David Sibbet | Mental Models
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For a couple of months I have been in a writing dyads with a colleague. We give each other prompts. Write for 20 minutes. Read what emerges, and then share how the writing landed. What resonated? What touched us.

As a result I’ve been writing poems, and somehow the voice that is coming out is one I want to reinforce, so I am sharing a poem I wrote and evolved a bit this morning. It’s current. It is called:

PREMONITION

Long cycles hide in the

busy flow of daily life,

deep currents under the

crashing waves.

 

Sometimes the cycles are a slow crumbling,

a weakening of foundations

that give way abruptly

breaking the surface calm,

giant whales of change.

 

Living in earthquake country

I listen for faint signals with

my body, tiny tremors that

foreshadow a major snap.

 

Is this background vigilance

sharpened my foreseeing,

or is the nervousness I feel

the past pushing forward,

clouding, memories of Vietnam?

 

Entrenched institutional arrangements

move like tectonic plates.

And their locked shifting can snap

and become depressions, and wars.

 

But are these tremors I feel today

true markers to be followed, and

feared, or simply the crumbling

confidence of my own long life?

 

Sometimes excitement seeking young people

play chicken with their fast machines,

but the institutional cracking and straining

I feel now, though called a game of chicken,

foreshadows more than a crash,

more a crumbling of trust,

with dreams and lives being pulled

into an opening chasm.

 

I breath in the fall air

and notice the lack of rain.

A central little tree in our back yard,

tucked under larger oaks

has died.

I look around for other

signs that this drought is

cutting more deeply,

quickening our cooking.

 

When will the long cycles

finally snap through

the sea of our distractions

and bring us face to face with

the breeching whales of change,

the generation shaping crumbling

of our foundations?

 

And what is asked of us with

this foreseeing?

 

In his book American Soul, philosopher Jacob Needleman wrote, “The art form of the future is the group. The intelligence and benevolence we need can only come from the group, from associations of men and women seeking to struggle against the impulses of illusion, egoism and fear.” This quote animated Alan Briskin’s exploration of the headwaters of this idea at the first Leading as Sacred Practice (LASP) gathering in 2016 at Holger Scholz’s Beuerhof Retreat Farm in the Vulkan Eifle region of Germany. To support the dialogue that resulted, we co-created this graphic of thought leaders we knew resonated with this idea.

groupasartform

The four of us guiding Leading as Sacred Practice (Gisela Wendling, Alan, Holger and I) had begun calling ourselves a facilitation “Ensemble.” We shared a deep interest in collaboration and supporting a mindset that values the whole human being— spiritual, emotional, mental, and physical— AND avoiding religiosity, ideology, and blind faith.

This first retreat sparked a shift in our work, and ignited a path of co-discovery. We have been meeting and working as an ensemble ever since through two more gatherings in 2017 at IONs Earthrise Retreat Center in Petaluma, and then in 2018 back at the Beuerhof.

We decided to take a gap year in 2019, and then for 2020 planned a larger conference. But COVID appeared and we delayed again. The pandemic pushed us to create a virtual version to continue the work, and the publishing of some of our findings so far in our LASP eBook. (We are giving this away for free in the description of our series of six LASP Online Exchanges starting April 23). Our learning focuses on six “ways” we have found to lead as sacred practice.

What is an Ensemble?

I was describing our ensemble experience to a close friend, Joe Ruffato, a musician and member of a Medicine Community that I am also a member of. I could explain the “ensemble idea” easily since the medicine community is very collaborative and Joe understands what this means musically. An ensemble is a group of musicians who play together. What is not embodied in the formal definition is the meaning that is understood by professional musicians. Joe told me a story that made the point.

“When I produced my first CD I worked with three professional musicians who brought piano, base, and drums to my guitar playing and singing of my songs. We worked through several studio sessions and produced a draft version. I then had a chance to talk to our producer about it and asked him what he thought. ‘Do you really want to know,” the man replied. ‘Yes,’ I said. “He then told me that I was over strumming and doing some other things that didn’t completely balance, “ Joe said. “I came away and put the CD on hold. So I practiced and then after some months came back with a completely up-leveled performance.”

Joe went on to describe what he learned from the three musicians he had worked with. They all were very skilled in what they did, and all shared a sensitivity to the “ensemble” level of play. “They never filled the space to the detriment of the other musical voices,” Joe said. “I realized that’s what it means to be a pro.”

