Thoughts on embodied learning from our of our supporters.. Jenny Watt is currently pursuing a MA in Regenerative Economics at Schumacher College.
From ego-systems to eco-systems
How heart-centred practices offer a way forward to heal our economy
“Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts.”
At a time when climate reports warn humankind of possible extinction, there is widespread concern at the slowness of governments, companies and individuals to reduce their toxic impact on the natural environment and on humans. Activists explore what message can be put out to infuse a sense of urgency and desire to change our ways. Ironically it seems that it wouldn’t take big changes in lifestyle for individuals in the richer countries to cut their ecological footprint by half – carbonindependent.org have tested it for themselves (www.carbonindependent.org, 2022). I would like to argue here that while our minds are in overdrive looking for solutions, it may be our heart and body intelligence that will lead our way out of the current crisis, and that a heart revolution has been in the making since the hippy 1960s and has now entered the corporate and education world.
The industrial and post-industrial revolution is a pinnacle era in the history of mankind: humans in Europe have felt they cracked the nature of reality, that they know how to design a world in accordance with their wishes and their needs and have complete control over nature, whether over their own bodies (medical science is making such progress that diseases can come to an end) or over the natural environment.
The current post-industrial era still runs on the steam of such a belief. Some say we may live to several hundred years old and might even vanquish death, some also say that artificial intelligence (AI) may fuse with human intelligence and provide the solutions we need to any problems we face (Ken Wilber, 2020).
With the desire to control our reality came property and a legal system designed around protecting property, and with this came money as the yardstick of success. The mantra today is that more GDP is better, more profit is better. Our institutions are designed to serve an economy whose aim is to produce more and more efficiently, and to ensure all the parts of the economic machine function well, as I would like to examine below.
Schools are designed to produce workers who are productive elements in an ever-growing economy. They reward memorising facts, having better grades than others, being compliant and pleasing the hierarchy, and coming up with clever ideas. The questions of “who am I?”, and “how can I best serve the community?” are irrelevant. Subjects such as maths and sciences are better considered, and good students are pushed towards those subjects because they serve the industries deemed the most useful to economic growth, such as business and computer science. Subjects such as art and dance are tolerated but poorly valued, creative talents are channelled towards the advertising industry (which increases companies’ profits), or the entertainment industry (which is a huge business in itself, the measure of success is the turnover of a production), or the art industry (a good artist is one who sells her art for a lot of money). Their value as practices intrinsically essential to every human being is overlooked. The artist in us has been crushed. High performance is everything. The idea that we could paint or dance or play music purely for fun is difficult to hold when we have been taught we have to “be good at it”. The capacity to allow whatever comes up without censoring it “because it is not good enough” is repressed from early on. The value of the arts as a place to define identity, question or assert values is an anecdotal by-product and doesn’t have much of a platform.
Companies, the heroes of our current economic system, have one main objective, as has been taught in business schools: to make profits. Actually, beyond making profit themselves, allowing their shareholders to make profits. This was exacerbated by the popularity of publicly listed companies: shareholders of a traded company very rarely have a personal relationship with the managers and buy or sell based mainly on quarterly earnings figures and potential. The wealthiest people in the USA, those who are placed on a pedestal worldwide, are those who made billions on the stock market.
Another institution, the health system, is based on allopathic medicine, a model of medicine that treats the body as the sum of mechanical pieces. It is expert at treating individual body parts and individual symptoms, rarely looking at the root cause of disease or the body as a whole, or how the person’s environment may affect their health. Indeed, the focus is on treating individual symptoms rather than promoting health, and enabling the person to get back to work or studies as soon as possible.
The institution of governments in many countries are commonly called democracies, though it would be more accurate to call them oligarchies, i.e. a small group of people are in power for a small number of years and engage in power games with other groups of influence, such as big business, the military industrial complex, intelligence services, the media, other governments, activists, etc. in order to stay in power. The yardstick for Western governments consists of three economic indicators: GDP growth, rate of inflation and unemployment rate. It is in a government’s interest to achieve good indicators to stay in power.
To sum up, Western institutions have a culture of serving economic growth beyond all else.
Many people believe that the current environmental problems we face are just a matter of finding better technological solutions and developing AI further to design systems that tell us how to tweak government policy for a more balanced and equitable world economy. Indeed, European capitals were once terribly polluted. Now there are fish in the Thames in London, it is possible to swim in the lake in Zurich, air pollution has been reduced in capitals thanks to electric transport and more bicycles. Already the environmental impact of countries in Europe and North America has diminished. True, it is in large part because polluting industries are now in Global South countries, but if so-called rich countries were able to develop cleaner technologies, it may be possible for poorer countries to do the same. The World Economic Forum advocates the Great Reset, a better thought out set of corporate and government policies, led by well-intentioned government and corporate experts, to create a more environmentally friendly, equitable world.
