– Rowen White, Seed Keeper, activist and farmer from the Mohawk community of Akwesasne
“It’s all about how things are flowing.”
– Gwen McClellan, acupressurist and holistic healer
“A living body is not a fixed thing but a flowing event, like a flame or a whirlpool.”
– Alan Watts, philosopher and writer
“Seeing energy flows so that we can engage with them in positive ways is not some mystical, esoteric art, but the role of engaged human beings.”
– Joel Glanzberg, permaculturist and sustainable builder
Last week I teamed up with Dr. Sally J. Goerner, who stewards a transdisciplinary team of researchers and practitioners in the Research Alliance for Regenerative Economics, to offer an interactive session to The Weaving Lab on the Energy System Sciences and how they might support network weavers working for social change in a variety of contexts. Energy System Sciences (ESS) is “an umbrella term for disciplines that use the study of energy flow networks to understand the laws of systemic health, growth and development in living, nonliving and supra-living systems.” ESS disciplines include: Chaos, Complexity, Resilience, Ecological Network Analysis, Self-Organization Theory, Nonequilibrium Thermodynamics, Panarchy, and others. It was a lot to present and absorb and process during our short 2 hour session, and so I have made an effort here to summarize and simplify …
Everything is made up of energy, so says “western” science and also many wisdom traditions (think spirit or chi) and indigenous peoples (see Sherri Mitchell), but many of us often don’t like to use the word “energy” (too woo woo). And perhaps that is to our detriment! Switching from a “matter” orientation about everything to an “energy” view can help us see and do things differently.
Systems are complex networks of interconnected “parts” that work together. Flows of energy of different kinds are crucial for a system to function (carbon in the biosphere, traffic in cities, supplies and information during a disaster response, ideas and emotions in a social group, nutrients on a farm, money and other resources in economies).
The Energy System Sciences (ESS) see all 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 ecosystem), 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.
ONE BIG PROBLEM now is that there is a dominant narrative stemming from the power and influence of oligarchy (rule of and for the few) and oligarchic capitalism (economies that are run by and support the few), which seeks to increase the wealth of “elites” at the expense of most people and the planet. Narrative, in contrast to story, is a way of looking at the world. In a sense, it’s a big story that influences thought, meaning and decision-making. The dominant oligarchic narrative and view is grounded in things and beliefs like “the divine right of capital and kings,” a master/slave mentality, dominance, supremacy ( based on race, gender and other markers of identity), narcissism, coercive hierarchies, “survival of the fittest,” and self-interest.
The oligarchic view cuts against the evolutionary promise of the Energy System Sciences in that it gets in the way of the kinds and qualities of flows needed to keep the whole body of humanity healthy and in right relationship with the planet. It prevents pro-social and pro-ecological evolution. For example, at a smaller scale, if we only privilege a certain part of our physical bodies (our heads or brains) over and at the expense of other parts of our bodies (for example, our hearts, our guts), this can have damaging impacts for the neglected parts and our entire bodies, and diminish our intelligence. Science is increasingly showing that our hearts and guts give us access to important information about the world around us. And our health and development are being shown to rest upon more integration and coherence between the different biological systems that make us up (digestion, vascular, nervous, etc.).
Against the oligarchic capitalist view is another view of humanity as being a collaborative learning species that can ground itself in common-cause and cooperative culture (including values of equity, justice, fairness, trust, transparency, mutualism) and seek resilient and regenerative economies and other systems that guarantee long-term human thriving for the many and for the diverse and not just the few and the alike. This narrative and set of beliefs aligns with the Energy Systems Sciences. Together they suggest that to support healthy and health-promoting webs and flows, it is important for groups of people to integrate the following core pillars, economically (especially in the etymological sense of the word – “household management”) and culturally:
Circulate diverse resources regeneratively, at and between different scales/levels
Create and sustain flexible and resilient structures of different and balance sizes
Ground in common-cause values such as mutuality, trust, transparency, equity, justice, fairness, accountability
Engaged in collaborative learning that supports intelligently adaptive responses and actions
For example, as Sally Goerner lifts up the following (it may be helpful to click on the image below):
We can also bring attention back to our own selves and how we interact with others to see how the energy system sciences can guide us. We can have stagnant energy if we are not inviting new ideas in or not releasing emotions. We can quickly get overwhelmed if we open ourselves to too much energetic flow of information or emotion, especially if it is negative or challenging. If our bodies are not structurally strong and flexible, they can be more prone to dis-ease. If our social organizations are overly rigid, they can be un-responsive to change and unable to adapt accordingly. If we are not having honest conversations with one another, that “clear the air” (and move energy through as it needs to), we can get bogged down in unhealthy interpersonal dynamics. The emotional body language and tone we convey energetically can impact our interactions with others (and flow widely in larger networks!). If we are not attending to what is otherwise sealed away in our insides (which equates with dissociation) this can also have impacts on how we are with ourselves and one another.
