We-Space: Wired Together

Otto Scharmer’s Theory U (and Presencing Institute) shed further light on how We-Space is a presencing activity and a practice for the demands of our times. According to Scharmer (though he does not use the term itself), the cultivation of We-Space is not simply adding another app, another bauble to horizontalize your home page. It represents a full operating system upgrade. Developing versatility in We-Space is a vertical awakening of courage, compassion and curiosity, aligning the personal system to address and reverse the systemic absencing characterized by the current atmosphere of extreme, increasingly sophisticated and corrupt sowing of doubt, fear, hatred, fanaticism and polarization for the aggrandizement of a few.

Scharmer’s model moves from presencing to crystallization (of principles) to co-creating….from imagination to testing to codification. In such a process, the internal work of Circling and all the different models of We-Space promoting presencing must eventually coalesce and turn outward either by deliberately propagating the principles of We-Space in larger social contexts such as schools, workplaces and deliberative bodies or by depending on individuals to act ad hoc, taking their personal practices into  collective settings with other like-minded individuals.

Cultivating, or presencing in Self, is to descend into our deeper capacities, creative gifts, and at the same time soften the boundaries of identity, building a capacity to live in the zone of a more diffuse, transitional and fluid self. Exploring such deeper personal capacities by presencing in Self is to connect more directly with the natural context, the collective intelligence of the natural systems in which we live and grow.

Now, whenever I turn my attention to my internal space, and particularly in collective settings, I take for granted that however I feel inside is to some degree an experience of the collective field. Thus, “knowing” oneself, reinforcing or improving a distinct and separate identity, is only half of the learning process. The other half is to then look beyond that identity. We-Space practice takes me into a rich realm in which I can observe the micro-field of self in a dynamic flow with the macro field of the collective. In so doing, I become more acutely aware of the paradox of self, the ambiguity of my boundaries, where transitory concerns such as idiosyncratic waves of sensory and emotional activity can temporarily yield to a deeper experience of the ocean of energy in which we are all immersed.

As Rick Hanson noted in Buddha’s Brain, neurophysiology tells us “Neurons that fire together wire together.” In an individual brain, patterns of identical responses to identical stimuli literally become like x-country tracks in snow. We want to follow them because someone has been there before. Studies on the long term effects of contemplative practice indicate we can literally interrupt and re-program our responses by the deliberate practice of mindfulness, deepening and smoothing tracks in the brain that form the material analog of equanimity, generosity, compassion, gratitude, even courage.

The reverse is also true: neurons that are wired together will fire together in response patterns. The most common and obvious are the autonomic responses of fight or flight—a tried and true survival mechanism—but also the more nuanced long-term subtle regeneration of responses to the messaging of scarcity, nativism, tribalism, ego and ethno-centrism. Since we are now (in the nick of time?) gradually embodying the reality of individuals co-extensive with each other and all life, the existence of a group field, quantum phenomena, collective intelligence, the influence of culture in programming the brain function of the individual becomes as plausible as a belief in the role of nature.

In that regard, we might well acknowledge the influence of generations of ancestors, both human and non-human, being present in our immediate communications. Our ancestors are part of our bodies. We are endowed with their consciousness and their karma and must assimilate it all, digest it–experiencing our multi-generational patterns–to fully experience who we are and what is our path.

From the standpoint of collective experience, going all the way back to tribal society, what was assumed and learned and passed on from one generation to the next was our place in the group. One’s personal ego was at times subsumed to the group ethic. Under these conditions, responses, and thus brain patterning, would follow the community rules superimposed on the natural substrate. One’s relations would be to the earth, the tribe and the family. When the rule-setters, leaders and those who mediated the seen and the unseen, form and the formless, acted to enforce the rules, everyone followed because they were already patterned (wired?) to respond within a limited field of options.

Likewise, in a post-tribal world fractured and dissolved, patterning continues to undergo transformation. Now, in a post-modern, post-industrial world, family, cultural and, to an extent, tribal patterning remains. Individual and collective efforts to overcome largely unconscious patterning at the familial and tribal level bring us up against powerful primitive and deep patterning at the individual level as well as the remains of group-triggers that govern collective memory, intelligence and response patterns.

We live and function in an impossibly complex neural soup of ideologies, allegiances, survival mechanisms, structures of authority, reciprocity and group consciousness. While social media functions to connect people, spontaneously forming and assuming tribal identities, it is also the medium of pandemic attention-seeking behavior, a narcissistic inversion of belonging. All of it together is The Story of Us, however we may define Us (either as a microcosmic “particle” or as a macrocosmic “wave”). But it’s not just an idea or mere mythology. It is Us, which is a clue to how difficult it is to change the Story, regardless of the scale of one’s attention/intention.

We-Space, as a “direct, distributed and dialogic” practice, is an evolutionary response to both the psychic need for belonging and a discovery of the fundamental nature of our relationship. It is a vehicle of transition from, in Scharmer’s words, ego- to eco-consciousness. Since the human body is co-extensive with the earth body, the more we examine and integrate emotional experience, sensation, thought and action, the more we connect with a universal view. The more the boundaries between inner and outer experience become transparent, fall away or dissolve into a unitary non-dual view, the more we feel our way into the subtle body we all inhabit.

Becoming conversant in the micro-evolutionary flow from purely subjective experience to the communion of We-Space, with occasional healing bursts of actually feeling others from the inside, what Michael Brabant calls “collective somatic intuition,” is the essence of what Scharmer calls vertical literacy.