Is that likely? No matter how convincing proponents of technology and better thought-out policies are, the mood has changed in European and North American countries since the optimism of the 1960ies. It was felt then that mankind was on a linear progression towards an ever-better life. Today, the future looks very uncertain. Greta Thunberg wags her finger accusingly at world leaders, and many adults feel the shame: the world we are leaving to our children is broken, by our own fault (Thunberg, 2019). There is no bigger signal that our societies are out of balance than our children self-harming, experiencing eating disorders so severe that they need feeding tubes forcibly installed in their stomachs to prevent them from dying, experiencing psychosis. They are the sensitive ones, the canaries in the coal-mine.
Emmanuel Faber’s brother was schizophrenic. As Faber was climbing the corporate echelons up to CEO level at Danone, his brother would call him during meetings to let him listen in to the sound of a river gurgling. Faber slept many nights in the street with his brother, discovering the world of the homeless, of warm coffees and smiles offered at sunrise. His management style was deeply affected. He made a speech to an elite French business school in 2016, saying social equality was the responsibility of corporate leaders, and followed his words with action by making sure that 60% of Danone’s companies were B Corp certified, a confirmation that they treat staff, suppliers, customers and the environment with care (Faber, 2016). He told shareholders when they approved of the B certification “You’ve just unbolted the statue of Milton Friedman!”, referring to Friedman’s creed that the only social responsibility of a company was to generate profit for its shareholders. Faber was appointed Chair of the newly created International Sustainability Standards Board (ISSB) last December, no doubt hoping to implement far reaching change in the way companies monitor their performance.
Activists brain-storm on how things can be said differently to stop the production and consumption frenzy in service to the economy. How does one stop the demon of Wendigo, the demon feared by First Nation people that creates insatiable hunger and leads people to destroy their loved ones and their environment to satisfy its hunger?
I’d like to explore first the various reasons why no matter how urgently the news tells us we need to change our ways, we find it difficult.
One is that questioning one’s values feels threatening. If we have grown up to believe that having a respected university degree, working in a reputable firm, earning good money and having a certain lifestyle is what is valued by society, it takes courage and conviction to live differently. Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t. We are gregarious animals, and our peers’ respect contributes to our sense of self-worth.
The 2010 “Common Cause” study led by the WWF points out that our society promotes extrinsic values, such as status, class, wealth, public recognition, and economic success. However, intrinsic values provide a higher level of satisfaction: contentment, sense of community, love of self and others, communion with nature (WWF et al., 2010 p.10). Intrinsic values are those that develop when we consider our relationship with ourselves, when we feel into our sense of joy or of dread in different situations or when making different choices. It is felt in the heart and the body rather than the mind. Developing a relationship with oneself, developing self care is a good way to develop our capacity to act based on intrinsic values, the ones that promote a better relationship to ourselves, to others and to nature. Crises are often an accelerator from extrinsic to intrinsic values. In times of emergency experience has shown that humans cooperate, such as in war times, or in covid times. In times of personal crisis there is a breaking and dropping into who we really are, which has nothing to do with an image we project to the world, but everything to do with the essence of who we are. They are rites of passage, which if taken as such are invaluable teachers.
Another phenomenon is that a lot of grief is coming to the surface in the world now that was previously repressed. In the short term it may look as if things are getting worse, actually it is like an abscess bursting: the sceptic material is allowed to be expressed and let out. When we start being more aware of our feelings, it is normal that hidden pain appears, it needs to be acknowledged and processed so we can have a healthy heart-centred life. It doesn’t mean the pain wasn’t there before, it means it was kept invisible. All the ways of functioning that relied on “power over” such as patriarchy, racism, exploitation of the environment are being exposed. The current world is now able to create safe enough containers for all the grief and anger to be expressed. Not all forums are adapted to such a raw and sensitive process, social media and the general press tend to inflame things, but enough small-scale structures now exist for people either on the receiving or the giving end of abuse to process their grief, pain and anger, shame and sadness. There are enough therapies in diversity and in quantity for everyone to find one that suits them if they so wish. Adrienne Maree Brown expresses her hope in a YouTube talk that all the trauma accumulated over generations can be processed and disappear completely in the same way that some mushrooms are able to break down toxic substances such as oil based products to such an extent that there is no trace of these substances left at all (Maree Brown, 2021).
I will now go in more detail into the various traumas being addressed at the moment. The abusive treatment of women over centuries and the trauma incurred is one of them, and the #metoo movement has created a container for women to voice their experiences of abuse. Behaviours have changed dramatically in a short period of time. What was once considered a common operating procedure can now land someone in court proceedings.