Bottom line: We share a hope that many more of us can become adept energy and flow scientists, artists, healers, weavers and workers as we intentionally create patterns that are the basis of the better world we sense is possible and know is necessary.
“i think of movements as intentional worlds, or perhaps more accurately as worlds designed by and for intentional people, those who are able to feel the world 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. and yes, the makeup of your web is the same matter as all that already exists, but your direction and pattern can be new, unexpected, agitating new growth. what results from your efforts depends on your intention.”
– adrienne maree brown
I recently returned from a week-long vacation with family to the so-called Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, and a particular location that is deeply nourishing and meaningful for its landscape, its link to family history on my wife’s side and (perhaps for these times) an unusual sense of community. I count myself privileged to have had the time and the opportunity to be in that place with those loving people, with that sense of multi-generational connection.
Heading back “home,” I could feel the tension mounting as my wife and I talked about re-entry. Before thought, my body tightened in anticipation of the return to the mundane daily tasks, to-do lists and un-answered emails/phone messages. The morning after our return, I somewhat absent-mindedly dipped toes into social media and felt my blood pressure rise. “What am I doing?” I wondered, even as I continued to wade in, pulled by questions about what happened while we were away and what new opportunities might be presenting themselves – FOMO (“fear of missing out”) in full effect. When I closed the laptop, perhaps 30 minutes later, I was aware of my stiff neck, shallow breathing, hunched shoulders, and whirling brain. Saved by a 12 year old daughter almost yelling, “Dad, c’mon, let’s get outside and play ball!”
As much of a proponent as I am of collaboration and networks, I am struck by how I can get a bit caught in the approach/avoid loop of connection, and mired in questions of “How to connect?” and “How much is enough connection?” and “What kinds of connection do I really need?” As I engage with others, I realize that these are pretty fundamental ponderings for navigating a more viscerally entangled world.
“When our ancestors spoke about a web of life, they were describing what Western science calls quantum entanglement. They understood that we all originated from the same seed of life, and when that seed exploded and carried life across our universe, we remained connected. Quantum entanglement tells us that any matter once connected physically can never be disconnected energetically (or spiritually).”
– Sherri Mitchell (Weh’na Ha’mu’ Kwasset, “She Who Brings Light)
More and more is being written, spoken and (re)-presented about the fundamentally interconnected nature of our lives, and of Life writ large. In a beautiful essay in Emergence Magazine (“When You Meet the Monster, Anoint Its Feet”) , which weaves connections between climate change, race, racism, evolutionary biology, ecology, myth and narrative, Bayo Akomolafe offers …
“Perhaps most important about this time is that the image of the human is being composted—or, we are experiencing great difficulty determining where the nonhuman stops and the human begins. Everything touches everything else in the Anthropocene—an observation that is supported by, say, current thinking about ‘holobionts,’ assemblages of bodies within bodies within bodies, or intersecting communities that toss out notions of separable individuality. We are holobionts.We live and are lived through; we are composite beings, companion species, emerging within and among assemblages.”
And, as Akomolafe later shares from his indigenous and experiential knowledge, bodies and beings transcend time. More recent research into intergenerational trauma (see the work of Resmaa Menakam and Thomas Hubl) shows that our bodies indeed know the score, not only of our own individual pain, but the suffering passed through our ancestral lines. Husband and wife, and astrophysicist and physician, team Karel and Iris Schriyver, in their book “Living With the Stars,” add that our bodies are always in dynamic exchange with … the wider universe! Our cells die and are replaced by new ones, renewing our entire biological makeup, using food and water as both fuel and construction material. This rebuilding happens by using elements captured in our surroundings and cycled through geological processes, all extensions of galactic explosions and ripples and atoms that formed through collisions with our planet’s atmosphere eons ago.
We are entangled in a multiplicity of ways, containing and residing within multi-dimensional multi-scalar multitudes. I find this simultaneously liberating, dizzying, humbling and dumbfounding. Knowing that everything is interconnected can inspire a profound sense of belonging and ease, yes, and sometimes it can make it a bit hard for me to plan or get through the day!
