What does Thrivability mean? What are the deeper systemic barriers that may become activated once we start to work with transformational change? What is it that we need to realize, change, and act upon to ensure our collective thrivability, including the future generations? These questions and more are part of of my PhD research project “Into the Heart of Systems Change” in collaboration with Maastricht University, the Netherlands.
Listen here to this inspiring interview with Jean M. Russell where we explore the various dimensions of “Into the Heart of Systems Change”. Jean is a social ecosystem designer, culture hacker, and facilitator. As a founder of the thrivability movement and expert on collective thriving, Jean speaks to and with change agents, innovators, builders, and edge-riders around the world. Her work on thrivability, innovation, philanthropy, and cultural shifts has been highlighted in the Economist, Harvard Business Review, Stanford Social Innovation Review, and Worldchanging.
Anneloes: So if we start with the first question, what does collective thrivability mean to you?
Jean: It’s you know in some ways so hard to answer, because I’ve been struggling to define that since 2007.
Anneloes: Well you are a living example of that. Some say it began with you.
Jean: Pretty close. When I started there were two people that had mentioned that somebody in Australia and the person mentioned it to me and that was all on a Google search that would produce anything.
Anneloes: And I’d like to hear from you as well why you leave out the ‘e’. So maybe that’s another way to come into that.
Jean: I mean I debated at the time and I think I’ve bought both domains for a while, and I just felt like it was more grammatically correct to take out the ‘e’. And it just looked better to me.
Jean: It’s like with the ‘e’, I wanted to put a dash in the middle. Thrive-ability.
Anneloes: Yes it does. It’s more coherent.
Jean: So usually when people ask me what do you mean by collective thrivability I turn it on them, and I say like well what do you think it means? Because it’s not just living in me, like, it’s living in all of us and it’s all of our sensing on what it means. And also I want people to think about it themselves and develop, you know, their own relationship to it. And one of the simplest ways that I’ve come to think about it is generating more than you consume, but it’s generating what? Like generating more of the world that we want, more resources and assets that we are consuming or extracting.
Anneloes: So maybe rather than being focused on the word, you can share about the vision behind that. So what was the vision that was living in you, that gave rise and birth to the word thrivability?
Jean: I had been at that point in 2007 been trained as a life coach, so I was working with people on what is the best way for them, like their high achievers kind of thing to even do better or more. I was also involved in a lot of social entrepreneurship and social change. But I couldn’t find any specific projects that were mine. It was like, human rights matters a lot, animal rights, the environment, all of these things mattered to me. And none of them were mine. And so, when I heard thrivability these two things happened for me. One, I thought this is what coaching the whole world would be. What is the best self for the world, and it strives towards that. Is there something to aim for? And then the other piece was, it’s the umbrella. What happens if we get to the human rights that we want? What happens? What does the world look like if we have the environmental movement and actions that we want? What happens when we’re taking care of the forms of life and the materials of the planet together? Oh…there is no word to really describe that, right. Is it harmony or flourishing, or whatever? And so the ability to thrive, felt like it was this umbrella term under which all of these other activities that I thought were important and interconnected could be held.
Anneloes: That is amazing, look at how many years later now, you know, and what it has come to mean for so many people. That is very interesting because that connects them very deeply with the visions of our own humanity and possibilities of really our true actualizations.
Jean: Yes. Well and in some ways thrivability is never achievable or knowable. How could we ever measure against all time to know if this moment was more thrivable than another. You can’t, because nature often consumes a whole bunch of resources in order to level up to the next stage, so even in the moment if it seems like it’s a downhill slide, you are part of a larger uphill trend. And so you are just trying your best to sense into each moment to go, “does it feel like this is moving towards more thrivability and trusting that collectively enough of us are sensing and moving in that direction”. Clearly if humans die out that might not be the most thrivable thing for humans, but it might be the most thrivable thing for the universe.
Anneloes: Would you say that it is really life-intrinsic then? Life intrinsic and intrinsic to life. Do you feel there is a deeper wisdom or almost an intentionality within life, for it to blossom, flourish, and thrive?
