What is the maximum goodness that we can create together?
Life as a Unified Reality
Life is a living system. Life and consciousness at deeper orders of reality are unified. There is no such thing as separation; nothing exists out of that larger wholeness we all form part of. The reality of life is thus also interdependent and interconnected. Once we have this more fundamental understanding of the implicate structures or orders of reality we can move into what I’ve called: “Into the Heart of Systems Change.”
When working with and sensing the system dynamics of life, you can no longer keep a dualistic perspective of ‘me versus you’ and this notion of us as if being different. When we move into the heart of systems change we start to see and experience the living complexity of life, including our own complexity as part of that.
The Evolutionary Coherence of Living Systems
Once we understand how living systems are interconnected and interdependent, because life is whole, we also start to realize how we are each a unique expression of that wholeness. Then we can explore systemic integrity and how systems grow.
When living systems grow and evolve, the system diversifies and becomes more complex. This is a universal principle. Each stage of growth and development is regulated by finely tuned systemic boundaries. These systemic boundaries are a living feedback loop for the system to regulate and balance its relationship with itself and the larger systems it forms part of.
Systemic boundaries are like the intelligence or wisdom of a system for actualizing its potentials in a relational way. Through this process of actualization, living systems also become more complex and more evolutionary coherent. And we could say more self-aware at a systemic level.
Evolutionary coherence is incredibly important in living systems; it guides how a system diversifies. Let’s take as an example our own development as human beings. We started out as these tiny cells and now we have grown and developed into this amazing complex being. There has been a lot of diversification within your body, yet somehow your system in all of its diversity and growing complexity has managed to stay in tune with itself. The diversity in your body is harmonic and has the capacity to adapt, learn, and fine-tune, just like you would have with a beautiful symphony.
The evolutionary coherence of a system is our systemic capacity to stay in tune with the wholeness and unity of life; as we change, grow, and develop. This is incredibly important to understand.
Systemic Boundaries and Barriers
In human-made mechanistic systems, we’ve developed growth models that are predominantly based on quantitative growth, and not qualitative growth. Such growth models aim for continuous expansion. If we believe that growth means ‘having more of certain things’, rather than ‘better quality’ or the deeper dimensions of growth, then those expansive growth impulses will start to harm systemic boundaries of life.
In classical economic growth models, we don’t learn sufficiently from systemic boundaries and systemic feedback. We don’t honor sufficiently the feedback that says: “Slow down. Rest. Go within. Make sure you regroup. Make sure you don’t lose touch with the interconnectedness you are part of. Listen.”
Many of our Western growth models (or rather the imperial building models that are also dominant in certain Asian countries and Russia), are based on exponential extractive growth. This type of growth seeks expansion at the cost of vital systemic boundaries and thresholds. Instead of learning from the feedback of systemic boundaries, extractive growth mindsets seek to conquer boundaries. Mistakingly believing boundaries are limitations to overcome. If you add to this an artificial notion of freedom, i.e. believing freedom implies that “I can do whatever I want and nobody is going to stop me”, you start to understand why our world is in crisis.
Such a mindset says: “I need to overcome the boundary and conquer it.” Not understanding or accepting the system’s intelligence that tells us: “Pay attention here. Listen, be careful. Don’t go over that threshold. Make sure you remain within the boundaries that guide system integrity.”
Our actions have impacts on the planet and on everyone else. We often ignore the feedback of the pain we cause because of our constant focus on growth and expansion. Whereas pain is actually a warning of a living system that communicates: “Be careful, listen”. Unfortunately, many of our human-made systems are not sensitive to learning from pain. In fact, we tend to barge over pain. Hence, expansive growth patterns that harm systemic boundaries become barriers for our thrivability.
The difference between a systemic barrier or a systemic boundary can be qualified in the following way: If the behavior of a system starts to harm the interdependencies of the system, then it forms a barrier to itself and the systems it forms part of. It’s incredibly important to know the difference between systemic boundaries and barriers. If we look at our sustainability crisis — including our climate crisis, biodiversity loss, and all the other problems — then we can see how these are actually barrier issues. Yet, we are treating it as if it’s a boundary issue.
