Ed. note: You can find Part 1 of Otto’s post on Resilience.org here.
A 10-Point Meditation on Our Current Moment
As the reckless attacks and crimes against the Ukrainian people broadened and became more brutal, I found it difficult to concentrate and to continue writing this contemplation on our current moment. What we see unfolding is exactly the kind of massive amplification of absencing — the social field of destruction — that I wrote about in the first part of this essay. The only way out that I found was the way in (to borrow from a great podcast that I will loop back to further down): by contemplating on my personal experience.
Image by Kelvy Bird
In the first part of this essay, I reflected on the current moment through the lens of absencing — the lens of a social field shaped by the grammar of destruction. The upshot is a widely shared feeling of depression and despair. That feeling is supported by a massive amount of data. If you are not depressed, you are (probably) out of touch. In other words: if you are not in complete denial about what we are collectively doing to our planet, to each other, and to ourselves, then you can only be depressed. Or outraged. Or both.
In this part, I invite you to look at the current situation through the lens of emerging future possibility — the lens of a social field shaped by the grammar of transformative co-creation (see figure 1).
Figure 1: Presencing and Absencing: Two Social Grammars, Two Social Fields (Source: Scharmer 2018)
5. The Most Important and Least Well Told Story of Our Time
Let me begin this part by connecting our current moment with felt senses in our own bodies. In my case, I connect with the dissonance through two different feelings: depression and possibility.
First, depression. In the first few days of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, like everyone else, I watched the unfolding news in agony. Part of my mind was struggling with accepting what my eyes and my intellect clearly saw. That experience triggered a kind of déjà vu. My body remembered that I had had that felt sense before. I felt it at the beginning of COVID. I felt it when Trump was elected president (and to some degree throughout his entire presidency). I felt it on 9/11. Maybe you felt it too, on one of those occasions, or a different one? By now, all of us probably know that sinking feeling: you feel as if somebody has ripped the ground out from under your feet.
When we look at this whole set of disruptive experiences — the complete lineup of events that over the past couple of decades have ripped the ground out from under us — what do we see? What does that experience do to our state of being? In my case, I become absorbed by and fixated on these events. I get pulled out of my own body; I feel helpless, and sometimes even paralyzed. In a word: I get depressed. I feel disconnected from my own agency. I believe that’s exactly how many of us are feeling today.
A collectively depressed society is a widespread phenomenon that many people recognize, particularly the young and more sensitive among us. If you are 22 today, you have lived your entire life in a world that is being shaped by the amplification of absencing-infused disruptions. Your life experience started with 9/11, and from there, the frequency of disruption for most people went up, not down.
That’s the first feeling. There are massive amounts of data to confirm it. When I think about it more deeply, though, I realize that’s not the whole story. Yes, people are depressed. But a diagnosis of physical or emotional depression does not take into account the agency of the human spirit, the agency of our better (our higher or capital S) Selves, a dormant awareness of the whole that we can activate. Just as Putin was blind to the shared awareness and agency of civil society and collective human action in Ukraine, in Russia, and around the world, in our widely shared sense of depression we are blind to our highest future possibility and agency.
Where does that second feeling come from? In my own body, I probably would locate it in my heart. But really it occupies the whole middle portion of my body and radiates out and up from there. It’s a distinct feeling of real possibility that I have felt many times. I felt it one of the first times as a teenager when I marched with 100,000 others against nuclear power plants in Germany (back then we were arguing, among other things, against the scenario that is playing out now in Ukraine: nuclear waste that lasts 1 million years and that makes your energy system vulnerable to terrorism and war). I felt it again in the late 1970s, when that same anti-nuclear movement led to the founding of the Green Party in Germany, which has been instrumental in turning Germany into the first major industrial powerhouse to phase out nuclear energy by 2022 and to phase out coal by 2030.
In the 1980s I was gripped by another strong sense of real future possibility when peace and civil rights activists across Europe seemed to “collaborate” spontaneously across geographies. In 1989 I was a student organizer co-leading a Peace Studies Around the World program with the renowned peace researcher Johan Galtung. We took 35 students from 12 countries on a nine-month global learning journey to learn from academics, change-makers, and grassroots activists. During the Eastern European part of the trip we met with some of these activists in East Berlin, Moscow, and Tartu, Estonia, just a few months before the Berlin Wall collapsed. As a student, I was struck that even the people on the frontlines of these movements seemed to be largely unaware of the collective impact they were about to have.
