Sophy Banks on the power of not doing stuff

July 31, 2013

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

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This month’s theme has been ‘The Power of Just Doing Stuff’.  It’s the first month we’ve had Transition Culture in its new home here at, and thanks for sticking with us while we figured out how to do that.  I think we’re getting there now.  It’s been a very full month, a month in which we really have done a lot of stuff.  But there’s more to Transition than just doing stuff.  So in this, our final post for July, we’ll be discussing with Sophy Banks, the Power of Just Not Doing Stuff, the power of being.  

The impetus often in Transition is to do stuff.  We’ve had a very productive month here on the website, exploring our theme from a number of different angles.  Anne Owen reflected on hearing people say "Somebody somewhere should do something about this sometime", we heard from CSA market gardener Jenny Gellatly about the power of just growing stuff, I reflected on one of my life’s key ‘Doing Stuff Moments’, seeing a talk by Bill Mollison, Jay Tompt wrote about reading the new book sitting under a tree in the sun, we heard from Mike Small about the very real power of when lots of people do stuff together, I shared a talk I gave to promote The Power of Just Doing Stuff at the Ways with Words festival, Sarah Ayech reflected on the sense of possibility she found in a £300 house at Glastonbury Festival, we heard from Molly Fletcher about the power of creating an edible high road in Kilburn in London and Caroline Jackson asked an important question – "are we doing the right stuff?"

We heard about Transition Thursday events in Crystal Palace (and the audio from that talk), Sheffield and Downham Market/Swaffham, WorthingLouth and Horncastle and Slaithwaite including videos of Transitioners reflecting on what Transition is and why they do it, talked to food writer Joanna Blythman about the power that lies within our creating a new parallel food system, we heard from Nick Sherwood about the Herefordshire Economic Evaluation, Kerry Lane reflected on why it’s so important to just do stuff, and then to share your stories, we heard about what it looks like when Transition Streets moves from rural Totnes to inner city Newcastle in Australia, about One Year in Transition, and we introduced our wonderful new Infographic for you to read over the summer holidays.  Phew.  That’s a lot of stuff.  We really hope you enjoyed it and found it useful and insightful.  

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But in this, our final post for the month before we sign off for August (during which very little will happen on this site, as we put theory into practice), Sophy (busily doing nothing, above), one of the key developers of the Inner Transition approach and co-creator of the Transition Training, reflects on whether it’s just as important to not do stuff.  Here is the audio of my conversation with Sophy, you can also read the transcript below…

Sophy, I’m sure you get asked the question lots of times, but how would you describe Inner Transition ? What’s Inner Transition  for you?

I gave a talk about Inner Transition in Canada just recently, and someone said "what I want from the talk is, what’s the most succinct story? What’s the E=mc² of Inner Transition?"  The way that I’m talking about that at the moment is to say the absolute core of Inner Transition is that in our groups, within ourselves, in our relationships, in what we’re doing in our communities, how can we be creating a culture that supports us to be in a state of feeling resourced, feeling empowered, feeling seen and appreciated?  With the understanding that when we have those kind of external conditions, we find ourselves in a state where we’re the most open to new ideas, the most open to connection, the most able to build relationships with people who are different from us.

That’s the core of it, to understand that internally we can be in different inner states, we can be in a state where we feel stressed and closed and driven or whatever, or we can be in a state where we’re open and creative and learning and available. That’s one way of framing Inner Transition, how do we keep recreating that? 

Part of it, I think, is when we’re all in that state of being open and creative and connected with each other and with ourselves, we make the best decisions. We’re able to take the longest and the widest view, we’re able to see the consequences of what we do, so there’s also something which has really been resonating for me. That’s not only the process we need for Transition, that’s the end-state we want to get to. Part of what’s not working in our culture is that lots of the people with a lot of power who are making really key decisions are in a state of constant stress and pressure and having to make very narrow decisions, decisions based on very narrow viewpoints.

