8.4 The next, minimal, elegant step

Rushing into action, you fail.
Trying to grasp things, you lose them.
Forcing a project to completion,
you ruin what was almost ripe.

Therefore the Master takes action
by letting things take their course.
He remains as calm at the end
as at the beginning.
He has nothing,
thus has nothing to lose.
What he desires is non-desire;
what he learns is to unlearn.
He simply reminds people
of who they have always been.
He cares about nothing but the Tao.
Thus he can care for all things.
― Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching

Living in this way, with the subtle and the so-called ‘real’ world at the same time, we come into a different kind of relationship with time. Time changes from being linear to being a dimension that shapes and orders creation in convoluted ways. It shifts from the default stance of following a straight line from idea to completion, to a meandering walk alongside a river, with many bends and turns, from the point of intention or question through to its unfolding as it reaches a point of form, expression or insight.


The next, minimal, elegant step 

The next, minimal, elegant step is a concept I learned from Anne Dosher, elder of the World Café community and guide and holder of many more great projects. She would regularly end our collective conversations and inquiries with this question of what the next, elegant, minimal step could be. There is great wisdom implied here, not to mention a certain simplicity. It has particular value when we are challenged to find the ‘right’ action to take in the many complex and ever-changing situations in which any action unfolds.

Remember, we are describing here another part of the journey of collective creation (Circle of Creation). How do continuous collective inquiry, co-sensing and collective sourcing make things manifest in the world? How are we learning to stay in the generative space that will enable humanity to move towards a more coherent way of creating?  Too often we have seen individuals and groups reach a novel insight – through sourcing, letting come – only to then step back into the old, ingrained habits of organising and project management. It is as if they think “Now we know the new goal or purpose and we are going to make it happen – even if it’s something innovative – in the way we have always done things around here!” In so doing they step out of collective sensing and sourcing.

To my mind, the question is: What is an emergent creation process? How does it happen? What are its features? How can we ensure that we stay in the generative space and don’t fall back into ‘business as usual’? Again, Freya Mathews articulates it beautifully: “Overall, what was most astonishing, to my mind, about this ‘colloquium’ was that it seemed to unfold via a logic of synchronicities.A set of initial conditions had been put in place to provide the framework or container for the event, 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 World Hidden Within the World)

In this complex world, when we want something creative and generative to happen, there is hardly any place for classic planning as we know it. Of course, certain aspects of life and work are simple and straightforward, and these need to be organised and tended in the best known way. In other parts of life, though, what will actually happen can be left to surprise, provided the intention is clear and the container is set. This means that another element of not-knowing-yet needs to be held with ease. Otto Scharmer once said it: “Sometimes all we know is which direction to face and where to put our foot down for the next step.” (Arawana Hayashi’s article in the Oxford Leadership Journal.)

When looking for how to proceed in the complexity of a generative process,it is important not to lose sight of the container of the broader inquiry. The initial conditions and the framework that Freya Mathews speaks of are defined by the power of the collective intention. If the container or framework is not supported by an intention or clear purpose, then what happens can go in all directions; there is simply no glue to hold it together with a certain meaning. Being in a coherent pattern of intent, immersed in the collective inquiry that we hold dear, is a much easier way of aligning with the rest of Life. In this way, other creative forces around us can more easily join in the co-creation.

As humans raised in the West, well trained in planning and project management, we have no clear understanding of which parts of the task we actually do need to do, and which parts will take care of themselves, or be taken care of by life in general. If the collective, the group, the team is really present and aligned, even when we are trying to look into deep systemic questions, we will sense together the next elegant step. There always is one – even if it is to sit together in inquiry one more time. This calls for the capacity to embody and live from stillness, in the sense of being fully relaxed about the outcome. Sometimes it is called ‘going with the flow’, but there remains a danger that the flow might come from subtle ego-patterns that we are collectively blind to. To avoid this potential trap, it is important that we refrain from attaching to any step or specific outcome, whilst nevertheless holding firmly to the collective intention.

On other occasions, when all inner and outer energies are aligned, the next step might be to ‘act in an instant’. If this resonates with all, then just do it! If such action looks different, bigger, more outrageous than what you had in mind or have ever done before, then a little courage to follow your deeper knowing might work wonders!



Elegance and simplicity

It is becoming fashionable to refer to ‘the simplicity on the other side of complexity’. For me, the next, minimal, elegant step partakes of the quality this concept is pointing to. Elegance and simplicity seem to show up when we are in alignment within and between us. If it is not elegant, not simple, not easy in a certain way, then we can be sure that something, somewhere, is out of alignment.