So far in my short life, I have seen tectonic shifts with my own eyes several times: the collapse of the Berlin Wall, which effectively ended the cold war; the peaceful dissolution of the Soviet Union; the end of apartheid in South Africa; the first African American US president. I have seen the beginnings of a tectonic shift in the youth-led climate action movement. And after the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and countless others, the Black Lives Matter movement has finally brought systemic racism into the light of day.
We have participated in some of these tectonic shifts ourselves, taking to the streets to mobilize change. But even when we are merely witnesses to activism and change, we can feel the field of future possibility that inspires people to take action collectively. Still, I feel strongly that the most important tectonic shift of our lifetime is yet to come. It will be more fundamental than the earlier shifts, as dramatic and life-changing as they were. It will be a profound shift of paradigm and consciousness in how we relate to each other, to Mother Nature, and to ourselves — and how we transform and rebuild our societal institutions in the face of our social and planetary emergencies.
My belief that massive transformational change is afoot is shared by many people around the planet. I can sense it every day as I work with senior leadership teams in business, in government, and in multilateral institutions like the UN, as well as with grassroots activists in their local communities.
According to a recent study, 74% of people in G20 countries (comprising 60% of the world population and 80% of the world GDP) support the transformation of our economic system to better address the various planetary and social emergencies of our time. Three out of four! Is that transformation already happening? Mostly not. Can it happen? Absolutely. We have the resources. We have the technologies. We have the aspirations. What don’t we have yet? The movement and the collaborative leadership technologies that can actually make it happen now.
So, depression and a sense of possibility. These are the two conflicting feelings I have as I tune in to our current moment: the déjà vu of repeated disruptions that amplify the noise of absencing, and simultaneously the acute sense of future possibility that many people feel, yet don’t know what to do with. The first feeling is well known — it’s amplified and retold millions of times every day. The second feeling is part of a more important and largely untold story of our time. It is usually crowded out by the noise of the first one. That second story is the golden thread that I will follow throughout the remainder of this blog.
6. Five Stories of Recent Progress
If we zoom out from the current moment, if we focus not just on the past two decades but on the past two centuries, what do we see? We see profound progress in human development across at least five key areas:
● War. Yes, wars still plague our planet and its people. But the truth is that we have made major progress toward ending the use of war as an acceptable means of conflict resolution between states. Yes, there have been setbacks and exceptions, like the painful events in Ukraine, Syria, and Afghanistan. And yes, there are new forms of armed conflict (more intrastate, less interstate, and more cyber-based). Nevertheless, the progress of peace around the planet since the end of World War II is undeniable (see figure 2).
Figure 2: Worldwide battle deaths per 100,000 people (Source)
● Decolonization. The decolonization of Latin America, Asia, and Africa over the past two centuries is one of the most significant historical achievements in recorded history. Yes, a lot of work remains to be done. After political decolonization, the next problems to tackle are economic and cultural decolonization and the “decolonization of the mind” (Vandana Shiva), the decolonization of thought. But progress here is undeniable. Check out this animated map showing a snapshot of the past 500 years.
● Slavery and Civil Rights. The worldwide abolition of slavery and serfdom is another major accomplishment, though it took many more years to abolish the corresponding systems of apartheid and segregation. And yes, whenever we saw progress in some areas, a backlash was often not far behind. And even though structural violence, systemic racism, and slave-like conditions continue to exist, that progress has been made is undeniable.
● Women. Women’s rights, women’s leadership, and freedoms for non-conforming gender identities are additional areas of stunning progress. It’s common knowledge that investing in the education of women and girls is one of the most significant leverage points in addressing climate justice and most other development challenges of our time. During the COVID pandemic, some of this progress has slowed. According to the World Economic Forum’s 2021 Global Gender Gap Report, it will take another 136 years to close the gender equality gap (up from 100 years). Yet the new movements of awareness-based systems change are disproportionately being co-shaped by women leaders and those who better embody the feminine, relational dimension of leadership.