Jean: I’d phrase it as the impulse of the universe. ‘I can-ness’, Like if it can, it will. But if it can’t it will build up resources until it can. Like the water trying to overcome some edge, like just add more water until it overflows that edge. Like the universe just has this impulse towards I can-ness, but it’s not just a life energy movement, like atoms and molecules are also moving in that direction, not just living systems work in that direction. They’re just doing what they can.
Anneloes: Yes so the ‘can-ness’ has a deeper purpose? Is it purposeful for you in any way? Of and in of itself?
Jean: There is a layer at which I’m totally in absurdist about that. The way in which it’s like totally feels like that, right. And then it gives meaning and value to believe that it does.
Anneloes: Interesting. So from that, could you explain or share a little bit how your work supports transformational change? Now I am going to give the direction for our collective thrivability, and you just undefined it. Maybe you get the intention of the question.
Jean: So it is interesting that you are connecting in transformational change, for me, because there is another avenue of my life that pulls in transformational work. And so I worked in the field of philanthropy for five, seven years, something like that, and I worked with a woman named Tracy Gary wrote a book “Inspired Philanthropy” and she has been working since the early 70s to get women involved in philanthropy, bringing women up to believe that they are competent and capable enough to be great philanthropists. And then how do you do that. How do you do that, how do you do your annual giving well, and then how do you move into legacy stuff. And so she was part of the group on transformational philanthropy, and it was a beautiful place to see systems thinking being applied. It was like, where is the best place to put money that has transformational change in the world. It was an interesting experience to be in there not being a philanthropist myself. The reason, like I can throw a few million dollars in that. So getting trained to think that way without having the resources to be that way has been quite interesting for me. I thought a lot about what are the forms of social change that we are engaged in and how do those catalyze transformational change like there is so much you, like you know the metaphor of “the baby in the river”. Everybody is trying to get the babies out of the river then some people are like where are these babies coming from, we got to go upriver to find to where the babies are coming from and in the end you get to this like, what is the culture that allows babies to be thrown into a river. Many of the people that I was in that conversation on transformational philanthropy were at that layer. Like, how do we transform culture so that we are not considering throwing babies in the river, torturing animals, ruining the environment. How do we in fact change at that layer and I was also coming interested in worldview stuff around so much of this transformation seems to do with engaging in people that can believe the world could be good for all of us. Because any people are trapped in ‘it is either me or you’, so I am going to make sure it is me. And then they can’t move into a space of, let’s take care of a different layer in the system. I let you ask your next question.
Anneloes: As you are sharing, I am sensing into that as well. And when I am listening images come to my mind, that is how my being plays with your words. And it is because when you started, it is like an unpeeling to go to the root conditions of first of all what we don’t want to then transform it into what is beneficial and meaningful for all of us, right. So, would you say that in this way of working with your transformational change that it has been healing as well?
Jean: Yes healing is fascinating. So there is a phase that I went through where I very interested in the five stages of grief or whatever stages you want to expand that into, and felt pretty solidly like all of us are in various states of grief. And that personally, socially and collectively, and that transformation really will happen when we start to do some healing to those wounds because people cannot operate at the level I would like them to, to create in the world we want, because then they are resistant or acting out, or whatever.
Anneloes: So in what way does your work support that healing?
Jean: I don’t know that I have produced work that is all that healing. I thought a lot about the grief modules and then like two years later, Nicholas Taleb, no Sheizek comes out spitting out stuff about grief and I say, “yes” that is exactly that and somebody else has taken that stick. So mine tends to be healing more around the vision, around people being, lots of people who are stuck in sustainability going “oh I could yearn for something more. Oh I am so wounded by what has happened that I’ve been only striving for just a little because I’ve lost faith that we could aim even higher than that”. But lots of sustainability people are even resistant to doing that, they are like how dare you believe that the world could be so much better.
Anneloes: They are somewhat stuck in an activism and a negativity, a rejection of society rather than embracing all of it, garbage and all, and repurpose it, upcycle it, you know. And reminding it, of what it can become by bringing consciousness into that.
