David Sibbet | Personal Transformation
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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.

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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.

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In politics a “pivot” is a turn in another direction. Lots of different turning is called “spinning.” When we stop spinning and begin to collectively listen and find common ground, it can birth a new story. And new stories can guide new decisions. And belief and energy in a new story is stirred by paying attention to what is actually happening, not from fitting what we see to our favorite filters, but from together saying “this is what is actually happening.” And then how long does it take for a new story to become a societally embraced turning? While my own mind hungers for some grounding and confidence, I know that now is the time for real questions. That is what this blog post will explore.

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New Stories Coming Up

The idea that real change might be possible is already pushing up like the flowers that are coming this spring. That raises the question: what is real change? I and every organization consultant I know is pivoting from face-to-face meetings to virtual work, and redesigning workshops to run on-line…in a matter of weeks. It’s remarkable how fast this has happened. But is that real change? We’ve been working virtually for a while. What I’m watching for are the tendrils and roots of a truly new story, one that has a hope of sustaining itself into my grandchildren’s adult years, that has the chance of restoring trust and co-creativity.  And I’m observing that the hopeful new is confusingly pushing up through a bramble of the old reasserting itself, and fast replicating species and memes filling the space for new growth. And I also learned that this kind of fast-growing material, like fireweed, helps a burn heal in an eco-system challenged by fire. Can the tender new survive in the rapid attempts to reopen the economy and restore some “normalcy?”

Some Inner Questions

I experience the tension of competing inner stories in my own responses to the Covid pandemic. One day I stopped trusting touching— out of the blue. It started in the first days when reporting on the outbreaks of illness in China and Italy dared to write the words “worldwide pandemic.” That day I used a paper hand towel to pump gas!  Then “shelter-at-home” arrived.  I stayed home.  I felt vulnerable. But I also began wondering. Am I experiencing the beginning of another kind of virus, a viral social meme—that “distancing” is essential for health? Before Covid-19 I would have said that touching is essential to good health.  And I find reassurance in this idea as I experience new levels of connectivity and reaching out that doesn’t require physical touching. But is this enough? Is this enough for people who need healing touch? Is digital touching enough for the elderly who are dying alone?

On another channel I wonder if a new story is forming that rationalizes getting stuff in a day from a company that is notorious about how it treats the human’s socketed into its matrix of efficiency and puts most of its stuff in plastic? Is this going to be the new story of shopping? Or is the new story about how the environment is actually healing a bit in this pause, and people are renewing their love of simple walks, and friendly hellos across the street to neighbors? Will we release a bit from defining ourselves by material gain?

How Can Society Pivot?

These kinds of questions leave me wondering a lot about what allows me, the groups I belong to, or the larger social body to truly pivot. How can this happen when disruption advantages the fast growing and recklessly propagating? What starts a hopeful new story? What holds it long enough to become a true turning point? When did the horrors of the plague transform into excitement about the wonders of science and medicine? How long did it take to accept that seeing the Earth revolving around the sun is more useful than calculating the sun going around the Earth? When in the depression did people turn to believing that people deserved a social safety net? Perhaps societies don’t pivot quickly but turn slowly.

I don’t have to know details to know that right now we don’t have a story that represents a real paradigm shift. And I don’t need to know the future to know that our answers to what it is may well have a direct impact at an extinction-level scale. So, I’m turning my attention to identifying where the meaningful conversations are occurring about this, and who is controlling the discourse. There will be a new story. I want to be part of helping mid-wife it.

Breaking Habits

Some of the work will be releasing from old, limiting stories. For instance, the current news from doctors about the COVID virus and how to treat it is uncovering huge limitations in our public stories about health. “Put people on ventilators if they can’t breathe,” was an early story of how to response. It sounded hopeful. But this response rested on several old ideas—seeing sickness response as a fight and needing weapons in the battle—focusing on reacting to the presenting illness rather than prevention and testing. And the stories became political. “The government isn’t organized to get us what we need.” And “The states aren’t doing enough.”  But much of the discourse stayed within the dominant story of western medicine.