● Poverty. We have also made substantial progress on lifting people out of poverty — particularly in Asia, and especially in China. Year on year, the UN’s Human Development Report captures the overall trend of remarkable progress in reducing extreme deprivations over the first two decades of the 21st century. Still, poverty remains a challenge in many places, and the world faces the new scourge of inequity which brings new challenges for both peace and stability, and human wellbeing.
7. The Social Grammar of Creation
The past two centuries have been witness to these five major stories of inspiring human progress. None of them happened without struggle and setbacks. We see ample evidence of that today. But we just can’t accept the setbacks as evidence that the world is going down the drain. We have to put events in their historical context. We have to remember that only theories are contradiction-free. Reality is always full of contradictions. Historically, instances of absencing may have been a reaction to earlier progress. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. reminded us to take the long-term view when he pointed out that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
If that’s true, is it a natural law that we can all rely on? Definitely not. The social sciences don’t have “laws” like the ones in the natural sciences. Instead, there are invariances that only apply under certain conditions. But when these conditions change — and most importantly, when the consciousness of the people involved changes — then human behaviors and the “rules” that describe them, also change. In short: in social science, the rules tend to be fluid. They are determined by the social field that people operate in — e.g., is it a field of creation or a field of destruction? Leadership, in this view, is the capacity of a system to move from one type of social field (or social grammar) to another, as required by the situation or challenge at hand. (For a more differentiated distinction among four generic social fields, see Scharmer 2018.)
Applying this view to the five stories above, what was it that propelled these episodes of transformation? What was the force motrice? In each of these stories, I believe, we see the same force or mechanism. These changes were driven by a constellation of civic movements — peace movements, liberation movements, abolition movements, civil rights movements, women’s movements, and human development movements — that inspired others to join the cause. All of these movements were started by small groups of committed citizens who in one way or another created a support structure for themselves and others that allowed them to cultivate an intentional social field (examples: the Highlander Folk School, the Student Nonviolence Coordinating Committee, and the NAACP for the American civil rights movement; churches for the Eastern European civil rights movements during the cold war). As activists were attracted, trained, and equipped with methods and tools, they gained traction and attracted former bystanders to their movements. Eventually, these movements helped societies to reimagine and reshape themselves for the better.
In other words, these movements operated from a felt connection to a different field of real possibility, the field of presencing a future that hasn’t manifested yet (see figure 1). It’s what millions of us felt on the streets during the anti-nuke, green, peace, women’s, Black Lives Matter, and climate action movements. These felt connections are nothing special. They’re what makes us human. Human beings are the only species on earth that can reimagine and reshape their own future. We can reimagine and change the rules, goals, and paradigms that dictate our civilizational and societal patterns and forms. The cultivation and evolution of that capacity is essential for the future of this planet — and for the future of humanity.
But what is it that makes other people want to join, to step over the threshold into action?
Many years ago, I facilitated a workshop in Zambia with anti-AIDS activists. The group of 30 or so included some famous soccer stars and public figures and also regular folks. We asked each of them to tell the story of (a) when they first became aware of the AIDS epidemic, and (b) when they became activists committed to doing something about it. Without exception, they all told the same story: The shift to activism happened when they experienced a personal connection to the cause through family or a close friend. In other words: it happened when they had an experience that touched (and opened) their heart.
One standard module in the programs at MIT that I run with executive leaders from Asia and other parts of the world invites them to participate in a climate change simulation game in which they play the role of climate negotiators, using science and real data. In the game, when a country or stakeholder team makes a decision it’s input into a model that then tells the decision-makers how that decision will affect the planet by 2050 and 2100. None of the behavior is scripted. But here is the pattern that I have observed time and again: In round 1, the executives’ decisions are largely self-interested and usually lead to medium-term disaster (because they largely conduct business as usual — i.e., the current path). In round 2 of the game, most teams make more radical decisions and cuts — but the positive impact is still far from what the planet requires. Then the participants are shown what sea-level rise will do to the cities they happen to live in. As these visual images begin to sink in, and participants realize that many of their coastal cities will be underwater, they begin to address the issues with greater dedication and urgency. They also reach out to the other players to cooperate and make deals collectively. By round 3 or round 4, the collective impact of the players has moved toward the 1.5 degrees centigrade target for average temperature increase that climate scientists know is necessary to meet.
