‘The purpose of life is to live in agreement with Nature.’ Zeno, Greek philosopher, c500BC
‘He who is harmony with Nature hits the mark without effort and apprehends the truth without thinking.’ Confucius, Chinese sage, c500BC
‘Open yourself to the Tao, then trust your natural responses; and everything will fall into place.’ Lao Tzu, Chinese sage, c500BC
‘There is geometry in the humming of the strings, there is music in the spacing of the spheres.’ Pythagoras, Greek philosopher, c500BC
Scientific research into the dynamics of living systems has identified four distinct phases of development:
conservation (C or K)
collapse or release (R or Omega)
reorganization (O or Alpha)
In their pioneering work with the Resilience Alliance and in their book Panarchy, Lance H. Gunderson and C.S. Holling explore how these phases interact in living systems, including human organizations and communities. These phases form a continual looping round through a figure-of-eight cycle known as the ‘adaptive cycle’. This oscillating creativity, conservation, breakdown and breakthrough occurs naturally in all living systems, including our organizations, through interacting cycles nested at different levels (space and time scales: localized or more regional, short-term or more long-term).
The first and second phases of growth (G) and conservation (C) – referred to as the ‘front loop’ – represent growth through an incremental process of increasing efficiency, learning and innovation resulting in incremental changes towards a state of conservation. The third and fourth phases of collapse (R) and reorganization (O) – referred to as the ‘back loop’ – represent a disruption of this conservation stage as breakdown (Omega or death) in existing structures. In the midst of this breakdown, radically new ways of operating begin to emerge and breakthrough (Alpha or birth). This is the way of life: birth, growth, conservation and death leading to new birth, or spring shoots leading to summer growth then autumn harvests giving way to winter decay providing fertile soil for new shoots to take root once again; each season has its place in this cycle of life.
There is also an inter-relation of long adaptive cycles and shorter adaptive cycles (both in space and time, for instance – short incremental changes over days interwoven with large cycles playing out over seasons, and even larger ones playing out over seven year cycles, and macro-cycles over hundreds of years and even thousands of years).
When we have nested waves creating crescendos, the inter-relation of the cycles provides a breakdown/breakthrough (aka ‘punctuated evolution’), herein lies the potential to radically transform leadership styles, organisational cultures, social systems and worldviews.
Life is the alchemy of Alpha-Omega, the inter-relationality of different phases of death and rebirth represented by the ancient symbol of Ouroboros, the serpent eating its own tail. From death comes life comes death comes life, spring, summer, autumn, winter, spring, summer, autumn , winter, and so on…each stage bringing deeper learning and development: emergent evolution. Each moment is an opportunity for us to die and be reborn, every day providing a new horizon for new beginnings if we allow ourselves to be emancipated from over-analysis of past and future.
In today’s culture, we often overly focus on the front-loop of moving forward, innovation, growth, development, in search of more ‘out there’. This external ‘pursuit of happiness’ is a fallacy; it misses out a vital part of life’s logic. It is an illusion that seeks eternal youth while seeking to avoid the deeper plunges and wild engagements of the soul. We seek false security, material exploitation, growth only on the outside, masking over cyclic perturbations going on inside. Winter is seen as boring, summer as party time. Endless growth in consumption and rising profits regardless of the degradation to ourselves and our world brings only misery, as it ignores the wisdom of Nature.
‘Contemporary society has lost touch with soul and the path to psychological and spiritual maturity, or true adulthood.’ Bill Plotkin, depth psychologist
The back-loop of this panarchic spiral informs the front-loop, there is no one without the other; innovation and growth is interwoven with breakdown and renewal; ego attainment is entwined with soul development; wellbeing and happiness ensues through a deeper sense of place and purpose in the world. This is true for ourselves, our organisations, our communities.
In part, this back-loop reminds us of the importance of embracing failure as part of the innovation and growth cycle of any value-proposition, recognising that we learn a great deal from working up prototypes that then need to be amended or redone in different ways; also the importance of having multiple value creation and delivery approaches for adapting to varying market conditions. Many Silicon Valley start-ups’ ability to flourish is in part because of their tenacious ability to learn through failing, adapting quickly as they go. Yet, the wisdom of the adaptive-cycle also conveys a deeper recognition that business systems have an innate cyclic, spiralling, ebbing-and-flowing inter-relationality which pulsates with nested rhythms. This deeper recognition allows us to see beyond the superficiality of one-way growth models and narrowly focused business plans. Every value proposition is immersed within social, economic and ecological rhythms; the more we cultivate our multi-dimensional attunement of this inter-relationality the more regenerative our enterprises can become.