We must watch out for a certain form of collective (over-)enthousiasm, when everything seems clear and easy and there is strong agreement on what needs to be done – and then afterwards nothing happens on the manifest level. The habitual habits of ego have crept in: we enjoy all having the same idea, we are the ones we have been waiting for, we feel we finally belong! What we have forgotten is to call in more diversity, and so we have taken our wishes and hopes for reality. This shows the difference between decisions taken from a collective ‘high’, and steps in a generative process towards a collective intention that grows from the silent space within, and which includes substantial diversity in the group. One might say that, in such cases, the awareness in the collective was not high enough and the sourcing did not go deep enough – neither had reached the level of overall alignment, right timing included.

We are not looking for simplicity for its own sake, but as a necessity if we are to achieve a way of living that is really life-affirming. Simplicity in this sense is not related to technology – we will need and can use a lot of innovation in that area! Rather, I am talking about simplicity in processes and relationships – the simplicity of self-organisation and emergence. Just enough design to let life happen, not too little and not too much. This brings me back to my gardening practice: observe what happens naturally and build on that. Gardening is simple when you work in synergy with nature. Nature takes care of the really complex processes, all we can do is provide the conditions in which these processes can thrive, so that the plants have enough resilience to respond to changing, and even extreme, circumstances.

It seems to me that much of the planning we do in linear time (chronos) really over-complicates things, creating a lot of stress for the people who need to implement it. In our own project, we had our own typical struggle, thinking that we would need a meta-team or core team of 5 or so. It turned out that this was not the case – since a team just didn’t form. Judy and I were the callers and we were the core team; it was that simple. The hosting teams would form around us, including local women who felt called to co-host with us. As strange as it might seem for Western-trained (management) minds, there is simplicity in trusting synchronicity, trusting the timing we experience (kairos), trusting the mystery of life. This is not a journey back to simplistic solutions, but onward to simplicity. No more structure and plans than necessary. Constant experimentation, prototyping and collective learning. Simple steps that combine the ordinary, the simple and the subtle in innovative ways.

In one of our gatherings, the story was told of a taxi driver from Afganistan, living in a large US city, who felt grief at the loss of his simple but good life. Aren’t many of us grieving for that quality of life? For the purity of simplicity, connected with local roots? It seemed to us that this is where well-being is found. There is a quality in simplicity that we can recognise as beauty. Simple beauty. Fully participating can be simple, clear and beautiful. Isn’t this what many people are looking for when they go on holiday: being with the land, simple seasonal food, going back to nature and the simpler life? Perhaps, when more parts of the current, unsustainable, over-intricate systems break down, there will be an opportunity for many to rediscover this simplicity. Could it be that this quality is even more needed in matters of great complexity?


Life tinkers all the time

Possibly the most basic and necessary feature of any living process is the fact that it goes gradually. The living structure emerges, slowly, step by step, and as the process goes forward step by step there is continuous feedback, which allows the process to guide the system towards greater wholeness, and coherence, and adaptation. This is obvious, of course. To a biologist or ecologist it is self-evident.
– Christopher Alexander, The Nature of Order, Book Two: The process of Creating Life, p. 230

In the perspective of the next elegant, minimal step, it is good to remember that nature – or any ecosystem or complex situation – never runs on planning. The first time I heard the expression ‘life tinkers all the time’, it rather shook my unconscious assumptions. Perhaps ‘tinkering’ has gotten a bad reputation, but life really does evolve though trying, adapting, exchanging – again and again. Consciously living in a complex, evolving system as a human being, you can only ever take one step, then evaluate and sense what is next, continuously looking for feedback, responding and evolving with the changing context. It is through this continuous process of experimentation that the novel happens. Dave Snowden puts it this way: when working in complex systems, we have to move from fail-safe design (where all is planned and nothing is left to chance) to an attitude where safe-fail experimentation that is welcomed and supported.

Don’t look at the steps in this process in a linear way – this is not how life happens. Sometimes you try something out and you don’t even know what you can learn from it, even if it is clearly a good (or a bad) outcome. Any system can be viewed as a ball of twine that has been tangled to become a snarl of knots and intertwined loops. You need to take a step back to unravel each knot and loop as it presents itself, but there is no system or pattern to guide you. You just have to try and see what you can learn as you go, noticing whether your action loosens the knots or not. This same strategy can serve to allow novel insights and projects to emerge into manifestation. There is no way we can plan the future, as it is created with all that is around. We can, however, learn to sense and trust the weak signals – provided that we are open and still enough to notice them – seeing the phenomena as signs, and going with them.

