“I’m interested in the problem of action, not the problem of knowing—unless it’s about knowing how to act.” —Zaid Hassan, author of The Social Labs Revolution, in a May 13 tweet
I recently read an article in The New York Times about a giant Antarctic ice sheet that is gradually melting into the sea. Evidently, as it melts, it could cause sea levels around the world to rise between four and twelve feet over the next 200 years. It’s sobering to think that, right in front of our eyes, we are witnessing events that could impact all of life on earth for a long time to come.
“Knowing how to act” is a question with which every change-maker struggles. I want to try to make sense of this question and pose, if not an answer, then at least a helpful provocation to get us thinking.
In practice, when we seek the underlying causes of systemic challenges, we often find them in a society’s paradigms and mindsets. As Emerson wrote in his 1838 essay “War”, the causes of all society-wide phenomena are to be found in “the master idea[s] reigning in the minds of many persons.” This means they are not “solvable” per se, because a group of stakeholders cannot change this kind of “master idea” or paradigm. Understanding this limitation is a good starting point for creating a healthy society, because it redirects us back to ourselves.
In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell shows how cultural norms are passed from one generation to another, eventually giving rise to behaviours (e.g., aggressive behaviour in the American South’s “culture of honour”) far removed from their points of origin (e.g., territorial behaviour among the population’s European ancestors). One can picture these learned ways of being cascading through the generations over time as family patterns.
Similarly, when we worked in Oakland on the issue of youth violence, one of the community leaders remarked: “If we really want to identify the causes of this violence, we have to look back 300 years ago, to the institution of slavery.” She meant, I believe, that the trauma of slavery cascades through the generations and shows up in our age as youth violence. I also know from our South African colleagues that the trauma of Apartheid lives deep in the souls of everyone there, regardless of race—and will continue to be part of their legacy for generations to come.
These less tangible forces are especially interesting because they belong to and strongly impact the collective, but can only be changed by individuals. As to whether we “mere” humans can actually transform these root causes, the answer is “yes”—“if we do our inner work”, as Carl Jung said whenever he was asked whether humanity would survive.
In her seminal article “Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System”, Donella Meadows illuminates the same point from another angle. She lists 12 places to intervene for systemic impact, from least to greatest effectiveness. She calls the most powerful point of leverage “the power to transcend paradigms”. In my understanding, transcending paradigms doesn’t mean that we should transform the virulent racism at work in Apartheid and slavery while leaving intact the negative thoughts and feelings that privately haunt our private inner worlds. There is something else here that at least partially answers the question of “how to act.” It has to do with what happens in the activity of transcending our outdated mindsets, the kind of fruit that is born from these efforts, and its practical use in creating a healthy society.
If one takes Meadows’s highest leverage point seriously, one must essentially commit to transforming one’s inner life, the site of the paradigms and beliefs that we’ve inherited or adopted, to the point where another experience starts to dawn. The fruit of this self- transformation is freedom. This kind of inner freedom is not something we achieve once and for all; it’s an ongoing effort. As we rigorously transform our inner lives, we find greater freedom in our thinking, feeling, and motivations.
Unfortunately, many schools of thought describe this specific outcome of inner work as nearly unattainable. Meadows speaks of “radical empowerment” that enables people to “throw off addictions, live in constant joy, bring down empires”—and possibly meet an untimely death, because “societies tend to rub out truly enlightened beings”. Otto Scharmer points to “our highest future potential”, and there is truth in that, but let us not think of it as something future. It can begin now, at any moment, when an individual recognizes that his or her inner life of thinking, feeling, and motivation is actually a noisy jumble of habits, many of them self-deprecating and others judging, and begins to take full responsibility for everything there.
That is the stinger, I’m afraid. My friend Miha Pogacnik asks: Who dares inwardness? Who dares take full responsibility for every nuance that flickers in the mind and heart, and in every small deed? Why is taking this kind of responsibility important, even essential, for change-makers right now? It is the highest point of leverage, wherever you are, whatever you’re doing. Every step towards self-transformation opens up space, perception, intuition, and other states of preparedness for emergent reality.
The “righthand side of the U”, “emergent realities”, “new social realities”, “highest future potential”, “learning from the future as it emerges”, “generative dialogue”—all of these are shorthand for the phenomenon, familiar to musical and theatrical improvisers, of something whole emerging while it is being co-created by two or more people. The basis of this co-creativity is inner freedom. It is the structured but open preparedness that enables us to actively perceive and intelligently steward emerging wholes. In this sense, the transcendence of paradigms—or inner freedom—is, in my view, the basis for the capacity of “knowing how to act”.
Lastly, inner freedom can be understood as the starting point for creating a healthy society, because it is the key to transforming the cascades of family and cultural patterns over the generations, the means to throw off all manner of mental, paradigmatic, and spiritual oppression. True enough, we must replace “the master ideas reigning in the minds of many” in so many realms: economy, politics, defence, agriculture, race, and so on. But in the process, let us consider that inner freedom is more essential, and more generative, than agreement about ideas and principles. A thought exercise can illustrate my point: Take any issue, and get to know the opposing camps. Underneath their opposing ideologies, you will find a genuine human concern that transcends the differences and joins them in a common experience of love, care, stewardship, and responsibility. In that space, opposing camps can meet. What drives the differences is generally the fear that they’ll lose something important if they “give in” to the other side. Between such opposing camps, agreement on principles is fragile: What is more powerful is the space created by the freedom from habitual, well-worn beliefs. If both camps can meet there, a new reality is already present and emergent.
I do hope that, with regard to the melting ice, we as humanity can come to recognize the profound connection of our hearts and minds with the future of our planet. The inner life—and the collective inner life that shapes society—is real, and it’s having real impact everywhere you look. We need to overcome the age-old division between self and other, objective and subjective, faith and reason, etc.—but that will best be done as an exercise in understanding the precise relationships between “inner” and “outer”. I am convinced that, in time, as humanity did in its ancient past, we will once again understand that what is “within” is real and must be actively stewarded, lest we see the great failures of doing so reflected in further destruction.
With this writing, I wanted to share some reflections on inner work, freedom, and the starting point for creating a healthy society. These are themes that we will develop much more extensively in our work at Magenta, which I’m co-founding with my partner Louisa Barnum and other teammates this summer, June 2014.