In other words, the evolution of the unscripted team behavior tends to follow the path mapped out in the upper half of figure 3: NOT SEEING the collective impact that their actions have on the planet (denial); NOT FEELING the impact despite seeing the data clearly in front of them (de-sensing); and NOT ACTING, despite knowing the facts and already feeling the impact (collective apathy).
The feedback of the simulation illuminates the players’ blind spots. Yet their behavior remains largely unchanged until the results become experiential or personal. Crossing the threshold from apathy to action requires letting go of the stakeholders’ ego-system awareness and developing a shared ecosystem awareness of the whole. Once that is in place, it leads to swift,decisive action.
Figure 3: Two Relational Structures: Architectures of Separation, and Architectures of Connection
The structural difference between the grammar (and field) of absencing and the grammar of presencing is that the former is based on a cognitive architecture of separation, while the latter is based on a cognitive architecture of connection (see figure 3).
Architectures of separation embody a disconnect from reality on three levels: (1) knowing (a disconnect between Self and World: denial), (2) relating (a disconnect between Self and Other: othering), (3) and agency (a disconnect between self and Self: depression).
Architectures of connection transform these conditions by building containers that hold the possibility of deeper reconnections on the level of knowing, relating, and agency. In other words, the transformative and healing architectures of connection are based on the principles that mind and world are not separate, that self and other are not separate, and that self and Self are not separate. Cultivating these areas of awareness develops and deepens our scientific, aesthetic, and ethical-practical capacities and knowing.
So how do we transform social fields of destruction and absencing? By replacing cognitive and social architectures of separation with architectures of connection across all sectors of society.
Transforming the patterns of absencing will require us to strengthen and cultivate the capacity to connect and feel the resonance in all of our foundational relationships — with each other, with our planet, and with ourselves — and then to generate creative action from that shared connection and resonance.
8. Form Follows Consciousness
Attending to these deeper fields of connection requires us to expand our normal habitual awareness (ego-system awareness) to include the views of all the partners and beings in our ecosystem (ecosystem awareness). Christiana Figueres, the key architect, and leader behind the historic 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change makes a distinction between two types of self-interest: self-interest with a small s and Self-interest with a capital S. The former is organized around our ego. When people go through a moment of letting go and letting come, they then begin to act from a different quality of awareness — an awareness of the whole. That’s what I call ecosystem awareness and what Christiana Figueres calls stakeholders acting from their Self-interest: an interest that sees the Self as part of a deeper web of connections with each other, with planet earth, and with ourselves.
What I am describing is a circumstance in which “form follows consciousness.” Attention matters. All approaches to awareness-based systems change are based on the principle that the most consequential leverage point in any system is the transformation of consciousness. It’s not “I think, therefore I am.” But rather “I pay attention [this way], therefore it emerges [that way].”
When I was young and drove past a car accident, I remember being relieved if emergency responders were already on the scene. I knew that if they weren’t there it would be my responsibility to help. But that sense of responsibility made me feel uneasy and powerless. I would not have known what to do. I later decided to change that. After refusing to join the mandatory military service in Germany, I was given the choice to perform social service instead. I chose the German Red Cross. For a year and a half, my job was to assist the emergency doctors. During that time, I saw a fair share of rather awful accidents. But to my surprise (and with some medical-response training), I learned to overcome my sense of helplessness and paralysis. In the face of life and death situations, I learned to slow down and focus on the tasks at hand. I learned to tune out all the distracting voices of bystanders and pay attention to what needed to be done. That experience changed almost everything for me. It taught me that when you face a problem you have a choice. You can turn away from it, or you can turn toward it. That choice, that subtle inner gesture, activates either the field of absencing or the field of presencing. Absencing is a freezing of the mind, heart, and will. Presencing is the opposite: an opening of the mind, heart, and will (figure 1).
That’s the lesson I learned from the Red Cross. My attention matters. When I started to focus on what was mine to do, the whole social-emotional field shifted.
Part III: Activating Our Agency
Reflecting on the success of the Paris Agreement, Christiana Figueres has said that the teachings and practices of Vietnamese Zen Master and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh (1926–2022) helped her to weave together the collaborative diplomacy that produced the agreement. She cites in particular the practice of deep listening and Nhat Hanh’s teachings about the interconnectedness of all beings.