Quite early on in the discussions about the whole process around Inner Transition  emerging was a sense that looking at other change movements before then, particularly in the environmental movement, that there was a real absence of any of that stuff. It was very much must do must do, must keep going for the sake of the planet, dragging the green crucifix up the hill. What’s your sense of what transition does differently from activist campaigning things in the past? What lessons did you feel we’ve learnt from some of those approaches?

In its best form, Transition integrates lots that those social change and environmental change movements have learnt about how to do the doing of change, alongside the huge amount of insight and understanding about how humans work. That’s come from all the inner work traditions. There’s such a raft of them, we have such a wealth of teachings now, from the immensely detailed long practised spiritual traditions such as Buddhism or even Christianity that teach us about relationships and good relationships and healthy community.  Quakerism is another fantastic example, and psychology that teaches about the unconscious and how the unconscious works through us to create patterns that we don’t really intend, unintended consequences, to all the newer science that I think is really fascinating. 

Year by year, even since we started Transition, it’s showing us how we have mirror neurons that mean what you feel and express is what I feel and express: how much we’re wired up to be interconnected with each other. How stress works in our bodies, how stress that we’re not dealing with both paralyses and over-activates us. We’ve got such a wealth of those things. For me it’s very exciting in Transition, and Inner Transition feels like it sits right on that edge, putting together what are essentially two huge movements for change, one focusing on inner and one focusing on outer.

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I remember in the really early days I talked to Hilary who was the originator of the idea, who came and talked to you [Rob] about the Psychology of Change group. We had this dream for a workshop where we’d get all the activists that are full on working out in the world, to come and look at their own personal stuff and what’s going on for them and what might be not always conscious about the drivers for their work and tendency to over-work and burn out.

And to get all the people who are deeply engaged in personal work with that cliche, can we get them off their cushions and looking at their personal development stuff and how that connects to what’s going on with the planet and how might their personal behaviour be contributing to problems at that level of scale. So to kind of put those two groups together and that feels like exactly what Inner Transition tries to do, to take the best of all of that and make something with greater wisdom.

What for you does it look like when a Transition Initiative is doing Inner Transition  well? Is it like the thing when people come to Totnes to see Transition and say – well I can’t see anything, what’s going on? What would you see in a Transition group that was actually working with this stuff in a successful way, do you think?

I think you’d see it in the quality of people’s meetings, that you would see meetings where people would feel relaxed, where even if some meetings feel pushed for time the tendency is for meetings to feel spacious enough that people enjoy them and people feel connected to each other. That within how the group spends time together there’s some time for relaxation and being sociable together and there’s time also for developing how the group is working so there’s time to reflect on the group’s structures and process: how do we hold meetings, how do we deal with differences.

I think you would see events that are celebratory and not about building and doing things. They’re about celebrating either what you’ve done and built or just celebrating the beauty and the wonder of this amazing planet that we live on. Or the wonder and beauty of the incredible things that go on in our communities. There’d be a kind of culture of celebration and appreciation of each other and our world.

I think there would be places where people are still and reflective long enough to deepen into their own experience. What’s it like to be alive in these times? What are the feelings that come up for me, how’s that in my body? So we’re using all of our senses to be alive and aware of the times that we’re living through. That might be workshops and it might be events. It might be speaker events, it might be films. It might be facilitated discussions after powerful films with images of things that are happening in our world.

There’s a sense of roundedness that all of us as humans are needed in this process of Transition and we don’t have to leave our feelings out or leave our friendliness out because we’re too busy and feeling that something’s more important than being whole and all of who we are. And again it feels like that’s the model of the future. That’s what I think we want to live as human beings, and what in a lot of places we don’t really get the opportunity to, especially in organisations.

Somebody once told me that the tie is an image for cutting off everything below our heads and leaving that at home, so all that you bring into work is your head and your thinking capacity. For some people it will be their physical strength. But that’s a good question for me, how do we make workplaces and organisations where we bring all of our wisdom. There’s some really interesting work going on around that.