Looking more closely at what is really happening it appears that deaths on ventilators are reaching 68% or more. It’s quite possible these intrusive measures, compounded by isolation from family, and the confusion of being drugged collapse people’s immune systems even more than the virus does. Some colleagues communicated recently about that their Chinese doctor friends report that, on a widespread basis, the Chinese blended traditional practices like acupuncture and Chinese herbal remedies with other responses for Covid patients. This hasn’t been news but could be the tender shoot of a more open orientation to health and support for immune systems. As hospitals fire and furlough workers because their business model is dependent on “actions” rather than results and prevention, will the core story of what’s needed for health change?

I’m wondering now, beyond any specific thoughts about health care, whether any new, long-term habits will set in without a widely held story. I pretty sure they won’t, and that it won’t be easy. Old stories start collecting resources to rebuilt themselves right away. After all, it’s a lot of work to generate a truly hopeful, enduring new story. Let’s just jump back on this old successful habit!

Where Do We Truly Need Turns?

I’m reflecting on all this as a facilitator and consultant who plays a role in helping people generate new stories and deal with real change. What is my role as we emerge from the supposed “worst?”  What conversations do I need to be facilitating? Can I step up to inviting people to consider that in many ways, the global pandemic is a small catastrophe compared to global warming. (There will be no vaccination that will protect us from melting ice caps. If you live in the coastal lowlands subject to king tides sheltering in place would be nonsense). Can I step into figuring out how we can move forward paying attention to equally impactful but slower moving phenomenon, like the economic undermining of the middle class, the systemic health and economic impacts of racism, or the steady erosion of educational access and quality for young peopl

Don’t Attach to Prior Thinking

One morning I was listening to Carol Sanford and a series of daily half hour talks on “Transforming Uncertainty into Action.” She’s deeply immersed in thinking about living systems and regenerative organizations and was quite clear about how our habit of hearing and seeing new ideas through old lenses gets in our way. How do we not do that, I thought.? But then she said, “I like to use frameworks, but not ones that have answers, but ones that guide my attention.” Aha! This is the value of providing change models and theories that function like mental keyboards. This is my work. I felt hope springing up. These might support different kinds of systemically sensitive conversation.

So, what are the new structures that might work on a wider social level and provide scaffolding and language for a new story?

Carol went on. “Think fundamentally about what makes a system whole and complete—what is necessary for thriving?” Her example was democracy. This is a system that needs an educated electorate as a fundamental element to work. (No surprise that Benjamin Franklin focused on newspapers in the early days of the colonies.) Is democracy “whole and complete” when our leaders not only promulgate false information, but question science, learning, and focus on keeping people watching TV and twitter? Can democracy pivot from a deep attachment to materialism as a superordinate value? Are their frames for thinking that champion optimization of resources over maximization?

 A Bigger Pivot is Needed

As I and others are turning to digital meetings under the threat of coronavirus, new “rules” for creating connections and gatherings are emerging, and with equal vigor people are shoehorning the old patterns into the new medium. With everyone on-line, for a while at least, we might expect some remarkable invention. I’m hopeful about this. But I suspect it is WAY too early to know if this is truly a pivot, or just the platform for the conversations that will matter.

I find myself thinking that a much bigger pivot is needed. Our scientists have almost unanimously agreed that the laws of cause and effect are at work in regard to global warming and the irresponsible application of fossil fuels to every imaginal task. It’s a development that has literally fueled the rise of enormous big ag and steadily undermined localized farming. It has literally fueled big pharma, big plastic, big box stores, big shopping centers reached by car and a global economy fueled by ubiquitous air travel. These things have all created a kind of coherence and logic that most of us were going along with. Is this what we are trying to “turn on again?” But questioning all this means questioning some of our most beloved beliefs. What about Black Friday? What about Christmas? What about traveling wherever we want?

