Our tendency to conceptualize our own mental activities in terms of subject-object relations and of the inner-outer dimension has been noted, as has the evident ease with which we project these notions inward and outward to explain all manner of creation and change, stability and intractability. We have an ancient heritage of thought about essence and appearance, form and matter, about the necessary as universal and the contingent as variable. These ideas are so interwoven and so deeply entrenched in our intellectual tradition that it is difficult to think in other terms. Attempts to find alternative ways end up being complicated and obscure, thus only contributing to the conceptual inertia they are challenging.
– Susan Oyama, The Ontogeny of Information
Mutations have always appeared when the prevailing consciousness structure proved to be no longer adequate for mastering the world. This was the case in the last historically accessible mutation which occurred around 500 BC and led from the mythical to the mental structure. The psychistic, deficient mythical climate of that time presented a threat, and the sudden onset of the mental structure brought about a decisive transformation. In our day the rationalistic, deficient mental structure presents an equal threat, and the breakthrough into the integral will also bring about a new and decisive mutation.
– Jean Gebser, The Ever Present Origin, p294
At the moment of mutation, a previously latent aspect of the world is not just set free; its release reveals for a few decades a more intense radiance of origin.
– Jean Gebser, The Ever Present Origin, p295
The original articulation of the purpose of our gatherings, ‘moving the edge of collective intelligence’ was adequate at the outset of our journey of exploration. Over the years, however, the term ‘collective intelligence’ has been used to describe many things by different people, and none of those truly corresponded to our shared experiences. Accordingly, we toyed with terms like ‘collective wisdom’ (including the heart in our intelligence) and ‘collective leadership’ (stressing the aspect of shared leadership), but none of these really fit either. It took some years before we settled on the term ‘collective presencing’, building on the name given to the work pioneered by Otto Scharmer, with the difference that our work gave much greater attention to the specific dimensions of the inner, the subtle and the collective.
It is no longer a secret that a paradigm shift is ongoing in our world today. The mutation described by Jean Gebser (see quotes) is much more profound than most people imagine. It is not simply a next step in our development, which will call for some training – as challenging as that may be. Rather, it is a radically new way of perceiving life and reality in general, which influences the totality of our thinking, feeling and behaving, grounded in a different place than we are used to. Firstly, this movement transcends paradoxes, dichotomies and dialectical thinking. In the West, we tend to understand polarity as dualities, opposites or antinomies whereas the Asiatic view tends to experience it as complementaries, correspondences and interdependence. We are now heading towards an embrace of these ‘opposites’ or ‘paradoxes’, integrating them into a totally new view and – just as important – into corresponding new practices.
The current chapter serves as a transition from a Circle of Presence to a Circle of Creation, the term we have coined to denote the collective entity that practices collective presencing at its fullest potential. There is a world of difference between learning to be present in a circle of people (the practice in a Circle of Presence, with all that it entails in terms of clarity on emotional issues and the like) and becoming truly co-creative and generative in and with life itself. The difference is not superficial – indeed, there is a chasm to cross: to transition from a Circle of Presence to a Circle of Creation is to make the very paradigm shift that is currently embroiling humanity at this time. Here we look at some of the facets of that shift, and seek to offer a glimpse of what life could look like on the other side. Taken together, the practices that reflect this shift suggest the emergence of a new human capacity: a collective and shared sensing, ‘insighting’ and generating capacity. I speak here not of a new, unified ‘We’, or ‘we-field’ where our egos love to belong, but of a uniquification-in-diversity (term from Bonnitta Roy) of being human and being alive on this earth.
I hope that by offering some distinctions and being as precise as possible about the differences, I can shed more light on what is and becomes possible. By sharing the bigger picture, I envision that people will be able to recognise the next step they want to take, that they will now be able to integrate what had previously been beyond their view. Just as reading books and interviews by Otto Scharmer and many others, and attending numerous Art of Hosting training sessions allowed me to garner the practices and language for what I was – and we were – experiencing, so I now wish to contribute to this field of knowledge and practice.