Former CEO of Mitsubishi, Tachi Kiuchi, and former President of Future 500, Bill Shireman, in their book What We Learned In The Rainforest, explore in detail the application of these ecological phases or ‘seasons’ in business: innovation, growth, improvement and release (reorganisation). All the time different parts of the business will be in different phases. A flourishing future-fit organisation is like a ‘living laboratory’ or diverse ecosystem with nested inter-related cycles all locally attuning, learning to feel what is an appropriate ‘seasonal way of doing’ for the business context and phase they are experiencing.
For instance, if our team or service area is in the reorganisation and radical innovation phase, we let go of controlled outcomes while creatively prototyping, exploring our emerging future and selecting what works and what doesn’t, trial through failing and learning, by embracing self-organising team dynamics, envisioning, exploring and experimenting. Then, as we move into the ‘growth’ phase we bring in more of a ‘project management’ awareness to focus on operational issues, efficiencies, economies of scale, developing capacity through continuous improvements on quality, yet still keeping smaller nested cycles of prototyping and adapting within the larger, longer, slower gradient up into the growth phase. These smaller nested cycles bring in more variety and economies of scope to balance scale, with training in core skills being enriched with ‘blue-sky’ envisioning, insights into future business trends, and ‘future search’ workshops to start to prepare for the back-loop that lies beyond the front-loop currently being experienced. It also helps us recognise the importance of connecting across the silos of our organisation and across the different stakeholder groups within our business ecosystem, so that we can benefit from the nested interwoven cycles all about us. Stakeholder dialogue discussions, deep listening, way of council, time to pause and reflect, appreciative inquiry workshops, art-of-hosting sessions, and other dialogue approaches are great for bringing diverse aspects of the ecosystem together, and allowing ourselves and our systemic awareness at an organisational level to sense into the cyclic flows, the time to reorganise an area, to press pause, to strategize, or to pioneer, grow rapidly and invest while expanding into a new market.
Hence, we keep ourselves ever-ready to adapt and evolve as market conditions change while learning to sense when it’s best to focus more on creative prototyping, more on project management or more on future-searching.
With this wisdom comes a deeper dawning realisation within us personally, organisationally and culturally that both the breakdowns and breakthroughs are constructive for our wellbeing. Our organisations ought not to expend vital energy trying to control their environments. This only wastes vital energy and slows down our ability to embrace transformation healthily. Of far greater use is enhancing our awareness and understanding of the dynamic environment (both inner and outer) we are operating in.
Life can be seen as a matrix of inter-related nested adaptive cycles continually breathing in and out, creating and decaying. This continual breakdown of one process informing the creation of another, with myriad nested cycles all informing each other, is what the German philosopher, Martin Heidegger, referred to as a ‘bringing forth’ or ‘poiesis’ as the fundamental creative dynamic of life.
For Heidegger, as we learn to open up to these spiralling vortices enriching our creative potential, we engage in a more authentic ‘being in the world’, a less egotistic and more soulful expression of our selves. It is this ‘bringing forth’, or unfolding self-expression of our authenticity through our interactions with the world that is a fundamental dynamic of our self-actualization. This is what is meant here by ‘poiesis’: our unfolding self-expression within the work we do.
Each of us personally experiences these adaptive-cycle stages – unfolding, inspiring, learning and developing – during continual phases of breakdown and breakthrough in our lives. Each cycle opening us up to deeper unfolding and learning as we go through a ‘letting go’, painful suffering and psychical release in order to make way for our deeper authenticity, inner truth and soulful sense of purpose to shine through.
We each have sub-personalities, shadow aspects and dominant roles that we filter our behaviour and ways of relating through. The more we sense into our inner coherence , how things are feeling within ourselves, the more we cultivate self-awareness and self-mastery to allow our deeper more natural and soulful qualities to shine through the ego-masks and personas we may often get caught up in. There are some simple practices and techniques that can help us with this amid the day-to-day relentless pressures of today’s world – see here for instance.
These phases of mini-death and rebirth cycles within our psyche are vital for our deeper ‘bringing forth’ of our authentic selves into our purposeful work. Our ego may attempt to prevent the mini-death and rebirths we experience within this unfolding venture, as they are painful and threatening to our current sense of self, yet if we are to open up to the regenerative reality of real life beyond the artificial yet comfortable confines of our ego, we ought learn to embrace these natural cycles for what they are.
