9.5 Collective Presencing applied

In those moments when awareness succeeds in being at one with feeling, sense, movement and thought, the carriage will speed along on the right road. Then man can make discoveries, invent, create, innovate and ‘know’. He grasps that his small world and the great world around are but one and that in this unity he is no longer alone.
– Moshe Feldenkreis


Articulating the subtle

The occurrence of the present being transformed by the future occurs in the creation of new language. You do not create the new language. The new language (of the future) creates you in the present from the future and the inconceivable transforms into the conceivable in the process of your transubstantiation (the future transubstantiating the present).
– Yasuhiko Kimura – Facebook 29 november 2012

I have already talked about ‘sourcing’, and ‘collective sourcing’ as collective embodied revelation. It takes some courage to learn to voice our subtle sensing, because we have to overcome our conditioned assumption that this is not ‘real’ or ‘true’ or ‘useful’ information. At the present juncture, though, I wish to give some attention to a next step that follows on from the subtle sensing: the precision of language and making (subtle) distinctions. Perhaps because of our discomfort, we tend to use sloppy language, as if trying to hide what we really want to express. But as in the concept of Felt Sense and the practice of Focusing described by Eugene Gendlin, we do have the capacity to be extremely precise in both what we sense and how we articulate it. Becoming more explicit, and perhaps using words in uncommon combinations or inventing new expressions, improves the quality of our communication and the collective wisdom of the whole – just as we have done in writing this book and articulating the finer differences in this collective and subtle landscape.

John Hegel has described in multiple blog posts that tacit knowledge, which is often the knowledge formed by and in new experiences, is best accessed through long-term, trust-based relationships. It is exactly this tacit knowledge that we need to be very specific about: taking time to name, to language, to find the right words and concepts.

Wherever this communicative engagement is actualised, it is manifest in a poetic order – an order of poetic revelation – that unfolds alongside the causal order. This poetic order, or order of meaning, exceeds the causal order but in no way contradicts it.
Freya Matthews

Quote from participant:
I love this process because we bring night consciousness into the daylight, it is just so valuable to have words and language for many different things. I love to be in this kind of generative conversations, where this deeper layer actually gets to the surface, or we push or pull it to the level of awareness.
– Ria

For some, the articulation of a deep sensing is a real challenge, as Judy said: “the words are almost not there – I can’t quite grab them”. In particular, giving language to the inner sense in a way that can be received and taken in by other people might be a big hurdle. Still, it is both necessary and important to get into the detail of the articulation and tease out the subtleties until the sensing is clear for others (and yourself, too) because what becomes known through us when we take the care to articulate carefully is part of the life force. It is actually an interweaving of the individual and the life force; of the subtle sensing with the precision of the mind to find the right form of expression.

In this way, a group using Collective Presencing as its core methodology could become a new version of what we now know as ‘think tanks’. This could help leadership on different levels and in different domains of society to sense into what is going on and what is the next step to take. Collective Presencing is a practice for accessing what is in the spaces between the elements, and what is emerging between and through them. Because it is whole-bodied, it accesses more and deeper than conventional thinking groups. If we want fully integrated, alive, embodied organisations, this is a practice to make it work.

Questions have been raised: When is it appropriate to have this level of collective sensing? When and in what conditions is it useful? What does it really look like when applied in a business context? How to scale up from a little ‘sensing team’? There are big hidden assumptions beneath these questions, as if business is the biggest context and scaling up is the best way to move forward. I would turn it around and ask:  how can business fit into the wider picture of taking care of the earth and all living beings? As I learned from Walk out, walk on, in complexity, it is not scaling up that will do the trick, but rather scaling across,

If we allow ourselves to dream, we can imagine presencing teams being hired to help people and organisations with all manner of wicked situations and problems. As outsiders, their role would be not to do the sensing themselves but to invite participants into these practices, step-by-step. The different practices are powerful in themselves and by using them, participants will themselves learn to make the fine distinctions first named and articulated by the team.

