How holding space transforms our ability to respond
“Complexity is simplicity in the right cup.” — Thomas Hübl
During the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, I used my time in isolation to connect with friends and colleagues around how we, as people and communities, can build our ability to respond to this unfolding situation. As part of this process, two main themes emerged.
The first theme was a feeling that a crucial intervention point for building our ability to respond is the space we hold between us. What feels especially important now is that we, as people and communities, build the collective presence necessary, to stay with what is happening, and build a sense of a “we,” as we move through these uncertain times.
The second theme was when we hold space, we become like a container that can host more of the complexity of this situation. Right now, for many of us, the containers we belong to aren’t strong enough to hold the current situation, and as a consequence, this situation feels “too complex” and “too overwhelming.” However, when we intentionally build a container of sufficient awareness, we can host this complexity and respond in an increasingly holistic manner.
I found these conversations to be nourishing and useful, and so I decided to crystallise them into an image and an article that can be shared. In this article, I explore a landscape of increasingly holistic responses and invite you to consider how you can build a strong enough container to host the complexity of our times.
Reacting: Maintaining the status quo
Sometimes, our response to complex situations can arise from a place of reactivity, as a way to maintain the status quo.
An example of a reactive response can be seen in a situation a friend of mine faced during the early days of the pandemic. She asked if she could work from home and her boss said no, with the reasons provided being “in case people drop in to see you” and “because then everyone will want to work from home.”
A reactive response arises when:
- People and communities build a container which is operating with habitual awareness. This is when we are barely paying attention at all. Rather than using our perceptual systems, we “download” a view of the situation which is created almost entirely by our habits of thought.
- A habitual container enables people and communities to host the detailed complexity of the crisis. This is complexity which is made up of our mental projections of the situation, not what is truly happening.
Reorganising: Acting based on frontline data and expert advice
To move beyond habitual reactions, a growing group of people and communities are reorganising their priorities based on the advice of various sources such as political leaders, WHO, frontline services and health experts. Here, the primary focus is on being informed, so these people and communities can come up with some sort of “solution,” “strategy” or “defence” against the rapid spread of the novel coronavirus.
This response is exemplified by the numerous organisations who are reorganising their policies based on expert advice, such as asking staff to work from home and sharing mental health strategies. You can see this response at a national level, with many countries banning mass gatherings and implementing shutdowns as part of their larger plan to beat the virus and get their nations back on track as quickly as possible. And what we know, is that the institutions and nations who are reorganising based on frontline data are faring far better than their reactive counterparts.
A reorganising response arises when:
- People and communities deepen beyond the habitual stage by building a container which is operating with ego-system awareness. In such a container, a group of people are now able to take an intellectual overview of the situation. This is common when people come together to review the latest advice, “think” about best courses of action and make informed decisions about how to proceed.
- An ego-system container enables a community of people to host the dynamic complexity of the crisis. Dynamic complexity can be understood as complexity driven by cause and effect relationships (i.e. we minimise risks when we reorganise our priorities around the best available advice, including testing, hand washing, self-isolation and social distancing).
Clearly, reorganising priorities based on available information is vitally important and integral to taking a holistic approach. However, where we run into issues is when we privilege intellectual ways of knowing over deeper ways of knowing. That’s because, when we take an intellectual overview, it’s like we see the situation through broken glass, where we only see part of the picture, not the whole picture. Then, if we go on to reorganise our priorities based on this distorted perspective, we end up acting with a fragmented understanding about what is truly happening. We have room to improve.
Restoring: Building a sense of “we-ness” and activating the global immune system
This uncertain time is about more than intellectualising the issue and sharing information. Yes, being well informed is profoundly important, but so is caring for one another and bringing out the very best in our humanity. We create this possibility when we, as people, institutions and nations, not only listen to the advice from political leaders, WHO and frontlines services, but we also hold space for one another and build a sense of a “we,” that while we might be socially distancing and self-isolating, we are not alone: we are all in this together. We can build the social fabric and be a source of healing and wellbeing for one another despite facing a global pandemic.