You’ve been involved with Inner Transition  stuff for Transition Town Totnes from the start. Are there a couple of events or moments that stand out as real peaks or moments of insight for you during that time?

There are so many things that we’ve done. One of the things that really stood out for me was having Marianne Williamson come and talk very early on. We’ve had lots of powerful speakers, but she raised some really profound questions about how change happens and the nature of a movement. I remember one of the things she said is that one model for understanding how movements spread is is that they push at the edges, so they broaden outwards. I’ve had lots of conversations and I’ve been in them myself, about how we do awareness raising and engagement, how do we involve more people by getting our message out.

She said there’s another dimension to spreading a movement which is about the people at the centre deepening into the profound truth of the change that their movement seeks to bring about. If you have a really profound truth, like the Buddha did, you’ll have a movement that draws many many people and is enduring because it speaks to something really profoundly true in people’s souls or hearts or experiences. That’s really stayed with me as a question about somebody in the centre of this movement. How do I keep deepening my enquiry into what Transition is and find it in different parts of my experience and life. 

The other thing I think that has been really interesting that we’ve done well in Totnes, is we’re very lucky here to have so many interested people with therapy and supervision skills and mentoring skills. It’s very difficult to measure and again, like you said, it’s hard to see but I think it’s been really helpful for people involved at the centre of Transition Town Totnes and also Transition Network …

… the mentoring …

Yes, the mentoring, to have free ongoing one-to-one support of a professional quality. Other places have done it through peer-to-peer support and that’s also fantastic, but I’ve seen people really transform their practice and really feel supported in some of the edges of their activism through that scheme. I’m curious, we’ve had quite a low rate of burnout in Totnes, how much that scheme has helped. I know it’s helped me! 

One of the expressions you’ve been using increasingly over the last couple of years is “healthy human culture” and this idea that that’s ultimately the aim of Transition, to enable that and to create that. What does that mean? Can you define “healthy human culture”?

This is where my enquiry took me. I got really interested in seeing polarities and dualities – people have been doing that for centuries – about our culture and calling it dualistic. I came across Riane Eisler’s work. She talks about basically two kinds of human culture. One is based on partnership and one is based on domination. I got really interested in that and the question what if that’s true? It’s a big proposition.

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If that’s true, what’s underneath that and what is it about what goes on inside us that we’re constructed, the way we’ve evolved, that causes that to be so, that there are these two stable states?  I feel like I’ve been looking at lots of different territories, I’m really interested in trauma and how that affects us in the creation of the unconscious that comes through trauma.

This whole thing about how we create unintended consequences. The idea that anybody could have sat down and designed the consequences that we’re living with is inconceivable. However dysfunctional people were and however much they’re interested in wealth or power or anything, I just don’t believe that anybody intended it to be like this. How do we get this as a by-product of something that’s natural and…just who we are, who we’ve evolved to be. 

So for me, the question around “healthy human culture” is one of the inner. What’s the inner state of a culture that creates partnership, learns to live within its resources, that’s oriented towards joyful, pleasurable existence, that has a belief about ourselves as humans that we’re trustworthy and generous and want good things for the future, good things for our children. What I see very very strongly: in a lot of the depth work that I’ve done, what I see is when you peel away a lot of the damage, what you find is a profound and I could say universal.  In my experience (I haven’t worked with the psychopaths and the most damaged people) but that sense that if we’re healed and whole what we want is to love each other and do good in the world. 

Then there’s another state we could be in, which comes back to your first question, where we feel under-resourced, disempowered, under attack. There’s not enough and I’m taught that other people are selfish, violent and greedy so I need to fight for what I can get. In order to have status I’ve got to have stuff, I’ve got to prove myself. With that goes a whole lot of very difficult feelings.