In short, we are destined to live lives full of ups and downs, along with clarity and confusion; learning to see the ‘shadow side’ and ‘light side’ of our psyches, within this continual cyclic context helps us constructively and coherently cope with these ‘swings and roundabouts’. We may learn to become more self-aware and more intimate with how we are being. Hence, we allow our poiesis, our bringing-forth, to become more attentive and soulful.
From a psychological perspective, our conscious mind is reliant upon the subconscious and deeper unconscious psyche for its fuller expression. It is these turbulent eddies and under-currents that challenge our daily awareness with darkness, rupturing and psychical release from the depths beneath our superficial ego-persona. And so our daily ego-consciousness is reliant on deeper regenerative cycles for its fuller expression.
Carl Jung explored this journey of self-realization and saw how fundamental this spiraling churning conscious-unconscious tension is to our overall psychological health, vitality and development. He once famously said, ‘There is no coming to consciousness without pain. People will do anything, no matter how absurd, in order to avoid facing their own Soul. One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.’
Others have explored the levels of consciousness within our selves as three concentric yet permeating circles: the ego-awareness of our daily waking consciousness with our ego-personas, sub-personalities, reactions, habituations, acculturations, constrictions; the sub-conscious of our repressed emotions, instinctual urges, psychical complexes we have pushed down into our sub-conscious during our lives due to bitter experiences, pains, incomplete learnings, repeated inauthentic behaviour amid trials and tribulation, and also dream-state both at night and also daydreaming or reveries, and the thoughts and emotions this can bring up into our daily ego-consciousness; the outer circle is referred to as our ‘super-consciousness’ or Higher Self or Soul, which permeates with the inner circles of our sub-conscious and ego-consciousness and also beyond with the deeper Akasha, quantum plenum, ‘dark energy’, Tao, non-dual awareness that pervades reality.
The more proficient and conscious we become at permeating our ego-consciousness with our sub-conscious and super-conscious amid fast moving challenging situations, the more we can call upon the deeper wisdom of life within and all about us.
Hence, self-mastery becomes about not just being aware of how we are attending to life at any given moment but also of embracing the natural rhythms and cycles of psychological growth and renewal. This helps us be more effective leaders and change agents.
There is evidence that points to personal transformation cycles tending to follow an approximate seven yearly cycle. Within these cycles there are yearly, seasonal and lunar (moon) cycles all inter-relating with bio-rhythms within us.
By sensing how we are really feeling beneath the distracting cacophony of the everyday, we can sense when we may need to take time to renew ourselves. Rather than allowing ourselves to become increasingly agitated, restless, impatient and forceful or oversensitive, depressive, unsure, defensive and withdrawn, we have the courage and self-determination to take time out, to sense inwardly, rejuvenate and find a more coherent and balanced state of awareness. This way we can ensure we allow a more creative, vitalizing, convivial and compassionate awareness to flow through our relations and interactions.
It is this poiesis or way-of-being-in-the-world that I refer to as a living process of becoming more transparent to the transcendent and more intimate with the immanent.
The wisdom of Nature is this immanent and transcendent consciousness permeating life. We can learn to attune with this wisdom of Nature through the quality of intention and attention in each evolving moment.
This is a process of ‘self-mastery’, to intimately sense when we need to take appropriate action to pause, rest, reflect, renew, so that we attune in a deeply rejuvenating way as opposed to applying proverbial Band Aids which do not give adequate space for deeper reflection and renewal.
‘This above all: to thine own self be true.’ Shakespeare, playwright
The reality of our human condition is that in a fast-paced working environment, we react to situations with well-trodden habit-paths. The more our behaviours are ingrained, the more difficult they are to acknowledge and transform. While these well-trodden behavioural paths might give a certain security and consistency in our persona, they can undermine our personal development. They can also undermine our relations, as our defensiveness, judgemental perspective, impatience, and reactivity actually undermine the potential for synergy that could result from the unfolding tensions of everyday life.
Personal development is intimately entwined with organisational and societal development. And, to a large extent, our context influences and affects our own ‘beingness’. For instance, after returning from a week of non-stop travel, including flights, airport hotels, speaking at conferences, running workshops and sleeping badly in stuffy and noisy hotel rooms, it is easy to revert to well-trodden habits or reactive behaviours of frustration at train delays or long queues. The ‘small steps with great love’ become more challenging, as beingness becomes more uncentered.