Building our relatedness is important because, in the face of real danger, many of us are scared, confused and hurting. We are also facing an infodemic, as the widespread sharing of information is activating trauma layers throughout society. Much of what we are seeing right now in terms of fear, anxiety and panic is the shadow landscape of repressed trauma and shadow material coming to the surface. Therefore, it’s vital we create space in our lives to honour our feelings and move towards healing our personal and collective traumas. Otherwise, these complex experiences can build up and lead to societal regression. Societal regression is when otherwise civil citizens revert to self-interest and destructive behaviours because they are hurt and traumatised. Whereas, if we create spaces where people feel seen and heard, we can restore the best in our humanity, and this creates the possibility of collective healing and collective action.
Examples of a restorative response are showing up all over the world, as engaged citizens are mobilising to check in on their neighbours and the elderly, are setting up buddy systems of mutual care, and are sending love to front line workers and those directly impacted by the coronavirus. You can see it in the rapid mobilisation of online gatherings and virtual hangouts, where people are coming together to build strong containers for everyone to feel seen, heard and felt in what they are going through. The big difference here is, these actions are not about sharing advice, having answers, finding solutions or defending against the current situation. They are about asking questions, listening deeply, accepting what is, co-regulating and responding with kindness and compassion.
A restorative response arises when:
- A community of people deepen beyond the ego-system stage by building a container which is operating with relational awareness. Relational awareness means I am being present to you, and I am creating a space for your lived experience to appear within myself as it is. This means, I am there and I’m listening to you and allowing you to express. I’m not evaluating you, nor am I going to give you advice, go into solution mode, or try and fix you.
- A relational container enables a community of people to co-host the social complexity of the crisis. Social complexity can be understood as complexity which is characterised by a diversity of different lived experiences, and we respect everyone’s lived experience as it is, without judgement or evaluation.
A natural result of careful restorative work is that it activates the global immune system. This is based on the understanding that when you come into relationship with yourself, others and the more than human world, you realise that you’re not a separate self sitting here all on your own. You are an interdependent being who is actively participating in a massive global ecosystem — the community of life — and you have a unique role to play in creating healthy life conditions on the planet, no matter your interests, passions or expertise.
Awareness of our interdependency awakens us into a caring relationship with the living Earth community. It also awakens us to the realisation that many of the things we consider to be normal and healthy in today society are actually destructive and unhealthy, causing deep harm for ourselves and the world. This is where activating the global immune system comes in. The big opportunity here is to awaken, realise we are part of the whole, and restore our health at the scale of the whole planet through collective healing and mass cooperation.
Awakening into our interdependency also brings with it a profound transformation of view. We begin to see this pandemic from a different perspective, as part of a bigger story of life and how we belong to the process of evolution. And from this view, it raises some interesting questions. For example, what if more than mobilising “against” the virus, the deeper invitation here is to learn how to come together and respond “for” life? What if this crisis is evolutions way of teaching life how to live in harmony with itself? More than a problem to be solved, or an opponent to be defeated, what if this crisis is nature’s way of awakening consciousness and mass-cooperation?
And it’s this kind of profound awakening which creates the possibility of a deeper response.
Regenerating: Living into an emerging possibility for people and planet
“What if we used this disruption as an opportunity to let go of everything that isn’t essential in our life, in our work, and in our institutional routines? How might we reimagine how we live and work together? How might we reimagine the basic structures of our civilization? … That’s the conversation we need to have now. With our circles of friends. With our families. With our organizations and communities.” — Otto Scharmer
As we awaken to our interdependence with the living Earth community, we realise this pandemic and its flow on effects to the economy and society is not the only global emergency we are facing. We are also facing an existential emergency — our climate emergency: the reality that as a society, we are dangerously close to undermining the viability of the entire Earth system unless we change our behaviour on a massive scale.
