Ways of knowing
By Ben Brangwyn 28th September 2010
Some thoughts on ‘Ways of Knowing’
– from a discussion circle, 7th September 2010, Totnes, Devon, UK
The meeting was attended by Sophy Banks, Ben Brangwyn, Naresh Giangrande, Rob Hopkins, Peter Lipman, Hilary Prentice and Fiona Ward, and set out to explore the following four questions:
- what is the role of inner work in transition?
- what is the role of spirituality in transition?
- what’s implicit or explicit for each of these?
- what (relative) emphasis should we give to the various ways of knowing?
These questions had arisen, in part, due to the inclusion of “critical thinking” as a pattern in the next version of the Transition Handbook and some objections to Rob’s suggestion in that draft pattern that “critical thinking” was the only reliable way of knowing. Following the meeting, each participant agreed to write up their thoughts, so that the debate could be continued more widely on the Transition Network site.
These thoughts, in the order they were written up follow…
There was also a briefing document (MSWord) prepared by Sophy Banks for the discussion.
Rob Hopkins (originator of the Transition Model, co-founder of Transition Town Totnes, co-founder of Transition Network)
This was a meeting which explored a dynamic ‘edge’ in Transition, that of the relationship between science/critical thinking and the ‘inner’ aspects of Transition and spirituality. It was triggered in part by my inclusion of a pattern on Critical Thinking as part of the rewrite of the Transition Handbook, as well as by an on-line discussion I briefly participated in which explored whether Transition was a ‘cult’ (http://forum.rickross.com/read.php?12,83474,page=1).
That thread was a great demonstration of what Massimo Pigliucci describes in ‘Nonsense on Stilts’ as “the downside of scepticism: it can easily turn into an arrogant position of a priori rejection of any new phenomenon or idea, a position that is as lacking in critical thinking as the one of the true believer, and that simply does not help either science or the public at large”. However, it did get me thinking about how Transition can be perceived, what are the checks against which we determine information, and the potential for the inner aspect of Transition to open a door to pseudoscience. It felt timely and important to be giving some space to a discussion of these issues. The key consideration we focused on in the evening’s discussion was around ways of knowing, how do we weigh and balance different arguments, how to we distinguish between different information and between good science and bad science?
Climate change is a key example here. I meet people in Totnes who tell me that climate change isn’t real, that to believe in climate change is as valid a belief system as not believing it, because after all we all make our own reality anyway. However, the scientific consensus around climate change that has been built over 200 years of analysis, measuring and modelling is built on the formulating of hypotheses and testing them. It is the result of the organised scepticism of the scientific approach. It wasn’t intuited, channelled, dowsed or dreamt. When climate science is challenged, critical thinking and the scientific approach is the common language that acts as the final arbiter in such debates. Likewise with a range of topics, the scientific method is the touchstone. The question that arises though, and which was explored over some rather delicious blackberry and apple crumble on Monday evening, was whether quantitative science is the only valid way of knowing. There is, of course, a strong argument that that is indeed the case. Many scientists would argue that anything that can’t be measured doesn’t really matter, that it has no value.
For me, critical thinking is a vital tool, our first, and primary, port of call in checking how we know what it is that we think we know. Transition is about how we design a way forward in a time of energy scarcity, economic contraction and with depleting resources, and it is clear that such decisions about how to allocate scarce resources need to be based on the best available evidence. In this sense, I would argue that for Transition groups to develop a literacy around this, an ability to discuss different studies and different research, evaluate opposing arguments, debate points of view and familiarise itself with the debates in the scientific literature is key, as important as, say, developing a culture of social enterprise or running permaculture design courses. Having a ‘Scientific Literacy’ group, one might suggest, is as important as having a Heart and Soul group.
I came to the discussion with concerns about reports that one Transition Trainer had recently added begun adding an explicitly spiritual piece to the Transition Training. I left with some useful insights around the role of inner work, for which I am grateful to the other participants. One of the main ones is that while critical thinking is key to understanding issues, to analysing challenges, to checking things against, it doesn’t explain what we actually see happening in terms of Transition. Yes the climate science is clear, robust, unequivocal and very scary. Yet why is it that so few people do anything about it? Here we start to move away from the measurable, and into the less tangible world of fears, denial, psychology, all manner of far less rational and much more emotional thinking. In short, critical thinking is key to how we know, how we understand and analyse what it around us, but when it comes to responding, and understanding why people do what they do (or don’t), other insights are required. The idea that providing people with more and more robust scientific information will lead to their becoming more and more aware of climate change, and then becoming more and more engaged in solutions to the problem is quite clearly not what we see happening around us.
