How to see the world through a wider lens: A way to expand and enhance our understanding of mutual learning and complexity in an age of needed transformation
“Mindfulness is — when you are mindful, you are fully alive, you are fully present. You can get in touch with the wonders of life that can nourish you and heal you.” Thich Naht Hanh
What is it to have a wider Systemic lens?
It is my sense that the major problems of the world arise as Anthropologist Gregory Bateson so profoundly pointed out as “the difference between the way nature works and the way people think.” Since we are part of nature, we must constantly deal with the ever-present contradictory instances or paradoxes that surround us. Carl Jung felt that this was the journey to finding our sense of “self” and simultaneously being part of our larger world. This is what nature is about. It has ever-changing patterns of connections and relationships. We do not always see the interdependencies of these living systems. Cultural and language constraints make us vulnerable to miss the many interconnected parts and not initially see how they affect the larger wider whole of nature. Hence our history is full of devastating examples, such as spraying DDT on crops and eventually experiencing the havoc of it spreading up and through the biological chain. We can now see how this myopic framework has affected health issues, climate destruction, educational establishments, wars, discrimination, economic inequality, and most recently how we have dealt with a pandemic etc.
In was in the 1960’s, with such publications as Silent Spring by Rachel Carson and The Closing Circle by Barry Commoner, that this cause-effect thinking was challenged by the view of seeing nature as a more complex and interacting system; a system that is a collection of items or entities (persons, institutions, societies, atoms, etc.) so arranged that a change in the relationship of one part will produce some change in all the relationships of the other parts of that system. The meaning of the Greek word “Gaia” further reinforced this awareness pointing out that the whole biosphere is more than the sum of its parts.
The prerequisite to being systemic is to be mindful, to have a wider lens, one that is stereoscopic and can see the parts and whole simultaneously. What I mean by this is to look at whatever situation you may find yourself in as being part of a wider all-encompassing context. Every time you’re observing an interaction or problem, step back and at the same time see its wider connections. Yes, there may be paradoxes and even inevitable double binds (damned if you do and damned if you don’t), but this also creates the challenge and opportunity to find new possibilities.
The world is ever changing. How we respect and understand each other and the multitude of contexts that we evolve and grow within is crucial. The whole (Gaia) cannot be healthy if the many intricate parts of our ecology are not. If we use a wider perspective and better understand how systems work, then like quantum physics, there can be many points of view that can all be correct. This ultimately refutes fragmentation and reinforces ways to see and resolve problems from a new vantage point that can reinvent or alter contexts that are congruent to how nature works. This can entail refocusing on health issues by not just maintaining symptoms as is the result of many medications or forcing physicians to depend on narrow strategies dictated by insurance interests; reframing education to be more focused on the learner rather than evaluating the institutional achievements; food and wealth distribution that can benefit societies; new climate and socio-economical-political connections; so on and so on…
How are contexts interdependent?
Nora Bateson, who I consider to be one of the most rigorous and quality advocates regarding the advantages of looking at the opportunities that are available to us in order to create solutions regarding the dysfunctional consequences of not respecting nature.
She uses the adjective “Liminal” which describes a transitional or initial stage of an interactive process between what was happening and what will happen. It is a moment not necessarily being predictable. It is where profound change can take place when we are patient and open to new journeys.
Nora describes this process as something that “cannot be found in individuals; rather, it is found between them. It cannot be found in organizations, nations, religions, or institutions; rather, it is found between them.” She calls it “Liminal Leadership to highlight these relational characteristics.” It fosters mutual learning, which she defines as “Symmathesy” (a word she coined), that opens the door to exploring how contexts relate and are part of wider encompassing contexts or “Transcontextual Description.” This refers to the ways in which multiple contexts come together to form complex systems. It allows for a concentration on the interdependency between contexts that give resilience to both living and non-living systems. Transcontextual Description offers insight into where contextual overlap is reinforcing and where it is loose enough to initiate shifts.” She further describes this process as “Warm Data” which consist of transcontextual information about the interrelationships that integrate a complex system.(https://norabateson.wordpress.com/)
Since Warm Data describes relational interaction, it offers a closer explanation to how nature works. Hence it will bring up paradoxical contradictions and double binds. However, there cannot any longer be an emphasis on linear predictability. What comes about from this process an open-mindedness that evolves into different perspectives and possibilities. This framework “supports and delivers these multiple descriptions in active comparison, usually in a form that permits and even encourages the subjectivity of the observer within which it is possible to make meta connections” This further allows an opportunity to describe and navigate interdependent relationships that emerge and give meaning to complexity which results in ways that can resolve those paradoxes that have caused double binds and dysfunctional systems.
Cheryl Dahle of Future of Fish asserts that “Complexity means that even the smartest person cannot come up with the solution, which means there is no one solution. You need multiple solutions working in concert on different facets of the problem.” While Barry Schwartz in “Why We Work” believes that “When we give shape to our social institutions — our schools, our communities and yes, our workplaces — we also shape human nature. Thus, human nature is to a significant degree the product of human design. If we design workplaces that permit people to do work they value, we will be designing a human nature that values work.
