Which self needs changing?

If we are to adapt to ecological change, we need to change ourselves. But this begs one of the most important questions any of us will ever ask: what is my ‘self’?

The evolution of modern psychology quickly arrived at an idea of the human self that has become highly popularised. I rarely meet anyone, for example, that isn’t familiar with the term ‘ego’. Today if you ask someone to point to themselves, they will point to their body. “I” am contained within my skin. This makes perfect sense because that is what we have been taught for hundreds of years by the dominant stories of industrial culture.

But it isn’t true.

Skin and wave
Our skin is a semipermeable membrane across which there are billions of ongoing interactions. Some of these are molecular, some atomic and I imagine many more are sub-atomic.“I” am not just inside my skin.

I find a helpful metaphor here is that of a wave in a river. You can see the wave, you can photograph it, you can draw or paint it, you can point to it and other people will see it: it has an ‘intersubjective’ reality, as Edmund Husserl would say. But if you scoop it out of the river in a bucket, it will vanish – only to be replaced by ‘another’ wave.

The wave is created in a form that we experience as a ‘wave’ by the rocks on the river bed, by the friction of air on the surface of the water, by any material moving through the water, by the dimensions of space the water has in which to flow, by the interactions of light and energy. The wave is a product of its environment. It is the result of an infinite amount of different relationships with everything around and inside it. When it is removed from these relationships, it vanishes.

Physicists would go further and say that this isn’t even a metaphor. We are waves!

So if we are the product of our relationships with everything else in the world, then the self does not stop at the skin. We do not exist in a vacuum – we exist in relationship. This is very important.

Our vanishing self
Our dominant culture is not based on this profoundly simple realism. In our modern daily lives we live like we are separate from the rest of nature. That makes it possible for us to destroy the rest of nature, believing it is somehow for own benefit. But because we are part of nature, we are destroying ourselves as well. If we remove ourselves from the relationships that define us we are diminished, or cease to exist altogether: we vanish.

Going deep
If you want to challenge and change our dominant culture, then you cannot use this narrow pseudo-self definition. The skin-bound ego will always be in conflict with the ‘others’. Always misguidedly seeking to maintain its hard shell shape, unaware that it can only fully exist without it.

Unfortunately, nearly every change programme I have ever seen stops short of asking what self (or selves) it is trying to change. They focus on knowledge and technique, dialogue and values, strategy and policy, technology and implementation. These things are important, of course, but they are not at the root of change.

That is why, I believe, we haven’t yet successfully responded adequately to the ecological crises of our time: we haven’t gone deep enough yet.

We must start with the premise that we need to – first and foremost – facilitate processes that allow people to make the shift from a narrow, skin-bound sense of self to one that is understood as a product of its relationships, including those beyond the human realm.

Without this foundational shift in selfhood, without personal change at the site of our identity, social change will always be shallow and temporary.

Change to what?

A big question in any change process has to be: change to what?

Any deliberate attempt to change the way people feel, behave and act is full of assumptions and power dynamics. The Hitler Youth movement was a change programme, ethnic cleansing is a change programme, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are change programmes. Equally, Ghandi’s Salt March, Nelson Mandela’s campaign against apartheid, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the Suffragette movement and Norwegian resistance of Nazi occupation were also change programmes.

I am sure you will consider some of these as ‘good’ and others as ‘bad’. The direction of change is fundamentally important.

Challenging ethics
Many change programmes seem to make huge assumptions about the direction of change. Or worse, they engage with deep psychological and pseudo-spiritual realms assuming the outcomes will naturally be ‘good’. In many cases such ‘good’ simply results in maximising value for shareholders or promoting economic growth – without ever challenging the ethics of these outcomes.

The extent to which change programmes transcend their own cultural context is often limited, sometimes deliberately. If you are a transnational corporation who want to be seen on the leading edge of your sector, you need to engage with all the latest, high-profile and well-researched change programmes. It’s essential for staff-retention, innovation, efficiency, accountability and transparency. But not at any cost: the change must not dismantle your corporate rationale, it must not undermine the economic system upon which your organisational existence depends. In short, your change programme must not change things too much.

So what if change is needed that extends beyond our dominant cultural context and the social rules that maintain it? What if the purpose of change is not given by people at all: what if the change needed is to increase biodiversity, reduce greenhouse gas emissions or cut the nitrogen content in the Earth’s rivers and soils?

While we have no doubt created the conditions that mean these changes are necessary – through a tragedy of collective errors – do we actually control them? Can we put the genie back into the bottle? Some might like to believe so – that a utopian evolution of consciousness is about to emerge and create a united and unprecedented global response. But unprecedented is the key word here: there is no precedent in human history for such a response. The hippies were wrong. And that is painful for me to say! Humans are only in control of a tiny part of the solution, the rest is beyond us.

Humility not hubris
The question then is not, ‘what changes do we want?’ but, ‘what changes do we have to adapt to?’

This changes everything. The emphasis shifts from humans being central, to nothing being central – or perhaps everything being central. It takes people out of the centre and makes them, in the words of Aldo Leopold, “plain citizens of the biotic community.” Such ecological ordinariness demands a new approach to change, one based on humility and adaptation – rather than hubris and control freakery.