The dawning of Integral Consciousness
As predicted mid-way through the last century by Jean Gebser, integral consciousness is emerging in humanity at this time. In his fascinating book The Ever-Present Origin, he offers many definitions of integral consciousness, calling it an a-perspectival consciousness structure, “a consciousness of the whole, an integral consciousness encompassing all time and embracing both man’s distant past and his approaching future as a living present.” With the dawning of this consciousness, the artificial structures and boundaries of dualistic thought become transparent, allowing us to ‘see’ beyond them and invite life to present itself to us more directly, putting us on the path that leads out of the maps and into the territory.
This kind of integral consciousness affords us fresh insights into our world, illuminating some of the collective shadows that threaten to draw global civilisation into a spiral of destruction. We see that, as a result of the hyper-rational, dualistic worldview that shapes the dominant culture in today’s Western world, every aspect of our society is founded on dichotomies that split the world into mutually exclusive parts, which we then organise our lives around as if they were real. We see this reflected everywhere we look: in spiritual and religious traditions founded on the split between light and dark, good and evil; in scientific and professional disciplines sundered from each other by classifications which have ossified into nigh-on unbreachable barriers; in architecture and lifestyles that seek to protect human society from incursions by (wild) nature, and so on.
Dialectical thinking (currently considered to be the most advanced form of our cognitive and intellectual capacity) sees reality as a tension between thesis and antithesis, to be resolved by means of a synthesis. This conceptual reasoning has a major pitfall: the synthesis takes us each time to a higher level of abstraction, moving us away from the experiences of life itself. The synthesis then becomes a new thesis, reaction to which creates a new antithesis, requiring further abstraction to reconcile the tension in a fresh synthesis. Many centuries in this mental paradigm have done more than enshrine the idea of ‘progress’ as our highest social ideal. So mired are we in dialectical thinking that we now even see evolutionary change in these terms.
The dissolution of artificial boundaries that accompanies the emergence of integral consciousness opens out into a space so different that we scarcely have the words to describe it — indeed, we begin to recognise just how short language falls in conveying the richness of the phenomenological flux that is our ongoing experience. So-called opposites such as ‘inside/outside’, ‘self/other’, ‘personal/impersonal’, ‘body/mind’, ‘society/nature’, ‘us/them’, ‘global/local’, ‘singular/plural’, ‘figure/ground’, ‘before/after’ lose their meaning as such — and since such polarities bear no more relevance, the very concept of ‘perspective’ drops away. This brings a whole different meaning to the aphorism “We see the world not as it is, but as we are.” As I/we step into this ‘a-perspectival’ space, the world is transformed, and so is my/our experience of it. I/we step out of the mental map and into the territory of life itself. The shift is fractal: the pattern repeats at every level of scale, from the personal to the global, inner, outer, visible, invisible, singular, plural, past, present, future.
Through the practices of a Circle of Presence, as described in the previous chapters, we come to realise that our understanding and thinking need to align with our body and our subtle, animal senses – and then we practice life accordingly. Living in the territory, unconditioned by old maps and models, novel knowing arises from direct experience, and the entangled body/mind is re-membered as the creative faculty through which new realities arise.
The full potential of collective presencing, as it is enacted in the Circle of Creation, widens and deepens the embodiment of this new paradigm, presaging a transformation in every aspect of our experience:
- Being a unique and individuated individual becomes the condition that offers the requisite diversity needed for a totally present and generative group space.
- Time and space are interwoven more deeply, more seamlessly into our overall experience in novel and subtle ways.
- Being alive is being present to the pulse of what is unfolding now (instead of a repetition of past habits).
Where dialectical reasoning creates new mental syntheses from pairings of opposites, we are now able to perceive the actuality and phenomenology of life as it unfolds. Instead of understanding the world in terms of static structure, we now – also – see dynamic processes everywhere: the dichotomies of dualistic thought morph into the generative orders underlying the continual becoming of all that is. Even time is liberated from its unidirectional progression from the past to the future, revealing the seamless and eternal dance of the fruit and the seed, whereby the potentials of the future generate the actualities of the present at the same time as the actualities of the present realise the potentials of the future.