And I realized in Joe’s story this is what is means to be a good ensemble—to never fill the space in a way that works to detriment of another player. This means honoring the rotation of the spotlight in jazz. It means not over playing. It means listening to the whole.

Ensemble as An Artform for the Future

Having spent my adult life facilitating group process, I realized that the Ensemble idea we have used to guide our Leading as Sacred Practice work, might also be a form that could be replicated and even celebrated professionally in other group work settings.

More and more it seems that one of the shifts that we need to make as we come out of shelter-at-home and move into other escalating global issues like global warming, is to open to more imaginative “we” forms of working together. No single person is expert enough to respond to the systemic challenges we face. No solo player can lead the transformation changes necessary to work with them. Collaborative networks, action learning teams, and yes “ensembles” are needed to allow pooling of knowledge and learning as we move forward.

Groups can be the art form of the future.

Join us for the Leading as Sacred Practice Online Exchange Series. April 23, 2021, and experience one.

 

ri-mists

Photo by Alan Briskin

“Earth’s creatures are on the brink of a sixth mass extinction, comparable to the one that wiped out the dinosaurs. That’s the conclusion of a new study (by paleobiologist Anthony Barnosky of the University of California, Berkeley), which calculates that three-quarters of today’s animal species could vanish within 300 years.” From Science Magazine: Ann Gibbons, 2011.

At the beginning of this year the sixth extinction came to me in a dream. I was at a gathering of about 15-20 colleagues in a conference center that included many other people. We were getting to know each other with introductions. After some swirling around eating and getting set up so we could talk it was my turn. I stood up and found myself saying “I am a professional facilitator and am currently focused on the sixth extinction. I want to help bring forward the new ways of thinking and behaving that will be required to survive it.” I remember feeling surprised in my dream at what I was saying, but continued. “You will get to know me as someone who both draws and listens, guiding people to visually design processes that allow them to change, adapt and think more ecologically.”

At this point a young man rose up and said, “I was at an institute recently where someone was doing that, and the charts zig-zagged all over the wall. It felt like a breakdown.”

“That is often what happens when people look closely at their own thinking and information,” I said. I should be flummoxed I thought, but I felt calm and grounded. “It is this breakdown that allows them to break through.”

The group applauded! I was surprised and my heart was racing. I sat and turned to a young man sitting beside me and said, “this is the first time I’ve ever introduced myself this way!” I remember I was feeling both startled and strangely alive and excited. And then I woke up. I knew I needed to pay attention to this dream.

It was 7:05 Sunday, the last day of a long holiday break that my partner and I described as our “digital vacation”—no Zoom, email or social media. Because of the pandemic, and a steadily worsening number of cases along with the news that a more viral version was already spreading in California, we cancelled a trip to a local hot spring where we hoped to have some renewal time, and instead stayed home. The renewal idea carried over and we treated our home as a retreat center.

There I had time to link this dream to some earlier faint signals.

Tracking Back Through Journals

At a GLEN Community Winter Solstice Gathering call before our holiday week started, Karen Wilhelm Buckley, a colleague, read a poem I’d written at a Summer Solstice gathering of colleagues in 2004. I had no memory of it. So, I went back to journal number #134 and there it was. (Journaling is one of my reflective practices). The poem was about the group and our process, but the journal had some other very important entries that were connected to my dream.

I realized that 2004 was the year I turned 60. This was a real milestone at the time, and I had planned several “rites of passages” for myself to mark the change. It began with a week with my first wife Susan (now deceased) to visit the half dozen vision quest sites I’d experienced on the East side of the Sierras (where I grew up).

Later in the summer I had then planned for and gone on a new vision quest on Mt. Shasta with my teacher, Chayim Barton, and a small group. I was rocked to see here I had written about one of the most significant visions of my life up to that point. I think now that it was the headwater of my dream.