In this tinkering mode, an unexpected turn or unknown resource often just shows up right in front of you. The clue is not to overlook it, as we are so used to looking out for the steps that we already had in mind ourselves. Weave in these surprise treasures right away and more will become possible. We no longer need great plans, we just need to stay permanently connected to reality, as it is in the present moment, let decisions happen when they are ready, address new tensions one at a time, and dynamically steer our way into the future. Oh, and not fall into the trap of assuming that there will be an end point, a place and time where you will know it all, when everything has become clear and there is no more reason to search or co-create. That time will never come: life is an infinite game! (Finite and infinite Games)

Quote from my blog:
Collective body wisdom
From stillness and presence
Wait for the next impulse
We know exactly what to do!



Retrospective Coherence  

I have already expressed our view that time is not a linear progression of successive seconds, minutes or years. Although we do experience an unfolding throughout our lives, sometimes called the ‘arrow of time’, nevertheless this is in no way either linear or predictable. There are always events – all manner of experiences – that inform the next one, but it is only after this next one has happened that we can somehow know which of the prior events contributed to it and how. In other words, it is not linearity but the complex dynamics of change that make it possible for elements of novelty to show up.

I first learned about the concept of ‘retrospect coherence’ from Dave Snowden. He links it with situations in the domain of complexity (which he differentiates from the obvious, complicated and chaotic domains – really worth studying! In a complex system, there is no such thing as simple, linear causality. Any event can trigger a host of different and often unexpected responses. Yes, there are always ‘some’ events with ‘some’ effects, but we don’t know where and when those effects will show up. It is only in retrospect, after the facts are known and the events have played out, that we can see what triggered what. Because the linear cause-effect chain is missing, all we can do is probe the system and do many safe-fail experiments. Of course, feedback loops then need to be built into the learning process to enable us to listen to what Life is telling us.

Amy Sample Ward (in Thrivability) distinguishes three forms of listening: listening to learn, listening to share, and listening to act. I’m not sure if I am using these here in the way she intended, but probing and sensing places our listening and sensing organs at the service of the inquiry into what is the next thing to do. What can we now do that is in alignment with what has been shown us in our inquiry so far? The simplicity of the next elegant step, informed by the collective sensing, is an appropriate way to navigate in complexity. In this regard, there is no point in ‘making’ decisions. Instead, we feel, sense, recognise the point of coherence for all involved. Even though we don’t know for sure what response our next step will elicit, we can learn to sense the coherence – or at least part of it – before we act. We can sense what action best fits the whole, which part of the potential is ready to manifest.

This way of acting really is very far removed from what we are used to. Such action springs not from personal will (a determined act) but from the collective practice of continually aligning intent. This is one reason why the inquiry and questions are so important. That next simple step, that act-in-a-moment, swiftly and surely, flows from the collective practice of aligning intent and being present to all the subtle signals we are picking up from the world where we operate. We read the signs of the full context while being aligned with our collective intention. Our guiding questions are really calling us to sense into the fabric of life and the ethos of our times, now and now and now. This is the practice from which our next act stems. We are not thinking up a model or hypothesis and then testing it – that comes from a different paradigm. This is a constant ‘sense-act-sense-act’ sequence, firmly plugged into the data coming back at us, a tight feedback loop of reality, with strong psychic roots deeply embedded in the collective alignment of intent.


Right Timing

There is timing in everything. Timing in strategy cannot be mastered without a great deal of practice.
Timing is important in dancing and pipe and string music, for they are in rhythm only if timing is good. Timing and rhythm are involved in all arts. In all skills and abilities there is timing.
There is also timing in the Void.
– Miyamoto Musashi, A book of 5 Rings, 1645

Only where time emerges as pure present and is no longer divided into its three phases of past, present and future, is it concrete.
– Jean Gebser, The Ever-present Origin, p.26.

It is time to compose—in all the meanings of the word, including to compose with, that is to compromise, to care, to move slowly, with caution and precaution. That’s quite a new set of skills to learn: imagine that, innovating as never before but with precaution!
– Bruno Latour, An Attempt at a “Compositionist Manifesto”, 2010.

Over the years, I have given a lot of thought to the notion of right timing. Perhaps my use of ‘right’ here is somewhat confusing – as if there is such a thing as wrong and right timing. That is not what I am seeking to convey. Perhaps it would be preferable to call it ‘now-timing’: the sense that we act in a moment of flow and coherence, from an inner knowing that ‘this’ needs to happen ‘now’ if we are to cohere with life-affirming action.

Sometimes when people share their visions, ideas or plans for the future, I have an inner sense and feeling in my body that inform me whether those things will come through any time soon. These people are passionate about their beautiful vision, but the link, the grounding into their context is missing, and so the vision has no connection with the time and space where they actually find themselves. Training in sensing and sourcing can give us a sense of right timing, which we can develop as a specific sensing organ.

