our encounter with the Forest. As I think more about it, I realise that the stillness of the group held me in its consciousness and that was why I could maintain an empty mind state for so long. By myself in the garden or just on my deck, I’m less effective at holding emptiness.
Most important to me was the realisation that the altered state of consciousness of ‘forest’ is full and thick with communication, but in a different frequency and vibration. The art form of ‘tuning’ will one day be taught in schools. It is our nature and within our ability. Intention – stillness – focus – presence.
Did you notice also how the vibration of ‘forest’, being made up of many individual frequencies (like a musical chord as opposed to a single note) had a broad, full quality? – Les
In the meantime, an article by Freya Mathews reached my desk (The World Hidden Within the World). That’s where I got the concept of ‘interpenetration’. She evokes a poetic order, next to the causal one, which is about meaning – not in opposition to cause and effect, just next to it.What I read was stunningly aligned with our own recent experiences and the general direction we were moving in with Women Moving the Edge.
She starts by describing a 5-day gathering she had attended at a place of power in Australia. The Symposium, she says,“unfolded via a logic of synchronicities. A set of initial conditions had been put in place to provide the framework but the event was, within that container, largely self-determining: what happened at one moment suggested what should happen at the next, and the structure of the entire event was highly recursive: each happening or offering fed back into, and inflected, everything else that was happening. The upshot was that a complex and elaborate poetic invocation took shape organically in the course of the five days, and this seemed to elicit a complex and elaborate poetic response from the world.” … “This is possible if your cosmology is one that does not draw absolute distinctions between the internal and external aspects of things, accepting reality as “irreducibly psychophysical” in character– a forever changing and unfolding pattern of movement that is as much psychic as physical.”
Freya’s inquiry lead her to wonder whether “if one somehow managed to slip under the psychic skin of the world and ‘enter’ its subjectivity, one would experience the ‘outside’ as ‘inside’. If one stepped inside the world, in this sense, the trees and grass and rivers would no longer appear as external to oneself. They – along with oneself – would now be experienced as internal to the psyche of the world.”
She continues: “One has only to surrender one’s subject/object mind-set – where this encompasses all discursive thinking (discursive meaning ‘marked by analytical reasoning’) – and relinquish one’s discursive goals and ends, in order to be borne along on its fast current. When this occurs, a path begins to open up in the midst of the phenomena.”
And: “To experience the world from within is to experience it as a field of communicative meaning, meaning that draws us from one encounter to another.”
From my blog:
I noticed how my labeling – ‘a blue heron!’ (including exclamation mark!) – removes me from this being; installs a distance between him/her and me. I tried to move closer, paying a lot of attention not to make too much noise while stepping on fallen branches and leaves. Still, I was in ‘separation mode’. Then I decided to ‘do’ nothing. I sat still for quiet some time, not ‘trying to take a picture’, but just me sitting here and the heron sitting over there.
I was very happy with this scientific and academic articulation. In accessing information from the subtle levels, I have often noticed that people tend to fall into hyperbolic, stilted or pseudo-mystical language. Me, I want a language – and also an engagement and relationship with this information – that is more matter-of-fact. Not too excited about “oh, I got a message!”, and not doubting it either, but simply taking it at face value as an expression of the experience of interpenetration. Just as we can go inside and forever fine-tune our minds, emotions, body sensations, inner sensing, the same seems true when applying our subtle sensing outward, into the inner dimensions of others, nature, the Earth or the universe. It probably relates with the wildness we mentioned before, the primal connection we inherited and which still lives on within us. A certain aptitude is needed, though: the ability to surrender our defenses and suspend a reductionist worldview that says “this is not possible”.
Over time we realised that there are many ways of experiencing and understanding the subtle worlds. There are those who communicate with nature spirits, others speak with angelic beings, or devas or the archetypes. Again, ‘communicating with’ is still too dualistic, with us over here and these energies over there. That’s not how I experience the interwovenness of all that exists. When you hit the level of resonance with any of these subtle energies, it touches you, it changes you. In no way is there a subject ‘in here’ and an object ‘over there’. Life interpenetrates all of it without any borders to speak of. In that resonance with life, with the life force – even when there is work to tend to and a lot to take care of – it can feel effortless.
