Author Archives for Curtis Ogden

December 6, 2022

Principles and Questions for Advancing Equitable Wellbeing in Systems

“Our drive for wellbeing is universal. Our access to wellbeing is not.”

www.wellbeingblueprint.org/blueprint  

One of my greatest joys is weaving connections between initiatives with which I am partnering. Over the past several months this has shown up, in one instance, as creating bridges and partnerships between the Full Frame Initiative (creators of and conveners around the Wellbeing Blueprint) and a few other networks, including Food Solutions New England and the DC Legal Aid Transformations Network.

What these and many other networks that I am working with, have in common, is a commitment to social (and particularly racial) equity, characterized in large part by a vision of equitable wellbeing and a deeply rooted sense of belonging for all people, in food, public health, legal aid, and related fields. The Full Frame Initiative has developed a robust body of work, that brings nuanced attention to what supports individual and collective wellbeing, systemically. This includes focused attention on different domains of wellbeing, as well as a set of principles that are meant to help people design systems that give everyone access to wellbeing.

Inspired by FFI’s work, I took their set of principles and turned some of what was presented as a set of descriptive statements into questions that might help different kinds of social service providers and policymakers integrate wellbeing into their work. Curious to know which of these catch people’s attention, and what they might and or adjust for their particular system change work.

Principle 1: Start with what matters to people: wellbeing.

  1. Are our decision-making processes being informed by the lived experiences and expertise of people receiving services/most negatively impacted?
  2. Are we defining people by the issues they are facing? Are we seeing them as whole people with their own strategies for navigating systems? 
  3. Are we asking people, and especially those who have been historically marginalized, to make unsustainable tradeoffs in our service models/policy work? 
  4. Are our services trauma-informed and culturally responsive, recognizing the different challenges and values at play in people’s lives?
  5. Are we focusing on the level of the family and/or community, not just the individual? 

Principle 2: Design and implement with, not for.

  1. Are we partnering with community to vision and frame issues, rather than engaging community for feedback around solutions designed by others? 
  2. Are we ensuring that those most impacted dictate what matters, rather than externally determining what “should” matter? 
  3. Are we shifting power to community and shift risk and burdens out of community? 
  4. Are we allowing communities to be complex and non-monolithic?
  5. Are we valuing- not exploiting- people’s and communities’ vulnerability and shared experience? 

Principle 3: Push against harms in communities already facing the greatest adversity; support healing and regeneration.

  1. Are we reaching/considering the least resourced/capitalized communities in our area? 
  2. Are we respecting Indigenous and informal cultural norms and values?
  3. Are we collecting data on structural/systemic barriers and how people receiving services/most negatively impacted work around these barriers?
  4. Are we addressing biases in expectations for the outcomes of those receiving services/most negatively impacted?
  5. Are we explicitly supporting healing and tying our work to shifting harmful patterns of the past?
  6. Are we supporting and creating space for creative solutions, including from those receiving services? 

Principle 4: Foster and build on social connections and social capital.

  1. Are we supporting people helping people before adding programs to help people, including removing obstacles to family/community members helping one another?
  2. Are we enabling and enhancing social networks in our policy work, especially for those receiving and providing services/most negatively impacted?
  3. Are we building on and not undermining social connectedness, belonging and social capital in community?
  4. Are we supporting bridging and linking capital (relationships that connect us across differences of identity, experience and power), not just bonding capital (relationships with those most like us)?
  5. Are we focusing less on individual change and considering how changes in relationships between and among people might be more useful?

Principle 5: Span boundaries.

  1. In our services/policy work, are we leveraging different and diverse aspects of the human experience, including arts, culture and joy?
  2. Are we seeking out uncommon partners and solutions?
  3. Are we Integrating with and advocating across other systems, leveraging other fields and sectors?
  4. Are we identifying and illuminating when policies of one system (including the one in which we work) create barriers in other systems for those receiving our services?

Principle 6: Build (on) assets and innovation.

  1. Are we striving to preserve innovations sparked by the pandemic and/or other crises?
  2. Are we ensuring that our services/policies we are advancing do not require (further) financial sacrifice and that they do support or connect to others supporting financial wellbeing?
  3. As we provide direct services, are we also attending/connecting to anti-poverty work and programs?
  4. Are we addressing policies that undermine people’s and communities’ ability to accumulate wealth, knowledge, data and other kinds of capital?
  5. Are we starting with what communities already have and diligently seek ways to avoid circumventing what works well, as defined by the people who are impacted? 
  6. Are we hiring/compensating people with lived experience in navigating structural challenges?

Find out more by visiting the Wellbeing Blueprint and consider becoming a signer!

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December 1, 2022

Network Weaving for Equitable Wellbeing (Part 2)

This post is a continuation of the one that appeared earlier this week (Tuesday, November 29th), and together both form an extended article that was written for participants of this month’s Wellbeing Summit, hosted by the Full Frame Initiative.

What is network weaving?

“A network weaver is someone who is aware of the networks around them and works to make them healthier.”

June Holley (writer, activist, network consultant)

Network weaving is an umbrella term for the practice of network leadership/stewardship, and it refers to a specific role. If you think about weaving with fabric, it is about bringing different strands together to create a tapestry or cloth of some kind. This can create beautiful patterns, functional garments, and also strength where individual fibers might otherwise be relatively weak. The same goes for weaving connections between people, places and ideas. This is what network weaving is about! 

Network weaving is not necessarily the same thing as networking. Networking is generally about putting oneself at the center and making connections to others that create what is called a hub-and-spoke network (see middle image below). 

“We never know how our small activities will affect others through the invisible fabric of our connectedness. In this exquisitely connected world, it’s never a question of ‘critical mass.” It’s always about critical connections.”

– Grace Lee Boggs (author, social activist, philosopher)

A core activity in network weaving is what is called “closing triangles.” This happens, for example, when we connect people we know who do not already know each other. This effectively creates a triangle of connection (see the many triangles created through the connections in the left hand image above). These triangles, by extension, can bring the connections that those three people know together, potentially creating more diversity, intricacy and robustness in a larger network (see image below). This is how we can begin to realize a sense of abundance, if these many connections are actively engaged, sharing, contributing and caring for each other and the whole network. 

The work of network weaving is also about strengthening existing connections, keeping them warm and engaged. This can happen through activities such as asking questions, making requests and offers, and sharing resources of different kinds.  Beyond this core function of supporting greater connectivity, network weaving can also be about supporting greater alignment and coordinated or emergent/self-organized action in networks. Other key moves for weaving and activating networks can include:

  • designing and facilitating processes to achieve a sense of shared identity/destiny
  • curating a variety of resources for and diverse communication pathways between members
  • creating conditions for self-organized and emergent action
  • helping to coordinate joint ventures

What do networks and network weaving have to do with having a fair shot at wellbeing?

“Connectedness is a social determinant of health. The degree to which we have and perceive a sufficient number and diversity of relationships that allow us to give and receive information, emotional support and material aid; create a sense of belonging and value; and foster growth.”

– Katya Fels Smyth (wellbeing/justice advocate, Full Frame Initiative founder)

Wellbeing, as defined by the Full Frame Initiative (FFI), is “the set of needs and experiences that are universally required in combination and balance to weather challenges and have health and hope.” FFI notes further that everyone is wired for wellbeing, but we do not all have a fair shot at  the core determinants of wellbeing, or what FFI uplifts as the 5 Domains of Wellbeing

  • Social connectedness to people/communities that allows us to give and to receive, and spaces where we experience belonging to something bigger than ourselves. 
  • Stability that comes from having things we can count on to be the same from day to day and knowing that a small bump won’t set off a domino-effect of crises.
  • Safety, the ability to be ourselves without significant danger or harm.
  • Mastery, that comes from being able to influence other people and what happens to us, having a sense of purpose and skills to navigate and negotiate our life. 
  • Meaningful access to relevant resources like food, housing, clothing, sleep and more, without shame, danger or difficulty.