Quote from participant:
It is happening in this call, for me I am taking very practical things out of it. Noticing this is the context in which I want my thinking and being to be in, as we take the organization to the next level. Almost too good. Feels kind of dreamy. Wow! That I could act in the world from this container is like a huge release; something about not doing it all yourself; because I put my deepest level of trust in our collective.  It feels energising and I could act with a different level of clarity and confidence in my intention. It is not about giving over or being a puppet, but really resting in this level of intention and holding.  And I love the dance we are in – how we are applying it, challenges on the ground, kind of action learning.
– Cari


Continuous collective inquiry

Continuous collective inquiry, in groups of different sizes, is a crucial capacity and practice for dealing with the complexities and turbulence we are confronted with these days. It is an essential tool and element of being resilient for groups of people; being able to sense into what might be a next step that is coherent both inside and out. Long-term planning needs to be replaced by collective sensing into the possibilities right now, combined with constantly keeping an eye on the feedback coming from the bigger system (or life) we are dealing with. I remember vividly the question Christopher Cooke raised in a gathering of Spiral Dynamics practitioners: How capable is humanity of dealing with intense, rapid change? Looking at it in that way, at that moment the future looked bleak to me. Right now I feel more confident, thanks to the practices that we have discovered and practiced.

Dave Snowden, in his Cynefin framework (briefly touched upon in 8.4), makes helpful distinctions between simple, complicated, complex, chaotic (and unordered) situations. Planning can work in simple and complicated situations, when there are simple and ordered straightforward relationships between cause and effect, but in complexity we first need to probe– try out a few things – because the linear causality doesn’t exist. Once we have done that, then we can sense the impact of our action on the system and figure out how to respond with a next step. Our deep sensing capacities in the collective inquiry can be very helpful in figuring out what to try out first and also in the sensing phase, as it integrates more dimensions of knowing.

Just as no one knew they needed an iPhone or tablet before these devices appeared on the market, continuous collective inquiry is not something that people feel they need and think to ask for. Nevertheless, when people start engaging with it in their work and life, they find it resonates deeply. We didn’t ‘invent’ Collective Presencing starting from a need or problem; rather, we encountered it from the angle of potential, from a shared collective felt sense of what might be possible. Constantly being in sensing, inquiring and reflecting mode is a way to stay connected to the unceasing unfolding of life.

Quote from participant:
I see that sensing into the subtle, sensing each word as it comes, I begin to feel the timeless space of fullness and resonance vibrating in me, in these very delicate slowed down moments. I am challenged and yet called to trust that my experience is one beyond this time and space dimension, or at least a taste of it. We, as humans, are learning to move into the multi-dimensional; beyond, and yet just beside, the space/time home we now know as life here on Earth.

In these circles we open a space for this future potential. We have an embodied experience outside of time and space (place), and yet we are all very present here. It is holding this contradiction that opens the new frontier – to collaborate and participate with the subtle – to reach new clarity in right timing and right place to generate the new.
– Judy

Groping in the dark

Excerpt from my blog:
And suddenly I saw how conversations and gatherings are conceived, live and die. Like human beings, coming up from a wide and infinite sea of possibilities; live for some time and then retreat back. By our willingness to listen to the next question, we call the next gathering and conversations into being.

Quotes from participants’ conversation:
To me it’s always amazing, this sensing into what is the next question – like we want to look beyond the edge, but we’re not there yet… It’s really like – groping in the dark… I like it! Because I feel something will emerge. – Ria

The groping in the dark reminds me about the night consciousness we talked about last time. It’s exciting to think about the potential. – Judy

In Nowhere– an inspiring and unique collective of organisations and businesses in the UK – they believe that great questions (they call them Breakthrough Questions) allow us to venture into the unknown where true innovation happens. They have the power to unlock the creative potential of people, teams and businesses. Working with such questions is essential if we wish to shape a sustainable future. According to Nowhere, these questions have three specific qualities:

  • you alone don’t know the answer
  • it keeps you awake at night; it genuinely holds your interest
  • if you did know the answer it would change everything

In part 7.1 on Collective Calling, I described the process we used to find the guiding question for the next gathering. As you might remember, the process is by no means linear. Starting the conversations with a check-in, through the dialogue that follows we sense deeper into the unmanifest potential that can come through the gathering in a few months. This is what we try to listen to and glean information from, in order to language the calling question.

