Individual vs Collective?

I am noticing that there seems to be a gentle stream of ‘retreatism’ in some modes of thought. The idea seems to be that the ‘crowd’ is bad, that social life is somehow corrupting and, that faced with the world situation, and the Anthropocene in particular we have to move into our own, somehow special individuation.

To me this is a partial truth, and needs expansion. It may also be true that in specific times of life, when aging, or facing immanent death, or in the midst of illness, this may be the best thing for some of us to do. I just don’t think it is a good strategy for a general approach to deal with ecological crisis or political instability. That we recognise that humans affect the world, does not mean we can correct the effects by ‘going away’. All life forms affect the world. At the moment humans are perhaps affecting it disproportionately, and we may not be able to afford retreat from that recognition.

This mode of retreat seems to be based a non-ecological mode of thinking, and in a situation of, shall we say, degrading relationships, it seems to imply that individuals are disconnected, self tending units, and could lead to further degradation.

At the biological level we are colonies, or interactive ‘systems’, of multiple creatures. Much of our body weight, when we subtract the water, contains ‘foreign’ DNA. Even our cells may depend on what were originally external organisms (mitochondria have their own DNA). We are not a single biological being. At the psychological level, depth psychology appears to uncover that we have multiple psyches, and layers of psyche: ‘complexes’, personal unconsciousness, collective unconsciousness, archetypes, or whatever. If you are more into neurology then we have, at least, a hind brain, a mid brain and two hemispheres, all of which may function independently, and communicate with difficulty. Other researchers add neurological centres in the heart and the solar plexus. We are psychologically multiple interactive systems. We are not so much engaged in dialogues, but in ‘multi-logues’.

We are also social creatures. We think with borrowed, badly copied or modified thoughts. We feel with borrowed, emulated and modified feelings and desires. We think with others and in reaction to others. Without singular amounts of effort we cannot live alone, and when young we cannot live alone at all. We are interdependent with others as interactive systems. The boundaries are fuzzy, we blend into each other and are interpenetrated by each other. The same is true of our ecology, we modify it, it modifies us, and that is happening between billions of creatures simultaneously. It again is a set of interactive systems: that is the nature of being.

We are both collaborative and competitive, and are so at many levels, individually, group, nationally etc… Sometimes what we think is working together is working against each other.

Consequently, the individual and the collective do not seem to me to be separate, or even opposing, poles. Certainly, not in the sense that one is enlightened and that the other is ignorant. They work together, and against each other, always. We are always in multi-logues. The question is how to work together as productively as possible. What follows are some suggestions.

First point seems to me to recognise that we are massively unconscious. We do not perceive most of this working together or against each other; we cannot perceive all of it; we probably cannot understand all of it; and we cannot predict it – this is true of both our inner and outer lives (and these lives are not separate; the boundaries are continually fuzzy and porous).

Second point may be that given this unconsciousness, unpredictability and porous boundaries, full retreat is impossible – we are always in the systems whether we like it or not. What is needed is a set of day to day techniques to deal with events we are unconscious of. We may need to fully engage with our senses, fully engage with our symbolic capacities, fully engage with our ability to listen in the widest sense.

Third point. Because we cannot fully understand, we may need to suspend our sense that we do understand. We all think we understand. Often understanding involves blame, condemnation and scapegoating, which are processes which almost automatically stop our ability to listen and understand. (We may even condemn ‘thinking’, or ‘lack of spirituality’, or ‘spirituality’ itself, when humans automatically appear to think, or have some spiritual orientation towards the cosmos.) That is one reason why the techniques are so popular; they fill the gaps, stop us being puzzled and preserve our egos and their understandings. So it could be useful if we recognise that whatever we think is right, could be wrong, no matter how right it seems.

Fourth point. Premature and enforced understanding, automatically produces unintended consequences. It is the order that produces the disorder it fears. It makes things worse. It stops us listening to the world, it stops correction by reality. It nearly always produces action and may sometimes be necessary.

Fifth point. We need to correct our understanding. We do this not just in retreat, although retreat is valuable – everything needs rest – but we do it in interaction with the world. It is only interaction that can give correction or show us the consequences of that understanding (if we look/listen).