And so here we are, exquisitely entwined, and yet also individuals, or at least bounded organisms with a sense of individuality, of distinction, of the need to preserve the integrity and dignity of something called “me” or “self.” And the question of these times would appear to be how we can honor a healthy sense of self/individual, whole communities, and Life, all at once.
“To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to violence. The frenzy of our activity neutralizes our work for peace. It destroys our own inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of our own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.”
– Thomas Merton
While there have been understandable and important pushes to get beyond the individualistic and atomistic view, I have the feeling that some of this emphasis, as with all pendulum swings, can go a bit too far. Seeing the world as profoundly interconnected might drive a strong desire to reclaim a kind of forgotten birthright, and in my experience, it can also result in getting lost, especially if it is guided by an underlying desire to fully understand, grasp and/or control it all (colonial mindset?). Or if that drive is purely to belong to something, anything, no matter its underlying values, to spare the pain of felt/perceived separation.
A certain view in contemporary physics holds that the world, the universe, is entirely made up of an infinite amount of information, a vast expanse of sensory inputs that all taken together would be utterly overwhelming to our individual apparatus. And so we have our human senses as filters to sift through, make sense and identify/assemble what is most … useful, interesting, advantageous. The point is, there is always more than meets (or at least is taken in by) our eyes, ears, nose, tastebuds, touch, etc. This calls to mind the ladder of inference, a framework we teach at IISC that helps people remember that we are often recycling conclusions we have drawn from a very partial understanding of reality, and that it might behoove us to expand our “view” to reach more helpful (just, prosocial, sustainable) conclusions and actions.
That said, simply taking in more, or making more connections, may not lead to a better place, if it results in overwhelming nervous systems. So it seems there is a balancing act here. Just as we often can’t do something new without letting go of something old, there is a need to modulate what one takes in – news, ideas, people, and possibilities. Connection and flow management. Energetic discernment. Intentional dis-connection and dis-entanglement.
What might this look like in this networks upon networks networked world? A few thoughts …
“Between you and me, now there is a line. No other line feels more certain than that one. Sometimes it seems not a line but a canyon, a yawning empty space, across which I cannot reach.
“Yet you keep reappearing in my awareness. Even when you are far away, something of you surfaces constantly in my wandering thoughts. When you are nearby, I feel your presence, I sense your mood. Even when I try not to. Especially when I try not to. . . .”
– Donella Meadows
In a previous post, I shared some of the wisdom of network science as taught by Danielle Varda and colleagues at Visible Networks Lab. They make the point that when it comes to creating strong (resilient and regenerative) networks, more can be less in terms of the connections a person has. Connectivity and related flows can be ruled by a relentless growth imperative(capitalism?)that is not strategic or sustainable. More connections require more energy to manage, meaning there may ultimately be fewer substantive ties if one is spread too thin. Instead, the invitation is to think about how to mindfully maintain a certain number of manageable and enriching strong and weak ties, and think in terms of “structural holes.” For more on this social network science view, visit this VNL blog post “We want to let you in on a network science secret – better networking is less networking.”
Over the last several years, I have been playing with a set of about a dozen principles (give or take) for network thinking and action. One that seems quite helpful here is the saying, “Do what you do best and connect to the rest.” As ecosystems become more robust and complex, individual participants are invited to carve out more specific niches, and be oriented towards synergistic and supportive relationships with others. In other words – stop trying to do it all, or connect to it all! It’s not possible, it can create unnecessary competition, overwhelm and inhibit “collaborative efficiencies.” This also aligns with a metric of energy network and systems science (see below), which focuses on the importance of a diversity of roles in healthy living systems. Share and spread the wealth!
As just alluded to, the emerging field of “energy systems science” points to a number of different factors or indicators that contribute to long-term living system (including human systems) health and thriving. Four of these indicators fall under the heading of “measures of flow.” Thinking about how these apply to our own and/or collective in-take and sharing of information/energy might be helpful for knowing what is “sufficient:”
Robust cross-scale circulation: How rapidly (too fast?/too slow?) and well do a variety of resources reach all parts of an individual/social body?
Regenerative return flows: To what extent does the individual/social body recycle resources into building and maintaining its internal capacities? Is there too little (depletion)? Is there excess (hoarding)?
Reliable inputs: How much risk and uncertainty is there for critical (health promoting) resources upon which the individual/social body depends?
