Becoming Unfrozen: Seeing, Sensing, and Presencing to Better Face and Respond to Ecological Crises

by Glen Cousquer, Lecturer and Coordinator of the MSc and MVetSci programmes in One Health and Conservation Medicine, University of Edinburgh

Image credit: Glen Cousquer

In this post, Glen Cousquer explores theories, practices, and practitioners of ‘interdependence’ to reflect on the interplay between pedagogy and ecology, and how we might transform both in a time of global crisis.

A growing number of our students and colleagues are deeply concerned about the perilous state of the planet. Confronted by the enormity of the various ecological crises we face, including anthropogenic (human-generated) climate change and the sixth mass extinction, we feel overwhelmed, grief-stricken — hopeless, even. The uncertainties ahead mean that eco-anxiety is now part of our everyday reality, and it is hardly surprising that many are now talking of a global mental health pandemic. However, the recent COVID-19 pandemic has made it easier to recognise the importance of wellbeing and mental health. Moreover, across the Higher Education sector, there is a growing recognition of the need to embed well-being into the curriculum so that we can nurture emotional literacy and prioritise emotional intelligence for the generation inheriting the perilous state of the earth.

E.O. Wilson, the father of biodiversity¹, who sadly passed away in December 2021, famously said: The problem with modern humans is that we have Palaeolithic emotions, Medieval institutions and God-like technology, and this is extremely dangerous.

He goes on to say that we “must rapidly evolve our wisdom to master our technology”. Every single time that I have encountered this quote, I am struck by the clarity with which it drills through to an alarming truth: in today’s world, technology has a tendency to both hypnotise and own us. We are caught up in the illusion that science and technology can provide the answers, and that students come to university to acquire knowledge (episteme) and develop their technical proficiency (techne). In this blog post, I want to question this assumption, and ask how we might nurture phronesis (practical wisdom) and, in doing so, our students and the planet.

Dr. E.O. Wilson addresses the audience at the dedication of the E.O. Wilson Biophilia center at Nokuse Plantation in Walton County Florida. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.

In Massingham’s (2019) paper, in which he provides an Aristotelian interpretation of practical wisdom, he defines phronesis as the complex interactions between theory and practical judgement. Massingham explores this through detailed case studies with nine wise retirees across four disciplines. Here, I want to break free of disciplinary silos and introduce a few brilliantly insightful contributions from three luminaries, each of whom sadly died within a few weeks of Wilson’s own passing. They are Thich Nhat Hanh (1926–2022), Desmond Tutu (1931–2021), and E.O. Wilson (1929–2021) himself. In doing so, I want to identify how we can teach in ways that support students in “becoming wise” (Tippett, 2016).

In addition to coining the term ‘biodiversity’, Wilson bequeathed us the notion of biophilia — the love of nature. Tutu was a passionate advocate of the ethic of Ubuntu, which emphasises that a person is a person through other persons: “I am because we are” is another way of understanding this universal principle. Thich Nhat Hanh’s work on interbeing similarly emphasised that we inter-are. Interbeing stresses the connectedness of all things. So, how might these three emphases on how to view the interdependent nature of the world — biophilia, Ubuntu, and interbeing — help our students make sense of its perilous state?

Well, to make sense, we first need to consider what is involved in sense-making. Sense-making requires us to develop the capacity to use our cognition (our logical minds) and our sensing (our heart-minds) in one fluid process. Our students need to be encouraged² to integrate thoughts and feelings into their work. The energy frozen and trapped inside through suppressing our emotions is immense and can be made available. When allied with greater individual and collective self-awareness, systems change becomes more than possible; it becomes inevitable. I therefore argue that we need to support our Community of Learning in rejecting the fragmented and fragmenting way of viewing the world and approaching challenges that has characterised much of higher education.

