In the forest, boots crunching, tree tops sweeping in wind. Silence is not silent. The season is revealed in the wet soil and yellowed leaves, but time is an abstraction.
Transformations are now everywhere all at once. Intimate and global, mental and environmental, economic and political.
There is rigor needed to pay careful attention to this. Yes, it requires effort to look beyond the crises into the conditions, and to do so in detail. Before that effort is brushed off as unreasonable there must be an admission that the larger effort is in not applying the necessary rigor and continuing on an endless boulevard of hellish consequences. The rigor changes the approach and keeps one alert to complexity.
No need to further ponder the ways in which change might be made. Change is taking care of that on its own. Change is here, in my house, in my body, in my family, in my community, culture, economy, and in the whole wide world of ecological systems. The work of the change makers has arguably been hijacked by the virus that took every single system of society, around the world, and tipped the chess board.
This is system change. It is not manageable. Nor is it comfortable. It is not a surprise. While it can be said that change is a constant, there is no doubt of the increase in speed of change now. This is the beginning of rapid multiple layers of change, not the middle or the end.
What I see: The relationships that were holding together illusions of stability in social, personal and biospheric patterns in place are melting, tearing, cracking, bursting into flames and vaporizing. These illusions are made in relationship; between me and you, between genders, between cultures, between stories, between ideologies, between classes, between religions. To break the illusions the relationships that held them are disassembling, perhaps reassembling. This unfastening is shredding thousands of years of accumulated illusions of separation. It is like a caustic acid is disintegrating the inter-stitching of personal, social and ecological complex systems. It is diffusion, confusion.
Maybe this erosion is what is needed to pull apart the old patterns that were so deadly?
Not to say this is a rosy path. No. It’s painful — the suffering as systems come uncoupled is first absorbed by the most vulnerable. The people who have been pushed out know all too well the failure of the socio-economic institutions. While those with a modicum of comfort hold tightly to their belief in the systems that gave them their comfort. In fact, there is no leveler. This makes the romance of un-thought-through ‘collaboration’ in this most critical time, a nasty mess. The history of exploitation cannot suddenly be glossed over in an image of everyone holding hands as they head into the sustainable future together. More illusions to unravel there.
The structures that once held the illusions of society in place appear to be at least beginning to turn to sand. And in this moment law, health, economy, tech, education and politics stand naked in the face of the storms each day seems to bring. Doctors are being asked to heal poverty, the law is asked to treat trauma, teachers are tasked to create “home” for their pupils who do not know the experience of such a thing.
Confusion now is like an octagonal ping pong table. The crises are bouncing this way and that. News, kids, future, fire, money, virus, news, white supremacy, news, hunger, climate, news.
Even time is moving differently. The days pass, the seasons change, but with our days at home on zoom as the pandemic renovates our schedules, the clocking is formless in an endless river of alarming news stories. There was a famous line from Paul Valéry, “The future is not what it used to be.” — And now the past is not what it used to be either. History, hardened in stone statues, is crumbling on the same sidewalks that the “protectors” of communities are killing people. The culture is tearing itself apart in polarization and divisions. The long sickness of colonialism has come into its cannibalistic phase. It is eating itself now.
Longing for a sign of something raw, fresh or alive to come from somewhere. Something mid-learning, untrained, but attentive. The stench of manipulation is everywhere.
The system can’t change the system. The rules of the game do not include changing the rules of the game. Life does that. Voters are looking at their politicians like children trying to choose between the punishment of being grounded or having their screen-time taken away. The young Jedis have noticed this is not a choice.
Again, and again, and again… it comes back to the warnings and wisdom of the people who knew how to be in the world without plans and strategies. They did not need deliverables and impact measurements to know that the seasons were changing, or which species would be abundant or sparce in the coming year. They could read the conditions of environment. The nuances of the leaves, the texture of the dirt, the timing of the flowers and birds. The ancient ways of not-knowing, were in fact ways of knowing. But without a plan or a clear vision of the goal, the mechanistic thinkers of today get anxious. The addiction to the spreadsheet the KPI and the board approval for a specific outcome is not just not working… it is in fact prohibiting real work at a systemic level. Most of the groups who now hold a mandate to work with systemic or complex systems are looking for ways to manage and measure their work. This justification is an apology to an old system. It is dangerous.
Not-knowing is so much more than a meme. It is the realm of the murky linking swirling memories and sensitivities, pains, and wordless magnetism of our lives. It is the comfort in a hot cup of tea that has nothing to do with the herbs or the mineral content of the water. It is the skin chill and stomach clench of seeing blue police lights flash behind you even when you know you are innocent. It is the ironic sense of control that measuring outcomes gives. It is the mystery of humor, love, art, skill and even madness. Uncertainty is not something you learn in a weekend workshop or a technique you apply to a managerial program. It is not a category of project development. It is the deep living vitality of non-verbal, non-objective, non-concrete and utterly indirect communication. It is context, and it is transcontextual. I call this liminal multi contextual information Warm Data.