The potential implications of such a paradigmatic shift for both the individual and the collective are mind-boggling. One defining characteristic that could help to apprehend the new paradigm might be named as ‘interpenetration’ and/or ‘interweaving’. The concept of partnership (meaning relationship between equals) is considered ‘state-of-the-art’ practice in participatory and sustainability circles; one thinks of partnership between people – stakeholders, businesses, public-private-civil society, men and women, universities and businesses, and so on. In the new paradigm, partnership is to be understood as a mutual influence that goes in all directions and through all dimensions; actually directions and dimensions fall away entirely. We extend beyond partnership with humans only and into reciprocal relationship with everything that exists, however we wish to parse that out: co-creating with nature, with place, with the social field, with the subtle realms, with the field of potential… all the while realising that boundaries exist as membranes of connection and that influence and learning can go all the way up and down, in and out, through the individual and the collective.
Another characteristic of the new paradigm could be articulated as a focus on and an openness to potential and generative actions; seeing and experiencing all of life as a process. The narrative of today’s mainstream society is one of problems and solutions, where the present is a problem and the cause is (in) the past. It shows us a world of turbulence and complexity that we must somehow navigate and seek to guide to our human ends. The new paradigm offers a much wider and deeper view, seeing the opportunities implicit in the present, building on what came before, choosing to focus on what else is possible and opening to what is emerging. This calls us to be fully present to all that is – perceived difficulties and strangers included – allowing it all to participate in the arising of the novel. There is a constant opening up in many directions and to many dimensions, from a present sense of aliveness in ‘this is what is’, to the possible next unfoldings immanent in every moment-of-now. Our attention and intention are focused on the ever-present process of enacting more of our (human and other) potential.
Here are some examples of how life unfolds in the new paradigm, what it might be like – and what it entails – to live there.
Beyond Us and Them – by circles of expanding diversity
One difference between a Circle of Presence and a Circle of Creation is the wider meaning of diversity of who and what we invite in. Inviting in more diversity runs counter to the unifying trend we see unfolding in the current paradigm: a pattern of inexorable cultural hegemony whereby the dominant culture (let’s call it neo-liberal capitalism) forces more and more people and cultures to capitulate to its values – which of course represent only a tiny fraction of the sum total of human experience. In the cultural conflicts simmering and exploding by turns all over the planet, we see the truth that cultures are incommensurable: they cannot be judged relative to each other or reduced to common denominators. The loss of diversity that would result from the imposition of a monolithic human culture would preclude any further ability to evolve!
In the practice of a Circle of Creation, the meaning of diversity changes, and that with which we can claim kinship and partnership expands beyond culture, gender, even species. We can begin to embrace and express more of our nature than just what we have come to think of as ‘human’ – much of which we have actually inherited from our animal nature: the capacity to play and bond, our energetic sense of place and space, our instinctive inner knowing about timing and rhythm, a natural synergy of nurturing and leadership and so much more. This is the diversity we must weave ourselves back into if we wish to navigate the complexity of our world with ease and grace.
When we invite diversity into our shared inquiry, this diversity is not restricted to the different views, ethnicities, ages and backgrounds of the people we have called in. To become a Circle of Creation we need not only to be fully present (with thinking, feeling, sensing and reflecting), but also to see the invitation inherent when so-called ‘disturbance’ shows up and so-called ‘strangers’ enter the room. We can learn how to embrace difference through empathic conversation, but we need to take our conversational skills one step further and learn to engage in deep, generative dialogue. Ultimately we need to practice, again and again, how to speak and live generatively – all the time, with all the people around us, and with everything else that exists.
Being fully present in a co-creative endeavour is in itself an expression of love. In cultivating the capacity to be in co-creation with many different people, rather than seeking to be just with like-minded souls, we discover an astonishing truth: you don’t need to like everyone, but you can love them all! Beyond sympathy and even empathy there is a sense of love that is accessible and that is the only thing that counts in journeys of joint creation. We speak here of unconditional love, not entrammeled by the attachment we usually associate with that emotion. The love at play here is not the energy of missing someone, or preferring one place, person or situation over another – I see it as the connective and energetic fabric that encompasses all that is in life and alive – even beyond the boundaries we associate with death. This kind of love seeks to be of service and flows through us, not from us.