Quote by participant:
If we were asked to hold hands and lean over the edge and to bring back the question that is just beyond our sensing … what would it be? – Helen

The process of articulating this next question is like a swirling around. Each person present has to speak what is coming through, without knowing if it is meaningful or not; only in the end we can see if it was a fruitful contribution. It is a lot about holding the not-knowing-yet, but when you get the hang of it, and can stay present and grounded, it becomes a process of amazement and joy. We are collectively sensing in the deep dark waters and suddenly we come up with a coherent articulation that has resonance. The awe and joy tell us we are in real generative space!

It can be hard work to stay long enough in the not-knowing-yet until the resonant articulation presents itself. And yet only once this stage is reached can the question serve in the gathering, team or project. And then, at some point the energy disperses. This specific inquiry comes to its end, the cycle is completed. We would all go our own ways, taking the experience and the unfolded meaning with us. Some of the meaning would ripple out, seeding other conversations, but this gathering was over. At other times, the question is still alive after a meeting, but mostly we have gained some new insights – consciously or not – and a new cycle can start. I understand this also as a non-attachment to form, making it easier to release this form, this event, thereby making space and opening up possibility for a subsequent weaving of threads of potential.

So far in my experience with teams looking for something new – be it in business, government or elsewhere – I have not encountered much appetite or skill for finding a real, resonant question to work with. People don’t seem to see the value of the question as a means of seeking for new solutions, let alone envisioning setting aside time to sit in circle to find such a question, which feels like groping in the dark! Still, as Nowhere has made clear: for real innovation to be possible we have to ask these breakthrough questions. Otherwise we stay mired in the same frame of thinking; and no new insights can emerge.


Leadership and continuous collective action research

But continuous collective inquiry is not enough! The inquiry needs to become action research, where we are not just inquiring through inspiring and generative dialogue, but also starting to act in the world, together, and then taking the responses to these actions back into our inquiry. Just as we need to keep all our senses open to gather novel insights in the dialogue phase, so too must we have a clue about what kind of prototypes make the most sense and how we can understand the feedback from life.

The action research approach ensures that the collective insights arising from the inquiry are made into actionable steps – doing something very physical in the 3-dimensional world. The group can then sense into the impact of their action on the system under consideration, reflect together on what this actually means and sense into what steps to take next. This cycle iterates over and over again.

A study by Barrett Brown shows that the higher the complexity of worldview or meaning making system of the designer or change agent in sustainability initiatives, the more successful a change initiative will be. He looks at the later stages in the action logic system (Cook-Greuter, Loevinger, Torbert): from Strategists, to Alchemists to Ironists. Comparing role, service and design approach between the different stages, his findings are quite revealing. Briefly, the role of the leader is seen first as ‘to catalyze’, then ‘to create conditions’, then ‘to hold and wonder’. The perspective on service evolves from being of service ‘to’ others (personal meaning), to service ‘on behalf of’ (trans-personal meaning), to ‘serve as spirit itself’ (unitive meaning). The principal design approach morphs from ‘operating osystems’, to ‘dialoguing with systems’ to ‘designing as the system’.

It is this latter (ironist) stage – where we collectively ‘hold and wonder’, where we ‘serve as spirit itself’ and where we ‘design as the system’ – that I have tried to describe in the different elements of the Circle of Creation. By being in and from and as the new paradigm ourselves, and acting differently in this way, combined with the rigour of research, we will be able to have some impact in large-scale complex change programs. Not in a linear and planned way, but something quite radically different.