When the antiwar, decolonization, civil rights, women’s rights, and antipoverty movements activated their collective agency, they were turning toward those issues with minds and hearts wide open. As my colleague, Antoinette Klatzky has said: If you see with your mind wide open, that seeing holds the seeds for sensing. If you sense with your mind and heart wide open, that sensing holds the seeds for acting.
How can we build these deeper learning infrastructures that support the shift in consciousness from ego- to eco-awareness at the scale the challenges of this century and this decade of transformation are calling for?
9. Birthing a New Civilization
All of the stories of change I’ve discussed here show us what is possible. We are living in a moment of disruption when one civilization is dying and another is beginning to be born. This new civilization is based on bridging the three big divides of our time: the ecological, the social, and the spiritual.
Figure 4 is a graphical rendering of our current situation: in essence, we are looking into the abyss. The ecological abyss is a product of our climate — and biodiversity-related planetary emergency. The social abyss is a product of our collapsing social systems: from inequality and polarization to the atrocities in Ukraine, Syria, Sudan, Myanmar, and many other places — including the very real risk of an all-out nuclear war. The spiritual abyss reflects our increasing disconnect from our inner sources of creativity and agency and the resulting depression and anxiety, particularly among younger people.
Figure 4: Facing the Abyss Created by the Age of Disruption: The Path Across Is Within (drawing by Kelvy Bird, Source: Scharmer 2018)
What do we see when we look into these three faces of the abyss? We see ourselves. We see that we, humankind, are the ones creating all of these forms of destruction. No one else. That’s the signature of our age — the age of the Anthropocene. These are the results we create when we operate from the destructive field of absencing. We can recognize that the issues outside the abyss are a mirror of the issues inside.
So how can we make the unprecedented civilizational shift that this planetary emergency is calling for? Well, no one knows, of course. But here is a guess. Not through the actions of Big Money, Big Tech, or Big Government (even though we need all three of these things without the capital M, T, or G). And also not by scaring people (which the traditional environmental movement has been doing). Not by blaming and shaming people (which is what single-issue social movements tend to do). All of these groups and types of action need to be part of the mix, as elements of an overall strategy. But my point is this: doing more of the same will not take us to the next level. What’s necessary is something different. What we need to bring about profoundly new civilizational forms is a pull from the future, not a push from the past.
Starting small. By “starting small,” I mean starting in small communities, both place-based and digitally linked, that are aligned around a shared awareness of the situation and a common intention for the future — a future that is different from the past. Some of these initiatives and communities are grassroots-based. Some are nested in one or more institutions. But all of them share one core feature: a desire to transform the currently dominant social field of destruction by embodying and practicing different ways of operating. These future-oriented communities are enacting the social grammar and field of creation.
Bridging the Ecological, Social, and Spiritual Divides. If we have learned anything over the past century of confronting societal crises, it is this: no problem exists in isolation from all the others. You cannot address the planetary emergency without focusing on social justice. And vice versa. And you cannot do any of those things without grounding them in the bridging of the spiritual divide.
If we look at the big changes in society and culture throughout the past 60 years, what does the evolution of the environmental, social, and consciousness movements tell us? They tended to evolve separately. But what’s historically new today — and what gives me hope — is that the integration of the ecological, social, and spiritual aspects of transformation is a widely shared intuition, particularly among young people.
Weaving the Movement. Why do I feel confident that we are at the early stage of a new planetary movement for bridging the divides? Because I have seen it. I have felt it. I have sensed it in countless places in recent years. One of these places is u.lab, an online action learning lab at MITx that has facilitated these kinds of journeys for more than 200,000 participants. We have also supported thousands of team initiatives with methods, tools, and spaces to help them connect and collaborate — including the United Nations Country Teams, composed of the heads of all UN organizations, in 25 countries (SDG Leadership Labs). It’s not just an idea, but an embodied web of co-creative relationships that keeps on growing. It’s embodied in a planetary ecosystem with co-creative groups, teams, and initiatives.
So where will the transformative change that this century is calling for eventually come from? From a movement, that emerges, works, and collaborates “from everywhere” (as the environmentalist and entrepreneur Paul Hawken put it recently).
It will be a movement that is inspired by the intuition that the ecological, social, and spiritual divides are not three problems; they are just three expressions of one and the same problem: the lack of a deeper social field and social grammar that all of us can access and operate from.