The first domain above has clear connections to networks and network weaving. Being embedded and engaged in supportive social networks is a great contributor to individual and collective wellbeing! Beyond this, being connected to others in authentic, caring and mutually rewarding webs of relationships can contribute to a sense of stability, safety, purpose, as well create access to resources (financial and otherwise) that sustain and enliven us. So let’s notice the networks around us, who is in them and who is not, who has access to the five domains (see above) and who does not, and invite others to do the same. Ask, What systemic changes need to be made for greater inclusion, equity and belonging?” And then together, let’s weave our way to everyone having a fair shot at wellbeingll!

“i think of movements as intentional worlds …  not as an unfolding accident of random occurrences, but rather as a massive weaving of intention. you can be tossed about, you can follow someone else’s pattern, or you can intentionally begin to weave and shape existence.”

– adrienne maree brown (author, doula, activist)

For more on network weaving, see: 

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November 29, 2022

Network Weaving for Equitable Wellbeing (Part 1)

The following post was written for those who will be attending the Full Frame Initiative’s (FFI) Wellbeing Summit in Charlotte, North Carolina December 11-14. The Interaction Institute for Social Change has been supporting FFI staff and signers of the Wellbeing Blueprint in developing network ways of thinking and doing as they work to equitable wellbeing in systems ranging from health care to transportation to housing to education to legal aid to food and beyond. Feel free to sign the Wellbeing Blueprint by going to the link above and join the movement to ensure that everyone has a fair shot at wellbeing.

“It really boils down to this: all life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

– Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (minister, activist, civil rights leader)

What are networks, and why should we care?

Networks are collections of “nodes and links,” different elements that are connected to each other. These nodes or elements could be people, places, computer or airport terminals, species in an ecosystem, etc.  Together, through their connections, these nodes create something that they could not create on their own. This is what some might call “collective impact” or what network scientists call “net gains” and “network effects.”

“While a network, like a group, is a collection of people, it includes something more: a specific set of connections between people in the group. These ties are often more important than the individual people themselves. They allow groups to do things that a disconnected collection of individuals cannot.”

– Nicholas A. Christakis (sociologist, physician, researcher)

Network effects and net gains can include the following (see image below):

  • Resilience – The ability for a network to weather storms of different kinds, literal and metaphorical, and to bounce back from adversity. Healthy networks can bend without breaking. 
  • Adaptation – The ability for a collective to change with changing conditions. Healthy networks can rearrange themselves to adjust and respond to disruptions and perturbations.
  • Small World Reach – The ability to reach others relatively quickly, across different lines of separation or difference (geography, culture, sector, etc.) . Healthy networks have a diversity and intricacy of pathways, so there are a variety of ways to reach many different nodes/members efficiently. 
  • Rapid Dissemination – Related to reach, this is about the ability to get crucial resources out to a wide variety of nodes in a timely manner. Healthy networks can ensure that different members can get the nourishment (information, ideas, money, food, etc.) they need to survive and thrive.

“Connections create value. The social era will reward those organizations that realize they don’t create value all by themselves. If the industrial era was about building things, the social era is about connecting things, people, ideas.”

-Nilofer Merchant (entrepreneur, business strategist, author)

Other “network benefits” can accrue to individual nodes or members of a network. For example, when surveying members of different kinds of social change and learning networks, some of what often gets mentioned as benefits include:

  • Being with other people who inspire and support me
  • Learning about topics relevant to my work
  • Understanding the bigger picture that shapes and influences my work
  • Gaining new tools, skills and tactics to support my work 
  • Having my voice and efforts amplified
  • Accessing new funding and other resources
  • Forming new partnerships and joint ventures

What is a healthy network?

“We are the living conduit to all life. When we contemplate the vastness of the interwoven network that we are tied to, our individual threads of life seem far less fragile.”

– Sherri Mitchell/Weh’na Ha’mu’ Kwasset (Penobscot lawyer, activist, author)

A healthy network is one that is able to achieve its collective purpose/core functions, while also addressing the interests of its members, and continuing to be adaptive to changing circumstances. Some key features of these kinds of networks include:

  • Diversity of membership
  • Intricacy of connections (many pathways between nodes)
  • Common sense of purpose or mutuality; a sense of a “bigger we”
  • Robustness of flows of a variety of resources to all parts of the network
  • Shared responsibility for tending to the health and activity of the network
  • Resilient and distributed structure(s) with a variety of shared stewardship roles
  • A sense of equitable belonging and ability to give to/benefit from the network 
  • Ongoing learning and adaptative capacity

Like any kind of living organism, networks require care and feeding to keep them vibrant. This is where network weaving comes into play! More on this in the post to follow on Thursday, December 1st …

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October 17, 2022

Care, Trust, Truth and Belonging: Themes From a Network Leadership Institute Re-Launch

Tent where we held the launch session

* * * * *

“We now know what each other is made of. We can start weaving this beautiful tapestry, this community.”

“I don’t want to wait another 8 months until we are back in person!”

“I want others to know about this. I’ve never experienced anything like this. Others should know about this.”

The three quotes above came from participants in the newest Food Solutions New England (FSNE) Network Leadership Institute cohort, at the close of our opening session two weeks ago. After a year of doing an on-line only Institute, we made the decision to move to a hybrid model for this sixth annual offering, launching and concluding in-person during the warmer months (September and June) and going on-line for five sessions during the colder months late fall through early spring 2023.

Like so many, we weighed many considerations before making this choice. As one participant said during the session, “Many of us had to push through vulnerabilities to be here.” Ultimately we felt we really needed to tap into the power of the in-person gathering to ground people and set an energetic tone for the rest of the program. Many conversations were had about COVID protocols that would ensure safety without being overly onerous. This ended up including a wrist band system (see photos below), testing the day before, at arrival and after upon returning home (tests provided by the program), meeting for the bulk of the time outdoors in a tent with plenty of ventilation, light and spacing, and making masks available for those who wanted them, when we met or ventured indoors.

Our COVID care station

The tone we aimed to set from the outset was one of community care and belonging, acknowledging that for some this would be a new and welcome experience, and others may well be feeling anxious and uncertain. Hosting is always a spirit we aim to bring to the Institute, whether in-person or virtual, and includes working to ensure that everyone feels welcome and that their well-being is front and center. This included providing clear information on the front end around expectations and supports, a warm welcome upon arrival, a care package of local/regional food items (appropriate to our common work), keeping food and beverages available and setting a tone of ease and enjoyment (fidget items on tables, art supplies and a diverse music playlist).

Co-faciltator Karen Spiller with the cohort

Since 2016, IISC has been partnering with the FSNE Backbone Team from the University of New Hampshire’s (UNH) Sustainability Institute, to support and connect people in this region who are committed to advancing the emergence of just, sustainable, collaboratively stewarded and self-determined food futures for all who live here. This network and leadership development offering initiative grew out of system mapping that FSNE undertook several years ago to identify areas of leverage to shift extractive, inequitable and life-depleting patterns of the dominant food system.

More recently, the network has honed its focus on four overlapping impact areas as its unique and essential contribution, complementing those of its partners in the region, to bringing the FSNE vision and values for food system transformation to life. The Network Leadership Institute (NLI) is an outgrowth of both Network Building & Strengthening as well as Racial Equity & Values Leadership, but also touches on the other two areas as well in its content.