The notion of controlling change becomes subordinate to the idea of adaptation and response. And to the perhaps startling notion that in most cases we are simply not in control, despite our elaborate rhetoric and persistent ideologies to the contrary.

Whenever I encounter a new change programme I start by asking the question, ‘change to what?’. Next I want to know if the programme assumes human control or ecological adaptation. Does it pour time and energy into changing something that will probably have little or no long-term impact, or does it help prepare us to  cope with an unpredictable and unprecedented future?

Some field notes on Natural Change Hungary

Osbert Lancaster © 2015

Natural Change Hungary at Kisújbánya – September 2105. Photo: Osbert Lancaster © 2015

A few weeks ago, Richard, Osbert, Rob and I spent a week leading a Natural Change course in the forests of southern Hungary. The course was part of a project organised by the Pandora Association in Hungary, with partners from Romania, Italy, Spain, Liechtenstein, Germany and the Czech Republic. It was funded by the European Union’s Erasmus+ programme. There were 22 participants from the partner nations and the course took place at Kisújbánya, in a vast area of woodland about three hours drive due south of Budapest.

We worked in two groups of 11 for the first four-days, with Osbert and Richard leading one group and Rob and I leading the other. The last two days were spent exploring theory and facilitation techniques, done working as a whole group and in smaller groups and pairs.

We had perfect weather and everything when to plan. But in many ways it was also a hard week because we were working in an area we didn’t know, with English as a second language. We were also holding a large group between us and leading the programme as a team. The areas we had to work in were limited by the local hunting season and there was a curfew before 0800 and after 1600 in most areas each day! But with the help and support of our local host we managed to find enough space to have 22 people out on solo from dawn until dusk.

Despite the challenges, we had a fabulous time! Such a dedicated, open and passionate group of youth workers and leaders. Everyone engaged fully and whole-heartedly with the process and the week unfolded in a profound and powerful way. As ever, the highlight for me were the stories told after the solo. Such a graceful and grounding experience. As part of the project, there is a blog where participants are posting reflections on their experience. You can visit it here >>

I’d like to thank Rich, Osbert and Rob for the amazing work they did. It was the first time any of them had run a whole Natural Change ‘core’ process. Seeing them facilitate so beautifully – and with such passion and commitment – was a threshold moment for me. I’ve waited a long time to see that happen. Thank you.

NEW Introduction to Facilitating Natural Change course dates for 2015

We’ve had several enquiries for our one-week Introduction to Facilitating Natural Change course, despite not having one scheduled! So we’ve decided to offer one in March 2015.

The course is a stand-alone professional development opportunity as well as pre-requisite for applying for our comprehensive Natural Change Facilitator three-year training programme.

We process applications as they come in, so if you’re interested please do apply as soon as possible to avoid disappointment.

Introduction to Facilitating Natural Change course details >>
Online application form >>

COURSE: Modern Indigeny: What does the word indigenous bring to your imagination?

What does the word indigenous bring to your imagination? What images do you have of indigenous people? Of the way they live their lives, their beliefs – of the places in which they live?

Historically, European cultures have been saturated with ideas that denigrate indigenous people. They have been branded “primitive” and used to benchmark the heroic rise of industrial ‘progress’. This has left a fatal wound, where many people of European origin have cut themselves from their indigenous roots, falling instead into the seductive spell of the industrial age. The scar left behind is that the majority of European cultures rejected the blood and soil of their own indigeny.

By sharp contrast, in more recent times many people have come to idealise indigenous cultures as examples of fair and sustainable societies. Future hopes of sustenance and justice have then been projected onto them, demonising industrialism as a lost cause.

In both cases people of European origin have become disconnected from their indigenous selves. We either walk away in disgust, or endlessly seek some kind of idealised participation in cultures that are not our own.

Either-way contemporary indigenous people lose out. They are either dismissed and oppressed or else romanticised – their sacred cosmologies, traditions, art and objects stolen and assimilated sycophantically into consumer culture.

Can we of European origin unearth our own indigenous selves? Can we redraw the map – with ourselves as part of the terrain? Can we call forth our imaginations into a modern indigenous form?

In July, Mary-Jayne Rust, Annie Spencer, Colin Campbell and Dave Key will gather at Schumacher College to explore this complex, powerful and sensitive subject. Through stories and practices we will trawl our personal and collective sense of indigeny – whatever that turns out to be.

The course will be an adventure, a navigational resection, a mapping of the ground where leaf, rock, fur and bone meet the imagination. And it will be a call: to dig deep and find the wellspring of inspiration that can bring our own indigenous wisdom to the social and ecological challenges of our era.

Course details >>

This blog was co-written by Mary-Jayne Rust & David Key

The Truth is Out There

The main problem, with the ‘environmental’ problem, is that it’s so energy-sappingly depressing. All those mind-numbing statistics about species extinction, escalating Parts Per Million of atmospheric carbon, another landscape racked by deforestation. A read through the “Jo’berg memo” for example, published to coincide with the Rio plus 10 Earth Summit in Johannesburg last year, is a downward-spiralling journey of despair. Lester Brown’s annually published ‘State of the World’ report, the essential brief-case bible of the environmental lobbyist, attempts to be positive but the undercurrent of desperation catches you in the end.

Continue reading “The Truth is Out There”