The other area of trauma being processed stems from racial violence and segregation. The United States and a few other countries are the centre of an active process of grieving, with the expression of anger, the setting of firm boundaries, or naming prejudiced behaviour whenever possible. The Black Lives Matter movement has exposed one more layer of racial prejudice, making even more visible the difference in treatment in everyday life for white versus non-white people.
Anasuya Sengupta highlights the blind spots we have and how naming them is a step towards stopping narrow thinking, she points to the need to decolonise the internet and academia, to make visible the science, stories, wisdom of non-white cultures and of women.
Yet another area of huge grief results from the damage to the natural environment. Something in us revolts. Ecoanxiety is a thing, and Joanna Macy’s network of “the Work That Reconnects” addresses exactly that, their workshops enable people to channel their grief and transform it into action. Dark Mountain is a collective of writers who express ecological grief. Clare Dubois describes poignantly how starting the tree planting and community building organisation Tree Sisters pushed her to put herself in the public eye and take a leadership position with which she was uncomfortable, but that she found no other way to respond to the deep grief she felt witnessing the rape of the planet.
To sum up, we are going through a period of intense processing of trauma at a personal and a societal level. Trauma focused therapists such as Gabor Mate, Mark Walsh, Thomas Hübl touch a raw nerve and have a surprisingly wide following. Many modalities offer ways to work on personal trauma, from journaling to age-old practices such as yoga, qigong and meditation, to newly created practices that create a safe container for trauma to be felt and transformed, such as 5 rhythms dance, or generative somatics, the practice followed by Adrienne Maree Brown. They all have one point in common: they create a safe container for uncomfortable feelings to surface and be witnessed. It is a fact that when they are expressed (and it is often a process that is continuous and can last a lifetime), a new freedom of heart and thinking is found, and our outlook on life becomes lighter, more trusting, more loving, and more able to let emerge what needs to emerge.
While the hippies in the 60s touched on the interconnectedness of life and denounced patriarchal structures, they didn’t yet do the work of processing wounds, and while they sometimes got high and experienced bliss and oneness, their unresolved issues brought them tumbling down and they were not able to integrate their values in everyday life. This is what hopefully our current society is building up towards: an awareness of the fundamental sacredness of life and its beauty, but also a solid grounding into reality.
Such trauma processing is an uncomfortable and intense period, yet it carries great hope. When we carry trauma we are numb inside, we cannot feel. When we can feel, we perceive a whole range of messages from our environment (people and the natural environment) that we didn’t perceive before. We feel into what is needed, what needs to be attended to at a very subtle level. We also cannot behave in ways that are harmful to others or the environment. We feel into the state of interbeing beautifully expressed by Thich Nhat Hanh: when nature or someone else suffers I feel that suffering too. Much of the abuse perpetrated today is possible because we are numb to suffering. If we become awake, if we come out of this numbness, abusive behaviours cannot continue, because what we do to others, we feel as if it was done to us.
This point on processing trauma is connected to another possible reason we are slow at acting on the urgency of our environmental and social crisis: our society glorifies the intelligence of the mind over the intelligence of the body. We believe we will think our way out of our predicament. We believe all we need is more and smarter ideas to combat climate change and create more equitable societies. But nothing prompts action like passion and deep knowing of what needs to be done, and these are of the realm of feeling. Thinking and feeling operate on different wavelengths. What I find interesting is how more practices are entering the world of education, activist organisations, government and the corporate world that allow for more emotional intelligence.
Rebecca Solnit writes about how “A lot of new ideas have emerged from Buddhism and other traditions emphasising compassion, equality, nonviolence and critical perspectives on materialism and capitalism” (Solnit, 2022). She reminds us of a time when corporal punishment was normal in schools and abusive behaviours tolerated and not discussed. She points out how every compassionate act or word adds up, whether from famous people (examples that come to mind are Martin Luther King or Nelson Mandela) or not famous people. She describes that what starts as new narratives and changes in consciousness lead on to changes in law, policy and everyday practice.
The new narrative that is rapidly gaining ground is one anchored in spiritual traditions and indigenous cultures: it says that humans are intimately interconnected, and that they are intimately connected with the earth, its creatures and the stars, that humankind isn’t superior to other beings, but part of a complex web of life. Science and complexity theory point to a level of interconnection that is confirmed in quantum physics, and resonates with Buddhist thinking, as several writers such as Joanna Macy, Fritjof Capra, Jeremy Lent and Charles Eisenstein point out, to name just a few.