I agreed with Carol that for any of these forces to generate a turn, large numbers of people have to become educated about living systems. Will people be able to learn that diversity is one of the strongest counterforces to viral phenomena in nature. Will people come to appreciate that historically in society, local cultures, local agriculture, diverse and indigenous local practices all have long histories of persisting and sustaining themselves. But are any of these responses being considered? If the body is an integrated system, and the lungs and breath are central, what truly supports the lungs and breath? It goes well beyond oxygen. What about our relationships? What about the condition of our spirits? Are our leaders, or we consultants, sustaining a systemic point of view?

JesusinOliveWoodThe Story of the Resurrection

I began writing this blog on the day before Easter. We were all at home, socially distanced. I was on my virtual piano lesson in the morning with Randy Craig when Gisela came up and said. “I’m yearning for a new story, a hopeful story!” she said. “It’s Easter.” A bell rang for me.

What if this generation’s resurrection experience was the rise of truly hopeful new story? I thought about the seeds of it that my GLEN colleagues are generating. Embrace the possibility of collective wisdom, Alan Briskin writes. Collaboration and optimization echo the reciprocal patterns of nature and the way our nervous system functions, Mary Gelinas observes. What if the resurrection was an arising again of the story that Christ died for, the story of the power of compassion and forgiveness, as Gisela and I began hoping after visiting Jerusalem in January? And what if our new story included the transformative power of paying attention to what is actually going on, as Carol suggests—without preconception—and together asking, what needs to truly “turn” and be released to have our system be whole and complete?

 

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I sustain a keen interest in metaphors and plausible narratives about where we are headed as a society, and frankly, I am worried. I was rocked recently by a close reading of sociobiologist and futurist Rebecca Costa’s0-watchmansrattle 2012 best seller, The Watchman’s Rattle: A Radical New Theory of Collapse. (She has a new book, also a best seller, called On the Verge, which I haven’t read.) Costa has a long history in Silicon Valley and a polymath’s appetite for large-scale thinking. My reading, in the context of seeing our country spiraling into policy chaos, is that her 2012 message is even more relevant in 2018.

Her “new theory” is that civilizations collapse when complexity outstrips human’s cognitive ability to grasp what is going on. More interestingly, she identifies the symptoms that suggest collapse is beginning. I’m not wanting to believe we are collapsing, as I am much more interested in growth and development and what our field of process consulting and visual practice can do in response. Yet her argument is persuasive.

Let me summarize what she is talking about. Drawing from both evolutionary biology and new findings in neuroscience, Costa describes in detail how the Mayans, Romans, Germans and others expanded and collapsed. Collapse begins with gridlock—simply too many conflicting forces and events compounding—and continues with the substitution of belief for facts.

In most civilizations, Costa observes, there is a balance between untethered beliefs and scientifically or experientially validated knowledge. We use beliefs to deal with the ineffable and non-objective, and we have (at least for the last many hundreds of years) looked to science for help with being objective, particularly regarding the physical world. Yet when complexity begins to overwhelm people’s cognitive abilities, beliefs take over and attention to facts disappears.

For the Mayans facing severe drought, their engineering of cisterns and other water strategies gave way to human sacrifice. For the Germans after World War I, the complexity of their post-war fractured economy gave way to fascism and blame and World War II.  Sound familiar?Read more…

As summer heats up, I’m thinking ahead to the fall and Leading as Sacred Practice (LASP), the week-long conference that Gisela Wendling, Alan Briskin, Holger Scholz and I will be facilitating this October 23-27 (2017) at IONS’ Earthrise Retreat Center in Petaluma, California. Last year’s gathering in Germany was exceptional and some are coming back a second time, so I’m looking forward with anticipation. But it’s taken on some new meaning and urgency.stringofbeads

I began to feel strained several weeks ago supporting the launch of The Grove’s Global Learning & Exchange Network (GLEN) while simultaneously starting a year-long Leading Change Program in Minnesota for a cohort of 20 participants from several agencies in the Metropolitan Council. This last program ended with an inspiring “stringing-of-the-beads”; more on that later.

Read more…