The organising idea, or paradigm, we use to make sense of wellbeing has profound implications for the quality of results we create.
In this article, I want to share an emerging, “regenerative” view of wellbeing I have been exploring for a number of years. What I am sharing here are some thoughts on the relationships I’m seeing between wellbeing and regeneration, in an attempt to give form to something I sense is an important area of inquiry for wellbeing practitioners. I also sense this area of inquiry is ripe for collective exploration, and it’s my hope this article will eventually lead to a gathering of practitioners who are interested in exploring the potential of regenerative wellbeing together.
What is regeneration?
Regeneration is an interdependent process of becoming that all living beings participate in, where the healthy unfolding of every life form is inextricably connected with the healthy unfolding of everything else. This interdependent process includes the unfolding of everything from tiny bacteria cells, to insects, trees, animals and human beings, right through to schools, organisations, societies, and the Earth as a whole.
To explore the nature of regeneration in more detail, lets follow the unfolding of a seed.
“If you look at the concept of development in the organic world; you have a seed. You plant the seed and then you nurture the seed. And the seed becomes a tree, and then it bears fruit. It manifests its own nature, its own being, by growing and unfolding.” — Ha Vinh Tho
Just like how an acorn contains the essential patterns of a unique oak tree, every seed contains an essential uniqueness that is all its own, that is not replicated anywhere else in this vast universe. All living systems have a unique essence they express by growing and unfolding.
But how could a tiny seed create a huge tree? As Peter Senge, Otto Scharmer, Joseph Jaworski and Betty Sue Flowers explore in Presence;
“It’s common to say that trees come from seeds. But… seeds do not contain the resources needed to grow a tree. They must come from the medium or environment within which the tree grows. But the seed does provide something that is crucial: a place where the whole of the tree starts to form. As resources such as water and nutrients are drawn in, the seed organizes the process that generates growth. In a sense, the seed is a gateway through which the future possibility of the living tree emerges.”
Thus, a seed’s capacity to act as a gateway for the future possibility of a living tree is dependent on the quality of the conditions, or life space, present. If the seed is nourished with well cultivated conditions, it will be more able to thrive. Zen Buddhist Shunryu Suzuki described this eloquently when he said;
“Our tendency is to be interested in something that is growing in the garden, not in the bare soil itself. But if you want to have a good harvest, the most important thing is to make the soil rich and cultivate it well.”
In the case of living systems, a well cultivated life space includes the fertility of soil conditions, but it also includes the quality of relationships present within the whole. Thus, the more active the community of life is at co-creating the conditions conducive for life, the healthier and more resilient every seed’s unfolding will be.
For example, in an ecosystem context, the co-creation of these conditions can be seen in how bacteria keep the air, water and soil in balance; insects and earthworms recycle organic matter; plants and trees buffer the effects of sun, wind and rain; and birds and animals contribute to the health of their habitats. By unfolding together, in wise relationship, every life form can express its uniqueness in a way which creates the conditions conducive for the community of life to thrive.
This pattern; of both unfolding uniqueness and co-creating the conditions for the unfolding of all; is the essence of what regeneration is all about. Regeneration is a living system’s capacity to create the conditions necessary to realise its unique potential and act as a co-evolutionary partner in life’s unfolding. It’s a universal pattern of how life has been able to build healthy, resilient and adaptive communities throughout the living world.
This emerging worldview, that the entire community of life participates in creating the conditions conducive for life, is leading to a regenerative revolution, where people all over the world are using this organising pattern to reimagine everything from the economy to the way we design and develop. As a brief summary, there is;
- Regenerative design and development; “a process by which cities, towns, and other human communities bring themselves back into life-giving alignment with the ecological systems that support them. As a practice, it seeks to create a built environment and human systems that are capable of co-evolving with nature.” (Bill Reed, Pamela Mang, Ben Haggard and Regenesis)
- Regenerative economics which is based on the observation; “we can — and must — bring our economic theory and practice into alignment with our latest understanding of how the universe and our humanity actually work.” (John Fullerton)
- Regenerative business which explores how the concept of regeneration applies “to business strategy with an emphasis on: human potential, work systems, resilience and growth.” (Carol Sandford)
- Regenerative cultures which asks; “how can we collaborate in the creation of diverse regenerative cultures adapted to the unique biocultural conditions of place?” (Daniel Christian Wahl)
- Regenerative agriculture which seeks to “provide food, water, clean air, a stable climate, biodiversity, good health, security and happiness.” (Commonland)
This is a brief summary of what’s emerging, and if you would like to find out more, Daniel Christian Wahl has written an excellent article summarising much of the action taking place around the world today.