Beyond Knowing and Feeling – through collective inquiry and sourcing
As we learn to experience ourselves as embedded in the continuous process of creation rather than separate from it, and as we step away from our mental models and into direct relationship with what is and what is unfolding, we open up to a wholeness of knowing that weaves mental and conceptual clarity with subtle sensing and, above all, with the implicit, tacit understanding – our felt sense – that comes to us through the body before we can access it with the intellect. All practices of embodiment allow us to more fully and strongly experience that all-at-once knowing that embraces information coming from our inner states and feelings as well as our thinking and noticing from the living world around us.
Whereas we start to practice this wholeness of knowing in a Circle of Presence, in the Circle of Creation we expand it into a continuous collective inquiry. When we see life as an unfolding of potential into an ongoing flow of actual events and experiences, it is natural to stay in inquiry about what is the next thing that becomes possible. In our circles of diversity – and in life as a whole – we are continually and unquenchably curious about what is next. It is simply how we consciously, intentionally and voluntarily live our human evolution. To remain in constant collective sensing, inquiry and reflection is to stay connected to this eternal unfolding. We learn by experiencing, immersed in the fullness of life, and immediately reflecting on our learning so that we can apply it to the next step and iteration.
It is important to recognise and to remember that we remain in this collective inquiry throughout the whole process of whatever it is we are inventing. It is like a design process which does not end when the first prototype has taken shape. The inquiry continues and deepens from one prototype to the next. Too often, we see a group of people going deep into an inquiry process, finding a new perspective, idea or solution, only to fall right back into business-as-usual to bring the innovation to manifestation, all the while forgetting that implementation and scaling are also steps in the process that need innovation and novel application.
Because our inquiry is collective, we help each other experience, recognise and name both the process and its elements as these unfold – never forgetting the role of language as a descriptor of our experience, an evoker of experience in others, not a true depiction of reality. As we invite ever more diversity of experience and expertise into our circle, we find ourselves constantly in shifting roles – sometimes master, sometimes journeyman, sometimes apprentice – as all practice the skills present in the collective, at whatever level of mastery, acknowledging that there is always more to learn, more to refine, more to understand.
Guided by an inspiring question, one which challenges our assumptions and invites us to novel thinking, our inquiry is not closed until some novel understanding – a sudden, collective ‘now we know’ – has been reached. This communion in novel attention has a specific flavour to it, a kind of shared stillness that coincides with a shared felt sense: decisions are not taken, rather, they emerge by themselves as a collective knowing what to do. This will be hard to recognise for someone who has not yet experienced it, but once you have, you long for this magic in the middle to happen again. In searching for the emergent, we can get only a coherent, collective sense of the one next, minimal step that is aligned and resonant with the whole, and that becomes possible only when we use all our faculties of knowing, together.
Beyond Humans and Nature – by unique contribution to life
Integrating humanity and nature in ourselves goes beyond being ‘sustainable’ or ‘living within the limits’. As much as this is needed, it does not weave us humans back into nature, nor reconcile us with the animal nature we have inherited from our evolutionary antecedents. Co-evolving, in this context, means that we know our place as humans in a world that is more-than-human and more-than-visible, recognising and accepting that we influence it and are influenced by it. Again it is the interweaving that we need to become aware of. Fully accepting to belong in the commonwealth of life on Earth means that we experience nature’s life systems – animals, trees, places etc. – as being imbued with psycho-activity as well as physicality; with subject status as well as object status. And this, in turn, means that we encounter the living, more-than-human world in a reciprocal way, embracing the poetic and intensely intimate and personal responses that spring from our engagement with a psycho-active universe.