Change is not made, but systems do learn. Direct correctives to the complexity of today’s issues are a complete disgrace. Diss grace. The crises are consequences. The conditions in which they have been produced require another sort of response altogether. Where is the poverty? Is in economic? Is it educational? Is it cultural? Religious? Political? Technological? Of course, it is woven through all of those contexts. And where then is the direct corrective? Give that mother living in her car with her kids anti-depressants as a corrective to her state of mind, and she will be less able to be in her activated emotional self with her kids. The kids will soon feel alone, and act out in school… and they get another diagnosis — there is a pill for that. Later they learn to sell those pills, and more police are needed. Grace might look more like responding to the deeper seas of our shared lives. How are we describing each other? How are describing our world? Are we becoming — those descriptions?
Perception is Action.
A change of perception is a change of actions. Many at once. No spreadsheet can hold the many ways in which a shift in perception shifts a whole life, and the lives of those in relation to that person, and those in relation to them and so on. What is perceived? Once there is perception of and within the interdependencies of life the pathways of action unfold in integrity with that relationality. (This is what happens in Warm Data sessions.)
The system cannot see where to treat the system.
This uncertainty or ambiguity concept was heralded by the early cybernetics and systems theory scholars of the 50’s and 60’s (who no-doubt were informed by the anthropologists who were working with societies of people who “knew” like my father Gregory Bateson and his wife at the time Margaret Mead). Like a scientific, mathematic translation of the mystery of life that the secular scholar could relate to. Complexity was a new possibility to bring in to save us from silos. The possibility for significant change was there until ‘complexity’ was ironically reclaimed by the complexity of the society. It got McKinsey-ed into irrelevant bullshit rationalization for furthering profit by the corporate coaching culture. It was sold in 1000 forms and products, first it was a watery version of Zen, then VUCA, it gradually became a spiritual task of being able to hold “uncertainty” like learning to lift barbells — -The script of how to be the better ‘uncertainty’ practitioner became a multi-million dollar seminar competition. Who knows the best way to not know? The shallowest of mindfulness trainings held it up as their mantra. The most treasured peace of mind in the stress of corporate culture was to be to “stay in the flow” — and to embrace uncertainty, (but show up on Monday with that report and work all weekend on that power-point for the merger). But the unseen is, fifty years after the systems theorists , thousands years after the indigenous peoples — still unseen.
The era of Cubism was an intuition. What happens when the world is shared in an illusion of boxes, right angles, and nested cubes? Where do the earthworms fit in?
The unseen is where the change is. The urge to make it explicit is an interesting conundrum. This need to not be explicit is to my thinking, THE challenge of this time. In the heat of emergency, while the word emergence is plastered up everywhere, the hidden realms are still in movement, changing harmonies, overtones, discords. Can you hear them? Silence is not silent.
Scripts. Everyone seems to have a script ready. Ask a question, and a tickertape of prerecorded, rehearsed, and certified script comes out of them. Spiritual script, political script, changemaker script, uncertainty script, climate script. I have heard all of this a thousand times.
Language is part of the problem. Now — how to talk about how to not know what the hell is happening without tagging into some script that is a rotting cliché? I almost do not want to use the words complexity, uncertainty or systems-change, they tag instantly into the business culture that is the aorta of the interlocking systems that are creating the matrix.
Bangs head on wall.
Goes to garden.
But is this the right question?
Probably not. It should be fairly obvious that a system addicted to separations and tight definitions would metabolize the work of the systemic and complexity scholars back into definitions and measurement. It is how people do. You hear a piece of music for the first time, and you trace it into a familiarity with a piece of music you know well. Taste a new food and the first thing you do is compare it to something you have eaten before. But, the trap is trapping us. The system is allergic to systems. The context is allergic to context. It’s a matrix. How to really perceive something you have not perceived before when the perception itself is tracking onto the familiar? How to describe in new ways when language is harkening old meanings? And the questions of how do we not-know… is another slightly off kilter compass that will lead down a cascade of pathways to sideways. The longing for something new is held in a longing for something familiar. Or — change that helps things stay the same.
The not-knowing part is essential, but, it is essential in that the way there is not language or conscious selection of “sense- making” or meaning making ( two more terms that are getting rapidly digested into the belly of the illusion of making change) — The way in which identities are built is through relationships, to self, to body, to family, to school, to culture, to money, to future, to tech, to fashion… and those relationships are each in referencing each other.