Quote from participant:
I sense that the individual and collective journey down the U is a clearing, a refining, a purification, and letting go of the not-needed, including the small self, into the birthing of the presencing process so that, in the most expansive (deep and wide) level of continuous inquiry, we can reach a vibrational frequency where the other-than-human community are invoked into co-presence. They tentatively and attentively await this level of human integrity, of individual and collective authenticity, that can be the fertile co-creative birthing ground for the larger community of beings (human and other) to call in together the future potential. It seems that only once this level of finely-tuned and refined co-presencing in us is well cultivated and stable, do the other realms begin to play. We need to have bodies and be grounded in the manifest realm in order to do this work. – Helen
As I am not a poet, writing about this poetic response does not come easily to me. Below you will find a compilation of (snippets from) blog posts written during the 13th and last Women Moving the Edge gathering, which was centered around this question:
What if we could experience being natural, wild beings in a collective,
in deeper mutual relationship with natural rhythms and cycles of the Earth?
I recommend you read it slowly, as you would read poetry…
The bird knows we are in this together
On Saturday afternoon we had a most remarkable time. Already the morning had been so rich that I was flabbergasted with the rich content that had been shared.
We talked about language and words….
… hearing the birds respond to each other… so many languages going on that we don’t understand…
… and words are limiting… yesterday’s way… just a handle… easy to let the sacred slip away…
about the yearning, the longing not to be cut of from the natural rhythms,
about the courage to speak from source,
about being vulnerable and still trusting.
We dived deeper, trying to understand what is ‘being wild and natural’’ – as is part of our guiding question.
… untamed, but with a structure…
… listening, tuning in to one self…
… intangible, but present…
… beyond articulation…
… so alive, but like a whisper…
And what is ‘a collective’?
… a safe holding in order to be wild…
… to imagine the unimaginable, the undefined…
… where the future is born…
Being natural and wild in a collective, is giving space for each orbit.
(as the electrons, quarks etc. in a molecule)
But there was way more to unfold!
There had been a story shared about an encounter with a morning dove, with the realisation ‘the bird knows we are in this together’; another story of a deer leading the human to show its little ones; and a meeting with a fern in an experience of total unity.
Then pain came up of being misguided into the belief in fragmentation, the belief in a chasm, the betrayal of higher and lower…
We relate to the words, the concepts…
Instead of relating with the being itself, with respect. L. shared this with her tears and said: “I have to remake myself; my mind sees it, but my cells don’t know…”
The cells would know soon enough…
We took a long lunch pause to let this rich content sink in and let it digest a bit. We were mostly in silence and on our own. We reconvened on the screened-in porch. In the morning we had gathered in the living room, then the sun had called us out in front of the house after the break, but by noon it had already become too hot!
The porch is a bit long and narrow for a circle of seven chairs, we were sitting more in an oval, than a circle. Not much was spoken… long stretches of silence unfolded…
The morning had brought the realisation of the importance and simple act of “I see you”, which brought back the deep realisation from a constellation in a previous Women Moving the Edge gathering, where the representative of Earth has said: “The simple act of witnessing me, is amplifying my resilience.”
In the silence I was musing on all of this.
What if we remove fixed boundaries and witness the essence?
What if we replace identity with uniqueness?
Authenticity doesn’t seem to need a fixed boundary to be in a relationship or in resonance…
This was all going on in my thinking, but energetically, in my body, a shifting was going on, a recalibration in my cells and energy system to our new understanding. I had to lay down to let the energy doing its thing.
B. called for movement, felt a need to stretch her body, as if her body needed to expand. She invited all of us to do the same. The circle disappeared in silence and each of us was following the energy in her body as naturally as we could… some silent, some little noises made, some deeper breathing, some responding to sounds of birds and insects outside.
Again it was silent for a long time. Eventually, we ended up sitting and lying in a half circle, all facing outwards, in total connection, communion, resonance with nature around us, so present and close, with only the veil of the porch screen.
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 almost tangible – more present 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 happened.
We came into rapport with nature,
as embodied human beings.
We reconnected with our indigenosity,
we wove ourselves back into nature,
the fragmentation undone,
the bridge re-established.
We became wild again.