We know from Chaos Theory that the initial conditions of a complex system are critical to what will emerge from it. This is why we take such great care of all the conditions described so far. The rigour of research, the constant collective reflection and learning are just an extension of this care.

According to Alain Gauthier, who has been looking at collective leadership for many years, the word ‘lead’ originates from the Indo-European root ‘leith’, which means to ‘go forth’, to ‘cross the threshold’, or even to ‘die’. He asks: What threshold must be crossed before something new can emerge? What if leadership, in ‘crossing the threshold’, meant:

  • facing the unknown with openness and trust
  • sensing what is emerging by being present to what is
  • participating creatively in a wider field of knowing and doing, giving voice to an evolutionary impulse
  • taking self and others to where we have never been before?

Peter Hawkins also points out that we need to develop effective leadership teams. He is talking not about typical, traditional heroic leaders, but about effective collective-leadership teams which are more than the sum of the individuals. He adds that we don’t know much about how to develop these! It stands to reason that these new types of teams need a new and crucial competency: a new research methodology or technology. The practice we have been describing in such detail here needs to intentionally evolve and we need to ground it in practical application.

Quote from participant:
The dynamic of action is about a question that is brewing and unfolding in the midst of life; the learning as a challenge to our own epistemology. The phenomenon of being in the learning process itself – for the sake of wholeness – for the sake of death or dying, or story, or the land, or how we constellate ourselves; be able to create in that phenomenon those things we have yet to language. We are observers and participants of the phenomenon, at the same time. – Mary

Share emergent practices and patterns

Quote from participant: 
As Helen was talking I remember this trilogy about the steerswoman. Their role was to go into unknown territory and map the territory. She had to pack her backpack with food and a compass etc. There were steersmen, but they were rare. The gathering place of the steerswomen was the Archive; the sacred place of maps of the unknown. … The greater point of the myth is the quest for the greater knowledge, and to bring it back and share it with others who can’t go there. – Edveeje

Quote from participant:
What I love is that we are looking at the meta-patterns, about how to develop these practices that we haven’t quite looked at before. What happened last time, what could happen this time? We’re touching into things that we haven’t given voice to until now. I think it’s important and interesting that we are exploring and moving that edge. – Judy

The concept of emergent practices comes from the work of Dave Snowden. In his Cynefin model, he states that there is no such thing as best practice, or even good practice, in a complex environment. There is no way to do things in the ‘best’ way, because in a complex system too many variables can change quickly, unexpectedly and often. It is not even possible to have ‘good’ practices – these are only possible in complicated situations where experts can figure out a few alternative ways of doing things. Relating with the future or with potential falls squarely in the complex domain, and new practices and insights emerge along the way. The point is that only when we really grasp that we are part of the wider system, the ecosystem of planet earth, will we understand that publishing and spreading these practices and patterns is part of our job. It is not just for our own purpose, our own team or organisation that we are learning, it is for a much wider audience and ecosystem!

It is often the knowledge formed by new experiences that provides early insights into the changing world around us. As the ever-changing core team of Women Moving the Edge, we were fortunate to have installed the practice of directly transcribing our conference – collective note-taking. In this way, the tacit knowledge that we built over the years could be accessed through our long term, trust-based relationships and was articulated through the many conversations we had in the different hosting teams. Throughout our numerous phone calls and the different gatherings, we could constantly pull up threads from previous conversations, recognise patterns and connect dots that hadn’t been linked before.

If we can see all our own and each other’s work as experiments and probes into the wicked questions of our time, we can see the value of being able to learn from each other – finding some validation of the patterns we have noticed ourselves and seeing the wider meta-patterns popping up in different places. When we are busy with our own projects we tend to forget that we are all part of a bigger system in which all these try-outs have their place. We forget that any living system learns through the feedback it gets. Can we remember that writing about our own experiment – successful or not – is feeding the whole ecosystem? This is the only way the wider ecosystem can learn! When we do this collectively and consciously, we are building a new kind of competence in the area of shared meaning making.