Shifting Consciousness. Where does the integration of the three divides — ecological, social, spiritual — take place? It happens in each and every one of us, in our personal as well as in our collective agency. In a recent GAIA session, Dr. Noel Nannup, an Aboriginal Noongar elder, pointed this out to us. He said:
“All we need to do is to have a piece of the path to the future that is ours; and we polish that and we hone that, and we place that in the pathway that we are building; and of course, as we build that pathway it changes us as the builders of the path, and it also shapes the destination we are going to.”
With those words, Dr. Nannup conveys a critical teaching: that each of us needs to align our attention and intention with what is ours, with what is mine to do. If we have learned anything from movement and change work of the past, it may be this: as long as we think about change as actions that other people need to take in other places, we won’t get anywhere. What’s needed is a framing that puts each of us at center stage as agents of our own futures, both individually and collectively.
While the second half of the 20th century was shaped by a conflict between two opposing socio-economic systems and their corresponding ideologies — capitalism and socialism — in the 21st century we see a different type of polarity. The fault line no longer runs between two opposing social systems. Today the fault line runs through the consciousness of each one of us. The most important fault line in 21st-century politics is the fault line between self and system.
In the visual language of Figures 1 and 3: The most important fault line of our time runs across the vertical dimension of these figures, depicting the different qualities of relating to the world, to others, and to ourselves based on a frozen or an open mind, heart, and will. That vertical literacy is the most important developmental capacity today. Watch, for example, how skillfully Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelensky leverages his personal experience to connect with his people, to inspire resistance, and to address the citizens of Russia, Europe, and the United States.
CASA: Activating the Real Superpower. If we have learned anything from our responses to disruptive challenges like the COVID pandemic, the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, it may be this: the real superpower of our time is not the one that sits in Washington; it’s also not the one that sits in Beijing; and it’s certainly not the one that is sitting in the Kremlin. The real superpower of our time is Collective Action that emerges from Shared Awareness of the whole (CASA). Casa in Latin languages means house or home. We need to cultivate our capacity for CASA-type collective action in order to protect and regenerate our house and home: our land, our community, and our planetary eco-social-cultural ecosystems.
As depicted in Figure 5, CASA can be seen as a fourth type of governance mechanism, in addition to the three traditional ones (government, markets, stakeholder lobbying). I consider the emergence of CASA-type collective actions as a 4.0 type of governance as one of the most significant developments in society today. Examples of CASA already exist in many forms locally. For example, it shows up in CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture). It also tends to emerge in responses to natural or other disasters. It emerges when communities rise up in the face of profound disruption, as Ukraine is doing now. It also occasionally exists on the stage of global politics, most notably when the world came together around the Paris Agreement and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in 2015. If you want to learn about the awareness- (and CASA-) related backstory of the Paris Agreement, click on the podcast link at the end of this blog.
Figure 5: Four Stages of Systems Evolution, Four Operating Systems (adapted from Scharmer 2018)
Figure 5 depicts four types of social grammars and modes of operating. While today’s mainstream focus is shifting slowly from 2.0 to 3.0, the main transformation challenge is how to advance to 4.0 ways of operating. What we see time and again is that institutions and societies are responding to 4.0 challenges (our planetary and social emergencies) with 1.0, 2.0 (and occasionally 3.0) response mechanisms. But that does not work because, to paraphrase Einstein, we can’t solve our challenges with the same mode of operating that created them.
Is there general public support in countries to move toward a society 4.0? I think that support is rapidly growing in many places today. A recent example is the landslide victory by Gabriel Boric on a platform based on bridging the ecological, social, and the cultural divides that neoliberalism and the Pinochet regime have inflicted on the country for almost 50 years. Below, two pictures of President Boric on the day he was sworn in as president, honoring and being blessed by the indigenous traditions in a ritual.
Pictures: President Gabriel Boric being blessed by the indigenous traditions on his day of inauguration, proposing diversity, inclusion and harmony with Nature for his government
Gabriel Boric is one example. But the 74% support in G20 countries for the transformation of our social and economic systems tell us that the potential for profound change that exists in the world today cannot be understated.
10. What We Can Do Now: Build New Learning Infrastructures
In part 1 of this essay, I started this inquiry by looking at what is happening in Ukraine and elsewhere through the lens of absencing — the social grammar of destruction. In this second part, I explored it through the lens of presencing — the social grammar of co-creation. How do these two views and social fields relate to each other?