We-Space: Locating Self

In the midst of Circling, the ethic of immersion into a deepening group process, cycling more and more into the present moment, the boundaries of Self get murky and less defined–whether we like it or not.  Expressions from any individual are often tentative, as if venturing forth from the safety of one’s personal domain carries unknown risks. Clinging to separate identities in an atmosphere of implied intentional dissolution turns out to be more or less slippery, at times even counterproductive. But that’s the idea. Let go of your preoccupation with Self and feel your way into the collective dynamic. Tricky. Challenging. Murky. Also an invitation to unearth what for some may be a profound discomfort.

The true nature of our relations to each other and the world emerge in toppled assumptions, unexpected curves along the path of unwinding layers of personality, guarding, looking for a “true” self in relationship or imagining there is anything solid to “conclusions” or even “lessons.” One is faced with realizing that while we might have momentary or even tenacious fantasies of being in the center of our own worlds, the truth is that everyone else is also in their own center…or at least wrestling with its unique parameters, its anchors, imputing its indelible nature.

Yet the fantasy of a center is just that, an illusion.

Everything is moving. Nothing is truly resolved, despite reflexive reification to satisfy our longing for certainty. Trying to pin anything down is a fool’s errand, certain to lead to confusion and dissatisfaction. We are perpetually in the middle. Yet also, at any moment, the truth of Self, hovering like a condor on warm updrafts, swoops to the front of awareness, perhaps even unexpectedly erupting into familiar, old or even novel emotional states including fear, uncertainty, self-criticism or a delightful and playful freedom.

At the same time, beyond collective awareness, the unforeseen and mostly unpredictable dynamics of We-Space, there are further nuances of Self and selflessness in the reciprocation of the interpersonal exchanges, the interpenetration, shifting connections, the levels of permission, the sheer dependent co-arising of it all, which is to say, “relationship.”

That this is occurring in a context assuming the exploration of We-Space to be the cutting edge of human evolution (or at least spiritual evolution) makes it all the more portentous and at the same time even dubious.  Whereas some insist Circling is a deliberate cultivation of a supportive atmosphere in which individuals elevate and clarify the level of mutual permission to access and share deep personal process, it is also just as likely that sooner or later its more challenging transformative potential is realized in the deliberate or unexpected discard of the vestments of ego to expose a more raw and real, even purified, identity. Is such a condition a result of “support?”– or, more likely, the erosion of every notion of “support?”

Individuals undertaking a traditional practice of mindfulness (shamatha meditation) eventually understand that peering through the blizzard of spontaneous mental activity isn’t necessarily a direct path to blue-sky clarity. One meets persistent and deeply rooted patterns, the shadow self, demons and false states masquerading as truth.  Likewise, a Circle, or for that matter any group, deliberate or otherwise, populated with the same personalities over time (a family?), might be regarded as a group mindfulness practice,  exploring and sharing transient emotional and mental reality, slowly evolving to more intimate and authentic qualities of relationship. It could be said that any group eventually learns to cut through and discern internal process to a consciousness of field process/phenomena. Circling is merely a more deliberate and accelerated path. If I am in a Circle, I am sharply focusing on my internal process and I also want to notice the collective field (the activity of “group mind”). And I want to distinguish the two.

However, just as in solitary practice, there is nothing linear about entering “group mind.” We cannot automatically identify or regard any single expression as an expression of the field. More likely, what is an expression of self (or discursive mind) is constantly shifting as each participant moves back and forth into and out of mindful space. Responding to or being reactive to someone else in a Circle is not equivalent to an emanation of group mindfulness. Sooner or later, personality (a regression into ego) interrupts every drop into the deep silence of authentic connection.

When we are able to cut through the personal need for support, looking for reinforcement for what are in essence our personal constructs (projections) about ourselves and others, the naked reality starkly revealed is that none of us is here to please, to connect, to support, to fix or give others what we imagine they want. Yes, we do all of these things as if they are our true mission, or at least we try. But the Circle can also be a hot context in which we examine our motives (or have them reflected back to us), thus refining our capacity for fearless compassion.

As I once witnessed in a blazing Kali-esque exquisite moment of liberating truth, one person in a Circle, at least within the limited time-frame of that meeting, embodied the profound and most painful paradox of Self: the non-dual nature of appearance and reality, the simultaneous truth of selflessness and how each of us is helplessly clinging to our identities as if there really is some materiality to our existence.

She appeared to be in a (silent) state full of both crystalline clarity and inexpressible grief, a momentary deconstruction of everyone else feeling their own unmet needs reflected back to them. For that brief period, her piercing brilliance caused considerable discomfort in some others as they appeared to struggle with ego boundaries, differentiating between Self and the field, bias about what a Circle is, a role they may have chosen or their own projections about themselves and what they want from Circling.

And ironically, of course, all of this is simply my personal projection. It is certainly my own dance with Self, mindfulness practice, assumptions I have about extending solitary practice into a group setting. But I will continue to test and test and assess and learn. I will throw open the doors and windows, just in case, one day, someone shows up to set fire to everything and burn down my house of straw.

We Will Dance With Mountains III


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After partaking of the first two in 2015 and 2016, I am about to enter the third iteration of a “writing” course with my Nigerian brother, Bayo Akomolafe.  He calls writing a “tool of emergence,” but for those of us fortunate … Continue reading