The wild is what is
Because of the constellation lunch was late and we reconvened halfway the afternoon, back on the porch where we had this incredible interweaving with nature the day before. Judy invited us to check in, but we were silent again. Sitting in a half circle we were all facing outwards, with nature filling half of the circle.
Back to the overall question of our gathering: What if we could experience being natural, wild beings in a collective, in deeper mutual relationship with natural rhythms and cycles of the earth? Important insights came up.
The wild is what is.
Simple sentence, but with profound implications.
The wild is what is.
This tied me back to the importance of witnessing; the noticing, the seeing of what is present – including the being seen, and being witnessed. As someone summed it up: In resonance the wildness is present.
So wildness is not how we normally picture it: being wild like a wild lion in the bush, or being wild as 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 – the proverbial plastic bags included.
The wild life
This was our last morning together. The sun was still present, with the promise of more summer to come. We spoke to the question: What do we now know about being wild and natural beings? Here a list of insights mentioned in our collective:
- gift the time of listening to yourself
- deep listening – a kind of attunement – a kind of anchoring in – is becoming one with the whole
- every cell, every nerve can listen for the subtle cues to bring us into balance, into wholeness
- show up open and ready – and not exhausted – for this kind of listening, for collective presencing
- in listening to the middle, something more is possible, it is a totally natural way of accessing information and knowing. This capacity gets amplified in the collective and that has a lot of juice for me; and juice feels wild!
- unwinding from the stories of history in my body
- see and acknowledge also the pain, witness it, is necessary before the new can come in – harmony is not shutting pain and ugliness out
- witnessing is not hard to do!
- it is possible to act focused and aligned without a plan, on true course
- the wild and the natural is seeking us, wanting a mutual relationship; the dissonant will then fall aside
- ‘they’ – seen and unseen – were looking at us
- everyone is welcome to the circle, no matter how open or not.
- Thank you for showing up as who you are
- I see you – Eye see you.
- The gifts of the wild are: the field, the seeing, the being seen.
- Reclaiming the word ‘wild’, in a grounded sense – coming from a place of stillness and gratitude – it takes you on your path.
And there was more!
After the break we gathered again in our favored spot, the screened-in porch. More information wove itself together around the future and this piece of land that had hosted us so well and profoundly. The information was offered from messages received during the night, from books, from experiences a long, long time ago… and the tapestry woven was magic and very meaningful for the owner.
The last messages came through…
Something is excited that we are starting to get it.
There is a flow between us here and the trees there.
Seeing and being seen.
There is a shared flow and joy.
There is so much more. You don’t know how big this is!
Open and receive.
I have been in-formed.
It is not about self.
Being as mycelium.
The wild is emergent.
Next: 8.4 The next, elegant, minimal step
If you are looking for a pdf of this article, just send me a message!
The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead said that reality arises through a series of moments which feel into the past moment as they feel for(ward) the next moment. For Whitehead, the action in-between was nothing at all like the tight wire between the physicists’ cause and effect. Rather, Whitehead thought of this feeling-process—which he called “prehension” – as incredibly sensitive, provocative, and loving; and he construed it as the long, long moment of possibility, freedom and choice, in the timeless space of becoming, before the actual occasion is concretized into being. If you situated yourself imaginatively inside Whitehead’s process reality, you would experience yourself as a living center of transformational process. Without a sense of separate self, nevertheless you would feel the act of cause-creating-effect-creating cause… and in the a-temporal pulsations between cause and effect (actual and potential) you would discover vast promise and freedom. The more you prehended your neighbors and relations, the more extensive you would become, until you felt the in-becoming of one body through the simultaneous presence of many bodies. The more stabilized your prehension, over the long slow moment of feeling, the more expansive you would become, until you realized the in-becoming of one novel moment through the simultaneous presencing of many moments.
– Bonnitta Roy, Post-dialectical Excerpts, 2013
Conceptual knowing alone is too thin
You might remember that Women Moving the Edge was born out of frustration with the limited conceptual and conversational approach in the original Moving the Edge gathering. Tina said: “There is something I don’t know here; like a language that is not developed yet. The tools that I have and have been introduced to are like having only an egg to attack an elephant. It makes sense to come together and explore this together with women. In a gathering like Women Moving the Edge it could be interesting to inquire how we can deal with this; breaking down all ideas of how this should be done and breaking down these concepts of the personal and impersonal. Dancing and drawing and maybe other ways? Can we look into that as a collective? Maybe what I’m saying is that the form we use – (conceptual) conversation – is really limiting in itself.”