They are dialectically intertwined in interesting ways. We often find ourselves stuck between them, personally, in our institutional systems, and as a society. Life, leadership, and societal change operate in this fragile in-between territory. Things can move in either direction at almost any moment. That fragility seems to be a key characteristic of our current moment.
I have not tried to paint an optimistic view here. I don’t think that’s what’s needed today. No one needs an upbeat sugarcoating of something that is moving toward disaster. What’s needed today is a radical realism — one that can embrace the realities of both presencing and absencing. Radical realism aims at connecting to reality at the current and root levels: at the level of what is, and at the level of what wants to emerge. Radical realism says what most people already know: the journey forward is not going to be easy. Many more disruptions coming our way. But what matters most is that the future does not depend on these external disruptions. Instead, it depends on the inner place from that we operate when we respond.
Many of today’s most pressing challenges boil down to how to engage and transform collective patterns of absencing. Illuminating the three blind spots — not seeing, not feeling, not acting — offers critical leverage points for intervention. But the main point is to not see the manifestation of absencing (or evil) as an enemy. Instead, we need to understand every act of absencing as creative energy gone wrong — creative energy that failed and that therefore went the other way, onto the path of destruction. All destruction and acts of absencing are manifestations of energy that was unable to realize its creative potential. To engage and transform that energy, we need to first find that place within ourselves.
From that view, it’s clear that in Ukraine there can be only one path forward: diplomacy. The sooner the better. The longer it takes, the more collective destruction, brutalization, and collective trauma will be inflicted on everyone. Intelligent, collaborative diplomacy needs to offer bridges to those who are stuck in the field of absencing and offer solutions that are beyond the binary logic that shapes the currently dominant thinking.
This brings me back to our agency and how each of us can be directly involved in bending the arc of history toward social justice, planetary healing, and human flourishing. To do that we need new societal learning infrastructures for amplifying, growing, and connecting the countless seed initiatives of the future that already exist in the world today. We can’t let them get crowded out by the super-amplified absencing machine that pumps noise into our minds and destruction into ecosystems. Where are you an activist in building containers that foster architectures of connection (rather than those of separation); where are you creating and co-holding these learning infrastructures for yourself, for your team, and for the initiatives you participate in?
To support such mission critical creation of societal learning infrastructures, the Presencing Institute is launching an initiative to prototype, and scale up the action learning spaces needed for transforming society and self. The goal is to create:
· A free and replicable learning and innovation platform for radical regeneration: methods, tools, and spaces
· A vibrant ecosystem of living examples and institutions that embody and build capacity for radical regeneration in food, learning, health, wellbeing, business, finance, technology, leadership, and governance
· A living field of connections between millions of radical change-makers operating from the possibility of regenerative futures and inspiring others to activate their agency
· Growing confidence, based on research evidence, that a regenerative future is within reach, and possible now
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With that, we have reached the end — i.e., the beginning. We began by attending to the conflicting feelings that we sense in our bodies at this moment. In this exploration of two different social grammars, we learned that the future does not just depend on what other people do. The future on this planet depends on each one of us — alone and together — and our capacity to realign attention and intention on the level of the whole. As Dr. Nannup reminded us: “All we need to do is to have a piece of the path to the future that is ours; and we polish that and we hone that…”
Co-holding and co-creating that emerging path to the future puts each of us in a very personal relationship with our planet and with our shared future that stays in need of us. I think of that future as a set of seeds. These seeds already exist. But what does not exist is the soil–the social soil–without that no seed can grow. What generates that fertile soil? It’s our collective capacity to bend the beam of attention back onto ourselves. It’s our capacity to see and recognize our own shadows in the abyss that we face, and–if we are able to hold the gaze steady–transform that shadow in order to connect to a different awareness sphere that allows us to function as a vehicle for the future wanting to emerge.
Podcast conversation with Christiana Figueres: The Way Out Is In
Examples of awareness-based systems change: Report
Check out other blogs by Otto: homepage
Thanks to my colleagues Kelvy Bird for the visual at the opening of this reflection and to Becky Buell, Antoinette Klatzky, Eva Pomeroy, Maria Daniel Bras, Priya Mahtani, and Rachel Hentsch for their helpful comments and edits on the draft.