This is the fourth of five workshops sessions with Joanna Macy about deep ecology, the work that reconnects. “Moving away from our empirical view of the world,” Joanna began, “we come round the spiral to the third phase — we come to see with new eyes. This phase is a complement to being with our emotions of tears and anger as we were this morning. It’s good brain food.” Joanna then proceeded to give us a “condensed version of a university semester in systems thinking” as a way to ground the work.
Joanna finds it fascinating to see how in our time, we’re returning to a sense of belonging. Coming out of science itself is a great returning to what Thich Nhat Hanh calls interbeing or what others call radical interdependence. Systems information is an important tool. When you take this work out, you have to be anchored in it and take authority from this apprehension of the world. Let’s focus on the authority and efficacy of what we undertake in this work by exploring what power is. Let’s first look at customary ways of perceiving power and go back 3,000 years to pre-Socratic Greece. Then there were two basic views of the world:
1. View of Heroclitus – held the view that everything flows, all of reality is in a constant state of flux. He observed, “You can never step into the river of time twice.” When a person steps into a river, neither the river nor the person will be the same again. Fire and flame were also images used to portray this view. However, the vote went to the other guys….
2. View of Paramenides – suggested that reality is built of one main substance that does not change. It’s one enduring substance under the appearance of change. This became the mainstream notion, Classical Science.
The old concept of power, in which most of us have been socialised, originated in the worldview which assumed reality to be composed of discrete and separate entities — rocks, plants, atoms, people. Of course, at this time, there were also alchemists, witches, wicas, etc., with differing points of view. However, if you were Aristotle or Galileo, this was basic tacit assumption. To understand nature you analyse it — take it apart. It’s still a ‘stuff-based’ view. The tendency was to analyse and to reduce things to something more basic. Poets such as Blake and Wordsworth criticised reductionists as we see in this stanza of Wordsworth poem, The Tables Turned…
Sweet is the lore which Nature brings;
Our meddling intellect
Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things:-
We murder to dissect.
Biologists in the 20th century resisted this stuff-based reality and found an alternative reality. Let’s go back to the nature of power. Power came to be seen as a property of this view of separate substances, inferred from the way they could appear to push each other around. So power was about what one thing can do to another thing — exerting your stronger will on the other. Our view of reality has bred this notion of power. You can recognise we’re all conditioned — we’ve imbibed much of this view so it’s good to see it more clearly.
It’s power over — there’s a notion that you can have it, get it and exert it as is the case, for example, with economic or political power. You can push others around to the point where they get fractured. A corollary to that view is that, ‘since I don’t want to get pushed around I’m going to build defences to be protected.’ Power over requires defences. Conflation of the notion of being powerful to have strong defences — being invulnerable. We can look at the United States as an example to see the pathos of that connection. We tell ourselves we’re the last remaining superpower and we are weakening and rotting ourselves with that notion.
Margaret Thatcher said virtually the same thing about the United Kingdom. If you have military might you’ll be the most powerful nation. It means you are immunable. This view has seeped into our cultural and psychological realms — ‘I am so strong I will not change my mind.’ And this seals us off from learning.
This view is hierarchical and patriarchal — ‘it’s useful to instill fear in others to control them.’ One aspect that’s been very pervasive is the view that you need to have more power than the other guy and keep measuring it. This, of course, breeds competition, a teeter totter of win/lose mentality, domination, scarcity, fear, greed….
“You know all this,” Joanna admitted, “but it’s fun to look at it this way.” When the scientists were splitting the atom, other scientists were questioning Classical Science. By the mid-20th century we turned the lens through which we see society and what we then perceived were currents and flows and streaming. We began seeing that information follows the same principles and matter-energy flows. We recognised patterns or knots or little dances of organisation — the patterns were created and sustained by the flow-through of matter and energy flow. From the atom to the cell to the family to the ecosystems to the planetary system — they followed the same patterns.
The shift from the stuff-based view to the flow-based view was a staggeringly huge cognitive shift — the biggest bite out of the tree of knowledge in 3,000 years. The life scientist, Ludwig von Bertalanffy, when asked who was his teacher, said ‘Heroclitus.’
Moving into this vision of reality, we’re discovering that we change and that we can go into the part to discover the whole. Early thinkers looked for an image to describe this view. Robert Wiener of MIT held that we are whirlpools of ever-flowing pools — not stuff that abides. A whirlpool keeps its shape by changing. Physically, you change all the time. What defines us, what characterises us is the way we change. Right now things are flowing through you — air, sensation, thoughts, vibrations.