From the start, we knew that the main value of any kind of leadership development program would be in the people that came together and the relationships they built with one another. You only need to read about the current cohort to feel how much potential there is in simply creating opportunities for these individuals to connect and identify as more of a collective! From there, we were interested in connecting those involved in the program with other values-aligned change agents in the region. In addition, we looked at giving people an experience of different and diverse places in our region (rural, urban, coastal) and to see their work in a regional context. Lastly, we wanted to offer an opportunity for participants to hone their skills as collaborative/network leaders and social (especially racial) equity champions.

This year’s program integrates all of these elements, again with a particular theme of care and welcome. What we heard from this year’s cohort was how this was very much appreciated and built over the course of the more than 24 hours we were together. Here are some highlights of the programmatic progression that were intended to contribute to our themes of care, trust, truth and belonging:

  • We began by breaking bread together, at small tables, in the tent. Good food, relaxing music and informal introductions were meant to help people land softly.
  • We formally opened, as we generally do during FSNE gatherings, with an offering and a grounding exercise. The offering might be a poem, a quote, a song, a short story, a dance …. We read one of our favorite stanzas of poetry from William Stafford’s “A Ritual to Read to Each Other,” (see below), again to set a tone for the session, and then led people who were interested (making sure to let people know it was voluntary) through an embodied exercise to ground bodies/nervous systems, honor feelings and any thoughts people might be having as we got going.
  • We were joined by NLI alum Rachel Sayet, a Mohegan tribal member, Indigenous educator, essential oil crafter and Reiki practitioner, to provide some background on the land on which we were meeting and the history and present of Indigenous peoples who have stewarded them. This included the terrible and truthful telling of the actions of Lord Jeffrey Amherst, for whom the town in which we were meeting is still named, as well as efforts by indigenous educators and students in the area to reclaim their foodways and advance food sovereignty.

If you don’t know the kind of person I am

and I don’t know the kind of person you are

a pattern that others made may prevail in the world

and following the wrong god home we may miss our star.

  • We introduced everyone to the Welcome Table ritual, through which people share objects that are meaningful to and say something about them, and share a bit of that story. At the end of our session, participants are invited to take their object back and say what they have gained during their time with the group. People always remark how “deep” this goes very quickly in helping people get a sense of one another.
  • We collaboratively built community care agreements, by consensus, first by inviting people to consider their self-care practices and then inviting them into conversation with one another about what might support the entire “village.” We guided them through one of the Liberating Structures practices known as 1-2-4-All for this.
  • We introduced people to a brief history of the University of New Hampshire’s Sustainability Institute, the Backbone Organization (convenor, coordinator, communicator and fundraiser) for Food Solutions New England, how it defines “sustainability” broadly (including cultural diversity and social equity) as well as the history and current reality of FSNE. In presenting this, we made clear that this new cohort was already a part of FSNE and we welcomed their contributions not just to the Institute, but its various other programs and initiatives.
From UNH Sustainability Institute
  • We started our second day by sharing a land acknowledgment in the form of a poem (another favorite – “Being Human” by Naima Penniman) that personalizes our connections to the Earth). And we shared an offering with some of the same themes in the form of a quote by Penobscot educator and advocate Sherri Mitchell ((Weh’na Ha’mu’ Kwasset) from her book Sacred Instructions: Indigenous Wisdom for Living Spirit-Based Change (see below), which encourages the reader/listener to attune to the rhythms in the natural world for greater ease and alignment.

When we merge our internal rhythms with the rhythms of creation, we develop grace in our movement, and without thought or effort we are able to slide into the perfectly choreographed dance of life.”

  • On our second day we also invited offerings from the cohort members, whoever felt moved to do so. There were three – a short personal story, a reading and a poem. We look forward to more over the course of our next six sessions!
  • We invited people to get artistically expressive through illustrating their River of Life– with crayons, pencils, markers – and naming where they are in their leadership/change agency journeys. They then were invited to share these in trios and talk about how they want the Institute to support them moving forward, and what their intentions were for learning from and contributing to the program and one another’s journeys.
  • We delved into Facilitative Leadership for Social Change, our collaborative skills curriculum for the program, and led off with the practice of “Balancing Dimensions of Collaborative Success: Results, Process, Relationship.” This practice includes a small group challenge exercise (building a tower) that tends to bond people (lots of laughter) and helps them think about the trust, care, truth and belonging that is needed to ensure long-term “success” in collaborative change work.

Mutual trust, holistic care, truth-telling and equitable belonging. Those words were expressed throughout our first session in one form or another, in word and in deed, by the hosting team, guests and by the participants. It was evident how these were not just ideas, but becoming part of the collective body that will carry this program and network forward, as we move into an on-line season. “That’s okay,” said one participant,” as some bemoaned going back to more life on Zoom, “we know each other now. That will stay with us.” And we are delighted to already see one subset of the group looking to meet in person soon in the southeast of our region.

This is how we do and will do it, as the poet Marge Piercy writes in two stanzas of her poem “Seven of Pentacles” (see below image) …

Cohort 6, just before our closing, at The Welcome Table

Weave real connections, create real nodes, build real houses.
Live a life you can endure: Make love that is loving.
Keep tangling and interweaving and taking more in,
a thicket and bramble wilderness to the outside but to us
interconnected with rabbit runs and burrows and lairs.

Live as if you liked yourself, and it may happen:
reach out, keep reaching out, keep bringing in.
This is how we are going to live for a long time: not always,
for every gardener knows that after the digging, after
the planting,
after the long season of tending and growth, the harvest comes.

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August 22, 2022

“Entangled” Social Change: From Inter-action to “Intra-Action”

“What is at stake with quantum theory is the very nature of reality. Should reality be understood as something completely impervious to our interventions, or should it be viewed as something responsive to the very existence of human beings?”

Christopher Fuchs (physicist)
Image by Kevin Dooley, shared under provisions of Creative Commons Attribution license 2.0.

A mark of a good book for me is one that challenges my thinking, moves my heart, and also resonates in my body. That has been the case while reading Karen O’Brien’s You Matter More Than You Think: Quantum Social Science for a Thriving World. I want to give a big “thank you” and shout out to Fabian Pfortmüller who made this recommendation to me during a rich conversation a few weeks ago.

O’Brien’s book makes the case for bringing a quantum physics lens to the social sciences and to thinking about social change, even as she acknowledges the doubters and detractors who see this as an inappropriate move. Indeed, in posting about the book on LinkedIn recently, I was a little surprised to see a couple of comments attacking the idea of importing quantum considerations into the human realm. In anticipation of this, O’Brien notes that while quantum and classical physics, as well as the “hard” and social sciences, may have different applications, they are not totally separate from each other. Furthermore she writes:

“… given the nature of global crises, maybe this actually is an appropriate time to consider how meanings, metaphors and methods informed by quantum physics can inspire social change, and in particular our responses to climate change.”

So I have been doing what she invites – playing with these different ideas and concepts from the quantum realm and seeing what they stimulate. One I want to lift up here is the notion of subjectivity versus objectivity, and specifically that we are always participants in the world, never simply “detached observers.” This is not simply meant in an emotional sense, but that our very act of observing is actually an embodied intervention and can change what we see and also how we see the world. This “entanglement” (meant more metaphorically here, rather than in the formal scientific sense) asks us to consider how we are already connected, or part of a larger whole.

O’Brien spends some time exploring beliefs as being central to both what is possible and what is actually realized in our lives and world. If we believe we are completely separate from one another, for example. what do we and don’t we consider possible or worth while? If we believe we are more tied or woven, then what might we be inclined to do? The work of Karen Barad is referenced in this respect, pointing out the difference between talking/thinking about “inter-actions” of separate entities versus “intra-actions” among entangled elements within a larger whole. This is not just about a difference in language, but a difference in perceived and acted upon futures.

