Hokusai print

A pilgrimage to the heart of Transition, where beginner’s mind still reigns. Photo: AsiaSociety.com

In 2007 I moved to America from England.

From the sidelines, with some little involvement, I had watched the Transition movement birth, sending out its first exploratory roots. The excitement of the viral birth of the movement was tangible. There was a sense of something different being created, not just solutions to ecological and resource challenges.

My move to the US deepened my involvement with Transition through helping to initiate Transition in Portland, becoming a Transition Trainer and joining the Transition US Board. The excitement in the US back then was no less tangible, as the early adopters reached out across the country via Skype, email and telephone, sharing in conference calls to explore emerging ideas and support each other.

Back to where it all began

However, I’ve often looked back at Transition in Britain, feeling that something beyond the words of the Transition Handbook emerged there. It’s what I call the essence of Transition.

This essence was beyond figuring out where our food will come from or how we’ll keep the lights on. I couldn’t put my finger on what that essence was, but I also couldn’t get this feeling out of my mind. It had nothing to do with Britain being the only one “doing Transition” properly, or that this essence didn’t exist anywhere else. I believe that it does. But Britain was my initial experience of Transition, and of course the home of the founders of the movement.

I was creating in my mind a myth of Transition. It was a myth to me as I was unsure whether it was true. But I believed that within this myth was the essence of what Transition is. Something that goes so much deeper than the projects Initiatives are engaged in.

This summer found me in Britain for two weeks at the end of June. A family event was happening and it was sufficiently close to the Transition Network Conference in Liverpool that I decided to book a place for that weekend. I wanted to see if there was any truth to the myth that I had created.

Rob Hopkins calls Transition a massive social experiment, now taking place on a world wide scale. He also speaks about how in the early days, when people were asking what they were doing in Totnes, they didn’t really know, they were making it up as they went along.

A stepping back was required to observe the twelve steps that were to appear in The Transition Handbook. There was an air of the unknown as Transition Town Totnes emerged, a serious and strong commitment with the endeavor, but with that a playfulness as well. An idea of a goal and direction, but also not quite sure what would happen next.

Beginner’s mind

Zen Master Shunryu Suzuki Roshi said

If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything; it is open to everything. In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few.

Transition started with that beginner’s mind quality about it and I think that brought an infectious air to the way Transition was presented, whether at talks, gatherings, or on blogs.

Transition was not only a response to a global problem, but was also empowering the ordinary person into action to start writing their own story of the world that they wanted to see, instead of waiting for others to do it for them. In doing this it was awakening a latent wish for people to ask what they wanted from their lives and how they wanted to structure and make the world around them.

Growing up, yet keeping beginner’s mind

As Transition has matured and become more widely noticed as a movement, it’s had to step up to the task of running increasingly larger local groups, presenting a coherent and mature face to local business and government, and holding conferences. However, underlying it remains a massive experiment that everyone is invited to take part in. There are plenty of seats available at the table. In fact, the table never appears to be full.

The Liverpool Conference had many aspects. There were large group gatherings, workshops, home groups, discussions over lunch, evening entertainment around the bar, long walks. There were no keynote speeches, though those fronting the Transition Network opened the Conference and closed it with their reflections.

There were opportunities to video interview people. Stories were collected from people’s experiences and shared in the larger gatherings but wrapped up as an ongoing narrative of someone attending the conference, an experience that created the effect of bringing an awareness to us all of the journey we’re on.

Successes and failures were discussed, what leadership looks like in a Transition Initiative, when to stop and when to engage in action. Through all of this there was no division between Transition work ending and relaxation, or “off time.” The work is playful and engaging enough to make work play, and play work. All aspects of the conference were Transition whether around the bar in the evening or discussing social enterprise at a workshop.

A good friend and colleague on the Transition US Board speaks about Transition being all about relationships. For me she speaks to the same observations I’ve made here. The wonderful results we’ve seen come out of Transition Initiatives world wide are based in the community they spring from. The community that is being formed is the rich fertilizer that creates the resiliency that Transition seeks to evolve.

Transition as a cultural shift

In a recent webinar organized by Transition US, Hopkins spoke about his thoughts and aspirations for Transition and made an interesting observation. He said that in the early days when Transition was new he thought of it as an environmental movement, but now he thinks about it as a cultural movement. Transition is creating or allowing the re-creation of cultures in the communities it touches.

What I experienced in Liverpool at the Network Conference, amid the discussions of what was working and what was not, discussions around leadership and group dynamics, impromptu dances around the bar and serious discussions about emerging projects, was that new culture emerging. Like all new births it trips and falls at times, but hopefully it learns from mistakes.

The Scottish scholar, social activist and writer Alastair McIntosh speaks about the Triune Basis of Community. It’s made up of soil, soul and society.

Having a sense of place, soil, gives us a stronger sense of who we are, a soul, which in turn helps us to form a stronger society based upon values we care about. And this loops back again to soil, increasing that sense of belonging to place.

So the circle goes on, ever strengthening in depth and commitment as a new community and culture emerge. This for me is the myth of Transition and yet what the movement is creating. Creating communities based on values and place growing out of a sense of self. Creating new culture.

The myth is not a myth, it exists.