Into the flow of an educational enterprise

“Life having been, as it were, installed inside things, I want to restore these things to life by returning to the currents of their formation.” Tim Ingold

“All is in flux. Perhaps this is the place at which to start” Ludwig Wittgenstein

“Practitioners, I contend, are wanderers, wayfarers, whose skill lies in their ability to find the grain of the world’s becoming and to follow its course while bending it to their evolving purpose.” Tim Ingold

Offering an account — moving, speaking, thinking differently

A few months ago, someone close to our activities at Escola Schumacher Brasil asked a colleague and I this question: Are you happy with Escola Schumacher Brasil’s activities? Is what you wanted actually happening?’ This is such a common and obvious question, yet it was a question we couldn’t answer because it was posed in a way that made no sense to us. Reflecting on this scene now, I believe it reveals a tendency to articulate experience as if it happened in a certain order: first the things we want to see happening exist in our minds as desired goals and then we enact them in experience — the field in which ideas are supposed to be brought into reality. But what if this isn’t the way things happen at all? What if there is a different order less to do with having our enterprises as ‘things’ in plain view and more to do with the unfolding ‘current of their formation’?

I have been trying to live into this question since studying the MSc in Holistic Science at Schumacher College during 2011/12; I have been immensely helped by being in conversation with many writers and practitioners (whether personally or through their books) such as Patricia Shaw, John Shotter, Shantena Sabbadini, Tim Ingold, Iain McGilchrist and Henri Bortoft. Here I want to explore some of their ideas in relation to my practical involvement in enabling ‘something like’ a Schumacher education to blossom in Brazil. More than 100 students have joined courses and programmes throughout 2015 under the name of Escola Schumacher Brasil, organised by alumni who have grown into our own Brazilian faculty and staff. This has happened from within the moving relationships and not by a design or the application of a plan. Being involved in this enterprise has deepened my interest in the potential of movement as the iterative conversational activity between people and place from which forms of enterprise emerge. I want to explore here this phenomenological approach to initiating and sustaining a small educational enterprise. I am using Ingold’s phrase quoted above to ask what does it mean to ‘return to the currents of the formation of things’?

Another question I am asked a lot is ‘was it your idea to bring Schumacher to Brazil?’ and again this language feels very unfitting. In setting up Escola Schumacher Brasil I have found that the language available to account for the happening of an enterprise is not appropriate if one is to do justice to how this really happens. Bortoft’s writing, along with the others I’ve mentioned, have been for me a valuable example for a way of speaking that tries to articulate more closely the wholeness that is intrinsic to experience. I feel I am becoming more attentive to ways of giving voice to the non-linear patterns in which events take shape, a process as clumsy for me as learning a first language. For example, even saying “in setting up Escola Schumacher Brasil” I am already falsifying the movement by implying I have gone out to set something up as if there was such thing as ‘something’ prior, or even separate, to the action; and as if action was a projection of a-ready-made thought, existing inside the mind, into reality. John Shotter says that this assumes that our world consists of “a realm of separate, already existing, countable things related to each other” and hence that reality happens in the mind and is then applied to the world of matter. For example, having now a certain set of activities recognised by the name Escola Schumacher Brasil (a name which did not exist until a year ago) misleads us into talking of a form as if it was available as a form to begin with. So then we ask such things as ‘was it your idea to set up Escola Schumacher Brasil?’ ignoring what Ingold calls the ‘relational constitution of being’ by which subject and object, self and world, co-arise in living experience — a process which Henri Bortoft (2010) calls ‘the appearing of what appears’.

“All is in flux” says Wittgenstein. But, we ask, where to start then? “Perhaps this is the very place”, he says. To recount the coming into being of something rather than what has come to be entails something like the description of bodies as they move in space through time. The difficulty is that, as Shotter (2008) reminds us, ‘the retrospective stories we tell each other about our actions inevitably miss out reasons for why we nearly did something else at each step in the process’ and thus gives a much more singular, one-sided notion of how something happened in contrast to what it felt like to move with it. The phrase ‘taking Schumacher to Brazil’ had existed in the conversations of many Brazilians (including myself) who had been at Schumacher over the years — Brazilians being the first nationality with more Schumacher alumni other than the British. But the strange notion of ‘taking Schumacher to Brazil’ perhaps was what had kept it only as a wish until then.