Healthy outflows: What impacts do the individual/social body’s outflows have externally?
On a more personal tip, I have been married for almost 20 years. What has perhaps been one marriage from the outsider’s perspective has been many from the inside, as other long-standing intimate partners can surely appreciate. We have learned and grown over the years. One important lesson has been knowing when we are too enmeshed and need to separate for some time. There is a point of diminishing returns in many of our heated discussions/ arguments, and if we do not dis-entangle or dis-connect, we have learned, we can do damage to the relationship.
Along the same lines, two of our daughters are identical twins, now twelve-years old. What we have observed about them is what we have heard about many twins – they are truly uniquely connected. There are many times when we quietly watch with fascination as they, seated on opposite ends of the room, engage in similar gestures (scratching their heads with the same hand at the same time, for example) seemingly without direct awareness. Quantum entanglement in full effect! And they can get themselves enmeshed at times and in ways that drive each of them, and the entire family system, to the edge. They are learning that they need and how to differentiate and take space, even as they have a natural gravitational pull to their other half.
Knowing when to create a bit of a boundary (what Buckminster Fuller once called, “a useful bit of fiction”), a separate amniotic sack if you will, and when it is optimal to connect more fully often requires attention and discernment, for all kinds of relationships.
“Beware of the stories you read or tell; subtly, at night, beneath the waters of consciousness, they are altering your world.”
– Ben Okri
The movie The Social Dilemma and the work of Douglas Ruskhoff (see Team Human) both point to the perils of getting caught up in our increasingly socially mediatized world. The algorithms behind these powerful tools are designed to capture our attention, pressing our buttons oriented towards hedonism (“likes”) and fear/outrage. A recent article in The Atlantic Monthly(“You Really Need to Quit Twitter”) points to how difficult it can be to break this habit. This is not to say that these tools are inherently bad or evil. They are certainly formidable, and require considerable attention and intention. Social media fasts and limited dips can help, as well as being mindful about what and why we are both sharing and consuming (see this other recent post for some considerations on this – The Wisdom of W.A.I.T.ing: Mindful Sharing in a Network Age.
If dis-engagement is not an option or ideal, there are a number of practices I have been learning and using that can help to manage energy exchanges, both in-person and virtual:
From the Rockwood Leadership Program, I learned the practice of imagining that my body is like meshwork (think a fishing net), when something intense is coming at me, so that it can pass through me, and I don’t use too much energy resisting or having it get stuck in my body/psyche.
From a couple of local trauma therapist who focuses on racialized trauma, I have learned the practice of using imaginative “shields” (in my mind’s eye) on the outside and inside of my body, to allow for energy coming in or going out. Silver shields on the exterior repel unwanted energy, and on the inside they keep precious energy in. Grey shields allow some energy in or out.
From a number of practitioners, I have learned the practice of slowing my breath to manage energy flow, in-take and circulation.
From Qigong Master Robert Peng I have learned how to use a “circuit breaker” for the life force (or “chi”) moving through me by enclosing my thumbs with the fingers on each hand, which can diminish intense energy flows when engaged with others.
Also from The Weston Network, I have learned about the practice of embodied energetic balance when reaching out to make contact with others, while not over-extending, and also maintaining a firm sense of grounding and dynamic flexibility. I have also been reminded, helpfully, that balance is never static. We are constantly in motion, if we are alive, and when “most balanced,” are actually able to recover quickly from being extended or engaged in some way. So a question to carry is “What supports my ongoing ability to recover?”
From Harold Jarche, I have learned many ways of managing personal knowledge development through mindful connection to different networks in ways that ideally make them all “smarter” and don’t simply ask them/me/us to work “harder.” Of particular help is knowing what one can reasonably expect in terms of energetic flow and return from work teams versus communities of practice versus one’s wider social networks (see image above).
And in general, I am embracing and making space for more silence, solitude and stillness, challenging some of my deep seated anxieties about losing connection and a sense of belonging in the world (what some would say FOMO is really about – for more about this, see this informative talk by Tara Brach).
And there are SO MANY teachers out there and much wisdom to glean that I certainly welcome others to share! It is my hope that many more of us can become adept energy and flow scientists/artists/healers/workers as we intentionally weave patterns that are the basis of the better world we sense is possible and know is necessary.
“The point of solitude is to give yourself time to grow in your own way, while the ultimate goal remains the difficult task of love and connection.”
– Damion Searls (from the introduction to a new translation of Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet)