27 February 2011

A simple experiment

One of the things that I currently do is host a workshop for professors from the university here where I am living. I have described my own intent in these workshops which have now been going on for about one year, in a variety of ways. In the last workshop we were exploring an anecdotal and topical case study about open source education. The issue is nuanced and contentious. There several kinds of systemic 'traps' involved. I have asked the members of the workshop to do the following in order to explore the question:
  • Watch this video, without reading any comments or getting any surrounding information about it:
  • Self observe while you are watching. Take notes actually or mentally if you can.
  • Take a break and reflect.
  • Google the 'author' of the video and read about him or watch other YouTube material from him. There are numerous short videos.
  • Watch yourself during this process. Take notes if possible.
  • Be prepared to discuss what happened in that process.
For those of you reading this not in the workshop, many of the participants are engineers, mathematicians and scientists of various sorts. They are all faculty members at a well known university, some tenured, some not, some department heads currently or in the past, etc. Think of the colloquial expression "rocket scientist" and you will get the picture, though I think there is only one literal rocket scientist in the workshop this quarter. I have several things written that I might post later, and I thought I might take a moment and reflect on the nature of this workshop now. There have been three for faculty and one for students and faculty over the past year. The faculty workshops have been on:
  • Change and Impermanence
  • Leadership and Leadership Models
  • Teaming and Collaboration
I am considering holding one on "Facilitation" next quarter if there is interest and it seems right to do. The student workshop was on research methods and was an exploration of 1st, 2nd and 3rd person research. If I were to say for myself what the faculty workshops have been about I would name them something more like:
  • The structure of thought and self observation
  • The nature of framing and 'mental models' with respect to agency and action
  • Pattern recognition and the dynamics of patterns and patterning

Each quarter participants are expected to be engaged in a quarter long active experiment to test for themselves what is being considered in the class. The class itself is also a sort of lab where we are immediately working on things. There is homework of various sorts. All this has several components. It is self observational and about learning and practicing the capacity and disciplines of self observation. It is active and about 'testing' our own models and assertions. It involves change and learning. People will most likely actively undertake to accomplish something either in a context of self observation, or using a different context, approach or methodology to accomplish or manifest something specific.

Of course I have ideas about all these things in my own little world. As far as I can tell from listening to the participants the actual reason most of them make time for the workshops is that they get a chance to reflect and be in dialogue with colleagues, which is not the norm in the academic setting. Very rapidly and over time we have created a kind of 'container' in which there is room to say many things that might remain unsayable or at least unsaid in the normal course of events. In terms of a 'change process' in which I am participating I consider several things. Many topical and evocative things come up in the course of these dialogues, some very personal. This level of situated participation is critical. The shared quality of that is critical. It is not a workshop on theory, though we explore a lot of personalized, socialized and popularized theory in a variety of ways. Nor is it simply a workshop on techniques for practice and application, though these too are explored. We actively explore the question of 'attention', but for me it is not a workshop about that either. (Oh, I should say that for me, it is really only one workshop, though it might not seem so based on the changing subjects.)

There are two moments from the last workshop I want to reflect on. At one point the 'rocket scientist' said 'After a year I am now starting to be able to apply the things we have been learning together.' This is important in order to get a sense of how long it takes working in this kind of 'container' for the apparently 'abstract' to become real. This is not some hard and fast rule, but it is an indicator. I have a private client who is incredibly smart and facile with his intelligence. After a kind of introductory conversation of a couple of hours he went and sort of blew up his life, though he does not know that and I could be wrong. What I mean by that is that he saw and intuitively grasped something about the structure of what we were considering, engaged in some intensive self reflection and made large changes in his life, really all at once. Many of these things were things he was wanting to do anyway for some time and seem very positive. He may have been 'solving a problem' with these changes, though I do not know yet. If so, what is predictable is that the quality of reflection that allowed him to act in these ways will not be persistent, since it was primarily a response to the problem, which is now symptomatically addressed.