Facing the Beast: Prior to the Shasta quest, I’d been being “worked” by an upset feeling about the dominance of “extractive” industries that pay no attention to biology, local communities, or the hidden costs of their work. “Why don’t you work on it here,” Chayim suggested as he counseled me before heading out on a three-day solo water fast. He invited me, in my solo time, to build a monument to this “beast” as I called it, reflect on it, and practice Tong-Lin (a Tibetan practice where you take in pain and breath out compassion), and then take the “beast” apart as a conclusion. I took this suggestion and on the second day of fasting created a monument. Here is my journal drawing with the associations labeled.thebeast2004I don’t need to describe my full process here but can easily remember how powerful it felt. Building it took many hours. So did disassembling it. It was easily 8 feet long. What deeply disturbed me was my grasping experientially the extent of the systemically embedded exploitation mindset. But more disturbing was trying to imagine what could stand up to it—represented by the little wand with a feather. After hours of circling and meditating and just sitting and writing about this experience, I ended up writing some of my core values on the wand—things like the golden rule, my Bodhicitta vow to serve the awakening of all sentient beings, and staying tuned to the light, and the source of vitality I find in embracing and respecting all life. But I hardly felt resolved about this.

Stepping up to RE-AMP

Later that year in December, I was asked to facilitate a new environmental organization called RE-AMP in the upper Midwest. The name stands for the Renewable Energy Alignment Mapping Project, initially a group of 25 environmental non-profits and 12 foundations, who, discouraged by results to date, wanted to work collaboratively to support the growth of renewable energy. They concluded that they had to work on four fronts in a systemic way.

  1. Reduce the impact of coal pollution from the 70 plants in the eight-state region
  2. Stop the construction of new coal plants (34 were in the pipeline)
  3. Increase energy conservation
  4. Increase renewable production.

The consultant who had helped create a causal-loop system diagram of why renewables were not taking off had concluded that these factors were all inter-related and needed to be dealt with in parallel. They needed a facilitator to help create the strategies of the four working groups.

At the meeting where the consultant, Scott Spann, handed off the project to me, he presented his system analysis in a series of complex slides, moving from a 175 factor causal loop diagram he had vetted with many experts, to a 16 factor overview diagram (Shown here) to his conclusion there were four leverage points.

re-ampsystemsmap

At the end of his presentation, he turned to the RE-AMP steering committee and, and speaking very deliberately, said – “Just remember, this is a MINDLESS BEAST.”

I can still feel the goosebumps. Oh my. Here I was standing in front of it again. The small stream of intention started on my vision quest was suddenly here, embodied, and real!

I and my company, The Grove Consultants International, spent four years working with RE-AMP with the agreed-on goal of cleaning up global warming pollutants in the eight-state region by 80% by 2050. The goal was not considered practical. But everyone involved believed anything less wouldn’t matter.

  • RE-AMP did stop the coal plants.
  • It didn’t get far on cleaning up old coal.
  • It did stimulate energy conservation in the region.
  • It encountered roadblocks regarding developing wind energy.

And it expanded to more than 150 participating organizations and over two dozen foundations “thinking systemically and acting collaboratively.” It is one of the most successful environmental collaboratives in the country and still it is not enough. The full story is for another time. Reflecting back, I realized it was my strongest experience so far of being moved by a vision without knowing the outcome. Would my sixth extinction dream might have this same arc of enactment. It feels HUGE! But then so does is this new “beast.”

A Calling?

I wondered why had my reflective “vacation” over the holidays had started with this retrospective. By accident? It was not “planned.” What guided that impulse? What was my psyche through my dream trying to tell me about what I should be doing with my work?

I remembered as I reflected that for several years now when asked about my core motivation—my life purpose— I’ve found myself saying that it is to “help midwife the coming ecological paradigm.” I perceive that we are in a shift that historians will eventually compare to the Copernican revolution—moving from engineering oriented/materialistic thinking to a more biologic, open systems approach, which will include but transcend the old paradigm, as new ones do. I also suspect that the shift will take years or centuries, as all such shifts have taken historically, and while already emerging in many places is hardly dominant.  “We will live into this new way of thinking and relating, or we won’t,” I can remember saying in various workshops. To evoke a birthing metaphor, I feel that these last few years, with global warming directly impacting my home state of California in the form of volatile weather and fierce firestorms, that the baby of this new paradigm is crowning. It needs help.

And then I remembered that two weeks later I was clobbered by an interview article in the Sun Magazine with Eileen Crist about her new book, The Abundant Earth: Toward an Ecological Civilization. She is an associate professor at Virginia Tech in the Department of Science, Technology and Society and has written extensively about biodiversity and the mass extinctions taking place. I have been reading about this for years. But Crist’s reflections on how much more serious the extinction process is than the pandemic got through this time. “It takes 5-10 million years to recover the same levels of biodiversity” she wrote.

