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 section, just send me a message!
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.