Jean: I remember mentioning thrivability to somebody who is like a frat boy that went into, you know that was a good Christian business guy. It’s like here is somebody who is kind of at the opposite end of the spectrum from a bunch of the activists I know, and he loved it. He loved the idea of thrivability and it resonated with him at a spiritual level, and I was like that is magical. Because sustainability doesn’t do that, it kind of isolates to a particular social group and then it becomes us damming and naming and blaming. But thrivability I found to be somewhat uniting across different political and social divides, and that is more powerful.
Anneloes: It has a very different image in people’s mind when you use the words. Often you find if you use sustainability people imagine a flat line, and you are going to sustain that. And when you work with thrivability there is blossoming, it is opening up, it is unfolding, it is emergence, and there is growth possible for us. Whereas in a lot of the sustainability [movement] there is this anti-growth [dynamic].
Jean: Well at least in the U.S. I can’t speak globally but at least in the U.S. there’s a little bit of “you’ve been naughty”. We have been naughty and now we must take our lashings, make our sacrifice. And it’s like there’s a whole bunch of people to which that doesn’t engage at all.
Anneloes: That brings me to the next question. What systemic barriers did you encounter in this work on the personal, organizational, and collective levels?
Jean: It’s such a rich question. Can I hold all the thoughts at once. Personally, I mean aren’t we most attached to the thing that’s our hardest challenge? My own thrivability has been hard. I have stuff that I need to heal from. I have darkness. I said I’ve had real trauma and I have been diagnosed with PTSD. Like, there is there is dark stuff there to overcome, although I often find the darker it is the easier it is to strive for thrivability. Like I kind of want to skip the middle, like why do mediocre. If I want to get out of the darkness, why not go for something really worthwhile. So that’s a piece of it, and then having worked some in philanthropy I did not want to play games around chasing after funding and spending 50 percent of my time doing applications to grants and then justifying each project. And so what I chose to do was, and then I also didn’t want to sell out and have it be completely commercialized, and trademarked and now nobody can use it without me and here’s my little program, like I didn’t want to do that to it because it meant something in the world. And so what I had to do was, I will earn money over here doing this stuff and I self-fund my own work over here doing this stuff, and occasionally do a little round of crowdfunding for people who just believe in me and will pitch in some funds. And so, a piece of my personal thrivability is like trying to manage this dance of honoring the thing for what it is, not wasting my time chasing the wrong funding streams and then also doing well enough in myself to be an embodiment of the thing, and trying to keep circling on what is the right balance of those. And also try to grow it to other people and not own it in myself. It is so great that there is a network of people who are now involved in this and so trying to think through building a movement that would transcend me, and when there is this moment that I need to step back or out so that more of it can pop up and grow. And so I feel like I’m in that phase now, where I’m trying not to be too visible so that all of the other people who have come in can kind of lift. So that is at the personal layer. I mean we could go down lots of details on a personal level but we can stop for now. What was the next layer that you wanted me to address?
Anneloes: When people are given the opportunity or reminded that they can thrive. Sometimes people instead of embracing that, they get scared of it. There can be a barrier there as well. It is almost like sometimes when people are given the option of, so what if you could be truly happy, would you do that now? Or, what if your problem could actually be resolved?
Jean: Don’t give me happiness, I am not a fan of happiness.
Anneloes: Ok, so maybe go there.
Jean: You want me to go there, what is the problem with happiness?
Anneloes: Sure let’s see what comes up.
Jean: There is a blog post that I did that says, if you want to be happy come give me a bunch of your belongings. I will beat you for three days. Then I give you a few of your things back and I’ll stop beating you. You’ll be very happy. Happiness is an utterly relative experience. It is relative to what you had, and it’s fleeting. Two days later you have now habituated to the new state, and so I don’t understand the striving for happiness.
Anneloes: That is also, I think, what a lot of why people striving for pleasure, and if they think happiness is pleasure then we are in trouble.