Of course ‘right timing’ is linked with ‘natural rhythm’. Some years ago I used to say: “We no longer have time to do it quickly.” meaning: we don’t have time to experiment with quick fixes that might have negative long-term consequences. We better use our time to sense deeply and do the one thing that is aligned and connected, inside and outside, even if it looks like a very small step.

Right timing does not necessarily fit with my personal goals, or even our collective ones. It is an alignment of our collective intention with all around us. This is not something you can plan for in advance. You can see it in the moment or recognise it looking back. Especially when interacting in a context with younger, more ‘rocket-fuelled’ people, or in business contexts in general, the rush to action is so ingrained that there is no time to sense whether the timing is really now. One of our participants named it “picking the fruits too early”. We get so immersed in doing that we forget that it is the permeating tissue that makes it all alive, among and between us. Again, this links with not-knowing-yet: the not-knowing-yet of timing.

Excerpt from my blog:
Finding the right timing in Avebury was a bit more challenging for me. I was in a stressful place, because some part of me had added the label ‘important’ to the ritual that was going to unfold. Importance relates to ego, and that gave me the unwanted stress. Then the point came that it dawned on me: we were waiting for the right timing. I just mentioned that to my neighbour at the table, and sure enough there was G. who showed up! We got acquainted and then the rest of the circle joined and we could walk to the places we were supposed to be. Rich learning again that there is no point in pushing and pulling! Sometimes you just need to wait until the right timing is there and you are balanced and aligned with your self, the group and the environment.

From habit, we will relax for a short while and then move into action, because we can’t stand the tension! When we are in discomfort, we tend to want to grab back control. The not-knowing-yet of timing has to do with trusting something will happen even if we don’t make it happen. It is like wanting the baby to be born before it is ready – something that naturally-inclined women and parents don’t want. So the not-knowing-yet of timing is coming into relationship with life as we would with the unborn life growing inside us. Because, in everyday life and business as usual, we tend to be quite unconscious during the process of letting things come into being, we miss the real gift and learning to be found in gaining an embodied intelligence of what it feels like to be alive at that pace.

We realised early on, in a systemic constellation, that the somewhat negative element named as Holding Back was, in essence, Sensing the Right Timing, with real value and truth at its core. Sometimes what is seen as ‘just waiting’ or ‘inhibiting responses’ is really holding space for more new insights to surface and for innovation to manifest. Holding space and place for emergence is an active holding, far removed from passive waiting. We don’t leave the apples hanging until they rot! It is about learning systematically to access and inhabit the dimension of time we known as kairos, and to deliberately step out of the habitual, sometimes brutalising regime of chronosthat is our current familiar mode.

Joseph Jaworski speaks in this regard of ‘a cubic centimeter of chance’. Others call it a ‘window of time’.  These are the moments where we just act, following an inner sense of right time, right place and right action. The fruit is ripe, in this very moment. It takes deep sensing and great trust to wait for these moments. Many of us, in the pre-manifest phase, get anxious or frustrated at not getting there and fall into the trap of making something happen. In such instances, we are not trusting that we, and our intention, are aligned with the universe and that we will be supported in ways our minds cannot predict. Alternatively, when something happens, we might jump on it without pausing to sense again, and more deeply into its relevance, so blundering past our quiet knowing that this is not yet it. This is all about learning to trust the process. Often it is about taking enough time in earlier phases, so that later things happen quickly and easily.

The most important practice at this stage is listening. Listening not only to your inner voice but also to what other people around you really tell you. Once you sense the invitation to your calling – once a “messenger“ shows up with an invitation to something you can’t not do – respond with “yes“ first and only later figure out how to do it (follow your feeling first, then bring in your rational mind).
– Otto Scharmer, u.lab MOOC, Febr. 2015 – Daily practice toolkit

It seems apposite to end this section with some inspiring words from Sri Aurobindo:

Time is the remaining aid needed for the effectivity of the process. Time presents itself to human effort as an enemy or a friend, as a resistance, a medium or an instrument. But always it is really the instrument of the soul.
Time is a field of circumstances and forces meeting and working out a resultant progression whose course it measures. To the ego it is a tyrant or a resistance, to the Divine an instrument. Therefore, while our effort is personal, Time appears as a resistance, for it presents to us all the obstruction of the forces that conflict with our own. When the divine working and the personal are combined in our consciousness, it appears as a medium and a condition. When the two become one, it appears as a servant and instrument.
The ideal attitude of the seeker towards Time is to have an endless patience as if he had all eternity for his fulfillment and yet to develop the energy that shall realise now and with an ever-increasing mastery and pressure of rapidity till it reaches the miraculous instantaneousness of the supreme divine Transformation.
– Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, p62-63.

Next: 8.5 Standing on our own feet – WMtE part 8
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