Exclusively conceptual knowing – repeating information that we acquired before this moment – is too thin for our practice of Collective Presencing. You might wonder: too thin for what exactly? The answer has to do with our relationship with Life Itself. In this new practice we are looking to experience life happening fully in the act of knowing itself. This only happens in “phenomenological experiences where certain aspects of the perspectival world drop away.” (Bonnitta Roy, Post-metaphysical Views)
Just as in large-group conversations using formats like World Café and Open Space Technology, where we convene and design so that ‘the whole system’ is in the room and every voice can be heard, it dawned on me early on in our project that this kind of ‘prehension’ – the whole system of how we know, through many different faculties – needs to be present too!
This quickly led us to the notion of ‘Wholeness of Knowing’. A knowing that includes all senses, all modalities and all the ways in which we know. In the beginning I framed it as a difference between feminine knowing and masculine knowing, but even that is too small a space. Actually, it is a total integration of all possible kinds of knowing. It is like ‘getting something’ you never understood before while drawing some colours and lines on a piece of paper; or intuiting what you need to do next while walking in nature or taking a shower. The knowing is in the totality of your being, not just in your head. It is as if your cells, your brain, your emotions, your body, your being all understand something – all at once, all in one piece, with a certainty that doesn’t waver.
Excerpt from my blog:
My shaky moment was this morning, when Judy tried to go into some design of the first day and my body told me that we were ‘not there yet’. I get a lot of clues from my body about being on track or not, about something that might be missing. Mostly it’s attuned to whether we have addressed the real issue or not (yet). Sharing all of this with her, it became clear that this ‘wholeness of knowing’ is exactly one of the core elements of what we have to bring into the world.
In the words of Arnold Mindell: in the emergent you need all channels; you need the phenomenological. Since the inception of Women Moving the Edge, we were aware that conceptual knowing alone was too small to capture our experience and help us reach for the next. Over the years we used everything we had and everything that was available: dancing, singing, walking in nature, silence, slowing down, free drawing, listening to music, pictures, systemic constellations, collective hot tub in the snow in the dark – all aspects of our human embodiment. In these embodied practices, another knowing becomes available that we badly need to see more clearly: an all-at-once knowing.
Philosopher Christian de Quincey wrote a whole book – Radical Knowing – to emphasise and clarify that mental knowing alone is too thin to understand the world and to know what to do in the world. He states: “Here is the dilemma: On the one hand, we have lost touch with the deep foundation of reason in the feelings of the body, and the network of feelings in nature. On the other hand, we have not made full use of the gift of reason we already have. This second problem is rooted in the first. But both must be worked on together. Our problem, then is not really too much, but not enough, reason – not enough of the right kind: clear reason rooted in the feelings of the body and open to transcendental shafts of wisdom.”(p.35) He goes on to explain the difference between truth and wisdom: “By wisdom I mean an often ineffable knowing born of direct experience, a kind of intuitive pragmatism that works to the extent that it takes account of the whole. It is inclusive and integrative, and invariably involves empathy and compassion.”
Dave Snowden, expert on Knowledge Management, begins some of his keynote speeches with a quote from Polanyi (from the book Knowing and Being): “While tacit knowledge can be possessed by itself, explicit knowledge must rely on being tacitly understood and applied. Hence all knowledge is either tacit or rooted in tacit knowledge. A wholly explicit knowledge is unthinkable.”
Bonnitta Roy mentions – as the kind of scientific work that actually matters: the integration in the mystic scientist – the four movements in scientific discovery, as described by philosopher Roy Bhaskar: “It can look trans-personal or mystic or even neurologic or psychiatric – Wilber calls them ‘state changes’ – but what we mean is that certain fixed or perspectival ways of knowing fall away and the knowing (with its articulation) is phenomenological, in the moment.” Myself, I have always held the intuitive and experiential knowing that the more I conceptually and consciously know, the more surface I have to apply my intuition and sensing to; which then makes for this mystic scientist.