I know that reading information doesn’t really change me. But having a full, integrated systemic embodiment of the understanding at a feeling does (like the vision quest experience) and I was having that feeling reading this interview. I suspect it is because the pandemic is no longer an abstraction. I feel the losses deeply. Perhaps it ignited the same feeling about the extinction. I ordered Crist’s book, and for several days was talking about how big an impact this article had. I didn’t think at the time think that it was a breadcrumb of what I’m to do in 2021 going forward.

I now ask myself, “What kind of scaffolding in writing and image could possibly help us all face this ‘problem’ of the sixth extinction?” I put “problem” in quotes to signify that the real problem isn’t the biological problem of a die-off of 50% of the world’s species in this century, as hard as that will be to cope with. The “problem” is that the vast majority of people on this planet, at least in the Western world, don’t have the perceptual or thinking tools, or motivation to even imagine a different way of living that is actually ecologically sustainable. This lack could accelerate the extinction as a result, and for sure ensure that anger and mistrust will accompany the change. Crist argues that what we don’t have this time is time. It’s happening now.

I’m not sure yet what I can do personally. Will I be part of the acceleration?

Taking a Stand

I notice as I write that I keep thinking about Gretta Thunberg, the young Swedish girl who has ignited a youth revolution in response to the climate crisis. Did she know what she was doing? I don’t think so. She simply had the courage to speak her feelings and do so in a public forum, and open to a movement, a collaboration that would far transcend her.

If she can, why can’t I? Why can’t we? I don’t believe that knowing how to respond to the sixth extinction is required to stand up to it, and in it, with full awareness and readiness to ask fundamental questions and learn what we need to learn to change, any more than I knew what standing in front of the beast on Mt. Shasta would mean. I do know that context matters, and as complexity theorists have discovered, a small change in the context of a dynamic system can affect huge change.

So, I begin my new year sharing this dream. We are in a time of enormous turbulence. Will we be ones who stand up? Can we actually feel this happening with as much depth as we are feeling the losses from the pandemic?

I hope my sharing strikes a responsive chord. I intend to explore these ideas further through our Global Learning & Exchange Network. You are invited to join our inquiry there if you like. I and many committed colleagues will be there.

glen-logo-final-websafe

 

 

This is a piece about COVID, the Elections and Poetry. Let’s start with the poem.

In 2019, well before the pandemic set in, I wrote a poem dictated by a spider at our Summer Solstice Gathering, a gathering of peer consultants I have attended for more than 20 years now. It was the year of the Collective Consciousness of All Beings in the Mayan 20 Count, a framework we have been using to guide our imaginal journeys on these gatherings. We called a council of the animal beings to talk to us about the state of things. This imaginal work is a wonderful way to get new perspectives and break out of “normal.” Letting creatures “talk” to me is a wonderful journey.

This year, in the dark of the pandemic, Spider Medicine was published by California Poets in the Schools, an organization of which I am President. As I read it again, I had the feeling that it was speaking to me again about these times, with added complexity.

Here is the poem, published as what poets call a “broadside,” designed by fellow Board member Fernando Salinas.

spidermedicinepoem

Read it twice and let whatever arises arise.

Metaphoric Confusion

My post writing responses to Spider Medicine feels a bit like my responses to the news right now. Read one way, the spider is a dark force, waiting to trap unsuspecting insects. Could this be the dark web, the “attention economy” and its pernicious algorithms that feel more and more extremism through our social media feeds. Could this be the behind-the-scenes operators busy spinning new alliances and deals while we are all distracted by the reality TV show that seems to be our national, political narrative right now?

But the spider is also a beautiful creature and revered by many traditional people. The Cherokee believe spider brought language in the patterns of its web. “The spider woman is the wisdom keeper, the grandmother figure, the female figure,” writes Hopi artist Michael Kabotie. Some Southwest tribe believes spider brought weaving to the people.

So, holding this metaphor lightly, knowing that all metaphors both illuminate and obscure, I looked through the lens of a darker spider medicine.