By not honoring and including the feedback of systemic boundaries in our growth models, we create systems that create barriers to our thrivability and a lot of harm and suffering. The consequences of not addressing systemic barriers are the climate crisis, biodiversity loss, and also our human behavioral crisis. What happens when system pain is ignored?
When there is no responsiveness to pain, then the trust in a system goes down. Especially when people feel hurt and they do not experience any meaningful response from the systems they form part of to that hurt. Hence trust goes down, and fear, conflicts, and divisions rise up. We then start to see how collaboration between people diminishes. What happens next is that the evolutionary coherence of that system diminishes, and the diversity starts to become competitive. Even to the point that systemic diversity may start to fight against itself. And that’s just like a harmful viral pattern. As if the immune system is being overtaken by a viral program and the body now starts to fight against itself. That’s why it’s so important to know the difference between a systemic boundary and a systemic barrier.
If there are systemic barriers it signals that we need to become aware of how our behavior is harming systemic interdependencies — either within or between us. When harm is present, it also indicates that we’re not really grounded and present to what’s happening in reality. It might also be that our capacity to collaborate is hindered. And that the way in which we’re seeing the world is filtered or colored. Meaning, our response abilities are not informed by the wisdom of life.
How to Work with Living Systems
Start by becoming more aware of where you are and your state of mind or consciousness. Thinking about systemic unity while feeling disconnected from yourself and life, may inadvertently create an artificial unity reality (or illusion).
Become present, here and now, and ask yourself: “How do I feel? What is my experience right now? How am I living this moment? And how much of me is present? Where does my awareness go to?”
Become aware also of how you are breathing, and ask yourself: “Am I breathing in life or anxiety?” When you breathe in life, let it flow all the way into your toes and fingertips. Don’t think of yourself connected, feel and be connected. Become part of your living environment.
What you focus on is what you energize with your attention. The way that you respond to a situation starts to influence how you experience that situation. So, if you are experiencing dualism, or feel tense, bring your awareness back to yourself here and now, and change the quality of your attention. Catch where your awareness is going, and then connect with life.
How to relate with Our World as a Living System
A lot of information that is shared about the climate crisis or our planet is done in a way that’s either so impersonal or else it is so emotional that it’s just too much to take in for many people. I have noticed in my own research and courses that many people don’t know what to do with this information. It’s so important that we find other ways to connect with what’s happening with our world, and in ways that don’t numb us to what’s going on, or only incite anger or fear.
Become aware of the systemic barriers within and around you. Many people have grown up in systems — educationally, politically, and economically — that cause barriers to our interdependence and to our thrivability. The first symptom of that is the systemic lack of trust and disconnection from life as a field of wisdom. Our perspective has become so mechanical that many people do not even believe that there is a deeper that sustains us.
To address the dangerous planetary and social tipping points we need to partner with the wisdom of our planet for healing, regeneration, and balance. When part of your body gets injured, there’s a whole intelligence of your body that flows towards that injured part. This intelligence brings resources and healing to the injury.
When thinking of our planet, don’t see her only as injured, dying, or suffering. Don’t make that the only reality, because from that place it’s hard for people to feel any sense of hope. It’s exactly in those areas where we are most vulnerable and hurt that there is resourcefulness from life that comes up towards those areas. See yourself as part of the immune system of the planet. Like a little scout of Mother Earth who gets sent to those areas of hurt and vulnerability to strengthen that life wisdom, and to bring forward that love to restore the trust.
The potential for healing and regeneration lives in all of us. In each and every one of us there is that little voice of our planet that inspires us despite the many challenges. Or maybe exactly because of those challenges, to find the resources within yourself that you may never have known were there. There are even more resources when we come together — the resources of the collective.
The health of a system, its intelligence, is always here. Also when a system is highly polluted, intoxicated, and suffering, that intelligence does not get lost. It’s just that it might not have been able to express or guide deep planetary processes at a rate that is necessary. This should be the focus of our personal and collective responsibility: to become the planetary health response.
Systemic barriers can be present in terms of our fears, distrust, and uncertainty, but you as life are not that barrier. The systemic barriers is what you manifest by not being able to bring forth fully the living wisdom that you are. You are not all these different voices or feelings of duality or division, you are the awareness that can notice all these divergent voices and feelings.