Sixth point. While our ego (consciousness) tends to seek repetition and fixed understanding, we can remember that we have multiple and unconscious modes of understanding and wisdom which may see things differently; that may add to our conscious understanding, even if our ego resists. Bad feelings can tell us that we are thinking ‘badly’ or incorrectly. Dreams can give us symbolic representations of reality which include events that our consciousness may not want to admit. The same is true of art and story. A sense of unease can be informative (perhaps it is our heart thinking?). If we really hold to the understanding that things/events/people/ecologies are interconnected and boundaries are fuzzy, and that our orders may not always be good, then maybe we can see more ‘data’ to help improve our understanding. All of these messages and data need evaluation through interaction with reality, but they can potentially add to understanding. We all have ‘inner wisdom’, but it is not just found in retreat, it is also found in an attentive and open daily life.

Seventh point. Response to crisis should probably be an oscillatory process. We go ‘inside’ to our hidden wisdoms, we go ‘outside’ to the interacting or multi-loguing world, we go ‘inside’ again and so on. If we remain isolated or unthinking individuals then it is possible we will be worse than ignored, we will lose some of our internal power as it does not go into the world, we will become complicit in that loss.

This is not a protest against doing inner work, but saying that inner work is part of outer work, it is not separate. I am also not remotely against the idea of multi-logue, but admit it can be difficult and upsetting to our egos, and this can be good.

However, I am suggesting that when we recognise that oppression or destruction is likely to come, or is coming, then people may need to formally join together to protect themselves and protect others. The more understanding we have, gained from participation and challenge, then the less likely that this joining will be violent, condemnatory or exclusionary; the more likely we will be responding to reality rather than to our limited understandings of reality.


2015: a tipping point for a more sustainable future?

tipping point

Tipping points and leverage points exist in complex systems – 2015 may be a tipping point and the leverage point may be your decision to shift to a mindset of nurturing people, planet and profits.

2015 has seen some monumental events that may be pointing to an expansion of global consciousness around the need for we humans to change the way we live and work on this planet.

These include:

And the big question of what agreement may be signed at COP 21 in Paris this December may finally answer the question:

Is 2015 a turning point for matters related to human sustainability on Earth?

How will you respond privately and organisationally?

Collectively these responses recognise that sustainability issues are near a tipping point and are:

1) Very important – and becoming very urgent.

2) Broader and deeper than planting more trees.

3) An interconnected set of challenges that join up human and environmental wellbeing (including species diversity); the way we relate with others – social justice; and the degree to which we each enjoy inner meaning and peace as we live authentic lives.

To resolve the issues that are being highlighted requires a profound change in the way in which we live and work.

One way of viewing the fundamental nature of that profound change is seeing it as a shift from exploiting resources – to nurturing resources – human and environmental.

As you nurture your people more, nurture your communities more and nurture the natural environmental systems more, you will also nurture bottom line financial returns. Investment analysis confirms this now. But that’s not the reason to do it – it just makes it easier.

Exercising your leadership is right and surprisingly rewarding

The reason to do contribute towards a better world now is because its the right thing to do and as Peter Drucker said, “Leadership is doing the right thing.”

For an appreciation of what may be possible when we start nurturing natural systems, instead of working against them; and an appreciation of the surprising outcomes that may spring because the world is interconnected, have look at the the film clip, How wolves change rivers – the link is shown below.

This post was first published at by Josie McLean.
Josie is the founder and principal consultant for The Partnership, an Australian organisational and leadership development firm dedicated to a more sustainable world that works for all. The Partnership’s purpose is to guide organisations to transform their cultures to one’s that nuture their people, their communities and economies, and the natural environment.

2100 AD : A poem

The children turned the page and said
What is this creature?
It is the spirit of the wind
And the heart of fire
And its name was Cheetah I said

And the children turned the page and said
What is this garden green?
It is the creator of beauty
And the seat of life
And its name was Forest I said

And the children turned the page and said
Where is this place?
And I said
It is where freedom flies
It is the link
It is where the soul finds its sanctuary
And the gospel its spirit
And its name was Wilderness.

And the children said
You have stolen from us.
You have taken what is ours.
We do not know Cheetah or Forest or Wilderness
Therefore how can we know Soul or Spirit or Freedom or Fire.
Because you have destroyed the link
We are blind.

And I saw how they grasped desperately for a light
Out of the darkness we had led them too

And I had no answer.

Val Payn (2005)

This poem by South African writer and environmentalist Valerie Payn was originally published in the anthology ‘For Rhino in a Shrinking World’.  Visit this website for more details:

Val will be an occasional contributor to this blog.

