GAIA Journey and the Healing Potential of the Social Field
by David Pendle
The GAIA journey has been a timely learning opportunity in this COVID19 moment. Through this program, thousands of people have found new ways to build towards a more empathetic and generative world. Otto Scharmer, co-founder of the Presencing Institute describes GAIA as “an impromptu global infrastructure for sensemaking, for leaning into our current moment of disruption and letting this moment move us toward civilizational renewal.” This project has involved 10,000+ people signing up for a free, four-month, online learning journey, facilitated by a global team of 100+ volunteers who are co-creating it in eight different languages. They are sharing a suite of learning approaches for an immensely diverse group of global citizens. Since March 27, 2020, the learning experience has been following a weekly rhythm of inhalation and exhalation, involving day-long series of events or live sessions. Sessions include deep listening practices, small breakout groups, intentional stillness, reflective journaling, social presencing theatre, live music performance and social image resonance.
In the global sessions, thought leaders and activists such as Arawana Hayashi, Vandana Shiva, Thomas Huebl, Nipun Mehta and John Kabat Zinn all point to models of how participants can create a healthier world. The learning methodology is highly unusual as it comprises intellectual input and framing from these aforementioned thought leaders, mindfulness moments, action learning, peer participation in small circles along with shared group reflection within a global community of ten thousand people.
In this article I intend to share some of the revelatory insights I have gathered so far around the promise of the largely untapped, collective healing potential of social fields. These insights surfaced for me during the GAIA programmes. I engaged in key practices used in the course of the journey — Social Presencing Theatre (SPT), Generative Scribing and Collective Resonance and will provide short summaries of each of these three practices, termed social arts, before sharing my own insights.
SPT is described as a blend between social science mapping, mindfulness, constellation, and theater methods. Generative Scribing is a distinct social art form that facilitates group learning and cultural memory. Generative scribing (GS) extends the art of scribing by ‘attending to the field of energy and relations between people, and to the emerging potential of a system’. Scribes create a specific artwork for each live session, a visual recording and partial harvest of the proceedings.
The practices of SPT and GS demonstrate distinct ways of knowing, through the heart and hand, that also allows the body to access its innate wisdom in order to sense less visible aspects of the system in question.
Both practices facilitate identifying themes, information flows, dynamics and exploring leverage points in the system. Collective Resonance, a nascent practice, is a simple combination of elements of both processes. In this act, participants pause for a moment and absorb the impressions, energies and sense data evoked by the specific image that the generative scribe has created for the live session. Group members offer verbal feedback about the image, using the simple sentence structures ‘I see, I sense, I feel’. The same process is also used to share sense data in different phases during the practice of SPT.
Healing through minimalist feedback
This simple verbal process forms the basis of a hugely promising healing activity, specifically because of its radical simplicity. The sentence structure encourages a kind of emotional honesty. It strips experience into raw data. Participants’ statements include no analysis, explanation, interpretation or rationalisation, for they are posited as “I” statements. They are assessment free, with reference to the image or the act being responded to.
This nonjudgemental position enables the ability to express emotional truths with an honesty that is often belittled as childlike in the complex cultural and social worlds we currently inhabit.
This minimalist feedback process creates a foundation for unconditional social acceptance. It enables individuals to fully participate and take their rightful place in the collective social field. If one considers the full extent of polarisation, hatred and division infecting our global communities, the healing potential and inclusivity of this deeply human process should not be overlooked.
Healing through Collective Resonance
As mentioned above, it is common in GAIA and u.lab global sessions for an artist and expert in Generative Scribing to be present and depict the flow of the session. Through simultaneous scribing they create a living interactive artwork. The image created is a product of the scribe, tuning into the conversations and sensing the dynamics present in the collective social field during that meeting. These occasions often end with a moment of Collective Resonance as described above. Online participants either share their ‘I statements – I see, I feel, I sense,’ in the chat or take turns sharing them verbally with the whole group. Having participated several times in this practice, I noted that as people wrote in the chat or participated verbally, each contribution built and expanded my personal sense of the artwork, as if we had collectively brought a new organ of sense perception into being, and as such, became more conscious of a unified social field within which we were all immersed.
Furthermore the experience of Collective Resonance elevates a work of art from being merely an interaction between the art object, the observer and the sometimes unseen artist. This act of social witnessing/sensing transforms scribing into a highly unusual, collective co-creative art experience. Otto Scharmer states that “subject-object separation collapses in any moment of resonance.” Thus all the participants sharing their ‘I see, I sense, I feel’ experiences participate in dissolving unconscious separation and expand the group’s sense of self and consciousness outwards into the social field. This phenomenon suggests that these ritual-like moments also have great healing potential.
Individual interpretation in the world of art is of course very personal and when expressed in normal conversation or discussion, can provoke debate, disagreement, even contention and dispute; a level two conversation in fact. There may be rare artworks that involve groups of art lovers expressing collective feedback together, but this is definitely not the norm. Thus sharing personal interpretations of artwork in a supportive and collective environment, and most importantly, in a psychologically safe space, can be extremely rare.
The genius of this act of resonance lies in its ultra inclusivity, for no individual expression is left out. For many, the experience in the mainstream art world is often one of alienation, exclusion and a feeling of cultural inferiority.