Don’t get stuck on one voice or perspective. Come back to this earlier practice I shared and ask, “What do I choose to focus on now? What am I giving my attention to?” My motto has always been that if there is 1% of possibility, then it is possible. Become the possibility of an incredibly healthy system. The good news is that this intelligence and wisdom is given. It’s up to us now to work with it and to apply that. And as we apply this wisdom, we’ll discover and learn so much more.
Transforming the Harmful Systems of Our World
We come out of a throw-away society, with a mentality of discarding what we don’t like or understand, and always trying to create something new and better. If we go return to that principle of interdependence, we may start to realize how throwing away the old system doesn’t work. Instead, let us focus on how can we create the conditions for the intelligence of life to emerge, and transform what needs or seeks transformation.
What can you do to help transform the systemic barriers (inner and outer), especially those that are harming our systemic boundaries and are creating harmful tipping points, socially and planetary?
Start by becoming aware of the underlying growth model and your own growth assumptions. Making growth bad or trying to stop growth is not the answer. Focus on the deeper causal levels and understand what is truly going on by becoming aware of the deeper informational orders of life that are unified and whole (and not space-time bound). If we do not understand those deeper dimensions of life, and we’re only working at the level where things have become a problem, our course corrections may inadvertently become part of the problem.
When you enter a situation dualistically, for example by saying, ”I am going to fix”, you may miss the resources of the deeper implicate orders of reality that are whole and unified. The systems that seek transformation, or need transformation, are often the systems that have become decoupled from the deeper implicate orders of life. Life is unified and whole, when we understand and apply this we discover the ways and means to redesign and transform our societies for thrivability.
When systems are not sourced and rooted in this informational architecture of wholeness, we create systems of duality and division. When a forest grows more complex, with more diverse plants and trees, it doesn’t collapse. Instead, it becomes more resilient. Diversity and complexity is not the problem, our dualistic and separatist behaviors are the problem. Life shows us how to work with complexity if we start from unity and wholeness and honor the systemic boundaries that safeguard our wellbeing and thrivability.
How to Implement Systems Thinking and Sensing
Living systems are holarchic, not hierarchic. Living systems are essentially collaborative, not competitive (even though they may also include some competitive behaviors, this is not what dominates). It’s about unity in diversity.
Think quantitative and qualitative. Living systems are responsive, not reactive, as well as adaptive. Think resilience first. Think dynamic and flexible, not static and rigid.
Living systems are evolutionary coherent, which is not the same as cohesion. Cohesion is about trying to keep things together, cemented. Living systems don’t need to do that because they are in tune with the wholeness of life. Competitive economic growth models create economic competitive growth mindsets that hinder our thrivability.
There is ‘natural’ change and ‘unnatural’ change, this distinction is very important. If we merely think we need to change something without awareness of change as a living process, your actions may be disruptive and we might be changing the wrong things. In living systems, there are important stabilizers. For example, if you start to disrupt certain interconnections, the whole system stability can start to collapse. Once again, it’s about understanding the difference between systemic barriers and boundaries.
Systemic barriers will create certain dynamics and interference patterns that inhibit other change processes, such that the natural change process cannot unfold or emerge fully. Become aware of the direction of change. Not every transformational growth or change process will go in the direction of thrivability. A system can also change away from its intelligence and unity with life. Then sadly, often the only way for life to continue is via systemic collapse of what is no longer sustainable. At that stage, the growth patterns have become so entropic that there’s no more energy available for renewal or transformation. All systemic activities then come to a halt and the system collapses.
If a system collapses, the information of that system does not get lost, instead, it becomes integrated in new processes of life. In every change process there are phases of unification and integration, and phases of expansion and diversification. That’s a kind of cosmological law or evolutionary principle. Growth never keeps going in only one direction. When there is a movement in one direction, there’s always a counter-movement in another direction. This often happens invisibly. When something expands to diversify, something else in the system is seeking to make sure that the interconnectedness at deeper orders of reality remains unified.