Falling into wholeness

Breaking the Mould :

Towards the end of 2009 I realised the life I had been living was over. The stories that animated the social change activism of my generation – the baby boomers – had, for me, run their course. Decades as a change strategist, community facilitator, process consultant, and social entrepreneur had reached a dead-end. For the first time in my experience I had no idea what came next. What could I usefully do or be at this stage of my life? The only way forward seemed to be to break the mould and step into the unknown.

I wound up my affairs in the region where I’d been living for more than a decade and retreated to a small coastal village near a mountain sacred as a creation site to the local indigenous people. There I found myself grappling with the personal implications of the vast disconnect I perceived between the existential challenge our civilisation faces if we are to restore “a viable mode of human presence on planet Earth”, and the hidebound nature of our responses. This collective cognitive dissonance matched the schism in my own psyche between the void of unmeaning into which I had fallen and my taken-for-granted habits of being and making sense of my life.


Disintegration :

At times of personal crisis in the past I’d found solace in the healing embrace of nature. So now I spent the first weeks of my retreat in the bush, on the mountain or by the sea, feeling more alive, stronger, enheartened. Then, on about the sixth week, a great tsunami of dread crashed over me. All the hurts and heartaches of life’s disappointments, rejections, misdeeds and humiliations swirled into a vortex of despair. My energy collapsed, my joints stiffened, my mind clouded, and I was stricken with pain. For weeks I was unable to venture beyond my cabin. I despaired of ever again finding my place in the world.

I had set off on my quest for renewal with the metaphor of metamorphosis to guide me. Disintegration was indeed what I experienced. The structures of my old identity gave way and I spiralled into a place without form or meaning. But the outcome of this pupation was not what I anticipated. When I eventually began to feel my way back into the world I was startled by how different, how alien, my body felt. In the first weeks of my retreat I’d felt physically much as I had all my adult life. Now that familiar body was gone. I felt an old man. I’d entered a new stage of life.

I spent the next few months reaching out in small cautious ways to the local community. Life there was gentle and slow, tempered by the moods of the ocean, the sky, and the mountain. Days of quiet contentment made poignant by an underlying sense of meaninglessness and episodes of deep despair. Then I knew it was time to move on. I needed a more culturally stimulating environment and professional assistance to break the endless cycling from creative enthusiasm to black depression that had framed my life for decades.


A Life Without Meaning ?

At first city life was a roller-coaster ride of exhilaration and lassitude. When my energy was flowing I reached out to rebuild old networks and relationships, finding riches of friendship and wise counsel. When the dark fog of depression enveloped me I turned inwards and watched it pass by. And always the question: is it possible to endure life without meaning?

For someone whose identity had been built around a strong intuitive vocation and for whom meaning was more important than material reward, this was a very big question. To accept the limitations of my life as it was and to more fully embrace the consolations of friendship became my practice.

The city showed me its generous face. From my new place of acceptance I found the needs of friends opened satisfying opportunities to contribute. I was soon engaged in several modest collaborations, and a succession of house-sits allowed me to taste the rich diversity of city life. Slowly fear of the void receded and I found myself held securely in a web of mutuality.

But the existential crisis of our global culture continued to shade my days. I perceived a general unwillingness to face the possibility of catastrophic system failure or consider its meaning for the generations ahead. Even those who accepted that effective international action on climate change was unlikely, remained wedded to modes of adversarial politics disturbingly out of kilter with the nature of our predicament. To me their thinking seemed far behind the times. As a society we were evidently hunkering down in a fog of collective denial.

In this respect I felt very isolated  – the proverbial voice crying in the wilderness. Was my perception of the dynamics of change in the contemporary world so off beam? An attempt to commit my thoughts and feelings to paper faltered, then stalled altogether. Try as I may I could not find a way to express what I wanted to say in words that others might be willing to hear.

woolloomooloo street

Reconciling with the Earth :

Flashback to Easter 1998:  I was one of thirty-four people who undertook a pilgrimage to a creation site on Gulaga, a sacred mountain on the NSW Far South Coast, led by Yuin elder Uncle Max Dulumunmun Harrison. The idea of the pilgrimage had come to me on a visit to the area some months before. Sitting late one afternoon on a great granite outcrop above a waterfall on the side of the mountain, I felt a powerful impulse to make a pilgrimage to the sacred site I had been privileged to visit the previous day. Some weeks later I travelled south again to tell Uncle Max of this experience and ask his advice. Yes, he said, we must do this.

