Since I wrote a review of Presence (the new book by Senge, Scharmer et al) I have been caught in a maelstrom of debate on the whole issue of whether personal ‘consciousness-raising’ (for lack of a better term) has an important role in equipping us to deal individually and collectively with complex challenges, or whether it is a distraction and detraction from development of a useful ‘science’ of social complexity.
I seem to be just about the only fence-sitter in this debate. So this article is sure to get me in trouble with both sides.
My difficulty with those trying to integrate psychological self-improvement (and even self-mastery) into approaches to complexity, from the authors of Presence to psychologists and philosophers like Ken Wilber, is (a) the jargon used in their arguments, and (b) the arrogance with which they espouse certain (often proprietary) methods and models. There’s something about terms like ‘spiral dynamics’, ‘self-actualization’, ‘meditative spaces of leadership’ and ‘decentered fragile flotation’ that strike me as deliberately obscure, and make me confrontational or (more often) just turn me off from the discussion. And the apparent cliquishness of those who espouse these models and methods makes me wonder whether the objective is not enlightening others but rather cult membership or obscure academic oneupmanship.
At the same time, there is no doubt in my mind that becoming a better listener, learning to perceive instead of always conceiving, and improving one’s attention and relaxation skills, are legitimate steps to becoming more open, aware, collaborative and imaginative, and that that will necessarily make us, and the teams we work with, better able to come up and develop useful ideas and approaches to complex challenges. And I do not think there is any science to this — it’s very soft, difficult, and can only be done through practice rather than book study, and our left-brain science-oriented human languages are decidedly unhelpful.
So I was intrigued when artist Andrew Campbell pointed me to a five-year-old set of eleven interviews called Dialog on Leadership (leadership — there’s another overused word that grates on me: the people who use it the most tend to use it as a euphemism for power, and to be completely clued out about what it really means). One of the interviews is by Scharmer and it’s an interview of Francisco Varela, who wrote, in The Tree of Knowledge with Humberto Maturana:
Cognition is not a representation of an independently existing world, but rather a continuing bringing forth of a world through the process of living. The interactions of a living system with its environment are cognitive interactions, and the process of living itself is a process of cognition. To live is to know.
The subject of the interview is “Three Gestures of Becoming Aware”, and despite the cutesy term ‘gestures’ I was inspired enough by the above quote to wade through this substantive and expansive interview.
The thesis is that (thanks to our brains getting in the way) we are disconnected from our own experiences, and don’t really ‘know’ what is going on. We now objectify our experiences through the numbing filter of conceptualization and language, losing much of their nuance and meaning in the process. We need to (re-)discover the spontaneous capability to be fully aware of our experiences.
Varela builds his theory of awareness on Husserl and Merleau-Monty’s philosophy of phenomenology. I’ve written about this before in the context of George Lakoff’s frames — “abstract concepts are metaphorical; we are only capable of thinking what our embodied brains permit” — and in the context of David Abram’s The Spell of the Sensuous, where he quotes Merleau-Ponty as saying:
Synaesthetic [involving all the senses together] perception is the rule [among all life on Earth], and we are unaware of it only because scientific knowledge shifts the centre of gravity of experience, so that we have unlearned how to see, hear, and generally speaking, feel, in order to deduce, from our bodily organization and the world as the physicist sees it, what we are to see, hear and feel.
Our whole lives have thus become ‘out-of-body experiences’, as we quickly learn to become aware of our conception of the experiences rather than the experiences themselves. To shift back to awareness of the experiences themselves, Varela suggests we need to develop three capabilities:
A lot of this sounds very mystical (and much of Varela’s subsequent exposition doesn’t help dispel that impression) but this is not really different from what Open Space (the process of opening, inviting, holding open and suspending judgement) or meditation is about. And the reason it is so difficult is that it is an unlearning process rather than a learning one — there is evidence that other creatures (like the ones pictured above on our front lawn five minutes ago), and humans until they learn language and conceptualization, do this instinctively: They live in the moment and experience everything synaesthetically as a ‘totally aware’ part of it. But the neurons in our brains form patterns as we grow and learn language and conceptualization and objectivization, and soon this synaesthetic, holistic, totally engaged-as-part awareness of experience is lost. Those neurons are very hard to reprogram once we have been taught and trained that experience is an information-processing activity, rather than a being-a-part-of activity.
Varela, perhaps taking a poke at some of his more arrogant colleagues, says there is no one way to relearn how to be aware, how to ‘do’ suspension, redirection, and letting go, and that therefore it is important to look at alternatives and converse and compare notes to find the commonalities among approaches to doing so “and stop this silly thing about saying my technique is better than yours”.
If we can learn to do so, I believe:
These are certainly worthy objectives, and for this reason alone I think we should continue to entertain and explore even the most jargon-laden and arrogant approaches to this ‘learning to be aware’. Its promise certainly explains the fascination of so many people for the subject.
In the conclusion of the interview Varela questions whether a formal set of practices could ever be amassed that would let us all develop the three capabilities. This is because we all learn (and presumably, unlearn) differently. Varela says the learning is all in the practice. I know many who have tried meditation and yoga, spent time in wilderness, taken courses with and read everything by some of the people in the Dialog on Leadership interviews, and who still have not been able to learn to suspend, redirect and let go. In fact I suspect the majority of people who claim they have learned these capabilities are like the majority of day-traders who say that on the whole they are ahead — somewhat exaggerating their capabilities and successes.
I even have some sympathy for the skeptics, including some of those who are pursuing more ‘scientific’ approaches to dealing with complex challenges, who believe that the search for such capabilities is futile and quixotic, that we cannot unlearn. But alas, I’m still on the fence. I can feel the volleys coming, from both sides.
I the meantime I will create a space in the AHA! instrument case for techniques that may help some achieve these capabilities, so that these capabilities can be used in turn as instruments to help us all address the complex challenges of our time.
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