Dying with Dignity
Perhaps the biggest challenge in society right now is how to allow for death with dignity of that which is no longer or not sustainable. What are the programs, systems, and organizations that we need to let die with dignity? In a dignified manner means in an honorable manner, for example by thanking people for the role that they have served. And guiding the resources, people, and information to new possibilities for us to thrive.
A dignified way of dying means guiding a process through the various stages of death; this includes guiding what is still alive into new ways of working and being with each other that are more conducive for life and us to thrive.
Change as Love
When you feel the impulse or desire to want to change something, ask yourself, “Do I want to change this situation or this process because I’m rejecting what’s happening?” Check if your impulse to change is coming from a place of rejection, dissatisfaction, or frustration. The first step when wanting to change something, even if we feel frustrated, is not to focus outwards, but to go within. That may seem contradictory, especially when we feel affected by what we want to change.
We may also think, ”I don’t want this, this has to change.” When we feel resistance, all our barriers go up. Yet what we reject often comes back in an inverted way, and then we may have to deal with it in far more unpleasant ways. Seek to understand, “What am I projecting on the situation? Does this need to change? Or am I making it mean something that isn’t actually there?” These questions are very important because we are not separate from the change process or what we seek to change.
The way we stand in a process of change, the way we respond, is also a dynamic that becomes part of that change process and could become a tipping point for one outcome or another. Even in times of darkness, despair, and grief, even in what may feel so murky and awful that we want to run away from it, we need to find a way to connect with that light inside. That light, that connection point, is love.
Love is that force that comes forth when the mind thinks, “This is just madness, I don’t want to have anything to do with that.” Love is that power that exactly in those moments when we want to withdraw or react, reaches out and reaches from within, seeking to connect with what is life. Especially in what appears paradoxical.
When you touch that potentiality for change through love, what changes comes back to itself, which is completely different from trying to change something by rejection. Because when we start to impose change, then we are already determining what it should be. And then you may find that people change because they feel rejected and scared. Believing there’s no place for them, that they have to become something that they’re not, and they can’t sustain that. So that type of change through rejection is simply not sustainable nor desirable. Hence it’s really important to know your motivation for change, where is it coming from? And then to work with the natural change process.
Remember, a natural change process always seeks to bring forth more of its true potential. With true potential, I mean the greatness and unity of life that’s within. That for me is thrivability, that deep innate ability within every living being, every living system to bring forth our innate potentiality of the goodness of health. And to be able to initiate and participate in a process that is conducive to our evolutionary learning and development. Where the health of oneself is part of the larger health of life as a living system. That to me is essentially what thrivability or the ability to thrive is all about.
Let’s work from Beauty
Thrivability is beautiful because it’s an innate capacity and this aspect is often missing in the conversations on sustainability. There’s something in the word, sustainability — to sustain — that doesn’t connect us with life and can conjure up images of a flat line. Yet when we visualize ‘thrive’ and express to our ability to thrive, then you get a completely different imagery.
It is essential that we help to strengthen and create the conditions for all of us to thrive. Thrivability is always interdependent, hence this intelligence also seeks to curate those conditions for your and our thrivability, as well as the thrivability of life as a whole. And there’s also a dimension of joy in this understanding of thrivability. It’s not enough for me to say, “Let’s focus on the minimum harm”. Instead, let’s focus on the maximum goodness that we can create together. Let’s work from beauty.
With warm thanks to Kees Klomp, Jeppe van Pruissen, Bart-Jan Prins, Shinta Oosterwaal, Yvonne Lang, and Circl NL for the production of the interview and their publication of Purpose Minds, lecture no 4 on 23 June 2021.
- To listen to the 1-hour audio version of this lecture.
- To read the full transcript.
For further reading
- Anneloes Smitsman & Jean Houston. (2021). The Future Humans Trilogy, Book 1: The Quest of Rose. EARTHwise Publications.
- Smitsman, A. (2019). Into the Heart of Systems Change. [Doctoral dissertation, International Centre for Integrated assessment and Sustainable development (ICIS), Maastricht University]. https://dx.doi.org/10.13140/RG.2.2.28450.25280
- Smitsman, A., & Currivan, J. (2019). Systemic Transformation into the birth canal. Systems Research and Behavioral Science, 36(4), 604–613. https://doi.org/10.1002/sres.2573