Wholeness of Knowing implies taking the time and making the effort to become conscious and articulate our inner sensing into language that can be understood by others. People with a strong intuition or good subtle sensing capacities sometimes miss out on any solid expression in language. “I just know” or “That’s how it feels to me” is not sufficient when we aim for collective insight and generativity. The point is that it is possible, provided we pause long enough, to allow the inner knowing and subtle sensing to encounter our conscious brain and let the latter find words, stories, movements and metaphors to express the former to others.
The language and knowledge of the consciousness blessed with a nondual imperience/experience obtains two unique qualities: ‘distinction without separation or differentiation’ and ‘knowledge through identity or knowing by being’.
– Yasuhiko Genku Kimura (FB April 18 2013)
In most of the gatherings that we convened, we started, after some good framing, with music and dancing, and/or with expressive pictures that spoke in a special way. These modalities help to relax the body and the habitual mind and invite everyone into the felt sense (the concept introduced by Eugene Gendlin). The felt sense becomes like a portal into a more embodied wholeness; it includes and goes beyond the perspectival and conceptual thinking. What is longing to emerge is a new kind of insighting that hasn’t existed before, a knowing that can’t be grasped or hijacked by the mind alone. So the mind has to surrender to something more, something bigger… into a network of knowing on the spot.
Sometimes there is a tendency to link sourcing with going to a deep, still and serious place, but the energy can also have movement, lightness and a lot of sparkling. The knowing through drawing, dancing, nature, constellations is beyond the language of a normal conversation. It has a non-verbal quality and brings along the subtle knowing in different ways.
Quote from participant:
Clarity of inner knowing leads to magic and our next step is how to do that together. Some elements:
There was something in the body;
There was wounding, fear and vulnerability;
There was clear asking;
There was moving to ground and to Earth itself;
The Earth is calling each soul to voice its inner knowing;
Then there is a spark and something is ignited.
In the inner stillness the trees, the rocks etc. can speak to us.
Practices of Embodiment
Quote from participant:
I experienced it – the movement and the dance – I was invited in and I made a conscious decision to go with it. The barriers seemed to disappear. I think, if I engage, the mind is moved to the background and I become more present.
Excerpts from my blog:
Judy and I both felt that this was enough words. We invited Eve-Marie to guide us in an experiment with drawing, using many colours. That was basically it: use colours and let them take over, drop your mind and your judgments, just go with the colours and the movement they evoke. “It is just paper.” “What would a four year old do now?” These were some of the questions that seduced us to a no-mind or less-mind space, the space of creativity. I loved to come to this point where it was just the fun of letting my hand move with the colours. Being present with the colours. Good stuff to come to an open mind!
Judy asked Karen to guide us in a body exercise that invited us to sense our bodies, look for an impulse, give it a way to express in the body and then come to rest again; cycle after cycle…
Any practice of embodiment is a movement away from a knowing restricted to mere thinking and conceptual language. In our habitual, conventional use of language we tend to speak from what we already know. Using modalities such as movement, nature and drawing invites a more direct way of knowing – a different kind of language. Most (Western/indo-European) languages create a distance between the experience and what we actually say. The practice of sourcing helps us learn to articulate insights from a place where we don’t already know.
Any practice of embodiment will develop our capacity to function like a tuning fork, sensing the energy in our own being and in the subtle present context. We invite the body’s wisdom into our wholeness of knowing. Like a finely tuned instrument, we can sense the timing of when to speak in a meeting and when to be silent. This is an exquisite level of sensitivity, of the sensual elegance of the embodied experience that we are only just beginning to cultivate.
What each of us individually knows and senses is very unique. Even how we articulate or bring our inner knowing forward will be unparalleled. While this might be obvious by now, nevertheless it has some implications, which are worth making explicit. Only I can know – checking into my whole being – when my knowing is fully authentic. This is my unique gift and contribution to the collective, and it applies to all of those present. This provides an excellent motivation for getting quite rigorous about stripping away habitual patterns. If I cave in too easily and allow others’ forms of knowing to take priority over mine, my task is to listen deeply and speak or share when I sense the need to. If I tend to speak more than others, now might be the time to learn more about the right timing of my contribution to the whole. It’s an invitation to allow my way of knowing to be as fully present as that of others – not less, not more. Others don’t occupy the same space. There’s no competition. No right or wrong, just more perspectives, eventually leading to collective insight. This kind of articulating, and the knowing that happens in the expression, brings more harmony than we normally expect from a conversation.