With this book and its related website, time has come to share Collective Presencing with the wider world. I have taken all the material and patterned it in my unique way, feeding it back into the wider field. I imagine that by doing this the field is strengthened, deepened, broadened, becomes more substantial and more universal. Happily, I see this awareness of harvesting – sharing out the nuggets of our learning – growing in many more people: just take a look at what is shared on Medium these days!

I have learned something else too, by sharing some of the patterns that I saw early on – even before I could see the whole map. When I showed these maps, incomplete as they were, people got excited! I was surprised by the buzz in the room. This was another expression of the synergy: the capacity to articulate the patterns in combination with the holding and the silence. People seem to be hungry for explanations and teachings when integrated with experience.

Beyond all this, it is important to share our patterns and practices because this is how we are building the commons – the field of shared knowledge about what is possible in a process of shared inquiry – that is open for anyone to consult, use, re-work, build on, create with.


Theory and practice of change

Change happens in the transition from potential to actual, not from one actuality to another.
– Maria Pachalska & Michel Weber (Eds), Essays in honor of Jason W.Brown

It might be clear by now that the model-theory we used in the Women Moving the Edge gatherings was not about bringing change in from ‘outside’, but about providing enough of a container and a guiding question, so that life could then manifest as new insights and novel initiatives. Somehow, when working on projects or with organisations, the old linear idea of how change happens easily slips back in. As if we can ‘do’ something, as if we can make change happen. We can’t! We can only provide some holding and some guidance. If  people don’t want to change, they won’t – certainly not because of us or our beautiful practices. We need to be very careful to keep this foundational theory of change constantly in our minds. Our focus is on how to let life unfold in life-affirming actions. What is it that this project wants next? Can we explore with our clients from a place that is deeper that where they habitually speak from?

In complex systems – all these systems we’re working with: individuals, organisations, business, large systems change – you never, ever know beforehand how an intervention will be taken in by the internal organisation of this being. We can only hope that if we intervene from our highest centredness, groundedness and awareness, and in alignment with life, that something life-affirming for the system will ensue. We believe that a collective awareness that is more aligned inside and out, aware of more interpenetration and interweaving, will source actions and manifestations that are also more aligned. What we currently see in the world is a fragmented consciousness that manifests incoherence in so many ways. Let’s at least try to create greater coherence.

It is also crystal clear that, given the level of awareness that large-system change work calls for – holding the space, facilitating the process, sensing the current need of the system-organisation, getting to know the individuals, the business, the industry – consultants and facilitators doing this work are on the edge of how much they can hold. When there are so many levels and dimensions to attend to, no one person can hold them all. Because of this complexity, we need teams who can hold all these elements together, who are themselves an example of how team alignment can be different, where we are not delivering a product but stepping into a process of co-creation with our clients.

The work we envision here is eco-systemic in nature. Such hosting teams – as Circles of Creation– are at the core of any ecosystem approach. Only this kind of format and methodology will be able to hold the space and the inquiry for what is next in this vast field. It is the power of the carefully crafted intention and the guiding question, mixed with the human contributions and connections, that make an ecosystem work. The rest we leave to life.

I also want to link back here, within this frame of theory of change, to the concept of conscious closure. Organisations and businesses, too, are ever-changing, complex evolving systems, while most people – founders in particular – seem to assume that they (should) exist for eternity. One of our participants, Cari, went through this process of conscious closure and noted: “There were ego attachments to my income, and my job, and yet it was remarkably easy to let go of (the organisation). If this is meant to die, it is meant to die. I am not attached to it being alive, but instead sensing what wanted to happen there. The loyalty for me was to something bigger than the organisation – not to the organisation but the soul, something larger.”

Next: 9.6 Life as love in action
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2 thoughts on “9.5 Collective Presencing applied

  1. Pingback: From the feed: More complexity – Chris Corrigan

  2. Pingback: 9.4 Wild and magic – WMtE part 9 –

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