The coming into being of Escola Schumacher Brasil

In 2013 people at the college began talking about ‘Schumacher Worldwide’ in an opening up to other potential forms of Schumacher elsewhere in the world. I was the postgraduate volunteer coordinator at the time, coming to the end of my

second year living at the College, and I found myself together with Mari Turato who was studying for her MA in Economics for Transition, often in the midst of conversations with others where the question of something ‘Schumacher-like’ in Brazil was very alive. These conversations created a lot of enthusiasm and at the same time a vague anxiety generated by attempts to direct what was beginning to happen– ‘where are we going with this? What do we want to achieve? If we do this in Brazil then does this create a path that we can take elsewhere?’ Many ‘what if?’ questions began to be asked and suddenly reality became hypothetical — happening in our minds before it actually unfolded in experience. This way of going about human initiatives means that the response to the spontaneous calls of the surroundings (in our case many Brazilians over the years getting in touch to express their interest in Schumacher) is overridden by the ‘Cartesian anxiety’ (Shotter, 2012, p.05): “an inability to think partially while still in the midst of uncertainty”. Then action becomes a means to deliver pre-agreed products, and by detaching action from the risk that is immanent to it as we try to anticipate developments, potential is lost.

One afternoon Mari and I gathered with a few other Brazilians who happened to be at the College for a short course. One of them raised the need to decide whether we should translate material to Portuguese or would we have sessions in English; Very quickly an education centre like Schumacher was being envisaged and questions raised about how it would run. Another alumnus asked us if he could contribute by doing market research for us in Brazil which would guide us to what courses should be offered, what length, what themes etc. This way of thinking about institutional activities very quickly showed itself exhausting and draining of the liveliness we had all felt to begin with — we had lost touch with our living reality and were fantasising about making things happen. Thinking about that scene now, this was a key moment for both Mari and I as we realized there was something not quite right in how we were approaching this move. Becoming more aware of and acknowledging this brought an immense sense of relief to the endeavour and yet, the question of how to go forward remained unanswered. But this, I want to emphasise, is the very point — such a question cannot be answered in the abstract but only in the movement itself.

“Knowledge is not created through an encounter between minds already furnished with concepts and a material world already populated with objects, but rather knowledge grows in the crucible of our own practical observational engagements with the materials, beings and things all around us in the very processes of thought”. (Ingold, 2013).

Such a natural thing as our own practical observational engagements with the world feels the hardest experience to notice, once we have, culturally, come to think in terms of outcomes and guarantees — in terms of knowing the form in advance of the very movement where the potential forming resides. To stay with the uncertainty of that movement requires a different orientation, what Keats (1817) called’ ‘negative capability’. This is not a mental process but is more like developing organs of perception as Goethe suggested happens when we thoroughly observe a growing plant. From this perspective, uncertainty is not ‘not knowing’ but knowing of a different kind, rooted in the ground of our lived experience and our ability to respond to its texture. It has much more to do with the immediacy of our sensory engagement with our every day lives and the attention we pay to what is going on around us.

To simply move closer to what we felt was already happening meant at the time that Mari and I wrote to alumni in Brazil with a tentative invitation: would they join us for a weekend gathering or for a dinner in Sao Paulo? Would they be interested to simply come together with other alumni and people from Schumacher? Many of them responded with willingness to do so and Mari and I worked on a budget with estimates for what it would cost to have Jon Rae, Head of College, and Patricia Shaw, Fellow of Schumacher, for 10 days in Sao Paolo. Rather than jumping ahead we were now ‘inviting small possible steps by paying attention to our own sense of nextness’ (Shaw, in conversation).

Having estimated the costs for these 10 days, it seemed that the only way this could be viable would be to present a project to potential funders in Brazil. But, of course a project usually sets out clear goals, expected outcomes and deliverables — how would we do this without falling again into the traps of projection? This felt very challenging! In a conversation with Patricia Shaw we grew the confidence to write the story so far of the spontaneous relationship between Schumacher and Brazil and the desire of many Brazilians for something to unfold in their country. We made explicit how the conventional way of asking for funds would be to promise returns and that we were not willing to do that, but rather we wanted to attract people who were genuinely interested and willing to support us in seeing what possibilities a next step would open. We found a sponsor who asked only to have a lunch and conversation with us during the 10 days that Jon and Patricia were in Brazil.

One could argue that to find a sponsor not interested in the deliverables and goals is not something likely to happen — and that we were lucky. Maybe we were indeed, but we were only ‘lucky’ in the course of proceeding in an unusual way. Perhaps the tendency to compromise comes when we do not expect to be surprised by how other people may actually resonate with a different narrative. Moreover, this route we were taking meant we were less attached to what we wanted to gain as a result than to a movement that felt right as we took it. This is what differentiates a response from a thought-through plan or idea — a response does not hold itself as a means to an end. Of course we wanted this visit to happen and we wanted to receive the money, but in the dance between our own and others’ genuine responses, events could have unfolded which could have taken us on another route — who knows? To assume that we knew for certain the best direction would be to take for granted the potential that lies beyond our own wanting and becomes revealed only through the interweaving of responses of the ‘meshwork’ (Ingold, 2011) we are immersed in — a tangle of interlaced trails, continually ravelling here and unravelling there. In Shotter’s words (2012, p.4):

“What just happens to us is much more important than what we achieve on our wanting and doing. It provides the ‘background’ from out of which our wantings and doings emerge and into which they return to exert their influence.”