Thus, at its source, this moment is about more than acting in the hope of returning to the same old ways of living and working. This moment is humanity’s wake-up call: to look back upon ourselves as a whole, and awaken to who we are and who we want to be as a society.
This is where many of our globally aware, locally responsive communities are heading. More than reorganising their priorities, or restoring health through acts of kindness and collective healing, they are being a container for hosting the emergent potential of this crisis in a way that regenerates self and whole. They are using this moment of profound disruption to embark on a journey of transformation, to incubate new ways of being and become co-evolutionary partners with life on Earth.
An example of a global initiative which is holding space for a regenerative response is GAIA: Global Activation of Intention and Action. GAIA is a collective leadership journey for engaged global citizens to lean into our current moment of disruption, and let this moment move us toward civilisation renewal. This includes:
- re-imagining how we want to live and work together
- re-inventing our economies towards serving the wellbeing of all
- re-shaping our learning systems in ways that integrate head, heart, and hand.
Another example is transformative justice. As adrienne maree brown explains in the video “What is transformative justice?”
“I talk about restorative justice as steps in the right direction. Harm has happened, how do we restore ourselves back to that relationship that existed before the harm happened. … But for me, I always say that doesn’t go far enough because if the original condition was unjust, then returning to those original conditions is not actually justice. … So to me transformative justice, the first aspect of it is that it goes all the way down to the root system of the harm, and says how do we change, heal, transform, what do we need to do at the root system so that this harm is no longer possible.” — adrienne maree brown
Another way to connect with this quality of regeneration and civilisation renewal is through metaphor. One metaphor that feels appropriate to share here is that of providing hospice to the old societal structures that are ending and dying, and being midwives to new societal transformations that are wanting to be born. Another metaphor is what Joanna Macy describes as The Great Turning. The Great Turning is a name for the essential adventure of our time: making the shift from an Industrial Growth Society to a life-sustaining civilization.
A regenerating response arises when:
- Engaged citizens and communities move beyond the relational stage by building a container which is operating with eco-system awareness. This requires emergent social processes such as Theory U and Global Social Witnessing that take an ecosystem of engaged global citizens on a journey from me to we — from ego-system to eco-system awareness. Eco-system awareness means I am being a true global witness and I am 100% in service of the evolution of the other and the whole.
- An ego to eco-system awareness container enables communities to co-host the emergent complexity of the crisis. Emergent complexity can be understood as being characterised by disruptive patterns of change. This is complexity that cannot be adequately addressed by relying on past trends. Rather, we must shift our attention to the emerging future and respond to this situation as it evolves.
Who do we choose to be?
The point here is that our ability to host and respond to the profound complexity of our times is unlikely to be found in a quick fix, a WHO news report, or a few acts of kindness. It’s going to take the coordinated efforts of millions, if not billions of people who share a deep sense of how they belong to a “global we”: to a collective movement of engaged citizens who feel a sense of how they are working towards an emerging future possibility for people and planet. In such an emergent process, everyone isn’t operating as a collection of separate individuals. Rather, they are operating as a coherent whole: as a diverse ecosystem of partners who are tuned into their interdependency and are flowing together as a collective movement. Then, complexity becomes simplicity and we become like a murmuration of starlings flying together in a state of group flow.
Now it’s up to all of us — governments, businesses, schools and the general public — to build the we-ness necessary to host this complexity. This is not a task for hero leaders, or a few enlightened ones. It’s a responsibility for every human being. Every one of us has a role to play. If we have an entire planet of people who are committed to hosting the full complexity of this moment, everyone is more likely to be fully received, realises they belong to the whole, and this improves the likelihood we will bring out the very best in our collective potential.
I want to thank Billy Matheson, Delfina Terrado, Jack Greig, Anukesh Sharma, Jessica Taylor, Karen King, Christopher Chase and the regenerative consciousness group for their comments and reflections on drafts of this article.