Saturday, January 28, 2012

Quaker Epistemology: A partial solution for complexity?

The day of the Meeting dawned bright and blue, the sun stretching herself across my bedroom window and inviting me to play. In the morning stillness, I could feel the attention of those who were going to be gathering together. And there are precious things more important than attention.

I had called upon some of the best individuals that I know. The founder of a major consulting company using complexity theory, the head of an academic department that worked with complexity and transformational learning, a close friend of some of the founders of complexity and himself a globe-trotting governance consultant, and an up-and-coming academic with a passion for the complex.

This rather extra-ordinary group of people had negotiated meetings, emergencies and various time zone challenges to be on a Skype call with me to hold my recent paper on Developing frameworks for Complexity up to the light, to see where the Light was shining through on it. In this, we were experimenting with 'Quaker Epistemology' developed at QIF.

The Quaker Institute for the Future (QIF) sponsors a summer research seminar which employs what we call “Meeting for Worship on the Conduct of Research.” We have developed a format where we listen to a presentation of someone’s current work, have a standard question and answer period and then center into a time of reflection, allowing comments to surface from the silence. In the process, powerful insights emerge from the participants and the presenter is ready to hear them.

My research into complexity sciences highlighted that in complex systems, different epistemologies are needed to deal with complex issues that go beyond pure intellectual thought. This includes bringing in our practical and experiential knowledge systems. I believe that part of the challenge with complex problems is that we can not - inherently - ever have complete knowledge. It is inherently difficult to spot the patterns of a system we are a part of. Our rational minds inherently get in the way. But so can our practical and experiential knowledge. So too can our emotional intelligence.

To solve the most pressing complex issues, we need to tap into our collective intelligence.

One flavour of collective intelligence is the spiritual intelligence that Quakers have come focus on and hone over the years. We at QIF are breaking ground in experimenting with integrating Quaker Process with substantial intellectual challenges. As a part of this community, I have heard research that ranges from bio-technology to film studies in Africa and China work with this particular process. Every time, something new is revealed, something that was not been seen before.

This was the first time it was tried online. If we are to be successful with this process, we need to be able to approach complex challenges across space and time. But since so much of Meeting for Worship for research is a physical experience, where the small motions of our neighbours make a substantial difference, I was unsure about what would occur online. We know when to speak and when to hold the silence in part through non-verbal cues that are difficult to pick up in an online space.

HoweverI have had profound online-collective conversations in the past. It requires a high level of imaginal skills and real focus. We have to enter into an imaginal, virtual space with people who may not know us particularly well. As inherently physical beings - and in my reading of it, Quakerism is a primarily physically- and action-orientated faith - the stillness that lies at the heart of our action is found in the stillness of our bodies and enhanced through other bodies. And yet it has been possible to bring that physicality into our online experiences. It just requires an extra - something.

In a situation where the participants did not know each-other - only I knew everyone else - was it possible to reach an intellectually and spiritually revealing space?

The conversation started with the technological difficulties that Skype is known for. One person was quite late to the conversation due, in part, to technical challenges. I shared who everyone was to me. We had some silence. I 'presented' what I felt was the main themes of the paper (they had all actually read it, I'm pleased to say).

And then some silence, and then questions, and then more silence, and then responses and questions and discussions, and hopefully we were all listening to some

How was it?

Somewhere between amazing and challenging. I discovered I was answering a question I didn't know I was asking - how is that that people who are engaging in what I call 'systemic self reflection' are actually engaging in that practice in a way that bridges scale and crosses systems. I had one of those moments when I understood the connection between who I am and why I do what I do, one of those moments when various pieces of my life journey suddenly overlapped with the various pieces of my intellectual arguments in such a way that not only was my perspective valuable but value created my perspective.


And yet we needed more silence, more light-holding, and more time. 60 minutes was not enough. We needed more clarity about how to hold up 'research' to the "Light" (that nebulous metaphor) that those steeped in Quaker practice were familiar with and those who were not struggled with. It was easy to loose the sense of space between speakers. Silence on Skype is hard.

And I'm at the point where I am ready to let go of Skype for these kinds of calls and instead to pay for a technological solution that is reliable and doesn't have annoying noises in it.

Nevertheless, perhaps the most profound part was recognising that a) the value and the challenge of the work that I am doing and b) that approaching this intellectual topic with an attitude of honour and gratitude opened the door for everyone to engage in it in a way they had not done so before. Every participant got something out of the process. One said to me that she felt the conversation ignited a rich collection of sparks that kept firing for the next few days and resonated in her own (somewhat related) work.

Online spaces require different protocols, rules of engagement and patterns of interaction to make them successful across time and space.

And that introductory presentation is particularly important. It is important to do as much work for it as possible - to get to the heart of what is it that we are struggling with, really? The pre-work I did was immensely helpful. Knowing it would be held to the Light, and not just to intellectual thinking, enabled me to stretch my imagination: what was really going on here? And so I ended up saying things I had not heard myself say in more 'traditional' 'intellectual' spaces, even those with a strong appreciation of emotional intelligence and experiential knowledge. Appealing to a different goal - setting my sights 'in' and 'out' at the same time - re-focused my intellectual energy on the 'flow' between the parts. Which is one of the main contributions of a holistic appreciation of complexity sciences.

A success? Yes, if we can learn from it and build from it - and if others can take experiment with it. Experiments with Light .... taken to a whole new level. The level of the meatiest, most challenging public policy and economic planning of our era: that of shifting socio-technical-economic systems to enable sustainability.

I'm not suggesting every policy needs Quaker epistemology. Variations of deliberation are insufficient to achieve the sustainability that is needed. Overarching power structures and institutional changes will impact the 'fitness landscape' as much as a thousand narratives. But there is nonetheless something invaluable in our process that can help us know what to pay attention to.

In a world with increased information, demands for attention and general anxiety, clarity about what to pay attention to is one of the primary challenges. Navigating multiple narratives with grace requires a reliance upon a practice that can bring us closer to something that resembles active wisdom.

Meanwhile, the non-Quakers where working to take the 'religious' language out of this process to make it 'secular'. I've mixed feelings about this. On the one hand: please, help me make this something that we can translate, because the problems I want to tackle are in spaces who fear the 'god language'. On the other: sigh. Somewhere inside of me remains a touch of a purist who isn't sure at what point we slide away from the essence of the thing that we are working with and embark onto just another collection of people sharing different perspectives without that hunger for more-than-ourselves that lies at the heart of our personal and societal lurching, hovering and occasionally developmental quests.

Regardless of the language, and despite the need for tweaks, I believe there is something in this process that might be scale free, and enable us to bring that beloved community of sustainability a bit closer to actualisation.

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