The future that our hearts tell us is possible — the future that is not a mere continuation of the past – comes from heeding your own soul’s calling and how that calling responds to the call of life. A living and active relationship with that call brings each of us to live our own unique expression as our best – and only possible authentic – contribution to the whole of which we are an inalienable part. While the individual personality, shaped as it is by individual programming, is indeed unique, arising as it does out of personal history, it actually cloaks the deepest, truest self more than it expresses it. Once we learn to live from our deeper core, responding from that place to the call of life, the personal becomes impersonal – all the while remaining utterly unique. In fact, the more unique you get, the greater your contribution to the whole. In the new paradigm, being of service – as an individual woven into different human and more-than-human collectives – seems to be what life is about. Beyond the tensions of ‘me’ and ‘we’, serving the whole brings fulfillment beyond imagining.
I think the difference is that, when I hear colleagues talk about this in other settings, there isn’t necessarily the dimension or intention of serving life. It’s more about serving the team, serving the organization, or serving whatever goals or outcomes are important. So for me, this other dimension makes the circle work differently.
– Otto Scharmer interviewing the Circle of Seven
Might this not be a feature of more integrated people and groups that we can measure our actions by how much we are serving and generating more life, including our own unique gift that we bring?
Weaving ourselves back into nature also means coming to terms with and fully ‘re-membering’ our animal nature. So much of what the Circle of Creation is about – the embodiment, subtle sensing, intuitive right timing, natural rhythm; being an intrinsic part of a tribe or a collective; collectively knowing what is next to do – belongs to our deepest nature and is in no way unique to us as humans. It is part of our heredity from our ancestors in the animal realm. Throughout evolution, humans have shaped the Earth and the Earth and all living creatures have shaped us. This is just as true today and will be no different in the future. The more conscious we are of how we all – humans, animals and Earth alike – belong to life itself, and how we can co-create the next form together, the more beauty and delight there will be – and part of our unique role is to revel in the feeling of it.
Beyond Masculine and Feminine – by creating and generating more of life
The capacity to generate, inherent in the new paradigm, can be seen as a natural interplay or synergy of the masculine and feminine archetypes. Each and every one of the facets described above constantly interweaves with and interpenetrates the others. Masculine and feminine are sometimes used as a fixed polarity, where the one has specific qualities which the other has not. However, in order to support and reflect life, which is constantly becoming, creating, generating, the synergy of all masculine and feminine energies and capacities needs to be deeply embodied within each of us.
In the mammalian world, we can see a natural co-existence of leadership – in the sense of taking a stand and clear action – and nurturing qualities. In the Western world these qualities have been assigned or linked to different genders. For some reason, at some point in time, the main feature to develop and evolve became individuation, whereby human beings have become more aware and conscious. This process has supported the development of our capacity to reflect and conceptualise and our agentic behavior. We seem now to have reached a point where we are becoming conscious that this capacity and behaviour is out of balance with the relational qualities that we also have and are now desperately in need of. Real creation – creation that serves life – is possible only when we inhabit the whole scale of qualities and energies. The state of our world today is in need of the insights and knowing that can be brought to the table by this new balancing and deeper integration.
Probably because they have received less attention and accordingly lower value, the qualities and skills related to the nurturing side of being human are less well articulated in our daily lexicon. These have to do with, for example, inner ways of knowing and subtle sensing, the value and importance of community, the practice of ‘organic’ organizing and more. There is a shared belief – quite unconscious for most people – that these values, these ways of knowing and living are somehow less valid and significant than those related with leadership and agency.
If we wish to achieve a deeper integration and synergy of all our capacities, we need to find the language and the distinctions to precisely and clearly articulate our nurturing aspects. Sensing the subtle layers of reality, knowing what is going on in the inner dimensions of a situation provides essential information when addressing any complex question. It is time to offer this wisdom in a gentle and precise way.
I could wish there were a single word to describe the growing capacity to generate – by which I mean ‘creation through discovery and discovery through creation’, again the interweaving: we cannot tease them apart. As we lean together in collective inquiry into the realm of unmanifest potential, as we fall in love with the possible future, that which we ‘dis-cover’ gets created. Our collective inner knowing confirms that what we create is in some way already here: the future potential and possibilities are present, ready and available to be engaged.
Beyond the collective wisdom that can arise from a Circle of Presence, a Circle of Creation spawns the possibility to generate more of life’s potential; both in the sense of re-generating – replenishing what we have taken and reconstituting what we have damaged – and in the sense of creating something novel that has never existed before.