For activists, this notion of change can be psychologically and morally useful. Action is what we are. It’s our nature. Buddha called it a stream of being, of consciousness. This doesn’t mean ‘go with the flow.’ There is a great emphasis on how you steer by your intention and on how systems self organise.
Another image early thinkers used is a flame. It’s simply combustion/ transformation — a flame keeps its shape by burning. This prevents the notion of hiding from taking over — shine by perishing like the sun. What sustains you is the flow-through. What steers you is your intention. So let life flow through you. We have 100 billion nuerons in our brain. If a neuron starts building defences it dies and weakens the whole. It’s not enough for us to speak the concept. What’s important is that we can trust the deep responses within us that don’t show us as cool and in control. We’re dismantling the feedback loop. Instead of needing strong defences, the open system needs to be open to receive information or at least have the choice to be open. Do not confuse from henceforth power with defences. We can choose.
Systems theory is a way of seeing the interdependence button. Mystics and ecologists see this. John Muir said, ‘When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.’
We move from power over to power with — scientists use the term synergy. It’s about empowerment — you want another being to have power. This too is the evolution of our story. We adapt and evolve by becoming more vulnerable. Our old notions of strength have to do with armouring. We can see the caricature here of being so heavily armoured that you can’t move. We’ve been bred in a climate of fear. The Great Turning requires that we trust each other, that we collaborate. It’s about win-win/lose-lose; abundance versus scarcity. We need to not be weighted down; we need to manoeuvre.
When atoms and molecules and individuals come together, they bring something into being that wasn’t there before. Buckminster Fuller said that you can never predict what will emerge, but be ready for it. The whole is more that the sum of the parts. This is extraordinary because something will happen that didn’t before. Each level has emergent properties and distinctiveness that cannot be reduced to its parts. Seeing the image of the neural net we are already the fruit and embodiment of peaceful, effective self-organising bodies. This body has incredible intelligence. The whole web of life is so much more than the little bit that passes by our conscious field. Opening our perception through art, dance, myth and story are vital to us in this time of change so that we can go beyond the tyrrany of the consciousness of a separate ego. To illustrate this, Joanna’s partner, Fran, offered us this poem by Susa Silvermarie…
A Thousand Years of Healing
From whence my hope, I cannot say,
except it grows in the cells of my skin,
in my envelope of mysteries it hums.
In this sheath so akin to the surface of the earth
it whispers. Beneath
the wail and dissonance in the world,
hope’s song grows. Until I know
that with this turning
we put a broken age to rest.
We who are alive at such a cusp
now usher in
one thousand years of healing!
Winged ones and four-leggeds,
grasses and mountains and each tree,
all the swimming creatures,
even we, wary two-legged
shum, and call, and create
the Changing Song. We remake
all our relations. We convert
our minds to the earth. In this turning time
we finally learn to chime and blend,
attune our voices; sing the vision
of the Great Magic we move within. We begin
the new habit, getting up glad
for a thousand years of healing.
© – Susa Silvermarie
With this part of the work, we’ve been drawn to broaden the temporal context in which we experience ourselves and this work — this time work — Joanna continues to be riveted by this. If we could experience this we’d pop out of our sense of self-importance or persecution. What is it that is blinding us. With an accelerated idea of time we have so disregarded life. Sometimes an encounter with something you can barely withstand is a doorway. We need to acknowledge fact that the way our culture is experiencing time is fragmented, accelerated and making us sick. With this increasing time pressure we have less time to think, to be, to vision, to be with family, to have relationships, to garden. This has been the theme of graduate courses Joanna has given.
The Industrial Growth Society market forces drive acceleration — another force is technology. It’s faster than we can experience it and it produces sickness. Deep time work is a wonderful antidote to that. We belong to so much more than this moment.
Before closing this session, Joanna led us through a profound experiential process with the future ones, bringing the seven generations in and roleplaying what we would say to the seventh generation if someone from that time was actually standing right in front of us. Facing each other in concentric circles, she asked a series of questions of the present-day individual from the point of view of the future.
By doing this work, Joanna says she has come to feel the presence of the future ones who feel gratitude to us for what they depend on — life itself. My own experience of this work was surprisingly deep and stirring. At first I found it strange — a bit of a leap — there was even the ever-so-slight thread in me of resistance. I played the role of the future one, deeply listening to the responses of the present-day individual. When the first person started to speak (and I knew she was speaking genuinely from her heart), my own heart swelled and I felt nothing but love and compassion for the person standing in front of me sharing what it is like to live in this time, the time of The Great Turning. I am grateful for this experience of seeing through new eyes.
Please join us this evening for the completion of this vital work with Joanna.
– Mattie Porte –
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