Hence, the first step in mastery is ‘self-awareness’
This means that actually taking notice of when we are getting frustrated, impatient, tense, reactive, distracted, or overly-excited is the all-important first step. We take notice, pause, sense into these feelings arising, and observe them.
Without this first step of noticing the feeling emerging, we are but lost in the reaction— enslaved by our own personas. Our reactions manifest in our outer behaviour or we merely suppress these reactions while providing an artificial façade of acceptability. As a result, the situation unfolds in a manner that is no longer coming from love, but rather from control, fear, frustration, impatience, or inauthenticity, and some variant of passive/aggressive emotional reactivity. This reaction pollutes our environment in varying degrees, rather than enhancing it; we dance out-of-tune with life. Synchronistic pathways dissipate; we grasp and grab rather than flow-into and participate-with. We become life-denying rather than life-affirming.
Yet, this slip-up is learning in itself, if we have the self-awareness to notice our reaction and the effect it has on our environment. Perhaps we might pause and reflect, sensing into what happened and the feelings that welled up. This can provide the insight for real transformative learning to take place.
In this regard, each day and each tension provides our learning forum.
Self-awareness is a vital tool; we cultivate this tool by regularly sensing into how we are feeling in our body, and gaining insight—rather than judgment—on the feelings. We notice and sense into any feelings of tiredness, distraction, aggravation, fear, impatience, judgment, frustration, or anger, within our body.
The more we’re able to sense, the more we can learn to notice the difference between when we are being reactive rather than responsive. The more we practice sensing into the body, the more our self-awareness enhances.
A tip here is not to try to suppress feelings of impatience, constriction or frustration, but rather open up awareness into them, noticing and embracing them, like a friend. This way, the feeling will not subsume us into the reactive behaviour it provokes (no matter how mild it seems on the outside, e.g. interrupting someone hastily, or projecting our own fears or needs for acceptance on to the other person, snapping at someone with a barbed comment, positioning ourselves with an egotistical edge, etc.).
Then comes the second step – ‘self-inquiry’
Cultivating self-awareness by learning to pause, sense-in, feel, and reflect throughout the daily busyness, we start to notice our habitual reactions, and our patterns of conditioned behaviours.
Some of these will have been cultivated through past experience of life, perhaps for good reason to start with, for example, to defend and stabilise us during harrowing times at school or at home as a child, or as we embarked on our first career steps. All of these habitual reactions will contain a blend of fear and love within them, for example, a fear of being alienated or thought of as ‘a loser’ is blended with a need to be loved and accepted.
Spending time at the end of each day—say ten minutes in bed before sleep, or ten minutes on the journey back from work—we can start to get used to self-inquiring into difficult interactions and tense moments that arose during the day just gone.
The more relaxing and natural the space for this self-inquiry the better, as then we can be more gentle, nurturing, and open with ourselves, as we inquire deeply into the feelings of the day and what lies beneath these reactions. Nature has been proven to relax body and mind, enhance inter-hemispheric brain integration as well as head-heart-gut coherence, so a walk in Nature can aid this reflecting and self-inquiring.
Remember, this is about love: learning to love ourselves, foibles and all. As we inquire, it’s best to hold an attitude of gentleness and openness as we sense into the tensions, emotions, and trials we have experienced.
In this way, we learn to become gentle and open not just with ourselves but also in how we perceive others and their challenges. We recognise that we all are struggling with fears, concerns, and frustrations, each in our own way, whether consciously or unconsciously. We are all learning to love.
This practice of reviewing the day just gone is in-and-of-itself very powerful. It helps us practice self-awareness. While we are scanning through the day’s events from morning to evening, we might sense in our body when certain relational exchanges and situations create constrictions and emotions.
We can then inquire into the feeling, what is triggering it, and sense when we are seeking to judge or blame the other or the outer situation and then sense deeper into the feeling beyond blame with loving insight. Here in this deeper self-inquiry are golden nuggets that provide insight about our own learning, about our habituations, and deep-seated fears. Within our base-emotions, we can reveal gold, to help cultivate compassion and wisdom: Alchemy in the everyday.
Self-awareness and self-inquiry enable greater self-agency and responsibility, enhanced relational authenticity, and deeper embodiment of our life-affirming purpose. This transforms ourselves, our relationships, our team dynamics, our organisations, and the world; it is this that our humanity needs now more than ever.
‘What is within us is within everything. Once we understand this truth, we step outside of the parameters of our individual self and come to realise the power that is within us. This shift in awareness is a very simple step that has profound consequences’ Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee, mystic
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