Reading About the All-Seeing Eye

A long article in the New York Times Magazine on Palantir, the data analysis software company that went public in 2020, connected with the spider poem. The Cover image even looked like a spider web.palantir

If you don’t know much about Palantir it’s not surprising. Like spiders, it stays hidden, even moving from Silicon Valley to Denver to get out of the spotlight. But recently Palantir has been grabbing media attention in the news-sphere with many articles, posts and shows spiraling around the question— “is our democracy on the verge of becoming an authoritarian surveillance society?” When the Health and Human Services agency brought them in to help with COVID attention quickened. The wondering is on a spectrum of urgency that one one end is concern about voter manipulation and inaccurate balloting to on the other a daily flailing of American’s asleepness and precariousness by writers like economist and tireless Medium author, Umair Haque, who has lived through dictatorships and knows the pattern.

So, in this context, the article on Palantir seemed to be motivated by its author, Michael Steinberger, wondering if it is healthy to have a company like this knowing so much about us, and being able to integrate vast silos of information into coherent patterns. Their special interfaces can confidently present analysis “in the form of tables, graphics, timelines, heat maps, artificial-intelligence models, histograms, spider diagrams, and geospatial analysis.” I quickly noticed that the value was in visual translation—interpreting what the pile of data means. How can we connect addresses, phone numbers, zip codes, body weights, color, email address, height, occupation, purchases, party affiliation, relatives, club memberships, education, driving records, crime records to VISUALLY identify terrorists, criminals, COVID contacts, susceptible voters, to reflect what some of their clients use Palantir software for. “We want to save the West from terrorism” says founder Peter Thiel, arch Libertarian billionaire and Trump supporter.

But it is more complex than that, just like my reactions to my poem. Palantir’s executive officer is Alex Karp, a Stanford law school buddy of Thiel’s who studied with Habermas at the Frankfurt School in hopes of becoming a social psychologist. The Frankfurt’s school’s neo-Marist critiques of capitalism and instrumentalism couldn’t be more diametric one might think. But Karp’s intellectual complexity turns out to be great for managing the 2500 very intelligent and probably quirky software engineers. Under questioning they are on the record being very concerned about privacy. They don’t let Russia or China use their software. They are, like the benevolent spiders, bringing the new language of data analysis to the west to save us.

Seeing the Unseen

Moving beyond Palantir, the most resonant image in the poem for me was imagining spiders surviving on what the insects don’t see. And this unseeing part, disconnected from the spider metaphor, is what concerns me the most these days. And it seems to move into both dark and light directions.

We know that opportunists flourish when there is social chaos. We know that many are making money by attracting eyeballs to ever more catastrophic theories and lies. We know that pharma firms are at full throttle to be ones who profit from the suffering. It is their business model. We know Amazon and other on-line providers are expanding exponentially, and so is the plastic they use to ship their goods. Oil companies are already spinning new strategies as oil demand declines to compensate with plastics. And I wonder how many are using the pandemic to accelerated worker replacement with AI?

At the same time I believe there are many new networks growing that focus on catching people into communities of interdependence and resilience, with the spiders transforming into golden connectors in healthy, thriving communities. In fact, I’m one of those spinners working on our Global Learning & Exchange Network, working to lure people into inquiry and hope.

I realize now that I mostly care that we don’t become numb and asleep as challenge after challenge pummels us. I don’t believe the spiders of the world really care who flies into their webs, only that life comes. I just don’t want to have us flying into the wrong webs.

We All Survive by Eating Living Things

In a call this morning I shared about writing this blog piece with some colleagues, and how I was struggling with the “both-and”ness of the spider image.  My friend Alan Briskin shared that he had been reading a book by Joseph Campbell recently, and that Campbell was looking at the deep patterns under the social fields that we all live in. (Alan is currently writing about social fields with colleague Mary Gelinas).  He said that what we forget is that humans survive by eating living things. It’s in our nature. And we survive by reproducing and spawning more. It’s in our nature to spin and grow. And it seems to be in our nature to “have” and to “own.” These deep patterns are in tension with the need to be reciprocal. This reflection prompted, Gisela Wendling, also on this call, to remind us that some say culture is what arises to mitigate these deep urges.

I hope that is so, and I hope that this week, our country celebrates a culture that for a time believed in democracy, liberty and justice for all, and a government FOR the people. It is this social field that can bring us the good side of spider medicine. It is the web of our shared values that can transforms a spiderweb image into ones of roots systems and links that bind us into a culture of mutuality and concern.

But watch out if you are asleep. It’s Halloween, and spider bites can be mean.