The MIT has a unit that researches complex systems that has broken ground in several instances. In 1972 MIT ecological scientist and systems thinker Donella Meadows co-published the “Limits to growth” study for the Club of Rome that contributed to a worldwide environmental movement in the 1970s. In the 1990s Peter Senge co-founded the MIT Center for Organisational Learning and established that systems dynamics were an effective tool to analyse the broken systems of our society. Then in 1997 a book was published that built on his work and gave a tool for effective change: Theory U, co-written by Otto Scharmer. Theory U arose out of an 18 year study of innovators, leaders and entrepreneurs, both through interviews and working with them in change processes in companies, governments and communities. The findings were that the quality of the results of an action to bring change in an organisation depends directly on the quality of the awareness of the people involved. It requires that participants listen to each other with empathy and without judgement (they call it presencing), then be open to whatever arises without attachment to outcome and allow a new vision appear (called “going through the eye of the needle”), then have the courage to test the new ideas that have appeared. Presencing is similar to mindfulness or mindful awareness, or being fully present. Scharmer writes of a shift from an ego-system awareness that cares about the well-being of oneself to an eco-system awareness that cares about the well-being of all, including oneself. This, he continues, enables us to reconnect economic thinking to its real root, which is the well-being of the whole house – from the Greek Oikos, the whole house- rather than money making or the well-being of just a few of its inhabitants, with the whole house designating global communities and planetary eco-systems. “It’s a shift that requires us to expand our thinking from the head to the heart” (Scharmer and Kaufer, 2013).
Peter Senge’s Center for Organisational Learning has morphed into what is now the MIT-based Center for Systems Awareness and it introduces compassionate systems awareness to education. It sounds very wordy, but in practice it is about developing emotional intelligence, and is indeed inspired by Daniel Coleman’s research on the subject. It is experimenting with a style of education that can be incorporated in any class and allows for the student to feel into his or her response to the course material (or anything else that is being felt), and to learn to notice it and name it, to develop emotional literacy. Also, questions such as “how is this relevant to my life”, and “how does this serve?” are encouraged.
In parallel there are several other management and teaching facilitation practices that are increasingly used and that are grounded in a heart and body-based approach, they can indeed be used together. This includes way of council and circle practice, where people in a group take turns to speak succinctly and authentically, without being interrupted, and everyone feels into what every person says, and into one’s reaction to what is being said. This gives a wisdom and understanding of everyone’s reality, often in moving ways, that a normal discussion doesn’t provide. There is also Open Space technology when a particular problem needs to be solved; everyone suggests questions related to the main topic, then some people run discussions on particular questions, while the others go from one discussion to the other, everyone being led by what feels the most alive to them (Owen, 2013). It taps into people’s creativity and passion and if participants engage can very quickly arrive at striking conclusions. Systemic constellations are a technique where participants act being the different parts of the system involved (for instance someone may act being Nature, someone else the economy, someone else profit, etc), and every participant feels into their relationship with every other party. The somatic experience reveals dynamics from different angles that an intellectual approach never would (Ritter and Zamierowski, p101).
Then there is of course Social Presencing Theatre which is the practice that was developed alongside theory U. It consists in letting oneself be guided by what posture the body wants to take, applying it to particular life situations such as in the “stuck” exercise where the participants explore what posture best reflects their feeling of being stuck, and ask an outsider to describe the posture, bringing insights into the nature of the stuck feeling, and insights into how to get out of it. It is fortunate that theory U was written by researchers at MIT or it could have been fast dismissed as mumbo-jumbo!
The ultimate test is whether a technique works or not, and it will be interesting to see these body and heart centred practices being further used and tested in government, education, and the corporate and activist world. Business schools are already integrating things such as listening to self, others, nature and the future: change is underway.
Einstein was famously quoted as saying “we cannot solve problems with the same thinking that created them”. The economic system we have is a product of our way of thinking of the world as made of separate parts and of our need to control all the parts. It is interesting to explore ways in which we let another intelligence lead our way forward, an intelligence where the heart listens to the whole, one we have no control over and that we have to trust nonetheless. Rob Hopkins, a co-founder of Transition Towns, knows a thing or two about bringing about positive change and also points to being less in our head. He says “nothing really is very complicated. It is disempowering to think we have to study in order to do stuff” (Hopkins, 2022).
In conclusion, I suggest that in the face of what looks like an impasse in our capacity to bring back harmony to our societies and our environment we need to rely more on the intelligence of our bodies and our hearts. Spiritual traditions show the way and indeed intersect with the recent discoveries in quantum physics and complex systems theory, combined with heart-based practices that have been developing since the 1960s. These practices enable the healing of personal and societal wounds due to abuse (sexual, racial, colonial, family and any other abuse or neglect), but also provide modalities to allow the emergence of new ways of functioning, whether in the family, the state or organisations. The patriarchal operating system of “power over” is crumbling and being called out in all areas, which isn’t without resistance and tension. The upside is the possibility of a world where the connection to others, to nature and to ourselves is repaired, and money and wealth are no longer primordial.
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