And although wanting to achieve something is natural, to take seriously what ‘just’ happens is the difference in a phenomenological approach. Such an approach means that activities are always emerging through our relational involvement in the world from within the multiple interactions surrounding us, and our bodily responses to them. It is through this weaving that a form (this being a course, a programme, a partnership or whatever) is becoming itself although we may not be able to fully see its final shape as we move towards it. And it is through our involvement with the formation of ‘things’ that our very sense of purpose arises. There is no order as in the question my colleague and I were asked — “is what you want to happen actually happening?”. What is happening and the wanting/the purpose are not separate but arising simultaneously in living experience. And to work this way means staying fully ‘in touch with the developments of what happens when you do what you do’ (Shaw, in conversation). Writing this I find myself seeing the image of a potter with his/her hands on the clay literally giving shape to something through its formation. However, in the world of human action the challenge is that as we act there is nothing visible before our eyes like a ball of clay, and to move with it “we need to get inside the developing nature of the invisible but complex dynamical events that constitute the unique and distinctive ‘it’ characterizing the meetings in which we are involved” (Shotter, 2008).

Those early 10 days in Brazil, during October 2013, involved many sorts of meetings with people: sharing meals with different alumni, visiting a farm owned by a couple who had visited the College at the time when conversations for this trip were happening, a weekend outside of Sao Paolo with 30 alumni, a dinner for 50 people at the vegetarian restaurant of an alumnus. These conversations were a mix of organising and being taken by surprise — some of these encounters were intended and other encounters just happened. As I recall now, none of these conversations held a sense of ‘in order to’ as I have experienced with many so-called experiential methods, but they were like life, ordinary. What I mean by this is that we were not talking to people with questions or topics we thought would lead us further into enabling something to happen in Brazil. Rather, they held the natural openness of meeting and being met in the way we all recognise happens in the encounters of our everyday lives. Our openness did not come from an ‘open methodology’ but from an openness of spirit, a willingness to meet and take our experience seriously. It was in this attentiveness that the next steps would happen — in being fully in the present the potential ‘future’ arises.

A paradox of active receptivity

I would like here to look deeper into some of the detail. For example as people were confirming their participation on the weekend gathering, one email arrived from a woman wanting to know more details of what would happen during those two days we would spend together away from Sao Paolo: “what will the agenda be?” she asked. Mari and I felt stirred. We had not felt the need for an agenda for the weekend just as we had not needed one for all of the other meetings. We did know clearly what the two days did not consist in — not talks or lectures by Jon or Patricia nor sessions to plan bringing Schumacher to Brazil. Rather we were concerned with encouraging conversations that would shape the movement of activity and not the other way around — not our pre-agreed intentions to shape events.

Recognizing the NOs and the NOTs we felt in our bodies was always very important. To find one’s way forward in such a situation means responding not only to yes but also to the feeling of ‘not this way’, ‘there is something not quite right here even though I don’t quite know why’; this is the shaping process out of which initiatives emerge, like a carpenter fingering a knot in apiece of wood, or a potter a lump in her clay. The ‘Power of No’ was the title of a talk by Iain McGilchrist, in 2015, at Schumacher, proposing that every ‘yes’ is reached only on the far side of ‘no, not quite’. For him, the high appreciation given to ‘yes’ in our culture is ‘a cruel deception, a consequence of rigid, linear thinking’. By taking seriously the NO’s that arise in the midst of our movement we are able to hold space for something to emerge. This is not a passive waiting, as emergence, a term much used in the sciences of Complexity, has often been misunderstood in the field of social sciences. Henri Bortoft describes this way of responsiveness as being ‘actively receptive’, saying that receptivity is a paradoxical state, more subtle or finer than being active or passive. Being open thus includes the bodily responses we sense in ourselves from within a situation. This means putting our discernment at the centre — a difficult task for the field of social sciences as it makes it hard, if not impossible, to replicate action, as many methodologies set out to do.

So how did we respond to that email asking for an agenda? We described how we imagined the contours of our experience: “during those two days we will cook together, clean together, sit to talk together, share meals together, walk together. We will be in a big group and in smaller groups…”. Again, this was another situation when it felt we were stepping out of the usual exchanges and Mari and I needed to pause, breathe, talk to others involved with us in this initiation activity, and respond not in order to get people to join in, but to be fully present in our response. In this way of seeing action, each response reiterates what it is that we are doing and reveals our sense of purpose on-the-move. At the end of the weekend, in a final session — that very participant shared with the whole group how she had been anxious beforehand and had written to us wanting to know what would happen, and she realized after the 2 days how grateful she was that the space between us all had not been filled up by our suppositions of the topics that would have mattered to the group, but that these were able to fill the space spontaneously as they arose. In doing that, we all allowed conversations to fertilise the soil of what became possible instead of talking about a future, hypothetical Schumacher College in Brazil. This difference between allowing encounters to shape what comes next is radically different from gathering to decide on a shared future.

