Heartsets: the Seventh Condition of Systems Change?

What are we subject to?

A while ago I wrote about some mental connections that were forming for me between adult/vertical development and systems change. I’ve kept working and thinking on this as well as reflecting on my own development and how my perspective evolves. A workmate shared with me a facebook post by Nora Bateson (here’s the twitter equivalent):

and that’s a good provocation; but one thing I have taken away which I find useful from the emerging field of vertical/adult development is the idea, through reflection, of transitioning from “being subject” to something to “having something as object”. As we develop, we gradually become more self-aware, and things that we were subject to, we can “hold up to the light” as objects to work with. My own personal experience tells me that as more things become objects; my sense of self, my views, my biases, my sense of seperation from others, I become more able to relate, connect, and collaborate, to suffer less and be slightly more helpful to myself and others.

Development as collective or individual?

Tane Mahuta, Māori God of the Forest and life giver, over two thousand years old, is part of a massive mycelial network of Kauri trees that grow together

Recently in a learning conversation a friend made me aware of an interesting aspect of personal development: on some level I had unconsciously been framing it as something that individuals do (and I think the framing in stage theories focusses on the individual as the “unit of development”, which can be a cognitive trap), although I also knew that belonging, connection, and shared reflection are important enablers of development. We centred on the metaphor of mycelial networks of trees; trees are connected deep underground through mycelial networks, sharing nutrients and supporting each others growth. What if we looked at personal development as a collective activity, and the “unit of personal development” as a collective of people?

The recently passed on Thich Naht Hanh in his final book “Zen and the Art of Saving the Planet” describes how we need community to develop and reach shared aspirations in “six principles of togetherness” which he uses to build a spiritual community:

  1. Shared Presence
  2. Shared Material Resources
  3. Shared Ethical Principles
  4. Sharing Insights and Views
  5. Sharing from the Heart
  6. Compassionate Communication

Without going into detail, what really struck me about this is quite a radical togetherness, like the mycelial network that trees have, for development. And it occurred to me that fostering this collectivism for development, and living, creates a “virtuous cycle”, which might counteract the vicious cycle of disconnection.

Heartsets: a Seventh Condition for Systems Change?

From “The Water of Systems Change

“The Water of Systems Change” is a useful model that I’m starting to use more to understand complex social change work. In the report the authors state

“Systems change is about shifting the conditions that are holding the problem in place.”

What I’m learning as I reflect on social change work is that all of these conditions need to be engaged in relation to each other, and a change in one triggers changes in others.

But there is an important condition that I think might be missing from this model. Developmental readiness of the individuals involved is an important leverage point that can enable or disable change to the other six conditions, and also be influenced by them. For example, if we are creating a new project team which is constituted of people from several different organisations, and new relationships and power dynamics need to be developed, then we may need to create or adapt shared mental model in the team for how this should work: will it be flat and based on consensus decision making? Will the group have one leader who “calls” the shots?

If team members are conditioned to hierarchical ways of being in teams, and are “subject to” hierarchical power dynamics, then they may find it extremely difficult to renegotiate this way of being and collaborating; this is where I think the “subject to/object for” transition belies the depth of personal change that is sometimes involved to become less “subject to” our conditioning.

However I’ve also observed, that when people engage in work in more dynamic, collaborative work, this creates “heat experiences” which, especially if reflected on in psychologically safe settings, can be great to foster development.

The Depth of the Heart

Reflecting on my own experience of development through increasing connection and belonging, I feel like my self has become rewilded into an ecosystem of interbeing in a journey that has been anything but simplistic and linear. Connecting with nature, connecting and being there for my own heart, reconciling grief for passed loved ones and realising that they are still “here”, healing from trauma, connecting deeply to collectives in circle and sanctuary, learning how to balance healing, reflection, and being with action, are all aspects of development that have helped me be a little less “subject to” things that might get me stuck.

If there is so much healing, growing, and regenerating to do inside our very hearts, what might that tell us about the patience we need for systems change work?



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