Photo taken at The Gennie in Craftsbury, VT

What comes to mind is a mantra of sorts that Valarie Kaur puts forward in her justice work focused on addressing the dynamics of othering and oppression, as well as in her book See No Stranger: A Memoir and Manifesto of Revolutionary Love

“You are a part of me I do not yet know.”

Similar to this spirit, john a. powell offers the following in Racing to Justice: Transforming Our Conceptions of Self and Other to Build an Inclusive Society:

“There is a need for an alternative vision, a beloved community where being connected to the other is seen as the foundation of a healthy self, not its destruction, and where the racial other is seen not as the infinite other, but rather as the other that is always and already a part of us.”

I am also reminded of the peace-building work of John Paul Lederach, and this from his book The Moral Imagination: The Art and Soul of Building Peace:

“Time and again, where in small or larger ways the shackles of violence are broken, we find a singular tap root that gives life to the moral imagination: the capacity of individuals and communities to imagine themselves in a web of relationship even with their enemies.”

If we treat the so-called “other” (whether human, other animals, plants … ) as apart from us, or as in some sense fundamentally threatening (“the enemy”), then where does that lead? The point here is that reality is not just “reality out there,” it is also what we make of it. We have a say. We matter. What we believe matters. What we do matters. Embracing “a bigger WE” matters. We can “bring forth worlds,” (to quote Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela’s Santiago Theory of Cognition) at least to a certain extent. And whether this is about imagining or re-membering, acting “as if” we are joined in something larger can seemingly create tangible results, while also acknowledging that dynamics of power and privilege are important to consider in terms of who may be inclined to make first gestures and how these will be received.

“Between me and not-me there is surely a line, a clear distinction, or so it seems. But, now that I look, where is that line?

This fresh apple, still cold and crisp from the morning dew, is not-me only until I eat it. When I eat, I eat the soil that nourished the apple. When I drink, the waters of the earth become me. With every breath I take in I draw in not-me and make it me. With every breath out I exhale me into not-me.

If the air and the waters and the soils are poisoned, I am poisoned. Only if I believe the fiction of the lines more than the truth of the lineless planet, will I poison the earth, which is myself.”

Donella Meadows, from “Lines in the Mind, Not in the World”

* * * * *

A few years ago I was diagnosed with a benign tumor on my left acoustic and balance nerve (an acoustic neuroma). As the tumor continued to grow, albeit slowly, I made the decision to have radiation treatment two years ago (six months into our new COVID reality). What was presented as a fairly straight-forward outpatient procedure turned into quite an ordeal as I had a strong reaction to the treatment. What followed was dizziness, terrible tinnitus, poor sleep, muscular pain, headaches and occasional “nerve storms” in other parts of my body. After a few months of extreme discomfort I went to see a very adept acupressurist and holistic healer who made the observation that I seemed to be trying to separate myself from that part of my body, tensing against it, rejecting it, and the result was further exacerbation. With her help, over several months, I gradually got reacquainted with that sensitive area (really getting to know it for the first time), and through slow and steady integrative body work, began to relax and reclaim that part of me in a way that has brought greater ease to my overall system and life.

Image by  Joe Le Merou, “Peace,” shared under provisions of Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0.

The very energizing thing about that work with this healer is that it has helped not simply to address discomfort in one area of my body, it has positively impacted other parts that I did not even realize were misaligned and/or listless until this crisis occurred. I take it as ontological truth that I am all of my body (though not simply my body), yet for many years (and especially recently) I had not been acting like that (consciously and unconsciously), with real health-related ramifications. Extend this metaphor (separate –> connected, inter-action –> intra-action) to other “bodies” of different sizes. scales and dimensions, and where might that lead?

What excites me here is acknowledging the entanglements that we do not yet know, or cannot possibly hold in our minds alone given the immensity of the world. This is where “thinking and acting in a networked way,” with some faith and conviction, comes into play for me, along with an orientation towards equity. In particular, I think of the encouragement offered in these words from the late long-time community organizer and political educator Grace Lee Boggs:

“We never know how our small activities will affect others through the invisible fabric of our connectedness. In this exquisitely connected world, it’s never a question of ‘critical mass.’ It’s always about critical connections.”                      

What critical connections and small moves might we make in this intricate, [vast/intimate] and mysterious world that could yield big and needed changes in our communities and lives?

Photo by Gordon M Robertson, shared under auspices of Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0.
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August 15, 2022

From Stakeholders to “Care-holders”

Image by Emily Bergquist, shared under provisions of Creative Commons Attribution license 2.0.

“The challenge is to replace practices that distance and disconnect with ones that evoke empathy, caring, and creativity.”

Carol Sanford

In our collaborative change work with organizations and multi-sector networks, we at IISC are adamant about doing thoughtful stakeholder analysis at the start of an initiative, and returning to this work periodically, asking the question, “Who are we missing?” As important as this can be, not everyone loves the word “stakeholder.” It can sound somewhat wonky and impersonal, and I myself have been thinking about the word “stake” and what it says about people.

To have a stake means “to have a share, interest, or involvement in something or someone.” Going back to the early 1700s, a stakeholder was one to whom money was deposited when making a wager/bet. And in the colonizing of what is now the United States, stakes were literally placed on lands that were stewarded by indigenous peoples as a way of claiming ownership of them. What none of this conveys is a sense of care or caring. I don’t mean whether or not someone cares (or is indifferent), but whether there is a genuine heartfelt sense of connection or deep desire to protect, create and/or contribute. Increasingly, this sense of care and caring (along with reckoning and making amends) is showing up as a crucial factor in making the difficult work of complex collaborative (systemic and culture) change happen.

Recently, Anne Heberger Marino tweeted something about translating “stakeholders” to “careholders” in her/their mind to get beyond “detached objectivity.” I really like and resonate with that! And playing with that term seems to raise some interesting possibilities. In general, when we at IISC work with partners to consider who might been engagd in collaborative social change work, we uplift the following categories/criteria (applied to individuals and groups) with respect to a given initiative:

  • Is likely to be impacted by the outcome of the effort/decision 
  • Voices unheard or typically marginalized perspectives 
  • Functions as a connector in or across sector(s)/field(s) 
  • Is in a position to implement the effort/decision 
  • Is in a position to prevent it from being implemented 
  • Has relevant information or expertise (including lived experience)
  • Has informal influence without authority 
  • Is responsible for the final decision

Applying a lens of “caring” or (or even “loving”) to these criteria brings another level or nuance. Beyond functionality and/or positionality, who really connects to and cares about what we are trying to do? This can raise the bar for the analysis and also potentially expand possibilities for the initiative. Farmer, poet and essayist Wendell Berry has talked about the importance of what he calls “the turn towards affection.”  Having spent many years reflecting on and pushing back against the unfortunate demonstrated human capacity to despoil landscapes and demonize “the other,” he takes a strong stand for deep connection, or affection:

“For humans to have a responsible relationship to the world, they must imagine their places in it. … By imagination we see it illuminated by its own unique character and by our love for it.”

What if we asked ourselves and others what might be illuminated by people bringing their affection and/or love to the initiative, work, place and/or goal in question? Who already has this? How might we inspire it in others?

I can also see “Cares deeply about the effort/decision” as being its own worthy category/criterion. And in looking at the criterion from the list above, “Is in a position to prevent it from being implemented” (the proverbial “blocker(s)”), bringing a lens of care makes me wonder what otherwise perceived “adversaries” actually care about/love/connect to. Might this kind of curiosity help to build bridges and understanding from the outset?