The synergy of different types of knowing
Process work shows the roundness of our universe. It shows that if we have the courage to follow unintentional signals to their edges, we do not fall out, but discover new worlds.
– Amy and Arny Mindell, Riding the Horse Backwards.
I have already mentioned that I used to see the world in terms of feminine and masculine characteristics. My trainer in constellation work, Johannes Schmidt, once called the feminine the ‘night consciousness’, related to the moon, darkness and all other such attributes. He says that when you look at somebody with day consciousness you see whom you encounter. With night consciousness, you approach them with your back, not with your eyes open. At the point when he explained this, it came as quite a revelation to me. Often I would clearly sense that I needed to attend a training or seminar, but without any clarity about what I wanted to learn. I would enroll and attend because I knew inside that I needed to be there. In a way, I showed up with my eyes closed. I participated in order to learn something, but didn’t know beforehand what I wanted or needed to learn. Johannes’ explanation gave me an early understanding of this Wholeness of Knowing, as a combination of different ways of knowing.
The real synergy between these and other kinds of knowing is of yet another nature. Firstly, there needs to be a balance in these paradoxical polarities: the intuition and sensing need a clear awareness to be able to speak their knowing. The conceptual understanding needs a clear embodiment to be able to ground the knowing in the here and now. Secondly, beyond this balance we aim for a deep synergy and a mutual enhancement of the two.
Is what I am doing leading me to feeling more alive? Does it hold my interest and curiosity? Does it express beauty in a unique and original way? Does it lead me to feeling more nourished and engaged? Does it capture or express the moment in a way that feels right and true? And does it connect me in some way to a larger sense of the whole? Such questions are answered more fully at the sensory level than the intellectual.
– Michael Jones
Quotes from participants:
There’s some kind of cellular, bodily aliveness, different levels of vibration in me – then that’s the layer or the experience of learning and integrating, even interpenetrating – it’s very subtle, and yet can be huge, almost explosive – that’s my experience of how this comes in, ever more into deeper and deeper parts of me. As this is alive in any of us, some level of vibration is there, attracting to it others who are seeking that, resonating with that.
It’s as if my whole body is a channel, not from my cognition; it feels like my whole body is engaged in it, an energy conduit of my trunk is open and clean, stuff is able to come through. It is an interesting sensation. There’s not that kind of mind or head engagement that I feel in a stimulating conversation. It’s a kind of calm presence and knowing.
It seems to me that the experience of the Wholeness of Knowing is forever expanding, as it has become more full and organic during each gathering. It’s quite incredible really. Each participant becomes a tuning fork and together we’re sensing into the field, creating novel insights or artifacts that weren’t there before. It’s a finely tuned way of knowing that we, as humanity, are just beginning to develop. When we come together in this way, I know that the possibilities are unlimited.
This kind of collective dialogue or inquiry does not move in a straight line, but meanders out in many, many directions. It seems that, in and through the conversation, we are creating a space – maybe a sphere or a container – of possible contributions to new insights and next steps. While some people talk of a ‘higher’ consciousness in this regard, we are seeking not a higher vibration but a more wide-ranging one – expanding in all kinds of directions and dimensions. Qualities related to this wider range include the beauty that is present, the resonance with both a wider context and a deeper experience, the listening to and response from the land and nature around us.
Helen wrote what I think is the bigger framing of what we have named the Wholeness of Knowing: “What keeps the universe expanding from each point in it is the search for knowing. The outcome of this search is not ‘more knowledge’ but ‘more relationship’ – greater embrace and interpenetration between the parts of the whole. …… It is not knowledge that is sacred, but the deliberate embrace of not-knowing, the opening up to the thirst for intimacy with more of God’s creation; surrendering up every part to not knowing and setting out on the eternal adventure of exploration, encounter and discovery of the manifold forms of being.”