As I write about this openness of being agenda-free, I am aware I may be interpreted as ‘against agenda’ or ‘against plans’. This reflects the tendency we have to think in terms of polarities and not in movement, which is paradoxical for our thought. In the activities I have described, there is also planning but what matters is the attention to the experience in which the plans we make arise and change, emerge and dissolve. As Shantena Sabbadini (2015, p.13) remarks:

“Abstraction is no problem if we remain aware of the founding operation that has generated it, i.e. the reduction of the fluid and infinitely complex lived experience to a repeatable core of abstract properties. The trouble is we forget.” (my italic).

Because there is no line that reveals to us the abstract creations of our own making, we tend to easily mistake these for reality and in doing so something is lost of our intimacy with the world. The challenge of holding wholeness un- fragmented is also the case when it comes to phenomenology, as Bortoft himself was concerned (2012, p.95):

“Faced with the term ‘phenomenology’, instead of being led into the experience to which it refers, we are misled into the meaning of the term itself, and before we know it we are ensnared in all the intellectual paraphernalia.”

In the same way that phenomenology can easily end up caught by ‘intellectual paraphernalia’, I have often seen ideas that point to a dynamism like complexity science for example, being encapsulated by the rigidity of the mind — becoming theories, methods, categories dividing humans by cognitive schemata — somehow being used in the very way that was being argued against. More and more new methods get developed in the social world, methods intended for speaking better with one another, to connect groups to a dream and purpose, to host others better in an event, to name but a few. Our world has become filled with such ‘social technologies’ and however the many contributions these are believed to offer, they still hold the Cartesian assumption of ‘application’, i.e that thought comes first and then practice follows. The unintended consequence seems to be that although we master ourselves at a certain prescribed flow, we become inept in sustaining a movement with others in between the events of the method — for whilst these have a beginning and an end, human action is indivisible and infinite.

The language-world we are familiar with is immensely fitting with the world of objects, leaving us stranded when it comes to this arising of form that both phenomenology and complexity reveals to us. In his book the Master and His Emissary (2009), Iain McGilchrist points out that for the left hemisphere (which he argues we have over-developed in Western culture), language can seem cut off from the world and to be itself the reality; and reality, for its part, comes to seem made up of bits strung together. Historically however, he remarks that language was an embodied skill and its origins in the empathic communication medium of music and gesture. It was when language “began to shift hemispheres, and separate itself from music to become the referential, verbal medium”, that it aligned itself with a different sort of gesture, ‘that of grasp, which is, by contrast, individualistic and purposive, and became limited to one modality’ (p.119). This change that Iain describes to the movement of grasping has given us the notion of ‘application’, taking something of meaning from within a particular context to be applied into the continuous flow of experience somewhere else. We abstract life from its ongoing movement into static ‘counterfeit wholes’ (Bortoft, 2010) and before we know it, we have become the emissary of the objects of our own creation.

Rumi, the Sufi poet reminds us: “life, like a stream of water, is renewed and renewed, though it wears the appearance of continuity in form”. To live intimately in the flow of this running stream, asks of us the ever-developing ability of seeing/responding as relationally-responsive beings (Shotter, 2008) to this continuity, to see through its disguises. This means shifting our attention to seeing rather than the object that seeing can create. This very shift in attention is what I believe is key to a different way of thinking-talking-moving, and has allowed me and others here in Brazil to recognise a different nature to what can be called an educational enterprise, an education for us all. From the meetings, conversations and gatherings I describe here flowed a willingness to meet more often at the vegetarian restaurant, which took form as our monthly alumni gatherings that continue to these days on different venues. The desire to continue collaborating with the farm we visited during those 10 days led to the first ‘Schumacher Experience Brasil’, a week organised ‘by Brazilians, for Brazilians in Brazil’. The intense cooperation to create this ‘from scratch’ generated the beginnings of a loose ‘faculty’ willing to help teach, organise, support and administer such activity. As interest developed we were able to offer an eight-months long ‘Schumacher Certificate Programme’, which was fully subscribed from the start. And so we lived in to becoming participants in an increasingly co-ordinated set of activities, which we named Escola Schumacher Brasil with the blessing of the Devon based College which is our source of inspiration. And we continue now in the same way exploring out from what we know, as the conversations and involvements proliferate.

This article has been published on the Holistic Science Journal — Vol 2, Issue 5, June 2016.


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