 Freya Mathews – On Desiring Nature, Indian Journal of Ecocriticism, 3, 2010, 1-9
Next: 5.3 No Brand. No organisation. WMtE – part 5
Download this section: Baeck 5.2 A New Human Capacity as beyond paradoxes 09/17
“If we take man as he is, we make him worse. But if we take him as what he could potentially be, then we make him capable of becoming what he can be.”
– Johann Wolfgang von Goethe; Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre
It is time to revisit the four movements – noticing, accepting, honoring and living what is – as our focus expands from ourselves to the others; the next step in the widening balance just described. Here, the authentic self that has integrated subtle sensing with all other forms of knowing comes into communication with other human beings. As we have seen, awareness of the process of projection and the ability to see and uncover shadow parts in ourselves is crucial to this step. The intention is for communication with the other(s) to be free from emotional charge, so that no pain is triggered back and forth, allowing us to relate easily and be with one another without projection and (excessive) protection. We become free to listen both to what is really present within us and in others and to what is emerging through us.
1. Noticing what is – in relationship: listen to the inner being of others
The core quality and practice in this first movement is listening: listening with attention, listening between and beyond the words, listening from inner silence. Most people alive in the Western world have not been taught to listen for deeper meaning, nor to hear the essence of what our interlocutor is seeking to convey. We have been trained in conversation-combat: discussion and debate. Noticing what is in relationship means listening to the other with full attention and observing the other beyond, behind and between the spoken words. In so doing, we are not listening closely to the specific words that are spoken, but rather seeking to fathom the meaning they hold for the speaker and sensing the subtle inner reality from whence the message springs. It is listening without thinking about a counter-argument for winning the speaking-match. It is listening without prejudice. It is listening with the deep respect that everybody deserves and that we all hope for when we engage in a conversation.
I can highly recommend Bill Isaacs’ book Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together, especially the chapter on listening. Reading it helped me understand why listening matters so much. The book also expands on how you can learn to listen first to yourself and your own reactions, and to the thoughts running through your head. Learning to listen also means learning to discern between what is actually spoken and the interpretations we immediately attach to what we hear. There is so much to learn!
In our Flemish women’s circle, as psychotherapists, coaches and trainers used to giving advice and ‘helping’, we had to teach one another just to listen, witness and be present to what the others were sharing. Starting out, what proved most difficult was listening without giving advice or trying to fix anything. These were the habitual patterns we had to overcome. Over time we learned to trust the deeper power of witnessing and realised that offering a clear, open mind for the full experience of the other and her communication created a relational dynamic that we had been oblivious to at the outset. Observing and acknowledging the other person and his message carries the flavour of our intertwining as fellow human beings. In this quality of listening, some aspects of this interrelatedness became apparent to us.
2. Accepting what is – in relationship: see the other’s authentic self, integrate my shadow parts
Through deep listening, you come to see the other as another human being, with his or her own history, failures, unique qualities and specific viewpoints. Continued deep listening inevitably brings you to real acceptance. Many times different viewpoints and related projections on others are the stumbling blocks where projects fail or just drag along without lustre. Accepting what is in relationship means recognising your projections and judgments and integrating your own shadow parts. It goes one step beyond suspending your thoughts about others – setting your beliefs aside for a few moments – and implies an opening of the heart. It is an unconditional accepting of this other human being in front of you; not the cold, so-called objective: “I notice what you do/say”, but a peering beneath the surface where the essential, authentic self of the other can be glimpsed.
To be able to see a person as a whole being, we must learn another central element in the practice of dialogue: respect. Respect is not a passive act. To respect someone is to look for the springs that feed the pool of their experience. The word comes from the Latin respicere, which means “to look again”. Its most ancient roots means “to observe”. It involves a sense of honouring or deferring to someone. Where once we saw one aspect of a person, we look again and realise how much of them we had missed. This second look can let us take in more fully the fact that here before me is a living, breathing being.