The power of mindfulness
“Regenerative development is grounded in a belief that we cannot make the outer transformations we envision for the world without making the inner transformations in how we think and who we are able to be.” — Pamela Mang, Ben Haggard and Regenesis
While all of this modern action is great to see, it’s also fair to say these compelling observations about life’s capacity to regenerate are essentially timeless, with their roots woven through the fabric of many of the world’s wisdom and mindfulness traditions.
For example, in 6th Century B.C.E., in the Indian Himalayas, Siddhartha Gautama, also known as the Buddha, discovered that through mindful living we can be present to the moment to moment unfolding of reality. At the foundation of his awakening was the view that reality was interdependently co-arising as a unified whole at each moment. Because everything interdependently co-arises together along with everything else, this means the condition of everything depends upon the condition of everything to which it is connected.
In 4th Century B.C.E., Greek philosopher Plato inquired deeply into the aliveness of reality, and this led him to proclaim that; “The Universe is a single living creature that encompasses all living creatures within it.” Aristotle too, who was a student of Plato’s, shared in this view. He considered the Universe as a single organism, where each part has its proper place and function within the whole. Aristotle’s belief in the aliveness of the Universe went on to inform many of his philosophies, such as; “What is the essence of life? To serve others and to do good.”
During pre-modern times, what can be said about virtually all of the world’s wisdom traditions, including Hindu, Buddhist, Christian, Taoist, Shinto and indigenous cultures, is that they subscribed to a belief in the great chain of being. The belief nobody’s life is just their life. The highest aim for many in these traditions was to become aware of the aliveness of the Universe and express a reverence for all forms of life. To create the conditions conducive for life, virtues and qualities such as truth, beauty, goodness, philos-sophia (love of wisdom) and compassion were common.
Thus, it can be seen there is an intimate relationship between mindfulness and our capacity to be one with the aliveness of the universe. In this context, mindfulness is the capacity to be present to the co-arising of new potential that serves the wellbeing of all, so we can consciously bring this new potential into being. Unless we are actively creating the inner conditions necessary to be present with life’s unfolding, we will be blind to how we can participate in creating the conditions conducive for life.
Becoming regenerative well beings
To be well is to inter-be well. You cannot be well by yourself, alone. You have to inter-be well with every other thing. (adapted from Thich Nhat Hanh)
When we look at wellbeing through the generative pattern of regeneration; we come to the compelling realisation; to be well, is to inter-be well. We can’t be well beings by ourselves alone. Our wellbeing is intimately connected to the wellbeing of others and the wellbeing of the oceans, the forests, the birds, the bees and the climate. We are all in this together, and everything we do impacts the wellbeing of everything else.
In this way, the world’s wellbeing is my wellbeing, and whatever we do to the community of life, we do to ourselves. Everything’s being and becoming is inextricably connected.
Thus, when applying the universal pattern of regeneration to wellbeing, it becomes evident if we want to be well, and if we want the community of life to thrive, we have to be mindful of how we can become ourselves and consciously participate in the healthy unfolding and co-evolution of all life.
Regenerative wellbeing in practice
Given some of the first insights into the interdependent co-arising of life emerged in 6th Century B.C.E. it comes as no surprise there are a range of wellbeing practices which are grounded in the principles of regeneration. This includes personal programs such as an education of the heart, kindness curriculum’s, and practices like loving kindness meditation. These practices include the basics of how the mind and heart work and support people with cultivating a sense of oneness with humanity; developing the capacity to live by compassionate values; and strengthening our innate social, emotional and systems intelligence's. The Dalai Lama, who is one of the leading advocates for an education of the heart, suggests solving today’s most pressing global challenges requires a radical overhaul of our education system, so we can provide young people with the inner tools necessary to thrive in an interconnected world.