What is the joy of mutual learning?
Mutual learning is much more than a partnership. I always think of the pig and chicken forming a partnership to manufacture an egg and ham sandwich. The chicken said that he had no problem, but the pig hesitated thinking that he had much to lose. Upon some give and take dialogue of which each was able to learn more about each other and their aspirations, they decided on collaborating and came up with an egg and ham flavored tofu sandwich which made them very happy and is now sold at most health food stores.
Collaboration is sharing of states that when established gives each person awareness both on the personal and biological levels a form of synchrony or “good vibrations” as described by my mentor, the late anthropologist Paul Byers (see: https://8f38f40f-02df-488e-9883-b9c4b309d8e3.filesusr.com/ugd/501938_cd62b0b2cdb948f1ae7981b2f923b8cc.pdf) . Participants form a phase locking of rhythms when they are truly communicating. There are many studies of how human interaction can be adjusted to form complementary and/or competitive relationships, whether it be within adult interactions or parent/infant communication. The relevance to understanding systemic and complexity patterns is that there is an astonishing amount of available information when we widen our lens of inquiry within the contexts of different disciplines, cultural issues and individual viewpoints.
Again, there are many different perspectives of reality and as quantum physics has demonstrated there can be room for all these different views and they can all have validity. The world is not fixed in some sort of Newtonian box but is constantly uncertain and improvising through creative new patterns that connect. This is not competitive, but a win-win volley that allows us the opportunity to be more harmonious and adjust to benefit all.
How can systemic thinking and understanding complexity apply to our everyday life?
When we look at our family legacy and the energy that sustains it, we can gain insights and make positive changes in relationships. The best way to be systemic and to take advantage of our understanding of complexity is to have a stereoscopic lens. What I mean by this is to look at whatever situation you may find yourself in as being part of a wider all-encompassing context. “There is no beginning or end,” John Coltrane once said when asked to describe his style, “I start in the middle of a sentence and move in both directions at once.” Along this line of thinking Ellen Langer quotes Epictetus that “Events don’t cause stress. What causes stress are the views you take of events.” She also comments on compromise being “an agreement for everybody to lose. It’s just reducing your losses, rather than finding the win/win solution, which is often out there.”
In Tai ji and Aikido which I have practiced for over thirty years, each transition is an improvisational moment, a nuance of adapting to change to another context, with implications of how we learn, educate and so on with no one formula that fits all but as in a grain of sand the landscape appears. Maria Popova said that “So much of our suffering, both personal and political, stems from our inability — or, rather, unwillingness — to take a telescopic perspective of time; to look past the immediacy of symptoms and instead trace the long arc between cause and effect. Only along such an arc can we propel our moral development — again, both personal and political — toward its highest potentiality: justice, dignity, existential fulfillment.” In those transitional interface moments. The sequels into wider peripheral contexts, improvisational efforts can manifest new possibilities that do not replicate old injurious patterns. Adam Phillips underscores this with what he believes how “Darwin and Freud showed us the ways in which it was misleading to think of nature as being on our side. Not because nature was base or sinful, but because nature didn’t take sides, only we did.”
Complexity from the Latin means “interwoven” which is something that really cannot be undone. One of the ways to explore this pattern that makes up our lives, is to meet with a small group of people and allow each to collectively focus on a contextual issue that is complex and common to each, one that has many interfaces and connections to other contexts, i.e. family of origin, work, school, temperament issues etc. There is no limit or set instructions.
The result is as Nora Bateson believes “a living kaleidoscope” representing interdependency. The process relies on using two concepts as described above: Transcontextual Interaction, and Symmathesy. It creates a new and different ethos regarding how each in the group perceives their living narrative. Problems are reframed to produce systemic change, based on responding to collaborative needs rather than linear formula directives. She stresses certain caveats in this process:
Acting before perception change produces repeated errors and short-circuits the necessary complexity. Ditch linear strategy.
Perception is intellectual, emotional, physical, cultural, and relational. Making sense is sensorial. Increasing sensitivity is necessary to find new ways through old patterns.
These ways of working are systemic, acknowledging that the whole is more than the sum of its parts
There is a pattern or structure to these ways of working, but at the same time, they are unpredictable, and leave space for ‘emergence’
They have many parts that are invisible
A system is not the sum of the behavior of its parts, it’s the product of their interactions
The purpose of dialogue is to go beyond any one individual’s understanding
We need to engage in new ways of collaborating that promote continuous, productive and collective learning and innovation
Each day supports my belief that the interface of new evolving contexts is full of improvisational possibilities. Pause, widen your lens, and allow the holographic intent of nature to unfold for you and so on.
“We can think of complexity science and systems thinking as really the sciences of connection rather than the sciences of separation.” — Jeremy Lent