In addition, recent conversations among a group of IISC staff and affiliates about these categories and criterion have raised important considerations of Indigenous peoples and perspectives. Increasingly we are seeing an interest in acknowledging and addressing harms done, validating indigenous ways of knowing, and working to establish “right relationships” and “decolonize” systems. So we might add another criterion/consideration: “Is indigenous to the lands we are on or where the work is happening.” And perhaps by extension of these notions of indigeneity and caring, we might also consider who: “Speaks for the land” (see the work and writings of Jeannette Armstrong, of the Okanagan people) and also “Speaks for the more-than-human realm.”

Finally, and relatedly, I am reminded of our IISC Collaborative Change Lens, which includes the facet of “love” as a force for social transformation and justice. As we say on our website, “We nurture the love that does justice: the desire for the wellbeing of others, which is central to every social change movement. Love infuses our power with compassion, reclaims our resilience, heals our wounds, causes us to see ourselves as connected, and enables our radical imagination.”

What might care and care-holding bring to your consideration of who and how to engage others in your social change work?

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July 13, 2022

Getting to the Goods (and Beyond “Folded Arms” Syndrome) in Impact Networks

“Your generosity is more important than your perfection.”

Seth Godin

Over the past 20 years of working with a variety of social change networks, I have observed a common dynamic surface after the initial enthusiasm and launch phase. As happened recently with a place-based network about a year into its development (navigating COVID and political uprisings along the way), some members started to bang the “What have we actually done?” drum. Contextual crises notwithstanding, this is not an inappropriate or unhelpful question. As important as relationship and trust-building is, there can come a time when people want to know … “So what?” Sometimes this comes from what we might call more “results-oriented” people in the network. Or it may come from the more time-strapped and stressed, those from smaller organizations, or those who just genuinely don’t see the return on their investment. When this has come up, and people are either holding back (“folded arms”) or threatening to walk, I have witnessed and facilitated several different ways of moving through the real or perceived lack of progress.

  1. “If you want it, then you better put a ring around it” – In one instance, the convening team of a state-wide network essentially drew a line around all of the network participants and started claiming their successes as network successes. This might sound a bit shady, though it was not done in that spirit. By celebrating “your success as our success,” people felt appreciated and started to turn towards one another and see themselves as a bigger we. They didn’t have to wait to get to mass action. Smaller subsets having success counted.
  2. Get a quick win – In another state-wide network, fraught at the outset by folded arms despite the fact that people would regularly physically show up for meetings, a network coordinator seized upon a timely policy advocacy opportunity that surfaced, which resulted in a mass outpouring and a legislative win. Nothing sells like success. That early victory got people eager to see what else they might be able to accomplish and they settled in for some more relationship-building.
  3. Collect and share connection stories – We know that relationship-building is not just about the relationships. It can lead to new partnerships and projects. Often this happens at the start of a network, but is not tracked. We worked with another place-based network that intentionally set out to track the results of connections made in and through the network, and then shared these with the network as a whole. More about connection stories here.
  4. Highlight the unusual and adjacent conversations – What makes many of the networks we work with unique is that they bring together people who do not often work with each other. Highlighting this and also what emerges out of novel interactions across fields can make “just talking” into exciting explorations and engines of innovation. For a little inspiration on this front, see “Why the most interesting ideas happen at the borders between disciplines” from Steven Johnson at Adjacent Possible (!).
  5. Pump people up, individually and collectively – Let’s face it, in these times (and really all times), expressing genuine appreciation can go a long way. We work with a network convenor who does this wonderfully, tracking and celebrating people for their individual contributions outside of network gatherings, and constantly speaking to the power and potential of the collective. She just makes people feel good! This can make the proverbial “marathon, not a sprint” more enjoyable.
  6. Get a super weaver going – Having a really adept and energetic network weaver can make all the difference in the early stages of a network. We have seen the impact this can have when ample capacity is created to regularly check in with people, listen to them, make connections between different needs and offers in the system, and encourage people to share more with one another. When those exchanges start happening, the “there” there is often more apparent.
  7. Lift up the network champions – Generally there is a small group of people who really appreciate and lean into the value of the network from the get go (gratefully receiving and using resources that are shared, following up with new connections, testing out new ideas, leveraging the network as a platform), making it happen and not waiting for it. Observing this, capturing it, and sharing it with the network can help make the point that the network is what people make of it and give ideas for how to make this happen.

What have you done to successfully navigate impatience and intransigence in impact networks?

Image by Sylvain Raybaud, shared under provision of Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0.
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June 29, 2022

Callings from “Fierce Civility”

Image by Nick Doty, used under provision of Creative Commons attribution license 2.0.

In previous posts (see “Life (and Power) on the Resilient Edge of Resistance” and “At the Heart of Regeneration is … the Heart (and the Gut”), I have written about my experiences with the Weston Network and the Respectful Confrontation training and apprenticeship program and more recently with the Fierce Civility teacher training program, which I began in March of this year. This most recent experience, including a 5 day retreat with a small and racially diverse group of skillful practitioners from around the US, again drove home the importance for me of embodied practice generally, and specifically to manage our nervous systems and engage in interpersonal “co-regulation.” To me, Joe Weston is a true magician, a masterful teacher and coach, and someone that has helped me to develop deeper reverence for my body and its wisdom (along with very adept healers, Dr. Eve Capkanis and Gwen McClellan).

A few weeks ago, Joe gave me a draft of his forthcoming book, currently titled Fierce Civility: Transforming Our Global Culture from Polarization to Lasting Peace, and asked that I do a critical review. I came away with more appreciation for what he and The Weston Network are trying to achieve in these fractured and fractious times. “Civility” has (almost) become a dirty word, seen as naive and impossible by some (at least when considering certain cultural and political divides), and as harmful by others, if “being civil” means not speaking or hearing truths or working for social justice. Joe appreciates all of this (writing at one point – “Even our passivity has taken on a tone of aggression”), and holds the concept of civility in dynamic tension with fierce-ness.

Fierce civility is not about “chronic niceness” or conflict avoidance, but rather advocates for stances of assertiveness (as opposed to aggression) and receptivity (as opposed to passivity). Fierce civility is not about glossing over systemic and structural injustice and oppression, even as it does not shy away from promoting personal responsibility and accountability. This delicate and sometimes difficult balancing act was definitely a topic of conversation this past weekend when our Fierce Civility cohort (whom Joe has dubbed “love ninjas”) gathered on the heels of Friday’s US Supreme Court decision on Roe v. Wade. That is a discussion that will continue, no doubt. Joe writes in his book, “We are technologically overfed and spiritually malnourished,” and encourages people to intentionally change their diets (quality and quantity) as a means of effectively making both personal and systemic change. And best if this is work is done with supportive community.

Four core elements of Fierce Civility and Respectful Confrontation

There is much more to say about the book, as well as the practices that the Weston Network teaches (though better to actually read the book and engage in the practices), but for now, I wanted to share (with Joe’s permission) some particular quotes that struck while reading the draft and that have stayed with me.

“True martial artists would say that they learn how to fight so that they can pivot away from conflict and aggression and prevent fighting, and that is true power.”

“Imagine in a conversation if the goal on both sides was to protect yourself, the other and the conversation itself from unconscious reactivity and the lack of civility that can unexpectedly seep in.”

“When we give the extremes all of our attention, our focus is turned towards them and away from the larger majority of people who hold more nuanced, less reactive views of the same issues.”

“What if the most courageous, revolutionary and impactful thing you could do at this time is to cultivate a daily practice of aligning with your humanity, embody a deeper level of resilience, avoid burn out, as well as maintain and deepen authentic relationships?”

“This is what true freedom is: freeing yourself of unexamined beliefs and biases; gaining confidence to stay regulated in challenging situations; opening your heart in safe and empowered ways, and protecting against any threats to civility and non-violence.”

“Many of us have forgotten that debating issues can be fun, not a life-or-death experience. We have become frightened and turned off by the messiness of human interaction and the process of creating something new.”

“The two halves of the heart pump with and against each other. This dynamic interplay might look pretty volatile to the human eye, but the body knows that that level of assertiveness is necessary to keep the system healthy and vital.”

“We are seeing a shift to cyber and economic warfare. The techniques may change, but the primitive impulse for war has not. And while we may have peace treaties, we are not seeing the global cooperation needed to sustain life.”

“If only hanging out with people who already agree with you were going to solve our problems, we would have already solved them.”

(Quoting Gabor Maté): “Safety is not the absence of danger; safety is the presence of connection.”

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June 11, 2022

Energy Systems Practice (ESP) for Long-Term Human Thriving

Over the course of the last few years I have been delving deeper into the trans-disciplinary science of energy systems, largely thanks to my colleague and mentor Dr. Sally J. Goerner. Sally and I recently offered a session to The Weaving Lab on energy systems science for network weavers. A summary of that session can be found here. Since then I have been exploring, identifying and building out resources, practices and tools at different “levels” (individual, group/organization, and larger system) in the four different domains of Energy System Science that support saluto-genesis (the capacity of living systems to reproduce resilience and wellbeing). The four domains include:

  • regenerative flows
  • resilient and balanced structures
  • common cause culture
  • collaborative learning

The Energy System Sciences (ESS) see all living systems as “flow networks” or structures that arise from the circulation of resources, information, nutrients, etc. Thinking through the lens of flow, systemic health can be seen as being based on things like: investment and re-investment of key and diverse resources, healthy outflows (not polluting or poisoning “the host”), the velocity and spread of resources in the system, cross-scale circulation, etc. The nature and quality of these flows determines how systems are able to adapt and evolve in healthy and health-promoting ways. 

The image above offers a starter collection of resources, practices and tools, that transcend specific sectors (economics, education, etc.) and that I look forward to bringing to a group later this summer. Certainly incomplete, these practices also do not all neatly fit into one category, even where they appear to in the graphic – that’s life! If you go to this link, you will find the above image as a clearer PDF document that has hyperlinks for some of what is listed (items that are underlined) that will take you to additional information. And I am always eager to hear what others would add!

I am grateful for the many teachers and collaborators, in addition to Dr. Goerner, who have guided my practice along the way: Joe Weston, Gwen McClellan, john a. powell, Eve Capkanis, Rev. Howard Thurman, Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis, Joel Glanzberg, June Holley, Resmaa Menakem, Katya Fels Smyth, Tanya Tucker, Robert Peng, Maya Townsend, Father Richard Rohr, Melinda Weekes-Laidlow, Dorn Cox, Sherri Mitchell, Harold Jarche, Donella Meadows, Marty Kearns, Tara Brach, John Fullerton, Marilyn Darling, Daniel Christian Wahl, Anne Marie Chiasson, Tyson Yunkaporta, Kelly Bates and Steven C. Hayes, among others.

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June 2, 2022

Self-Organization, Mutual Support, Mindfulness, Inclusion and Love: The Ultimate Sport for a Better World

Image by Brian Turner

I love frisbee and have for as long as I can remember. Recently, as I was entering into a few weeks of sabbatical time away from work, a friend asked me what I thought would be most regenerative of my mind, body and spirit during this time. In addition to rest, slowing down, being generally mindful, and taking a break from screens, social media and the news, one of the things that came top of mind was playing frisbee. I have memories of my teenage and twenty-something self in utter bliss and a sense of timelessness, hurling a disk across a vast expanse at a corner lot in our neighborhood in Flint, Michigan or at a lakeside park in upstate New York with my dad or a friend, feeling the breeze, watching the frisbee glide and rotate against a backdrop of brilliant blue sky and feeling the grass massage my bare feet as I ran to make a catch. Heaven.

This is a love that I seem to have successfully instilled in my three daughters. And one of them, our eldest, has taken it to another level this season through her involvement in her high school varsity ultimate frisbee team. I have only played “ultimate” a couple of times, and very informally, in my lifetime. Growing up in the Midwest US, this was not “a thing” the way that it is here in the northeast. And it turns out that at the high school level in this community, it is taken quite seriously and is played with great skill. Having said that, the culture and success of the ultimate frisbee boys’ team here has been particularly striking in that it seems so different from what one usually thinks about in terms of high performance athletics. The more I have learned and experienced this current high school ultimate frisbee season, especially in the context of these times, the more I have appreciated what is happening right under my nose, for all that it gives to the teenagers involved and would seem to offer a mainstream culture hurting for lack of alternative ways of being, well, more human(e), especially in adolescent and competitive contexts.

My oldest daughter, Annabel, also plays varsity volleyball, which takes up a lot of her time in the fall. When she got involved in frisbee during the spring, one of the first things I noticed was her overall upbeat attitude and holistic appreciation for her teammates and the ultimate culture. “There just isn’t much drama,” Annabel explained to me at one point, “and people are really kind, supportive and frankly mature.” In a sense, ultimate to her is not just a sport, but a way of life. She went on to explain how in ultimate games there are no referees, that players take responsibility for calling fouls and then talking it out if there are any differences of perspective. I’ve witnessed this a number of times in games and have been impressed that even when there is clearly tension and disagreement, the players manage to work it through – some beautiful self-organization and respectful confrontation/ fierce civility on display!

I also came to appreciate early on in this recently completed spring season, the joy-full, heartfelt, and creative expression that comes up during and around games. After one memorable game, the two competing teams sang songs they had composed to one another, conveying appreciation for the adversary. In another case, after one team scored, the other team gave them a standing ovation as a salute to the level of play and skillfulness on display. In a recent tournament finale, the boys’ team was down a couple of points with not much time remaining and called a timeout. Instead of getting down on one another or into a heated strategic conversation, they played music and engaged in a playful dance circle for a couple of minutes, then went on to win the game. And when someone accidentally hurts someone else during play, they make sure to stay engaged with the injured person, showing genuine care and making sure the person gets the support they need.

The camaraderie and respect on display is really remarkable. The boys’ and girls’ teams come to one another’s games and cheer each other on. “You just don’t see this in other sports at the school,” says Annabel. Each time someone scores from either team there is an outburst of celebration from whoever is cheering from the sideline. If someone makes a mistake on the field they are supported by players on and off the field, and the invitation is for everyone to move on. It is not unusual to see the boys come together in a game to hold hands and take a deep breath together to gather themselves, and for both teams to engage in a mindful moment before a game. Annabel says to me, “We genuinely love each other and enjoy being with one another.” This shows and comes through time spent outside of practice and games building relationships and rapport, including through community service projects. (the most recent being at the local survival center).

There is also a core element of mindful inclusion and paying attention to privilege. The boys’ team recently made the decision not to go to a “by invitation only” national conference because of its exclusivity and tendency to only include mostly white teams and privileged schools. The girls’ team, in light of its multi-racial make-up, has had open conversations about anti-racism and anti-sexism. And there has been an attempt to create across programs an authentic and welcoming community for LGBTQ+ team members, including an open embrace of trans athletes.

One last point worth making. There is a very mature invitation by members of the ultimate teams to take personal responsibility and, as Annabel explains it, “focus on controllables, not uncontrollables.” In other words, to enact the serenity prayer, knowing when to push for change and when to let go and just flow with what is. I can see how this is impacting my daughter and her teammates in a time that begs for this kind of discernment.

In a world that can seem at times so unmoored, this spring ultimate frisbee season and the remarkable leadership of these local teens has given me hope for the present and future.

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March 4, 2022

Energy Systems Science and Practice: Thinking and Acting Like an Integrative Acupressurist

For the past few months I have been seeing an integrative acupressurist who has been practicing her craft for some 35 years. I am blown away and grateful for the extensive knowledge she brings to the inner workings of my body, including the interrelationships between different “parts” as well as the impact of the “environment” on my “internal” systems.

She has been particularly adept at helping me to understand that presenting and relatively superficial aspects of dis-ease or dis-comfort have longer standing and deeper contributing factors. Peel back one layer, with great care and re-spect, and you are likely to find something else. “Wonderful!” she will often say, marveling at how the body intelligently adapts to stress and other demands upon it. “While this may not feel good, it is actually a very wise and creative response!”

This has me reflecting on our dominant health care system in the US and what it tends to pay attention to and how it responds. How does that compare/contrast with and how is it complemented by what an integrative acupressurist does? What lessons and metaphors lie there for guiding me in my thinking about approaching other systemic challenges – in organizations, communities, economies … ?

First and foremost, an integrative acupressurist assists with body’s structural integrity (muscles, bones, organs), flow management and bio-logical co-operation and communication. Sometimes that is about tending to areas in the body where blood or lymph or chi (all vital flows) are not circulating in optimal ways. Sometimes that is about helping to stimulate parts of the body (organs and muscles) that have become guarded, tense or listless as an intelligent defense response (this often calls for treating those areas indirectly, to bypass defenses and stimulate areas that are impacted referentially). Sometimes this is about reintroducing different parts/regions of the body to one another with careful touch and stimulation. Sometimes it is about helping the entire body process new information and sensations more optimally, including the introduction of various healing and fortifying herbs.

As I have been experiencing these interventions, and learning from this remarkable healer/teacher (she loves narrating what she is doing and entertains all questions), I have been thinking about how this knowledge and wisdom translates into efforts to shift and heal other kinds of living systems. As I have written elsewhere, I am a proponent of not just simply talking about and working on “system change,” but supporting the inherent regenerative (self-renewing) capacity of living systems, social and ecological. My friend Daniel Christian Wahl turned me on to the notion of “saluto-genesis” when it comes to working with living systems, which means tending to the long-term and ongoing ability of systems to produce wellbeing.

Thinking as a systemic health promoter, or “systemic saluto-genarian” (thanks to Freya Bradford for helping to coin this phrase), isn’t what my integrative acupressurist does also our work? Supporting change in organizations, communities, economies, ecosystems is not simply about mechanically plunging in, but sensing the whole, connecting and working at the speed of trust and with great re-spect (of diverse and wonderful bodies – minds, hearts, guts, spirits ….), tending to the four key areas of focus of energy systems science:

  • structural integrity – optimal connectivity, resilience, flexibility, balance of “sizes”
  • regenerative flows – optimal movement (volume, velocity, directionality, reach) of enlivening resources
  • collaborative learning – timely sharing and exchange of information and co-creation of knowledge
  • common cause/collective culture – valuing and actually working together with an understanding of mutuality

This a metaphor and framework that is proving rich for practice and conversation with others. What do you think, feel, sense?

For more on acupressure, I recommend Sam McClellan’s book, Integrative Acupressure: A Hands-On Guide to Balancing the Body’s Structure and Energy for Health and Healing.

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February 16, 2022

At the Heart of “Regeneration” is … the Heart (and Gut)

Image by Conall, “eucalyptus flowers,” shared under provision of Creative Commons attribution license 2.0.

“Wherever the human heart is healed, justice gains a foothold, peace holds sway, an ecological habitat is protected.”

Elizabeth Johnson (feminist theologian, educator, author)

“When all hope for release in this world seems unrealistic and groundless, the heart turns to a way to escape beyond the present order.”

Howard Thurman (philosopher, theologian, educator, civil rights leader, author)

“The entire self-generative process is supported by compassionate acceptance extended through the relational field. This requires the felt experience of the heart, as distinct from compassion as an idea or an ethical imperative.”

Doug Silsbee (author, founder of Presence-Based Coaching)

“To be hopeful means to be uncertain about the future, to be tender toward possibilities, to be dedicated to change all the way down to the bottom of your heart.”

Rebecca Solnit (writer, activist)

“The longest journey you will ever take is from your head to your heart.”

Attributed to various sources, including the Sioux people

About five years ago, my dear friend and colleague Melinda Weekes-Laidlow turned me on to the writings of Father Richard Rohr, and in particular his book Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life. As Melinda and I are of a similar age and stage, I think we were both contemplating in our own ways what life held for us during what felt like a time of significant transition. The timing of this gift ended up being quite auspicious, as I would then spend the next number of years (up until now) going through something of an unraveling, precipitated by work burnout that revealed unaddressed patterns in my psyche and body that were begging for attention. It was not a complete breakdown, but something of a slow crash. Control freak that I have often tended to be in my life, I spent a fair amount of time trying to direct the descent.

All my efforts to manipulate and steer really did was make a bit more gradual what has been at times an excruciating experience. That said, it has also been very rich, putting me more deeply in touch with my feelings, my body, and (as hard as it is for me to use this word sometimes), my soul. Interestingly enough, about a year after starting the book, Melinda and I (along with Jen Willsea) found ourselves working directly with Father Rohr and his staff at the Center for Action and Contemplation (CAC) in New Mexico, guiding an internal equity learning and change process. If you know anything about the nature of this work, and especially in these times, you will not be surprised that this only added more fuel to what was at best a “cool burn,” not because of CAC in particular, but because it is a fractal of the hurting whole that is the broader culture, and because that process dared to approach this work from a deeper contemplative place.

This was a blessing in many ways. Melinda and I, and other IISC colleagues, discovered that there is a crucial need to put in place certain structures and supports for the organizations with which we work, as well as for ourselves, as we undertake this kind of learning and change facilitation process (see this post “An Ecosystem of Resourcing for Racial Equity Culture Change Work”). During one of our early trips to New Mexico, Father Richard gave us a copy of his book Just This: Prompts and Practices for Contemplation, which I received gratefully and with intention to put straight to use as a part of our support ecosystem. During the plane ride home, after completing a silent meditation, I was skimming through the last half of the book, when I came across what might otherwise have been a throw away line. It mentioned that doing contemplative work was not meant to be heady, and really needed to be centered on the heart. Heart-focused. “Heartfulness practice.”

Image by Eric Ferdinand, “Heartful,” shared under provisions of Creative Commons attribution license 2.0.

I tucked this away and then a few months later found myself in a situation that I would say is the closest I have come to a “mystical” experience (another word that does not come very easily to me). I will spare the details here, but essentially what happened was that for the first time in my life I understood what my heart is, to have a direct experience and view of the world through it. I don’t remember ever having that feeling of being so unconditionally held, enveloped in love. Not to say that I was instantly transformed. The experience passed and my body memory faded. But not completely. It has been rekindled by a few other experiences, not quite as intense, and also through my own ongoing practice.