A global regenerative example which is grounded in the principles of regeneration is Gross National Happiness (GNH). The roots of GNH date back to Bhutan’s 1729 legal code, which states “if the government cannot create happiness for its people, there is no purpose for the government to exist.” This view of wellbeing has flowed on through to today, with the GNH Centre of Bhutan describing their philosophy as “a holistic and sustainable approach to development, which balances material and non-material values with the conviction that humans want to search for happiness.” As the Director of the GNH Centre in Bhutan, Ha Vinh Tho describes it: “development has to be organic.” GNH treats development and wellbeing as “an organic process of becoming according to one’s own nature.” What’s more, “development should be serving the whole.” Which means serving the “wellbeing and happiness, not only of humans, but of all living beings.” Thus, GNH seeks to provide a life-centred approach to development that nurtures the ongoing unfolding and wellbeing of all life.
A final example of a practice grounded in regeneration and the evolution towards higher levels of coherence is Salutogenesis. The words salutogenesis comes from the Latin salus = health and the Greek genesis = origin and is concerned with strengthening the primary sources of wellbeing. In the words of Aaron Antonovsky, who developed the concept of salutogenesis; “We are coming to understand health not as the absence of disease, but rather as the process by which individuals maintain their sense of coherence and ability to function in the face of changes in themselves and their relationships with their environment.” In Antonovsky’s work, he uses the metaphor of “the river of life”, where stressors, imbalances and suffering are inherent in human existence. Throughout our lives, we will experience a range of stressors that create tensions — within us, between us, and in relationship with the greater systems we belong. When tensions arise, what matters is not so much what we experience, as is our capacity to adapt and respond to those tensions at their primary source. What we often do is focus on treating downstream factors, where the water has already become turbulent and people are struggling to stay afloat. Whereas in a Salutogenic approach, we shift our attention upstream, to the source of our unfolding, and this enables us to open up to a healthier and more coherent life orientation which is serving the whole.
Regenerative wellbeing as a developmental capacity
While it’s wonderful to read about these regenerative practices, it’s also fair to say they are not mainstream. In my research, using Theory U as a basis, I have been developing a four stage matrix of wellbeing practice evolution, which explores how wellbeing practices tend to evolve in organisations, schools and communities. What my research reveals, is that many take a stage 1.0 (one-off initiatives: fixing broken parts) or stage 2.0 (evidence based: knowledgeable about underlying factors) approach. These practices largely separate out personal wellbeing from the wellbeing of the entire community of life, with the result being they often lead to degenerative, rather than regenerative results.
It’s not until we move towards stage 3.0 (participatory: to be well is to inter be well) and stage 4.0 (salutogenesis: regenerating the primary sources of health) where we begin to see mindful practices which are grounded in principles of regeneration.
Thus, in this time of mounting personal, societal and ecological crises, it’s vital we shine a light on the underlying ideologies that underpin wellbeing practice, and consider how we can evolve our approach to be attuned with the way life works. Unless our practices are attuned to the wellbeing of all, inclusive of the entire community of life, our actions will be misaligned with the way healthy systems in nature thrive.
All of this invites the question: what does a regenerative lens mean for an organisation, school or community who would like to evolve their approach to wellbeing? For example, how might a school with an individualistic program create the conditions necessary to play a creative, hands-on role in the wellbeing of all life? How might an organisation move from reactive practice and activate their capacity for whole person, whole system wellbeing?
These are big questions. Getting there requires us to challenge what many of us hold to be true about the nature of life and the nature of wellbeing. It is not a “problem” we can solve from within today’s dominant worldview. Rather, evolving our wellbeing practices requires us to go on a developmental journey of transformation, so we can radically reinvent the way we see our place in the world. This requires us to transform ourselves as human beings — and our relationship with life — so we can become co-evolutionary participants in the wellbeing of all.
How an organisation, school or community can make this journey, and evolve their practice, is something I’m very passionate about. If you would like to learn more about how you can bring a regenerative lens to your wellbeing practice, I’d love to hear from you.