Think of a kid in school, sitting in class. That kid knows which are the rich kids, the popular kids, the smart kids, the gamers, the one’s whose parents are absent, the one’s whose parents are suffocating… and as this child witnesses these relational processes they, unknowingly, unspoken-ly place themselves in comparison. But, this comparison and assessment is made not to one of these relationships at a time… no… to ALL simultaneously. That kind of complexity is what is at hand. The taste of the air in the algebra classroom has the signals of how to be a lovable person in this world.
That is un-mappable.
Down there, in the land beyond, below, to the side of the words, that is where the stuckness is, that is where the change is… that is where the territory of life is.
That feeling, waking up the morning after a loved one has died, or a car accident, or the marriage ended… that feeling in which for one second the world is as it was-, then the whole body remembers it is not as it was.
The Map is Not the Territory
The map. The map is the structures: the policies, the laws, the institutions, the titles, the scripted justifications.
The territory is: The culture, identity, the tone of the stories told, the communication between generations, history, notions of what it is to be relevant to each other, the unspoken reasons why.
These famous words from Alfred Korzybski are a warning not to mix up these levels. You cannot change the territory by changing the map… and if you think the map is the territory you will be operating in a world of abstraction that will always be removed from what is really going on.
The catch is that what is really going on has been cast out as wishy-washy, soft, dreamlike, ideology… and the abstractions of policy and education systems have been positioned as “real”.
Say what you will about the last ten years of alt-right maneuvering, but that group has understood that one does not change culture by changing policy, you change policy by changing culture. They are on the territory, in the worst possible manipulative way.
Messing with metaphors has been far more effective that pushing for policy. I just wish the those who knew the difference were more inclined toward kindness instead of division. The alt-right put their investment into the meme world, into the production of videos that play with and preyed upon the sense of dismissal from the righteous do-gooding of the left.
Now? What now? Is there really a right and left anymore? As the zoom meetings unfurl and the twitter realm gets ever more algorithm-ed, as AI seeps into our lives and the climate scientists cry out warnings… what now?
The outrage is unprecedented. The defectors are changing the rules by simply shrugging them off. It is as if they knew it was only a map… governments are breaking laws. But this is nothing new, just newly exhausting.
Tending the territory is not so hard. It is not impossible, it is just immeasurable. The way in which the many contexts of our daily lives overfold and interweave is in unanswerable questions threaded together by stories. Who are we? Why are we here? What is the meaning of life? What happens after death? These questions are generators of stories, narratives as some like to say. They spin the metaphors we live within and we live the metaphors they spin within. This is the territory… what are the questions that spin new stories?
The maps, like menus, are lovely, just don’t eat them.
This now is marinated in history sauce. The flavors of future are already deeply soaked in. The map suggests a change in the economic model… But the territory is a society that is already heavily engorged in the particular pains of the way the systems have betrayed each of us. That math teacher that shamed students, that boss that abused their postion, that doctor that didn't listen, that lover, that cancer, that addiction…The model is being dropped into an alchemy of messy life.
I have found it true, again and again in my work with Warm Data that the communities that have been most betrayed by the existing systems are the quickest to comprehend the interdependency, non linearity and complexity of their situation. Many have little to no education, and are in what have been labeled ‘vulnerable’ communities and carry varying trauma diagnoses. Their situation is complex, clearly. Poverty is experienced as economic, but those who are living with it know that it is produced through culture, politics, education, health etc. Whereas economic comfort is more readily described as linear, earned, deserved. Comfort is, in my experience, probably the greatest obstruction to an embodied perception of complexity. Some are surprised by this, thinking that a mental state of openness is needed to perceive the liminal, the unknown. My experience with many hundreds of people now, has been the opposite.
Safety in meeting this moment cannot be a shallow soothing promise. No saccharine platitudes thank you. Safety is allowing this overlapping impossible mess to be the territory we are within, and alongside is the raw & radical possibility to meet outside the tired scripts. To find each other anew, in the particularity of detail and story, in the humanity of it all. Carefully, care fully into the territory. I don’t trust the maps, please don't ask me to or I wont trust you either. I want to go slowly into tomorrow wrapped in the warmth of human to human mutual learning. The opportunity to shift the tone is in every single second of every single day.
What now? Show up for each other. That is all. Like music meeting your soul in un-named ways. Warming the intellect, the emotions and the body through past, future.
Everything is changing. Everyone is changing. It is confusing, terrifying, infuriating, heartbreaking, and completely out of control. Somehow just keeping that blur in the front of my attention is a softening. Who knows what will be required, but whatever it is I will, with all I can offer, be there, learning, in integrity and generosity.
The mushrooms in late autumn are starting to retreat back into the forest floor. Their edges are decaying, their color is dulling. The holly berries are now the ones wearing bright red in the woods.