After going through a long destructive cycle in my life, where everything I counted on fell away, I have emerged into a generative period in which life energy has returned, and I am moving toward the world again. This period of disintegration changed everything for me. Keeping my seat as life’s fabric unraveled was hard, to say the least. And that was all I could do—try to keep centered, meditate more, stay present with my experience, and as best as I could be compassionate toward myself and others.
I rode the waves of Lyme disease that became my world. Like water flowing down a mountain stream, I moved away from whatever felt impossible and damaging and toward anything that affirmed and restored life.
Meditation practice is deeply healing, and I was grateful to land in Santa Cruz, where there are treasures in the community: wise teachers; beneficial teachings, and people committed to being of benefit to others.
I have been meditating for a long time. During this last period, meditation permeated my being and became a healing balm. Lyme disease made many things impossible. For a number of months, practicing meditation, sleeping, and walking was all I could do. I was grateful to have strength enough to learn to teach Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). I began a new body-centered meditation practice (32 Parts of the Body Practice), and took an intensive meditation retreat.
Lyme taught me about the changing nature of the sense of self and the impermanence of all things. The body-centered practice lifted away the pain and suffering that my body had gathered and stored throughout my lifetime.
Teaching Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR)
Teaching my first MBSR class brought me fulfillment and joy; experiencing the transformation of the students and sharing practice with them inspired me. The benefits of mindfulness have been researched at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center for decades, and now there are mindfulness centers at universities in many parts of the United States. Neuroscience research is revealing how the brain benefits from a consistent meditation practice.
Many organizations have developed mindfulness education for their employees. Mindfulness helps reduce stress levels and increases leadership capacity. As neuroscience and mindfulness converged, mindfulness became both sought after, and more accessible.
A Process for Exploring Complex Systems: Mindfulness, Systems Dynamics, & Inquiry
The organizational systems work my career has at its core continues to be compelling to me. Over these months of healing and regenerating, a process for collaborative exploration of complex systems has been evolving in my mind. The process integrates three passions of mine: mindfulness, systems dynamics, and inquiry. I call this process Mindful Systems Inquiry. The process is designed to help a group gain clarity, explore a complex system, and inquire into what’s going on and what may evolve in a complex system.
Mindfulness creates the ground. It centers the mind, provides clarity when things get confusing, and awakens collective awareness and insight. Mindfulness clears the mind, deepens concentration, and evokes presence. Presence brings bodies, minds, and hearts into the moment.
Simulating a system brings it to life through a process of Dynamic Dialogue that evolved through the work of Mitch Saunders and Tom Daly. Participants embody and give voice to different parts of the system. As the parts interact, inter-connections and inter-relationships become clear. Different actions and voices ripple and resonate through the system. Systems simulation provides perspective and gives a direct experience of the whole system.
The third part of Mindful Systems Inquiry involves how we talk and learn together. Through language we develop relationships and create our world. By asking questions about a complex system, new understandings and possibilities emerge. Disagreements may arise, and by leaning into conflicting views, rather than creating a polarized dynamic, it is possible to explore different ideas, assumptions, and beliefs. The energy of conflict is released when it is invited and welcomed.
Through inquiry, we attune to one another and begin thinking together. New insights about the system arise and enrich the understanding of the system.
The Whole Process, Step-by-Step
Just to make it real, let’s walk through an example of what an experience of Mindful Systems Inquiry might look like. The process follows a collaborative inquiry model, which is basically: 1) convene and align; 2) converse and decide where to focus energy and attention; 3) explore and work on an issue; 4) go deeper into the exploration; 1a) reflect, and begin again.
1) Convene and align
- An introduction to the exploration followed by a short guided mindfulness meditation helps participants land in the room from wherever they came—coming home to the body, becoming present.
- People in the circle introduce themselves. A check-in brings all voices into the room.
2) Decide where to focus:
- Participants bring ideas for possible systems to explore. It could be a work department, a complex organizational system, like IT or HR, or a larger societal or environmental system, such as the health system, education, or environmental protection. The group converses about what to explore and decides which system to dive into.
3) Explore the issue
- The group simulates the system, and participants give voice and play out different parts of the system.
- The last time I facilitated a systems simulation with the Bay Area Society for Organizational Learning, we explored the education system. Participants embodied different voices in the system: a student, parent, teacher, principal, and state administrator. We brought an educational system to life. We saw where the system was stuck and where there was conflict. We felt the pressure on the teacher, the confusion of the student, and the stress of the administrator. We also explored what could change to improve the system.
4) Go deeper
- After simulating the system, the group steps back from the simulation, the group talks about their experience of the system. The group explores their feelings about the different elements of the system and about the system as a whole.
- The conversation can then deepen and broaden, perhaps solutions and actions emerge, and perhaps personal stories begin to arise. The inquiry can touch and open hearts, creating a deep well of insight that nurtures and refreshes.
- If there is time to experiment with moves that change the system, the system is reenacted; perhaps with different voices and potential actions that could make the system more fluid.
- If action planning is needed, this is the place where we clarify any goals and steps that are needed.
1a) Reflect and begin again
- After reflecting on the system and what arose individually and collectively, we take a meditative pause, taking time to integrate what we discovered and learned.
- If there is time to begin again and explore another system or another aspect of the system we were working, we begin again.
- As time permits, go through steps 1 through 4 again.
Mindful Systems Inquiry closes with a brief meditation followed by a check-out with all voices expressing something they learned or appreciated.
The integration of the three fields I care deeply about: mindfulness, systems dynamics, and inquiry has been emerging and taking form for many months. The opportunity to explore with a group of practitioners through the Bay Area Society for Organizational Learning will take place the end of May, and I hope the collective energies can help to shape and form the process even further.
Everything evolves through relationships, and as Dr. Nancy Southern says, “It is always about relationships.” The relationship I have had with the Bay Area Society for Organizational Learning began in the 1990s. As a dynamic living system, BASOL is a welcoming place to explore and experiment.
My relationship with Saybrook University began during the years Saybrook hosted the BASOL group. We used to gather in the library on Pacific Street in San Francisco. The feeling and ambiance of the space was inviting, I found myself drawn to completing a Ph.D. at Saybrook, studying organizational systems that have always fascinated me.
As this cycle of regeneration begins for me, I feel anticipation about exploring a complex system with a group of bright and curious inquirers and look forward to a rich conversation and many discoveries.