Jean: I wish that the guy that did all the positive psychology stuff, he has a TED talk and he goes through different layers and happiness stuff. There is the pure pleasure, the hedonic pleasure and that stuff you habituate to very quickly. And then the second one I think, he talks about these flow states…The trick with that stuff is that you are happy and you don’t know it. When you are in a real state of flow you have no self awareness, and therefore you are not conscious that you are happy. And then the third one he talks about is being on purpose, but this weird thing is you can be on purpose and kind of miserable, but you are happy that you are on purpose. Like you are exercising and you are experiencing lots of pain in your muscles but you are happy that you are growing your body and making your body healthier, and so that one has a weird double edge to it , there might be in discomfort in some way but there’s a joy of being on purpose. So I am more interested in that.
Anneloes: Well that touches on thrivability too, sometimes people are thriving and they don’t know it. So, they are in the process, but they don’t see it at all. Other people may realize that you are really growing, and they just go “don’t tell me that”.
Jean: Yes, like “if this is growth, I don’t like it.”
Anneloes: Exactly, and then so there are ways in which that touches on thrivability I think as well.
Jean: Well and the other thing is the striving for as if it’s like some, again, a flat line. Like I want to get to that plateau, and then I want to stay there in this state. Looks like this is about the movement between these things, and finding the place in which you thrive, is in motion.
Anneloes: We are so conditioned to grasp experiences. So we think that life is about experiences. If you think that then you always want to accept the ones you like, and you reject the ones that you don’t like. So you are constantly stuck. There is a whole lot more behind, that is way beyond experience.
Jean: There is also some interesting research on the experience of pain and they did the study on when you get a colonoscopy. They were measuring the pain of the experience and they discovered that you might have a lot more pain in the overall experience, but it’s the last experience that you have if it was of very little pain that is what you remember as it wasn’t that bad. But if you try to keep it at a kind of steady degree of pain and it ended at that kind of steady degree that was worse, because what they remembered was it was painful. You know it’s not the overall flow of the experience, it’s like what is the memory that gets captured in the final experience of it that seems to have mattered.
Anneloes: So as we are exploring then these barriers, are some of these barriers then also essential in how we hold it?
Jean: Very much so.
Anneloes: Does naming that help in any way? Getting conscious of that help in any way?
Jean: It does for me and seems somewhat intuitive for people that I’ve worked with, on it, but I don’t have any data. I haven’t done a ton of experiments myself that would produce some clear data stream about how successful that is. I am more sensing and testing and that we reflect on whether that works.
Anneloes: And for people who are open to their thrivability but they are working in organizations that are just designed completely the opposite; counterintuitive and not human. I have trained in a few of those. And there I have noticed that people become more aware of their potential for thrivability, they become more miserable at the same time for the lack of the opportunity to live who they are.
Jean: So the constraint is the environment.
Anneloes: They feel really constrained and now they become conscious that they are constrained and become conscious of the entrapments. So in some ways they feel even more frustrated and angry. And it is a very challenging moment because some of them almost wish that we were ignorant of it. Because now it is painful to see it so clearly if you don’t know how to get out of it.
Jean: I have had that moment.
Anneloes: So, what would you say to them?
Jean: There is a story by Voltaire, I think, about who is better off the wise man or the fool. I understand. This is a genuine question. The fool can be blissfully unaware. Therefore more easily content. But your question was, what would I say to them?
Anneloes: Yes, they are experiencing that barrier, in the sense that they come to a point as if, if they grow any further they cannot fit into that system anymore. That in some ways they now consciously hold back on their own potential to thrive.
Jean: Right. Two things come up for me. One is the man who survived the Holocaust and wrote about how between stimulus and response there is like a window for your inner self to make a choice about how you’re going to respond. You know what I am talking about?
Anneloes: Share a little bit more about that, if you can.