– William Isaac; Dialogue, p.110
It is not the other who causes my anger, sadness or frustration. These emotions and related ideas and opinions are mine. They might be triggered by the actions or words of the other, but they already existed in me before this actual moment; they spring from my (unconscious) memory, not from what is actually happening in the here and now. To open my heart for my own deeply held patterns (my shadow) is generally not an easy thing to do. It seems easier to blame others than to take full responsibility for my own feelings, viewpoints and actions. It is tempting to make the other responsible so I don’t have to change.
The underlying mechanism that needs to be transcended here is projection. We see in the other something we don’t like, perhaps even can’t stand. If looked upon, this is a part of ourselves that has not yet been integrated, that we don’t want to embrace as part of our own humanness. The first movement is to become aware of my projections (observe what is). The next is to decide to withdraw from the projection (suspend my own emotional reactions), and then finally to return to my own inner balance (own the unconscious parts of myself). This requires me to extend my awareness to the subtleties of what is going on between me and the other, and to refrain from sweeping seemingly innocuous issues under the carpet. If these things are not named and shared, not brought into the light, they will grow in their own way and probably burst to the surface in a much uglier way. Honour these parts as they emerge from the shadows and the process will greatly contribute toward mutual understanding and trust.
This deep acceptance of our own downloading has major consequences in terms of how we put our feelings and ideas into words, how we talk with each other. The art lies in sharing our feelings without interpretation – particularly without making assumptions about the inner state of the other(s). Accepting what is in relationship, means sharing and naming the obvious, nothing more. I call this emotional maturity: this is my perspective, it is my pain. I hold it by and in myself and do not blame others for having caused it. Operating in this way allows us to settle deeper into compassion and love.
Accepting what is in relationship brings a deep realisation that the other is more than his or her habitual patterns, just as I am. A deeper layer is revealed that goes beyond the wounds, the shadows and the patterns of survival. We can contain the other gently, the way a wise village treats its 2-year-olds: it does not smack them, humiliate them, chastise them. It holds them respectfully and returns to the adult business. This is how we have to treat each other. It is as simple as that.
I can peer through the wounds into the deeper truth that dwells inside my partner, just as it dwells within myself. Accepting what is in relationship means paying attention to this deeper layer, this essential self of the other. It does not mean engaging with the wounding – that would need to happen in a therapeutic setting. Nevertheless, our attention can be placed on this deeper reality of the other whenever we need to in service of the overall process. The point is to connect on an essential level, where we are all human beings.
Another way to describe that quality is unconditional love — non-judgment. My interpretation of the conditions that allow a shift to take place is that you take something that’s in you, and you put it out there. It could be some kind of block in you, some kind of energy. You have lots of stuff around it: judgments, spins. You don’t like it. But when it comes into the circle field, we witness it lovingly just as it is. The power of witnessing unconditionally does something. Suddenly, the situation is looked at and blessed, and maybe it’s not as bad as you thought! ………. My belief is that your essential self is there, present with you. If you talk to me, and I start being judgmental of you, I can still engage with that essential part of you. That takes me out of my judgment of your personality. It works!
– Interview by Otto Scharmer with the Circle of Seven.
3. Honouring what is – in relationship: deepen my heart to common humanity
Honouring the other, even as she says something that ignites some anger or sadness in me, is a core awareness skill that we need to develop together. Our learning process has taught us that any disturbance between two people in a group needs to be voiced and named – though not in any aggressive or critical way, but as a neutral sharing without interpretation, applying the witnessing and listening described above. Keeping the interpersonal field between all members of a group clear is a very fundamental aspect of the group’s evolution.
Learning to see the other as more than his or her personality; to see his or her essence, even when we are in conflict, feel irritated or frustrated by each other, can feel like a big commitment – too great a commitment, even. Actually doing this is quite different than engaging in discussion about it. The other is not wrong, is not to blame. Clearing the interpersonal field means assuming full responsibility as I share my own emotional charge. No projection. No blaming. It means leaving all responsibility for the emotional charge of others with them. No projection. No shaming.