Yet in this experience of collective resonance, through the sharing of unvarnished sense data, every single person’s appreciation and experience is included in the scribe’s image.
Comparison and competition are nullified. Each participant’s contribution expands the outward spiral of attention from the centre to the larger whole, accompanied by the liberating and predominantly uniting sense of inhabiting a shared field. All of this is generated from a single artwork produced by one scribe.
One might attend an extraordinary musical or art performance which transcends the normal, where walls between performer and audience are dissolved and both are transported to a higher place. Yet one group was clearly the creator of the art piece and the other the recipients. However, through the experience of collective resonance and generative scribing, a massive community of participants dissolve consciously into a living, breathing, participative, co-created, multidimensional art work; bridging social, spiritual and cultural divides. In this time of hyper individualism, fractious identity politics and populism, using ultra inclusive collaborative art to heal social divisions is urgent.
Healing through Social Presencing Theatre
The same method of sharing raw sense data is also a tool utilized in Social Presencing Theatre (SPT). Theatre in this case is not acting or simulating. It is utilised in the original sense of the word, ‘to make visible’. The principle and practice of SPT is to tap into the often disregarded wisdom of the body. This goal is achieved through a combination of mindful movement, feeding back sense data as described above and generative discussion. SPT taps into the informational field of the body which stores very useful emotional feeling and sense data, often trapped in physical reservoirs, such as muscle, skin, tissue, bones and organs.
One method in SPT that allows this imprisoned data to surface is to model a sculpture that represents a personal ‘stuck’ which is often shared in a trusted group of GAIA journey or u.lab peers. The ‘stuck’ practice allows participants to unpack challenges that are holding them back. Instead of explaining, rationalizing, or interpreting a problem (as a coach might do for a coachee), the participant undertakes a short sequence of mindful embodied movements. The participant undertakes a short sequence of mindful movements that enable remembrance of the body. Then they present their problem to their peers in the form of a shape, a sculpture or a 4D body formation that closely depicts the emotional experience of that challenge. In the presenter’s body in that specific moment this is termed Sculpture One. The presenter then makes a short ‘I’ statement: ‘I feel, I sense, I did’.
After sinking into the embodied experience, presenters are encouraged to ignore their head-centered thoughts and instead sense from their body. Presenters form a posture that represents the highest future possibility of that problem or challenge. This is termed Sculpture Two. The presenter makes a short ‘I’ statement: ‘I felt, I saw, I did’. The peer group then shares their reflections of what they sensed, saw or felt and the presenter gracefully and gratefully receives and summarises the feedback. Afterwards, the group engages in a generative discussion about how the shift came about for the presenter when moving between the two sculptures.
To me this aspect of SPT is another instance where deep psychic support and collective healing of an individual and system can take place. First, paying undivided attention is a form of love, perhaps the highest love possible in today’s epoch. Secondly, peers, already trained in deep listening, observe each other’s ‘stuck’ and watch it unfold from sculpture one to sculpture two.
This normally enables a shadow, a usually unseen pain, to be witnessed in its raw physical form, freed from the presenter’s verbal commentary. Thus pain, trauma, darkness, distress and struggle can all be witnessed, free from language.
Often when it comes to challenges, we are either so angry or stricken that we cannot articulate the angst, anguish or agony of the challenge itself. In this way, sculptures do better justice to the reality, to the lived feeling, than more imprecise verbal descriptions. The raw sculptural form portrays a physical reality unshackled from a presenter or experiencer’s personal commentary and judgements about the problem.
The apparent neutrality of the feedback in SPT allows deeper structures of human aspiration and struggle to be witnessed. The act of presenting depersonalizes the angst, the self imposed hatred, the knots that humans twist themselves into when struggling with an issue. The healing that occurs in being fully socially witnessed, of not being analysed, helped, advised or fixed enables a significant shift towards health in the person presenting. They are all empowered to feel deeply and to step into their future. I believe all humans have a deep need to be seen and witnessed in a raw undefended state. In the process of sharing, the collective soul of our shared humanity is bared.
Raising consciousness through collective contemplation of an art object, where the shared focus collapses separation between the artist, the living work of art and the contemplators, is a creative act. It encourages an emergent form of unity that has potential healing properties, through demonstrating the possibility of forming a higher order of harmony and integration. This is desperately needed in this age of disruption. This embodied form of participation — to feel, sense and live into active awareness of and participation in the social field — is also a new modality of healing. It is a type of healing that ameliorates the emotional isolation of the extreme individuation of our age, as well as the pervasive sense that one struggles alone with an issue. When these collective dynamics are released, unearthed and or simply witnessed, a new energy of confidence swirls through the social body to become a tangible perception of the emerging future. This raises the possibility that humanity has all the tools it needs to move forward into the current epoch with confidence and trust.
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About the author: Dave Pendle is synthesising almost 30 years experience in non profit enterprises with over 40 years of deep personal development experience. He is passionate about enabling others’ sense of fulfillment, impact and trust, to engage wholeheartedly with inspiration and commitment to 21st century work and life. Longing to hear the authentic voice of the emerging future paradigm. This is the moment I was born for.
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Gaia Journey and the Healing Potential of the Social Field was originally published in Field of the Future Blog on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.
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