I’m very interested in that idea, that in unhealthy culture we have a whole lot of unmanageable feelings centred around shame and not being good enough that we then disown – I can’t deal with that in myself, I’ll put it on to you, I’ll find somebody else to have that experience and then I’ll watch it in them and feel OK about myself. It’s really interesting to look at cultures of domination and colonialism and capitalism and power-over as being driven by the need to not feel stuff myself, but grab enough power so that I can do it to somebody else.

The whole driver for those things is a psychological state of splitting and projection. When I bring that back to me and what culture I create in my relationships and my groups, you see it out in those big systems in the world but it’s also a very precise way of understanding and discerning what culture do I make in this room with these people, around splitting and projection or unity. 

That’s quite a big answer! The short answer is “healthy human culture” is that one where we reel resourced, empowered, connected, appreciated and safe. Those seem to be the 5 things. If we have those, we are in that state of openness and availability and connection and learning and receptivity and then taking good action instead of action that creates a problem somewhere else in the system.

A space we can flourish in …

Yeah, flourish is a great word. I’m aware of my engineering training. If you look at all of that with an engineering hat on, what are the characteristics, what are the key things, that order the system towards health? I’ve got my theories now about what some of them are. One of them is if you have power, how do you use it? The abuse of power is very very quickly a characteristic that will lead to bad reality, deteriorating human culture.

One of the governing principles of human culture is that with power goes responsibility and accountability, and the more power and wealth you have, the more you are responsible for other people’s health and wellbeing. We can see in our culture how much we’ve lost that sense, that people have wealth with no sense of responsibility and how incredibly damaging that is. People internalise that experience of power without responsibility and you either become a victim of power or you try to grab as much of it to wield it yourself and it’s very difficult to come out of that once that’s the pattern.

In our culture, in western culture, I think we have a real mix of those two systems. It’s really difficult to put us in one or the other camp. It’s not that as human beings these are fixed states and we inhabit one or the other, and this idea that it’s not about fixed states and end states and wherever we’re trying to get to, it’s about process and what we create in each moment. Most of us have the capacity for both of those within us and in each meeting, each conversation, each action, and in what we do to ourselves, so it’s a continual recreation, healthy human culture is a continuing recreation of the conditions for health.

It’s not – we’re going to get there one day and then it will be done. We just have that choice all the time. What do we see out there; again, we can choose what we see. Do we see goodness, generosity?  Is that what we see reflected back to us? Or do we see the violence, selfishness and greed? What the news tells us is disastrous in terms of supporting the goodness in our society?

The Power of Just Doing Stuff has been the theme of the posts this month. What’s the balance between doing stuff and not doing stuff? Is the idea that the power of not doing stuff is as important as the power of just doing stuff?  What’s your take on that? 

One of the phrases that’s really ringing round my head at the moment is "burnout is not a side issue". It is not a side issue for something like Transition. I guess one of the features of Inner Transition, the characteristic of it, is seeing how dynamics are parallel across different levels of scale and inner and outer parts of the system.

As always this is quite a big answer, but if we look at burnout, its is all about giving more than we recharge within ourselves. I’m constantly putting out and giving energy and supporting things and doing things and not resting enough, not replenishing myself, and that’s exactly what we’re doing to the planet.

That sense that if we’re addressing a global system that is depleting the planet, that is taking more than it puts back, that isn’t allowing time for natural systems to replenish and revitalise themselves, if that’s what we’re doing in our movement to ourselves that’s not a coincidence. We can see the parallel dynamic. So for me the issue of burnout is absolutely central to any movement that seeks to create positive change and whether we are working sustainably and creating a culture of sustainability within our groups is not a side issue, it’s central to what we’re doing. 

I think all the wisdom traditions, all the places that have created healthy culture, see and reinforce and teach model and come back to the sense that healthy human life is action, outward, doing, movement, completion, celebration, slow down, harvesting, stillness, moving inwards, reflection, learning, deepening, questioning, stop. Nothing. Now I’m orienting towards outer again, dreaming, beginning to sow seeds, enquiring together, sharing, shaping, gathering resources, momentum building. Then outward, there we go again. We can see those cycles so clearly in nature, summer and winter and the seasons or day and night.