Jean: Whatever the world is giving you, you are getting stimulated by that thing, if you’re conscious then there’s a moment between that stimulus and when you respond in which you get to choose how you respond, how do you take that in, what story do you tell yourself about it. And so in that moment there is choice, Even if you are living through a holocaust situation, in that moment there is choice. And if he can make that choice in that moment, whatever you’re going through you can make a choice at that moment. So that is a piece of it to me as you have that moment of choice; how am I going to choose to interpret this, what story am I going to tell myself and what can I do. And then the other piece that comes up for me is trickster, like if you hold it heavily then it is hard to respond because you can’t tolerate the conditions. But if you hold it as trickster, it’s like where is there room to play. So if I’m talking to my child about how “oh I don’t like this teacher and school and it is hard”, what can you do to play with that? This is your situation that you get to make up. How are you going to make that fun or interesting for yourself? We as adults need to remember to do that too. OK, so these are the barriers. How am I going to work with it? How am I going to amuse myself, how am I going to amuse other people? What little things can I play with in order to do something that at least I’m amused.
Anneloes: Yes. So that means that you have the capacity to somehow continue to express your inner system and not let the outer system impact on those choice points.
Jean: Yes, so it’s like the person is driving you nuts, draw a mustache on their face. I mean you are still talking to them, like you’re drawing.
Anneloes: Yes I sometimes say if you see a very angry person, maybe visualize them as a little baby you. Just change the imagery.
Jean: Yes have fun with it. It’s the holding it heavy that breaks us.
Anneloes: Yes it does. Yes, that is interesting. And then, so that is nice because. we just went into the next question. How are you able to transform or transcend these barriers? You just touched on two; the way you hold it, and those choice moments.
Jean: Playfulness, playfulness, playfulness. Playfulness is where creativity is generated, playfulness is one of the ways to get past barriers between us, like worldviews barriers. It lightens up the space and enables us to find new options.
Anneloes: In the two case studies where I trained in schools and in a bank. This is what they found was most missing, the participants. The students were saying, well playfulness is nice, but I just have to sit for these exams and I just have to replicate only for the exams. And there are no questions I can ask. There is no experiential learning. It’s not fun and it is not playful, and it is not meaningful. With the people working for the bank they just felt they had to execute tasks that were given to them, they could not think outside the box, it was just from ‘a to b’ and follow the procedure as if you are a machine. And both of them relate to sort of the sense that the purpose of the system was to become profitable and economized.
Jean: Yes, which is not very humane.
Anneloes: It’s not at all. So when we are working with those kinds of barriers, is there any additional advice you have for that? When the activities that people have been given to carry out, be that at school, be at work, these are contrary to everything that makes us flourish as humans and thrive.
Jean: Well in a large part it depends on the person. So somebody is a visual learner and they’re artistic then the drawing on faces is going to be fun and at least distract them. Somebody else might be like, well I wonder how I can make even more efficient. Like okay if you’re going to be the system designer here how would you and how could you make that even more so. Like take it to its logical conclusion, or whatever. If you’re a physical person like maybe it’s about dancing in the space, or imagining a hopscotch board on the way from one point to another. You have to sense into what is your way of being and learning in the world, and so you have to kind of match for your sensing which is the best strategy for you. So it might be, oh we have to get it all done and we have to move the stuff on a line so why don’t we get some music out and dance to a rap song because we’ll get it done even faster. That’s the kind of like transformational work that can happen. I would really be actually interested in doing work on sound and how sound can help a group be more coherent and efficient together because they get in sync by the beat to their heart, and so everybody gets into that same [rhythm].
Anneloes: Yes and in both places there is no openness to introduce that vibe.
Jean: But you if you can’t give it to people so they can, you know I know lots of songs by heart I can be singing the song inside my head. I don’t need to have it playing out loud.
Anneloes: So I’ve seen this in your strategy you always keep a freedom inside that no matter what the constraints are out there is a place there where they can’t touch, where they can’t impose. So you can create that from within. The more they try to get in there, the more creative you get.
Jean: That is right. That is your opportunity to be more creative.
Anneloes: Yes. Very good. For people to find that within them, that they can really play.
Jean: Right, and if the only result from that is that it’s not as heavy on you to experience, it’s a win. Like it might not have actually changed the thing out there, but it changed your experience of it and stopped draining your energy. And you found a way to fill your energy so that when you left that situation and went home you weren’t frustrated with your partner, you weren’t frustrated with your kids. Change your energy, matters a lot.