In my own teaching on working across differences and disciplines, I draw on Theory U³ to emphasise the need to familiarise ourselves with three key thresholds, which allow us to deepen our awareness and integrate more of the social field — the vast network of inner and outer elements that co-constitute reality. These thresholds are described by Otto Scharmer, of MIT, as Seeing, Sensing, and Presencing.

Seeing (curiosity)

The first threshold — seeing — involves a suspension of judgment and a shift into curiosity that leaves students wondering how their educational experiences have limited their ability to ask better, more beautiful questions.

Sensing (compassion)

The second involves a suspension of the cynicism that characterises the many ways we deny, numb, and suppress our emotions. A shift into compassion becomes possible, which allows us to move beyond debate and into genuine dialogue; a form of listening characterised by high levels of mutual reciprocity and transformation that is, sadly, still rare in academia.

Presencing (calm courage)

The third involves a suspension of fear and a shift into courage. This last step requires us to learn how to calm our nervous systems, individually and collectively, and become more mindfully present in the moment. When calmed and attuned, it becomes possible to appreciate our impermanent and inter-being nature, and to discern what the challenges we face are calling for.

My hope is that our students do not have to wait till retirement to be fully integrated — and that, through an emphasis on seeing (curiosity), sensing (compassion for self, other, and nature) and presencing (calm courage), we can nurture the godlike-wisdom that will allow us to better respond to the planetary crises we face. This will give rise to an appreciation of our extended selves in which we care for ourselves as part of nature, rather than as an entity apart and distinct from nature. We inter-are even if we have lost sight of this great insight.

As Thich Nhat Hanh famously said, “We need enlightenment, not just individually but collectively, to save the planet. We need to awaken ourselves.” For this awakening, though, we need to learn to sense and to presence; to feel and to be present in the moment. Our hopelessness and anxieties can then start to melt away because something inside has become unfrozen, and we find ourselves increasingly able to draw on the multiple intelligences of the head, heart, and will. Namasté.

References and further reading

Nhat Hanh, T. (2021). Zen and the art of saving the planet. London: Rider Books.

Massingham, P. (2019). An Aristotelian interpretation of practical wisdom: The case of retirees. Palgrave Communications 5, 123. https://doi.org/10.1057/s41599-019-0331-9

Scharmer, O. (2018). The essentials of Theory U: Core principles and applications. Oakland: Berrett-Koehler.

Tippett, K. (2016). Becoming wise: An inquiry into the mystery and the art of living. London: Corsair.

[1] The term “father” is somewhat patriarchal and colonialist, and we need to find better terms to characterise those who recognise and draw our attention to important new concepts. How will we transcend and break free of colonialist thinking?

[2] Historically, this has been discouraged by those who privilege dispassionate ways of knowing over other epistemic practices.

[3] An awareness-based Action Research approach that has been embraced across the world as a means of working collaboratively on complex systems to deliver systemic change. This has been characterised as a shift from ego to eco.

Glen Cousquer

About Glen Cousquer

Glen Cousquer is a recipient of the 2021 EUSA Outstanding Commitment to Social Justice and Sustainability Award and the 2020 Social Responsibility and Sustainability Changemaker Awards in recognition of his work on sustainability across the University, including the embedding of deep listening and sustainability into postgraduate training courses for healthcare professionals as well as the 2022 RCVS Compassion Award.

Glen’s research into the health and welfare of pack animals on expedition and across the global mountain tourism industry led to the development of new industry standards and the development of multispecies awareness-based Action Research methodologies to help deliver emergent futures. This work has informed the development of dialogical approaches to establishing communities of practice and inquiry, change theory, and practice for sustainability, as well as more recent work on ecological pilgrimage that has led to the publication of a new guidebook on the Way of St Cuthbert. Since February 2018, he has been lecturing on and coordinating the MSc and MVetSci programmes in One Health and Conservation Medicine at The University of Edinburgh.

This article was originally published at https://www.teaching-matters-blog.ed.ac.uk on September 26, 2022.

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