I think one of the symptoms of unhealthy human culture and dominating culture is that the two parts of that cycle get split and we get either very identified with doing or very identified with being passive and stuck. I think it’s interesting that those are two neurological responses to trauma and stress. It’s fight or flight. Freeze is another one. It’s almost as if you can see that we’re patterned into getting stuck into fight/flight or stuck into frozen.

The pattern of going … we’ve worked really really hard and then we burn out, we can’t do anything for months or possibly years, is a very extreme version of that. I think rest is important and all of those qualities of rest. How do I nourish myself, how do we nourish ourselves? How do we reflect, how do we celebrate? How do we get to emptiness? How do we start dreaming? What’s our next vision?  To allow time for all of that is really challenging.

It’s part of why it’s really easy to get to burnout. The issues are so huge, so many people aren’t doing anything. It’s really really urgent. I think we do need to be easy on ourselves. I do it. I find that balance incredibly challenging within myself, to stay not caught in too much doing and then exhaustion. It’s really important to see how easy that is and how natural a response that is. 

If people are reading this and about to take some of the summer off, what would your suggestion be if they’re wanting to come back in September and be of best service to Transition in the place where they live, other than just not do anything to do with Transition? Any reflection or anything they could do to serve that or best to just turn off altogether?

The thing I find most helpful is to have somebody ask me the question "what’s restful for you?", when I’ve been doing a lot of work. That may change from day to day. Sometimes it’s to sit in nature, sometimes it’s to be active, sometimes it’s to read a good book about Transition, sometimes it’s to just go and watch football or do something completely different. Just to be enquiring "what do I need right now, what’s out of balance, what’s restorative, what’s my way of nourishing myself?". And to be alive to whatever that is in that moment. 

When we come back again, everything starts again in September, what does the new season, from a football perspective, hold for you or for Inner Transition ?

There’s going to be another Inner Transition  workshop in London in September, and that’s been a really interesting journey to put that together.  If anyone’s interested into deepening into questions and sitting with other people who are interested in what Inner Transition is, that’s a really good space to do that. We’ve had really great international groups meeting in London exploring questions together. 

Because we have some funding for Inner Transition through Transition Network, we’re looking at either offering support sessions for initiatives that want to explore Inner Transition a bit more or get together with other local initiatives, other neighbours and say how can we support this part of our work a bit more. I have availability to do that so I’d love to hear from groups that are interested in that. 

And we’re dreaming, is there something that we could do that would be something a bit more deliberately international, particularly in Europe? Either to run the two-day workshop or something else. We’re looking at running it in the north of England. I’ve started blogging on Transition so I’m in the blogosphere now finally. I’ll be writing about things like some of these questions and burnout. 

Rob Hopkins

Rob Hopkins is a cofounder of Transition Town Totnes and Transition Network, and the author of The Transition Handbook, The Transition Companion, The Power of Just Doing Stuff, 21 Stories of Transition and most recently, From What Is to What If: unleashing the power of imagination to create the future we want. He presents the podcast series ‘From What If to What Next‘ which invites listeners to send in their “what if” questions and then explores how to make them a reality.  In 2012, he was voted one of the Independent’s top 100 environmentalists and was on Nesta and the Observer’s list of Britain’s 50 New Radicals. Hopkins has also appeared on BBC Radio 4’s Four Thought and A Good Read, in the French film phenomenon Demain and its sequel Apres Demain, and has spoken at TEDGlobal and three TEDx events. An Ashoka Fellow, Hopkins also holds a doctorate degree from the University of Plymouth and has received two honorary doctorates from the University of the West of England and the University of Namur. He is a keen gardener, a founder of New Lion Brewery in Totnes, and a director of Totnes Community Development Society, the group behind Atmos Totnes, an ambitious, community-led development project. He blogs at and and tweets at @robintransition.

Tags: burnout, Inner Transition, personal resilience