This gets to the second point I wanted to explore from the last workshop. Another participant shared that he was practicing 'interrupting' and conveyed the sense that it was not going well. He said that the pattern or habit interruptions he was enacting were either 'going over their heads' where they knew something had happened, but could not say what or were creating increased politicization, positioning and conflict that reinforced the patterns. Some years ago I learned a method of releasing energy while studying TaiJi with Jim Keenan. I had been practicing this for several years before actually being able to "do it" and had very actively practiced TaiJi and other 'internal' arts for about 15 years before that (that was 15 years ago). Practice did not consist of releasing energy. Practice consisted of training into my body, mind, breath, etc. the structures that allow the energy to be released. In fact there was a lot of what might have looked to the observer like more or less standing still in odd postures for long periods at a time. Interestingly when I started to be able to express this method, those structures (which basically require a simultaneous, whole body 'extension' and 'relaxation' of all the joints, ligaments, tendons and muscles in the body) were not yet fully in place. The result of this is that the joints that were not so structured experienced internal impact. My shoulders would hit against themselves within the joint structure of the shoulder, for example... which is to say that even though I could manifest the movement, energy, etc. I had not actually 'learned' it yet. The result is that I literally beat myself up and was very sore before I figured out what was going on. This is a video of what I was learning. The 'fast' looking bits are 'Fa Jing,' which is not 'secret,' but really misunderstood and hard to learn because of what we are talking about here. You can see that in the right relational context such energy might be considered 'interruptive.' There is a *lot* going on internally when he makes those externally visible fast little motions. He is not just rapidly 'shaking' his hand. Zhang Lu Ping was one of Jim Keenan's teachers and I was honored to meet him before he passed away. I think I was accidentally rude to him, but that is another story. Jim used to cart me around and let people try their 'kung fu' on me for a time. Jim has mastered and integrated 'fa jing' as he has so very many things.

I think my good friend the rocket scientist has been building analogous structures in her own process and has gone through some real ordeal and testing to do so, but I could be mistaken about all that. I am worried about my other friend who has 'changed' so many things so fast without any consideration of structure. I told him this would be a danger for him, but apparently not very effectively. This is one of the reasons that this sort of work involves developing the capacity for self reflection. Capacity in this sense is not some technique to be done, but something structurally resident within the state of 'human systems.' Even though I am so horrid at these things myself, this is why I often talk about our ask about the structures, disciplines, and practices associated with things like 'emergence,' etc.

Let me put it another way. Ideally, from a permacutlure point of view we might want to contemplate a 'site' through all four seasons, without doing much of anything, other than observing what is naturally occurring there. I have not had a chance to do this on a physical 'site' yet and am hoping to be able to do so in the near future, but I bring this spirit to all my design work. In analogous endeavors, one of the components that is very active for me is self-observing the tendency and desire to act. The contemplative must be balanced with the 'yield.' It is not useful to starve to death while observing a 'site.' On the other hand it is not useful and is even harmful in a variety of ways to set out to 'improve' the site without this contemplative disposition. In the 1700 and 1800's in the US much of the policy rhetoric was about 'improving' the continent! What? What a beautiful sunset. If only there were just a touch more red over there.

We can learn something about the various expressions of energy in human systems, such as interruption. Does this mean that we should then apply them? I would say, not without first having 'interrupted' ourselves. Have we really explored what 'interruption' or intervention means and the consequences of that? Are we ourselves interrupted in the interruption we seek to enact, or are we interrupting something as if it were 'over there,' outside of us and according to our own preferences in the matter? Is there a 'container' such that expressions like 'interruption' are conscious, compassionate and integral to what is occurring? Have we contemplated who we are in the matter? Do we understand 'why' we are interrupting? Are we clear about things such as the 'context' of service, assumed or asserted necessity, 'problematization' and such dynamics? Have we considered the ecology and consequences of the interruption in the case of it's success or failure? Is it possible for us to not interrupt?

Are we consistently engaged in the practices, disciplines, ways of being, mandate, participatory structures, etc. that allow us to explore and express something like 'interruption' or emergence, etc.? Do we even have a sense of what those might be for us, or if we feel they are important in any way?


  1. The two links for youtube video do not work for me, can you post up some alternative links? Thanks!

  2. They are ugly, but do these work?

  3. i will quickly post my thought on mental models i had while watching the first video. it seems to me that the scientists mentioned in the video are making intuitive leaps in arriving at their posited theories that could not be arrived at within the current framework of thought of their time . i have read that the felt sense of the theory (mathematical equation?) often comes in a flash of intuitive insight (often visually) in the cases of many scientists, inventors, mathematicians. Then the scientist or mathematician is able to go back and use math to "prove" the equation. I know nothing about math so please excuse any incorect vocabulary. In what I have read, these insights usually come when the scientists are loafing around or resting, or doing something unrelated to their work. A good argument for loafing. i hope I am not posting too much but I am really enjoying these videos and the overall conversation.

  4. Cool. Who could say if you ate posting too much? From my point of view, not at all and I like reading what you have contributed.

    I suspect that Casey might find the video interesting considering the source.