Anneloes: Yes and that is good, that touches also on the next question what would you say are the most important factors and conditions that need to be present for humanity to avoid irreversible collapse of our life support systems, and also the breakdown of these social-cultural and ecological fabrics?
Jean: I feel like I have multiple answers to this. There is a set of people to who I feel like the response needs to be, so what? So what if humanity collapses? So what if there is some giant environmental collapse? Okay like the planet Earth is most likely to continue. The universe is going to continue, like if you believe in God, God is going to keep experimenting and playing around. So why are you holding it so heavy that you have to be harsh with other people, or in friction instead of in creative mode. And so if you let go of the pressure then you can be like, okay so I have given this window I want to make some effort. Right. I feel in my heart called to make an effort. So, how can I play in that to change the outcome? Instead of, “it’s all coming to an end, if I don’t do something the entire world is going to explode”.
Anneloes: In the bigger cosmic scheme of things this planet will come to an end, anyway.
Jean: Yeah, one of my phrases is seven supernovas to seven supernovas. It took seven supernovas to make the elements that are in your body, and some day I hope all the elements in my body go through some stuff and more. We are working on a very human timescale and we are attached on that timescale, but the universe is still in motion doing what the universe does. And so there is a lightness to that. There’s something from Buddha that talks about, act as if what you do matters and laugh at yourself for thinking that it does. There is so much wisdom in, like holding it as if it does matter. Like maybe there is something there, but it’s also silly to think that you could ever know enough to know that it is. So for some people that’s the thing, for others it’s other worldly problems. It’s, is it really you against me? That might be true of this apple that is sitting in the space between us. Either you’re going to get, it or I’m going to get it. Or we’re going to split it in half, or we’re going to decide to make a tree, and grow more apples together. Like, what other options are there? Does it have to be that way? Sure I would love to do more to tease out the us-damning that happens. It just doesn’t in most cases feel useful to do us-damning. Most of the time there’s some third way that can be found that’s transformational for everybody, and can be a win-win for everybody. So let’s look for those instead.
Anneloes: So in the third way you take them out of the polarity.
Jean: Yes. So I met this woman Tree Bressen in Oregon and she does intentional community work and so she facilitates and mediates for intentional communities. On her refrigerator was this, we all could make it spin and it had different pieces on there like the president, the dog, the weather, you know, and then all the roommates. So if you were mad that the dishes weren’t done you could just spin the wheel and be like, it’s the weather’s fault. I just loved that and so like a year or so ago I was talking to my friend Melissa, and she’s a bit of a tinkerer and saying oh you know sometimes people think it’s like the food that they have eaten or the stars weren’t aligned. Or it’s social dynamics or whatever, and so we started making up this wheel of blame that was all the different things, all the different ontologies that we have about how the world works that explain why things go wrong. And you just spin it and go, it is group dynamics.
Anneloes: Yes and then you can spin it so hard, that you go.. oh it spins out of control. Look at this, it is all of these things.
Jean: Yes all of these things simultaneously. Family is not simple, stop trying to make it really simple. That feels like what’s happening in the us-theming. Oh, I have oversimplified the other person, or it’s their fault, or they’re going to take it from me. It’s not that simple.
Anneloes: So if you were to look at the conditions for thrivability that are really essential?
Jean: Laughter. Living in paradox like getting people more comfortable with being in paradox. It’s not this, it’s not that, in some cases both. And looking for that third way. There is a piece that I’ve been working on, that was started by looking at holocracy around everybody in the organization as a sense organ. I’m a taste bud, you’re a fingertip, you are the toes, and you’re the eardrum. Like we’re all sensing and when we hold it that way like everybody in the organization or everybody in society is a sense organ, then we can start to leverage that. OK. So what are you sensing? And what do we want to do with that sensing together? And so instead of being against somebody else because they’re sensing something different than you, what is it to come to the table and go, well let’s just sense together. The eardrum is might be sensing something different, but that doesn’t make the taste bud wrong.