A Transition on the scale we are looking at in the Transition movement will not be sustained or driven solely by our ability to understand scientific arguments. Any process that will be effective will also include an inner aspect, acknowledging the grief it engenders, the distress it creates, the letting go of a future we had thought to be a fixed certainty. Decisions we make as to what are the most appropriate strategies for an energy descent future will, alongside critical thinking, also inevitably be based also on ethics, values, and different ways of understanding, as well as on local politics, fears, commercial interests and so on. If logic determined our actions we would be living in a very different world!
The potential danger for me is that the idea that a spiritual aspect needs to be explicitly integral to the Transition Training becomes more widely accepted. This, for me, would be wildly self-defeating, deeply excluding for many people, and utterly pointless. Most peoples’ experience of getting involved with Transition is already that it is inspiring enough, reconnects them to others and to the support that challenging times will require, gives them some of the inner resources that effective Transition will find useful, and offers a sense of connection to a wider movement for change. That is sufficient.
What concerns me is that Transition, and Transition training, is always accessible and open for anyone of any faith, or not. For me, those who feel that Transition is a spiritual process are having one experience, but that that is something that is implicit for them, not something explicit in how Transition is communicated. Some people find football a transcendent, spiritually nourishing experience, but it is not explicitly presented as such. Ultimately, in Transition, I would argue that critical thinking needs to be (where it isn’t already) the key thing we turn to first when evaluating new approaches, new information, new understandings. In terms of ways of knowing, the scientific method, checking back against evidence, continually challenging assumptions, is, in terms of ‘ways of knowing’, our primary method. It needs to be embedded deeper into Transition, with a communicating of skills to better enable this. At the same time, I think it is vital to distinguish between ways of knowing and ways of responding. Many studies have shown that our intuition, our feelings, our perception, are not reliable in the same way that well conducted tests and research are… one simple example of this is the famous awareness test video (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ahg6qcgoay4).
The inner aspects of Transition, and what is being developed in the Training, focuses on ways of responding that explore insights from psychology, the effects of the powerlessness felt by many, the grief engendered by peak oil and climate change, what it means to be alive at this time. That takes us out of the world of the measurable, the testable, and the relationship between the two, the edge, will always be fascinating, frustrating and subject to different opinions, but it is vitally important to explore, and the creating a space for this is one of the things that makes Transition distinctive. I believe these two things can sit alongside each other, and was very grateful for this fascinating opportunity to explore what that might look like.
Sophy Banks (co-founded Transition Training, co-originated Heart & Soul group in Transition Town Totnes)
I started by owning some of my underlying emotional attachment in this. I come from a family with a strong scientific and intellectual background, which gave me an excellent grounding and confidence in science and critical thinking, and which was not great at communicating about emotions. I left my work as an engineer partly because I realised that I wasn’t going to find any answers to the big questions there – why is the world in such a mess? Why are so many people so unhappy when they seem to have what they need? Why are we building technologies that are so obviously destroying our means of well being? I found many more useful answers to these through my own inner enquiry, training as a psychotherapist, and then as a family systems constellator. I can see that my tendency is sometimes to want to downplay the importance of science, in reaction to an upbringing where it dominated the landscape of communication, and was the only explicitly valued way of knowing truth. In which I think my family and education was pretty representative of our mainstream culture. And that speaking up for the importance of inner worlds, of feelings, of the less visible layers of discourse and behaviour is something I care deeply about.
Many of the things I said in the discussion have been included elsewhere, or are in the background document I circulated. What follows is a round up of things that haven’t been covered so much by others.
On Ways of Knowing
I found it interesting that it’s possible for this group of people at the centre of Transition to be proposing emphasising the importance of critical thinking above other ways of knowing when the success of Transition itself is largely due to extraordinary intuition – sensing into what’s needed and finding a model that would appeal to so many in different places. And that has been acutely sensitive to how to communicate the tricky messages of Transition to many people who have been newly drawn to this kind of work as a result. So I wondered if something happens where we are unable to see or value our greatest strengths, as fish don’t have a word for water. And that those of us with the most formal science education – probably me and Naresh, both with first degrees in hard sciences – spoke so strongly for being aware of the limitations of science as well as the grandiosity of some of the scientific establishment.