Systemic Constellations as embodied collective knowing
Systemic constellation work, as it has grown out of family constellations, is a methodology that uses not only language, but also space, embodiment and relationship. Representatives of the elements of an issue or question report their bodily feelings and their inner senses. That is the phenomenological information that the facilitator has to work with. The representatives are like antennae receiving information from the ‘system’ or ‘field’. “We are embodied receptors”, my trainer would say. In general, representatives know nothing or next to nothing about the question or issue at hand, leaving them empty and available to receive this representational information.
The skills you need as a constellator – the facilitator of a systemic constellation – are the same ones that enhance our journey of becoming present: the capacity to defocus; bring your awareness away from the problem or issue as narrated by the client; listen with heart to all phenomena, including what is missing; be at ease with not knowing how things will unfold; maintain inner silence to let something come to light; show vulnerability in ultimate service to the system; perceive the phenomena as they are (without judging). The more I, as facilitator, am able to create an empty field within myself in this way, the more I am able to see, hear, perceive the information coming from the overall field, the relevant system for this issue at this moment.
In family constellations, the overall purpose is to disentangle different elements of the family system in order to restore the healthy flow of life and love, which will ultimately bring some relaxation or healing. Constellation work doesn’t bring instant solutions, but aims to unblock stuck energies and free the way for life, growth and evolution to happen. It reveals and releases the hidden and blocked dynamics in the system so that more energy and resources are available for innovation, co-creation and sustainability. If you are looking into the hidden dynamics of organisations, the focus can be similar in getting things untangled, but this way of working can also be used in very different contexts, like exploring how the market will respond to a new product, or how different product names resonate with customers.
Constellation work is always about seeing the bigger whole, through time and space; seeing what has been excluded from the system, including the history, the ancestors and any element that is not given its rightful place. What I find most interesting is how we can take a next step, using constellation work to support the novel to come forward, to help emergence come into manifestation, to generate more insights and actions that have life-affirming effects.
Constellations show us that it is possible to tap into information that is valuable to the issue holder, in other words, someone who cares about his or her issue. What if someone – or several people – care about the next step for the good of a certain culture, piece of land, or even humanity as a whole? What if we try to tap into the information related to ‘the more beautiful future our hearts know is possible’ (Charles Eisenstein)? What if we could set up representatives for struggling parties/nations, or planet-wide systems like the global economy, and learn how to relax and heal the system at that scale? I think it can be done, provided the issue holder(s) has a genuine motivation and the facilitator can embrace an awareness that transcends paradox.
Constellation work is essentially a systemic methodology, and it shows us again and again that every person, and every element, every energy, even every concept, exists only in and through its connections – all kinds of connections, in time and in space.
This implies that this work can impact and change not only the inner image of the issue holder but also other people involved in the system. This is still very difficult for our minds to grasp, since they are so used to physical cause-and-effect logic that they can’t really deal with the new paradigm where everything is already related with everything else in an ongoing process.
Constellation work is activating a representation of the issue at hand, as a complement to talking ‘about it’. The enactment of an issue brings real-time energy into the room in a way that an intellectual conversation cannot. In our various gatherings, the proposal to use constellation work would always come from one of the participants, towards the end of our time together. Curiously enough, it never occurred to me, as a constellator, to suggest it! All participants would become active players-representatives in the constellation by choosing an element that had shown itself in the conversations the days before. Representing this element and getting clear(er) on the relation with the other elements always added tremendously useful information and insight to our shared inquiry. Always, all participants would be deeply moved and receive breakthrough insights. The debrief afterwards would last a long time, as ever more information and insights continued to emerge. It is the bigger system, with its interweaving and interpenetration, that is understood more clearly in the minds, hearts and bodies of those present at the constellation. Even years later, some scenes and learnings from constellations we have done are shared and continue to have meaning in many other contexts.
Next: 8.3 What if it is easy?
If you are looking for a pdf of this article, just send me a message!
The question “What is Life?” is a linguistic trap. To answer according to the rules of grammar, we must apply a noun, a thing. But life on Earth is more like a verb. It repairs, maintains, re-creates, and outdoes itself.
– Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan, What is Life?