Anneloes: And then there is also the understanding that it enriches these different capacities to sense in different ways. So when you were touching on the paradox, if you go a little bit deeper into that. Are there conditions for thrivability that are the same conditions as for our collapse? That one is the backside of the other?
Jean: Theoretically, I’m going, absolutely. As I said earlier, you can’t know in any moment whether something is really thrivable because you don’t have all time and all space to measure all the different factors that go into thriving. So there is a way in which you couldn’t know. Our collapse could be the most thrivable thing. I do have a lived sense of only in the space of the threat of collapse, will we do the things necessary. Are we constrained enough that we will take the steps that we need to take.
Anneloes: Yes and holding it that way, would you say that this shifts a huge barrier? A conceptual barrier?
Jean: Holding it or not holding it that way?
Anneloes: Holding it from that perspective, that understanding. So that means embracing the paradox in what you just said. And that by only accepting also that we are at that point of collapse?
Jean: In order to do this around Trump in the U.S, adding Trump here it’s like we have a whole bunch of brittle systems in place. The EPA has a brittle system in place and it really needed to be broken in order to be created in a more organic and effective fashion. And only in a world of Trump are we capable of breaking systems that we need to break, in order to build up ones that are better for us.
Anneloes: He is really a Trump-card.
Jean: Yes. My heart still breaks over the amount of suffering that will happen. And I just have to hold in mind that the suffering in the long term is less than the suffering in the short term to get to that level of transformation.
Anneloes: Yes. And I’m sensing what you’re saying, and you are embracing the paradox, because you’re holding it still from the potentials of what can become even though we don’t know yet. If people don’t hold that, we can also be getting accustomed to difficulties as pain and suffering as a way to justify it. So then you are not working with it, you’re giving it a place rather than working with it to wake you up. How can people feel that fine balance?
Jean: I come at that question from a completely bizarre angle which has to do with the dance between coaching and Buddhism. And so Buddhism just feels like this ‘accept what is, be in the present, it is what it is’. Like, just deeply embrace that there’s no need for any action. Right. There is just like ‘really be’. And then coaching is this always striving, ‘what could be better, how can we improve’. And to do both of those simultaneously, to be utterly present with ‘what is’ while also ‘what can I do’. But it’s coming at that from a playful angle, of like, because I can, because it’s fun, why not? Instead of, ‘I need to, I’m not enough. That is just what came to me in answer to your question.
Anneloes: Yes, because what you just explained, or even the energy with which you expressed that ‘because I can’, that comes from a healthy sense of self. It is a healthy self, it’s not a needy self, whereas the other one there is a lot of need that drives that then. Okay. Interesting. Nice. So for the next question then what does going ‘into the heart of systems change’ mean to you?
Jean: There is not a preexisting meaning for me, like it’s not a phrase that I already have some attachment to or some quick answer for. And so I’m checking through a whole bunch of things. Like, I think about the heart as the center. And I think hmm it doesn’t work in systems, some clear center. And then I’m going to heart as a physical organ, what is the pumping mechanism in the system. I’m not sure that that provokes anything useful for me. And then I go into the feeling, okay we mean heart as feeling place. There are a couple things that come up for me then. One is, in the organization that I’m in right now we use living systems on what as a metaphor for how to think about what to do with the organization. And one of the guys that holds for that, he’s a little curmudgeonly but really brilliant and he keeps holding for the living systems thing, and then he’ll ask something like, “you’re modeling this off nature but nature can actually be quite cruel. Do we want to be cruel?” If you’re looking at like predatory chains, if you are going to model off nature, you could be the predator. And you would say, “hmm it is what nature does”. Do we want to be doing that? And he keeps asking that kind of question. It’s like, modeling off of nature is not enough. We have this capacity to feel and how are we being in honor of that. So I think of that, and then I think of Genpo Roshi’s work on “big mind” http://bigmind.org/genpo-roshi. And I love voice dialogue work. I think voice dialogue work is some of the best tools out there. It’s just so helpful to get people to parse out, or groups to parse out, the different voices that are happening and be able to then mediate between those voices. But he goes from Big Mind to Big Heart and to hold and to feel. But from that spiritual layer, not from my own individual projections that I might put into my heart. But in the, like Big Heart comes after Big Mind. It is a feeling of the universe or on behalf of the universe. And so that’s the other place I go when you say the heart of social change, but I guess my answer is to move beyond just living systems into heart-based systems. What does that even mean? And I’m waiting for the day that thrivability has transcended itself. And that could be something that goes beyond thrivability for me. Feeling together.