The range of ways of knowing I listed – emotional, ethical, sensory, intuition, as well as rational – are genuinely ways of knowing different kinds of truth, and rational thinking or science alone will not help with all the questions we need to answer. Here are some examples:
- What kind of event should we run in our transition project that will engage young single mothers?
- How should we approach local government?
- How do we deal with someone who is using up a lot of meeting time on their pet project?
- What should I do when I am feeling exhausted? Or when you are?
- How do we keep the energy of our project going?
Finding good answers to these kinds of questions relies on a mix of emotional intelligence and intuition. Knowing how a group works, understanding the issues faced by people in different circumstances, sensing what an individual needs in terms of support or challenge. Will science help us answer these questions? If I’m in a Transition group discussing these things I hope I’m there with people who are good at feeling into relationships, who are empathic and intuitive about what kind of events work well in our community, who are experienced in local dynamics, understand group working, and are practical about finding ways forward.
Some other kinds of question that need a different kind of knowing..
- Is stem cell research a good thing?
- Should we spend a health budget on knee replacements for active 70 year olds or more risky transplants for the young?
- What should be the legal limit on abortion?
- Should euthanasia be legal?
These are ethical questions, and depend on your view and understanding of life. Transition groups don’t make these decisions, but people somewhere are doing so, and perhaps more locally in the future we’ll need people who can find answers that work. I hope that they have a good grounding in ethics, and a compassionate and rounded view of life and how humans and our wider systems for living work. If they are trained in a way that has valued rational thought above all else I don’t think they’re equipped to make the decisions. Of course in the discussion there may be scientific research that is useful, and they will use their cognitive brains to ensure that they follow trains of thought, but the ways to get to workable, ethical answers will depend on something other than scientific research.
None of this takes away from the enormous importance of being able to think clearly, and include scientific research where it is available and useful. We don’t need to set up a hierarchy in our tool box, or set one thing against each other. We need everything, and we need to be as skilful in all of them as possible.
On using discriminating awareness, the critical faculty in all ways of knowing
In all the ways of knowing the ability to distinguish between what is skilful, appropriate, constructive, and right, and what is not, is what’s truly important. So we need to know when our feelings are helpful, pointing to missing pieces; when we really need to express some emotion otherwise it will distort the clarity we are seeking; when our feelings are triggered by old patterns that aren’t really relevant to the current situation, and would be best taken elsewhere. Similarly with intuitions, they may be fantastic or misleading, and the skill is to tell the difference. And with rational thinking – there’s a lot of poor science and misleading thinking around, and the word critical is critical.
How can we support healthy groups?
Something very common and usually unspoken in groups that work well is that people quickly learn who is good and reliable at different ways of knowing – who to trust about feelings, who’s good at research and facts, who knows what’s happening in the community and so on.
What goes wrong in groups that pattern language needs to address? My understanding is that the kind of problems that have arisen in Transition groups are more from people who are strong in one style of working wanting to dominate the discussion and marginalise others. The split between between creative / intuitive / process people and planning / rational / action people is common and can cause real difficulties. I haven’t yet heard of a group that is in difficulties because they don’t value or understand scientific debate – though I see other groups outside Transition who clearly don’t. The hardest thing is to stop the divide from causing a split in a group – to hold the tension and create healthy balance. So my sense is that we don’t so much need a pattern to emphasise the importance of one way of knowing, as a pattern or several that supports the use of appropriate ways of knowing, balancing and valuing the role of all.
Some points about emotions
- In our western culture we are collectively defended against feelings – they are frowned upon in all our places or major discourse and decision making. Being emotional is seen as a reason for being excluded from political, academic, legal and other arenas of debate. So we don’t get to hear about what causes us anger, pain or fear in these discussions – and our feeback about what we’re doing is weakened as a result. (For example – in the aftermath of one of the shootings of many children in a school in the USA, mothers of those who were killed were excluded from the ensuing discussion about gun laws. The gun manufacturers naturally had a place at the table because they will contribute to the rational debate. Did that help to reach a better wisdom than hearing the truth about the suffering caused by guns?).
- That they help us to know certain kinds of truth (what I care about, what’s happening for someone else, when I’m in danger, when something is unjust). We’ve evolved to know things through these feelings, in a different way to how we know things with our minds.