Did I ever tell the story of remembering the last seconds of being alive in Atlantis? I was doing a daily exercise during a 9-day workshop when I found myself catapulted into the last seconds of my life in Atlantis, looking back over what I had done in that life… and it was terrible! Being in this workshop, this memory came up totally unexpectedly. We were invited to do a daily exercise for 30 minutes to sense into anything we encountered: a chair, an insect, the road, the house, whatever… Over the days, I had felt an increasing resistance to doing this particular exercise – a resistance I didn’t understand. Finally, this hugely intense memory released itself in deep, deep crying. In those moments, back in Atlantis, I had the visceral realisation that the whole world was literally collapsing due to human actions, and I had had a part in creating it! I had used my subtle sensing and intuitive powers in deep synergy and co-creation with my male partner, for the sake of ‘power over’, for the sake of feeling god-like. The pain of this dawning realisation in those last seconds of life was quite excruciating. A central element was that, as a woman, I had been holding back part of my inner knowing, a part of what I knew that life should encompass – maybe a love for life itself? In this Atlantean society, we had become very skillful at harnessing subtle energies to co-create what we desired; many couples were trained in that competence. In those final seconds I realised that Atlantis was crumbling because of our misuse of the human creative power. And as I saw this I vowed to myself that I would never again go into the subtle energies and their link with creation – this co-creation between matter and energy – hence my resistance to the daily workshop exercise.
In telling this story, I make no claims for the truth or literal reality of past life experiences, but I do know that this experience was very, very real to me! It was a deep and sudden knowing, wherever it came from. I suspect that I am not the only one to have been traumatised in our creative power and vowed never to use it again. Now, though, it seems to me that we are being asked to become collectively conscious of this, to re-member our relation to the power of creation, while at the same time taking great care that no trace of our habitual patterns (of power) remains. No trying, no pushing, no pulling, just the noticing, the witnessing, the presence – and realising that there is creation power in these acts, particularly in our relationship with the Earth. In my view, as humanity we are reaching that potential in this current era.
Introduction to Part 8
As long as you think that nature is ‘out there’, then you have the basic separation that allows you to see the environment as ‘other’ and people as distinct from that, and that separation of ‘self’ from ‘nature’ is really what white man brought to civilization. That is the disease, the deep, deep wound that will be healed one way or the other in the decades to come.
– Paul Hawken
On the map of the Circle of Creation we are entering the third column, the We-in-Here, ‘Here’ being understood as both place and time. Not place and time as we register these on the surface level – rather, we focus here on the subtle dimensions of place and time. At the same time, place becomes the whole globe, and time becomes an entry point to the grand scale of evolution. In the same way that the individual is a unique entry point into the collective space, this place, this time, right here and now, is a unique entry point to all of Earth and to unfolding evolution itself.
In the wider evolutionary time frame, recently some humans have been on a journey of individuation which has now reached the extreme of separation and fragmentation. We see this especially as a strong disconnection with place – with nature itself, both locally and globally – and with time, specifically what I have come to call ‘natural rhythm’. How can we as human beings identified with our mental and conceptual capacities, fall back onto the surface of the planet, back into our actual, real, natural context? Exactly here and now? This reconnection has a relevance quite different from most of the stories of civilisation we have been telling ourselves.
For some, consciousness is seen as non-local in space and time; somewhere outside our bodies, outside our minds, outside the planet we inhabit. But embodied consciousness – awareness, mindfulness, presence, whatever you want to call it – asks us to ground that consciousness in our bodies, in the physical time and place where we are right now. There is immense creative power in this, especially as we hold the intention to do it together in this collective practice.
How we define ‘in-here’ is critical. It relates to subtle place and time, to interweaving with the subtle context that we find ourselves in. But it is crucial to understand that we include here more than just the human community. The ‘here’, this planet where we live as humanity, is shared with living beings beyond number. Planet Earth, too, is nested in something larger, and larger, and larger. So, we share this ‘in-here’ with myriads of creatures, from the impossibly small to the vast expanses of the universe. They all have some energetic presence. More still, it includes the non-material dimensions, the intelligences that we don’t see, the subtle realms, which we are beginning to co-create with. Of course it is complex, on all manner of levels.
In this complex context, allowing insights and novel actions to emerge from this space of We-in-here, we learned that planning comes down to collectively seeing and understanding the next minimal elegant step.
Next: 8.2 Wholeness of Knowing
Download this article:
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.