The pilgrimage began in torrential rain at Sydney Central Station very early on Easter Friday as our group boarded a coach for the trip south. As we travelled through Yuin country Uncle Max showed us how, through its stories, it was possible to find profound meanings in a cultural landscape. That night we made our camp on the shores of Wallaga Lake at the foot of Gulaga. The next morning we walked up the mountain in silence to the sacred site. There, and at other culturally significant sites we visited over the weekend, Uncle Max shared some of his people’s teachings with their emphasis on understanding and respecting the proper relationships between people, the Earth, and all its creatures.

The pilgrimage was a seminal experience that showed me the possibility of a deeper connection with this ancient land. In Uncle Max’s words, the only reconciliation that really matters is between humans and Mother Earth.

When in 2009 I decided to step into the unknown, it was to Gulaga that I returned. And it was Gulaga that held me through the stages of my personal transition.


From Striving to Connection :

Over the last forty years I’ve faced the challenge of breakdown several times. For me the typical trajectory has been from high functioning, to over-reach, panic, crash, depression.

My first response was dogged resistance, soldiering on into the face of the storm. Then overwhelm. Capitulation. Collapse.

Later I’d find myself mired in the swamps of depression, clinging to medication to keep my head above water. Eventually my feet would find firm ground and I’d begin the slow slog back into the world, winding up my energy and sense of self, finding my creative fire, reconnecting with my passions.

Trying harder, I soon realised, was a dead-end – the trap of denial. Its inevitable result a bigger crash, a harder trek out.

The path of transition lay, I discovered, not through control, but through acceptance; not holding on to the familiar, but letting go of the sure; not shoring up defences, but opening to change; not forcing the pace, but dropping to a deeper connection.

The mountain, Gulaga, was and is my point of reference. A physical place of ancient power and a metaphorical window into our collective psyche. Gulaga is a place that calls me, and a presence I carry in my being. Earth’s creativity incarnate.

​I found my voice again through surrender. By letting go of the angst swirling through the blogosphere and listening more carefully to Earth’s steady heartbeat. Not how can we save the planet, but how do we restore our place in the community of life.

​Only connect…

Bermagui-2 079 copy

Radical Revisioning :

These days I find myself living a life that, in the past, I would have considered pointless. I notice I am no longer caught up in the once so important – like identity derived from an evidently valued role in the world; a sense of personal security measured by material resources, however modest, and the predictability of home, community, and routine; and, for me most significant of all, a sense of purpose.

To an observer, my way of being in the world these days might appear passive, even fatalistic. But to me it feels fresher, more alert to what’s emerging, and more willing to consider and embrace the choices on offer. In short, more awake. And, in making these choices, I find I’m less driven by obligation, outrage, or fear – either personal or tribal.

The political nostrums that once framed my thinking and informed my actions have given way to a broader, less easily defined, more tentative, but perhaps more profound values cloud. It is seeded with the wisdom of some exceptional teachers I’ve had the great fortune to encounter, either personally or through their writings – like Uncle Max Harrison, Joanna Macy, and Thomas Berry – and by the many “ordinary” people of extraordinary commitment and compassion I have encountered on my journey.

Now my life is held within a more modest understanding of my limits, defined by relationships offering the possibility of mutuality. At the same time, the “big picture” that has always engaged me now seems even bigger, both spatially and temporally. This expansive viewpoint has brought with it a quality of disinterest, coupled with a desire to engage with others – not to persuade, enlist, or even facilitate – but to explore together the human condition at this pregnant moment, and reflect on how a radically new vision of the future might be birthed.

Of course there are days when I feel disheartened, when my inner landscape grows dingy and arid. These are times for stillness, for settling into the bleakness without trying to fade or fix it. Perhaps surprisingly, these days now feel like times for necessary healing. For recuperation. For doing very little and keeping to myself. And they pass.

My personal experience of transition has taught me that there are times when breakdown is not only likely but even desirable, providing an opening for much needed renewal. Such times are indeed fraught with danger. But they can also be numinous if we surrender to the embrace of their creative power.

The apparent paradox within the way I now experience the world – with humility and inspiration, with detachment and passion – calls to mind some words of Rabindranath Tagore (1921) that I first heard in a documentary many years ago. Their poignancy touched me deeply then and now seems particularly apt:

 “I have wondered in my mind how simply it stands before me, this great world: with what fond and familiar ease it fills my heart, this encounter with the Eternal Stranger”.

Kenneth McLeod, 2012

Thanks to impermanence,

everything is possible.

Thich Nhat Hanh, The Practice of Looking Deeply