It takes time for a group or team to practice and learn this – much longer, in my experience, than any of us would like or expect. The art is to be able to sink deeper into your own heart, where connection takes place at the level of our shared humanity, where you and the other are peers. It means seeking connection at that level even when it seems that the process is going nowhere, the others are way off track and the purpose of the inquiry looks far out of sight. It helps to remember that the process is in service of the group and its purpose, not just for the sake of emotional sharing as such.
It is particularly important to look out for a common but rarely recognised phenomenon that Bonnitta Roy calls “projection into conceptual space”. People can get triggered by what somebody else is saying or stating, without being conscious of the emotional component of their experience. This emotional charge then gets translated into conceptual thoughts and arguments. Thus commences the subtle or not-so-subtle conflict, discussion or debate; connection and awareness of our shared humanity are gone. No relationship can grow or be built in this space of boredom, which is just a repetition of old habitual patterns: downloading in its purest, most lifeless form.
Sometimes honouring what is in relationship requires us to address the issue that the other is blind to – just as my friend did for me – not in a blaming way, but from a deeply human connection: “I see you as a human being, just like me.” Naming the blind spots does way more than just eliminate the negative: as members of a team, naming with and for each other what is limiting or holding us back can be profoundly opening. In a Circle of Presence, naming the blind spots helps us to come to that place of vulnerability, which plays such an essential role in building trust. As we shall see, it helps people to show up in their full magnificence.
Engaging the heart connection in the relationship is crucial for accessing the subtle, collective field of awareness. Unless our hearts are connected in the deeper sensing, the portal to authentic collective wisdom and emergence cannot open. By now, it might be clear that this is an impersonal love that has no attachments, no judgments, no requirements or expectations. Unlike the default form of love in relationships, which usually either pushes or pulls, this unconditional love has a quality of holding and letting life unfold.
One commitment we’ve had is to keep the field clear in all our one-on-one relationships, even when we’re not together. We work at it. I assume it’s like being in a marriage. If you’re really doing the relationship well, you work at it. Very few collectives commit to that. It’s not that we’re so interested in the personality level in the end. My perception is that working the personality level is a prerequisite. There’s always a threshold to cross when we’ve misunderstood and misjudged one another. We could tell a lot of stories about things we’ve been through to return to true relationship. There’s commitment at an essential level that’s a big enabler for the collective field.
– interview by Otto Scharmer with the Circle of Seven
4. Living what is – in relationship: appreciate and invite diversity in any relationship or event
When you live-what-is in yourself and truly honour-what-is in relationship, you start to become aware of the truly vast diversity present in humanity and therefore also in any group or team. This diversity must be acknowledged without getting stuck at the stage in the process where we discover that “We are all the same, how nice!” To truly bring the diversity alive means inviting and accepting different ways of sharing and expressing.
In our Flemish women’s circle, little by little each of us uncovered her own unique contribution to what we were about: one of us would propose a dance, another would invite the others into a constellation exercise, introduce herself with some writing or poetry, or initiate a little ceremony. It enabled us to get to know more of each others depths and to reveal ourselves more authentically. Later, I learned that diversity goes much, much deeper. Some people’s gift is to surface disturbance, while others sit quietly and offer an essential reflection afterwards… I had, and still have, so much to learn about this diversity of gifts. Moreover, as we continue to practice sharing these modes of expression that are so rarely allowed to surface in our mainstream culture, we are given an unprecedented opportunity to experience unknown human richness inside ourselves too.
This practice of living what is in relationship sheds light on an aspect of that mysterious phenomenon that Otto Scharmer, in his Theory U, calls Open Will. Just as I have no part in choosing what my true and unique gift will be (rather, it is uncovered), neither do others. Just like me, they too are in a process of coming to grips with what is their authentic, essential expression in this life on earth. We are together on this journey of discovery, to gain a little more understanding of this greater Will that lives through us.
When we are able to understand and embody this dance of holding the other and myself in full awareness at the same time, we can begin to understand our own unfolding as a journey in relationships, removing us from the notion that we exist as separate beings. Once we reach this point, we viscerally recognise the way every encounter with someone who is different enriches us, and vice versa. This is when we fully appreciate others who hold different points of view or who express themselves in radically different ways.
Isaacs, William; Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together. New York: Doubleday, 1999.