Anneloes: So the last question I’ll play with you is your message to humanity now and the future generations as well, the ones that have not been born yet.
Jean: Well what I wrote as my notes for you was, playfully strive towards what we want instead of resisting what we don’t. Like even that feels like a resistance to the snake biting its tail. And maybe this has not been present in my work all along but is becoming very present in my work now. Is how important that playfulness and laughter is, for the healing and for the connection to the creativity. Because, if we actually hold the traumas that humanity has gone through for the last 10000 years, and we try to honor or recover from that straight up, it’s immense. And everybody is carrying a piece of it, like, it is utterly overwhelming. And it feels like the only way to transcend that is to bring some lightness, and love and playfulness to our connection. And I don’t know what that is. And then the other thing that comes up for me, is we haven’t talked about awe and wonder. So I’m in a playful mood today, but the other things that I often talk about around thrivability is awe and wonder. And the magical thing about awe is how it places us in the universe as a small piece of something larger, but still a small piece. Like it doesn’t disappear the person. But it makes you a small piece of something larger and we’re just wired for that sense of belonging and connection that awe gives us. You’re staring up at the Milky Way and it’s a clear night and those stars are just overwhelming in how beautiful they are. And that relationship that feel, like, me and all those stars. It’s just so exquisite. And there’s a gift in there in how to be in the world. To dance in that space of awe and wonder and play. So that’s my invitation.
Anneloes: From that place of awe and wonder, if you were to sense into these beautiful souls that are not here yet. The future generations that are not yet born, they are already in the fields somehow. They just haven’t become these beings yet. What do you feel wake, or in what way can we best support their experience? In what way can we best support that experience into their becoming? You are their ancestor, and in some way they are your future….
Jean: So the thing that comes up for me is this. I can’t know. Like, I’m doing the best that I can given my stuff, to support what that is. But what they actually need, I don’t know. And I want to go into a little bit of how I relate to my children. I have two kids, one is 15 and one is 17. And I’ll do something with them, and bring them breakfast in bed, and they’ll be like “wow mom you are really enabling me”, and I’m like “I know, but my father came in and said “get up half a day is wasted” and I hated that experience. And I want you to know that I love you no matter what. And once you have a different experience. So you might decide that enabling was not a good experience for you, and that you will ask your child to be up at eight o’clock at the morning, that’s your choice. But my choice was to bring you breakfast in bed, cause for God’s sakes you should have some kindness when you can. So that’s what matters to me. So I know that I’m operating from the conditions in which I arose. You can only imagine supporting to the degree that I know what I would have needed or wanted. And so I can sort of imagine that for my kids, but they’re already laughing at me, because they don’t know what it’s like not to feel loved. Like, I didn’t feel loved. I felt like no matter what I did I would not get that kind of thing. And so that was important to me to give them, no matter what, they are loved as they are today. Not some future potential self, but today’s version of themselves. They know that. And so they’re like, “I don’t understand why that would even be important”.
Anneloes: And knowing what it is to be without that.
Jean: Exactly. And so when you are like, what would they need for the conditions to support their thing. I’m like, I have no idea. And I hope I hope they don’t need what I needed. You can’t know the right direction. If I can just healing the things that I have, and be a locus of transformation of the wounds that I carry, and I keep striving for awe and wonder, then the next generation will be slightly better I hope. And they too will say “the buck stops here with that trauma, healing begins here.” And so for the future generations, that’s the closest I can get to what I can do to support. Because I have no idea where they’re going to be. And I hope to God it’s further along down the evolutionary chain of healing that is needed. Right.Written by Anneloes Smitsman, published 2 August 2018.