What I’ve found in doing heart work is that it brings me warmth in varying degrees, an actual physical feeling, as well as something emotional. This often leads to a subtle smile, if not an outright grin. And with that comes a sense of softening, letting go, loosening my grip. I’m reminded of what Barbara Fredrickson, who runs a research lab dedicated to the power of emotions (including love), once wrote, that love constitutes “moments of warmth, connection and openness to others.” Fredrickson and her colleagues have discovered that when love is in effect:

“Your outlook quite literally expands as you come under the influence of any of several positive emotions. With this momentarily broadened, more encompassing mindset, you become more flexible, attuned to others, creative, and wise. Over time, you also become more resourceful.”

While I cannot claim wisdom (another one of those words), I can vouch for the others when I am tuned into my heart – a sense of being renewed, that has implications not simply for how I feel personally, but how I see others and interact with them. It feels, in many ways, like a more right way of relating. See, in this vein, the short video below for some thoughts about how support for the regeneration of our oceans might link to the heart, and love.

It turns out that this is all very much in alignment with longstanding wisdom traditions and what those who are dedicated to contemplative practice experience. Father Rohr has defined contemplation as “a long loving look at what is real.” That long look is not simply about time, but also depth. It is about sinking below the neck, into the heart and other regions of our bodies. Without that sinking, Father Rohr says, we can simply fall into “stinking thinking,” addictive repetitive thought that is more circular than anything and often leaves us more disconnected and unreconciled – split, at the mercy of overly analytical and fractured thinking. When we come from the heart, we come from more of a place of wholeness or natural inclusion (to borrow a phrase from Alan Rayner).

“Facing the sorrows of the world requires that we remain intimate with the world.”

Francis Weller (psychotherapist, author, specialist in grief work)

And the heart is not all. It turns out there are other seats of intelligence and wisdom in our bodies that can also be easily neglected, including our guts. Over the past couple of years, I have become more familiar with the power of tuning into my lower abdomen through practices taught by Joe Weston and The Weston Network. Just before the pandemic locked things down in March of 2020, I attended an in-person Respectful Confrontation workshop with Joe in New York City. It was a profound experience. Through the use of different techniques, including the “core exercise” which centers our attention and breathing on the Taoist energy core in our bodies – three inches below our bellybuttons and a third of the way into the body – I was able to ground myself in ways that feel, well, very grounding. From that place, and breathing into that part of the body, we were then invited to explore our selves (sensations, emotions, thoughts), our relationship to our surroundings, and our relationship to others. Even on Zoom, I have experienced how re-charging this is, that my energetic batteries fill up, and I am able to engage with a fuller sense of self and of boundaried presence.

In a particularly powerful moment during the in-person training, Joe invited us to face some of our articulated fears, represented by other people in the workshop physically approaching us. We experimented with standing in our “strength pillar” by concentrating on our abdomens, stamping our feet and saying out loud, “No!” This was initially a bit awkward, and slowly I got the hang of it. That said I did not expect the visceral shaking that then happened and took over my whole body. It sent wave after wave through my esophagus and solar plexus, each time I spoke more solidly from the gut. While initially a bit unsettling, I realized that it was actually a long overdue release and reclaiming of what Joe would call our authentic personal power.

Image by Beth Scupham, shared under provisions of Creative Commons attribution license 2.0.

As outlandish as this all may sound to some, those more familiar with the intelligence of our amazing bodies will not be surprised. As one of Bessel van der Kolk’s trauma book title states, our bodies know and keep the score, and are incredibly intelligent at protection and expression. Science is showing us that a stable and solid sense of self is in fact rooted in our hearts, our lungs and our bellies. A recent article in the Psyche Newsletter points out:

“An important limitation of contemporary psychology and neuroscience is that scholars replaced the old Cartesian dualism – mind versus body – with a new dualism: brain versus body. The new dichotomy was even cruder than the old one, and certainly no less rigid. Experimenters refused to take note of whatever happened south of the neck because the scientific picture of the day dismissed what previous ages had carefully noted – the wisdom of the heart the power of breathing, and the intelligence of the gut. Now, thanks to a wave of new research findings, with more to come, we know that these intuitions can be fully reconciled with a scientific outlook on the self. Your consciousness really does have deep, rich roots in your bodily feelings.”

Of course, this is validating what many spiritual traditions and indigenous peoples have honored for a long time. I continue to be very influenced by my reading of Tyson Yunkaporta’s Sand Talk: How Indigenous Thinking Can Save the World, which I finished about 18 months ago, during the first pandemic summer in the US. Yunkaporta is an academic, arts critic and researcher who belongs to the aboriginal Apalech clan in Queensland, Australia. Towards the end of this book, Yunkaporta sums up what he and a number of other indigenous people with whom he “yarns” see as an indigenous approach to engaging and being in right relationship with living systems – respect, connect, reflect, direct. Interestingly, he offers corresponding embodied centers for doing this work as: gut, heart, head, hands. He also makes the point that Western colonizer cultures tend to reverse this progression, leading with action and control (direct/hands) and intellect (reflect/head), and only perhaps later capitulating (connect/heart, respect/gut), if at all. More rooted cultures suggest that right relationship begins in our guts, not our heads!

re·gen·er·a·tion
rəˌjenəˈrāSH(ə)n/

Renewal, revival, restoration; spiritual transformation; an aspect of living systems without which there would be no life; a process through which whole new organisms may be created from fractions of organisms; an adaptive and evolutionary trait that plays out at different systemic levels.

All of this to say, that in many places people may be approaching the work of regenerating and renewing ourselves, one another, and the larger living systems of which human beings are a part in the wrong (or certainly an incomplete) manner, if they are trying to at all. Case in point, I was once in a weekend workshop with a long-time teacher of so-called “regenerative development” and was joined by my wife. During one of the exercises, my wife began to cry, and this made the workshop leader very uncomfortable. Em (my wife) was essentially told to get herself under control, as this was not in the spirit of the disciplined approach we were learning. Now if you knew my wife (a therapist who does a lot of work around trauma), you would know how amazingly embodied she is and attuned to her environment and to other people. This regenerative “guru” was in essence asking her not to be herself, not to access a crucial part of her wisdom and intelligence, which is a wisdom and intelligence our species shares. That did not sit well with either of us.

Flash forward a few years … During the March 2020 Respectful Confrontation workshop with the Weston Network that I mentioned earlier, we engaged in deep somatic/embodied work, individually, in pairs and in the group as a whole. This was done with great care, consideration and skillfulness by the facilitators, and also with a spirit of encouraging us to push on the edges of our physical, psychological and emotional resistance. There were moments of great energetic release throughout those few days. I remarked at how rare this is in a group setting, how uncomfortable it felt to many, and also how liberating it seemed to be to everyone- tapping into fuller and more resilient sources of power, connection and expression. What is more regenerative than that?!

A quote I am known for by some of my colleagues at the Interaction Institute for Social Change is “we are not simply brains on sticks.” And yet for many, this image seems to be the dominant vision and sense of who human beings are. As a result, many people are disconnected from a fuller sense of belonging to themselves, others, and the rest of Life. Social and cultural dissociation. In her book How to Be Animal, Melanie Challenger chalks this kind of dissociation up to a false belief in “human exceptionalism” that attempts to separate us from our basic animal nature. Having a category of “non-human” allows animals to be objects for disgust and victims of mistreatment and control. The same goes for parts of our selves (our “disgusting bodies”) and humanity (“the unclean”, “bad others”). This is literally and figuratively rejecting our roots and appendages.

All of this considered, questions I lean into in some form each day, at times with others, include …

What do I/we need to reclaim and repair?

How can I/we practice re-spect (looking again) for who I am and others are?

How can I/we ground in our guts, orient to our hearts, and align our brains with that more ancient foundation?

What might I/we re-member that has otherwise been forgotten?

Today, how can I/we practice right relationship?

Song lyrics from song by Darrell Scott
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