- That emotions are always present, even in “rational” discussions – because of how the brain works.
- That our clearest rational thinking can only happen when we are emotionally clear. As long as there are feelings present these will distort people’s capacity to think clearly. The extreme being actual an inability to perceive reality as it is, or to hear the truth when it’s spoken (such as climate change denial – an emotional, not rational process). So you could say that the key to good critical thinking is emotional intelligence and wisdom.
I’ve said some pieces about spirituality in the background document I sent round. I think there are clear reasons why we should speak about the spiritual dimension of Transition providing we’re clear about what that means (see that document), and don’t start to emphasise, or devalue, any particular tradition. We need to take the term spiritual in its widest terms, be careful about what language we use, respecting that spiritual traditions are both close to many people’s heart and lives, have done lots of good in the world, and have also been the cause of much suffering.
Inner and Outer
We talked a lot about the splits that occur in our culture – between rational and emotion, inner and outer, spirituality and science.
In the summary of models and terms I mentioned Wilber’s four quadrants, part of his Integral model. I gave an outline of the quadrants in the background document. In the discussion I proposed that there are a number of views of inner and outer, which might be summarised as follows:
- inner doesn’t have any real existence or meaning. Consciousness arises from electrons firing, it is determined by the physical. This is scientific reductionism – science can know everything.
- inner is valuable in that it serves the outer. Environmental movements sometimes have this approach – understanding behavioural change (inner) is useful because it shows us how to get the results we want (outer change)…
- Inner and outer are both valuable, necessary and are different. Understanding and speaking about inner worlds enriches and deepens Transition. Discussions around how to create healthy, enjoyable, sustainable inner dimensions to our lives have meaning and value in their own right, just as the outer aspects do.
- I guess a fourth view would be that consciousness is everything, the physical world has no real meaning, and the only place where it makes sense to do any work is inner.
For me the third view is the only one that really works. We can’t reduce everything to either inner or outer, nor is one the servant or incidental by product of the other.
In the discussion we reiterated the interconnected loops of inner and outer – that our outer actions are shaped by our inner world view. Similar the outer world, our experiences, groups, institutions we inhabit, shape our inner experience, our beliefs and our world view. Understanding how both work, and also how they interrelate gives the deepest understanding of our selves, our times, and the greatest possibility of working effectively.
Reflecting on this discussion
I found this a fascinating process, to see how a small piece of writing could open up such a huge area of discussion. It felt like a long overdue conversation around inner and outer in Transition, and I was very moved by the willingness of the group who came together to really hear each other and get to the best answers possible. I felt like I heard much more clearly Rob’s point of view, and was reminded that I need to adjust for my tendency to underplay the role of science and rationality, when it’s such a strength of how I work as well as being vitally important for many kinds of understanding and decision making.
The other way we could have explored this is through some kind of process, such as a constellation. This would give a way of seeing how we are expressing not only our personal worldviews, but are also representing parts of the system – in Transition and wider – that we are involved with. I would still be very interested to find an opportunity to look at this issue in this way.
Hilary Prentice (co-founder of the Heart & Soul group in Transition Town Totnes)
– Initial Feelings
It was exciting and a bit scary to be in this meeting, having been very active in starting the Heart and Soul group in the early days of TTT, but less involved more recently. Would I be able to join the current stream of thinking/feeling/understanding as it has developed? Are the insights that lay behind the inclusion of inner work from the start of this movement still relevant – or in fact have there been some differences in understanding about this from the beginning that we are collectively now becoming ready to address and make sense of?
– Micro and Macro historical context informing and shaping this conversation
Micro: From its very beginning, the Totnes ‘psychology of change’ group that Rob had called for morphed into ‘heart and soul’, as it seemed we needed to cover both psychological (heart)and spiritual (soul) dimensions of the transition we are in. It has always covered a broad field, including the early big sell-out speaker meetings eg with Peter Russell on the evolution of consciousness, and Marianne Williamson as an overtly spiritual speaker. These were, I understand, no more contentious than other kinds of speakers, and brought new people into the transition field. There are now transition initiatives whose ‘inner transition’ groups have chosen to call themselves ‘spirit of transition’, eg Presteigne. .
At a macro level: my understanding from the explorations of Ecopsychology, is broadly that one major root of the mess we are in arises from the division of science from religion, from the humanities, (outer from inner, ecos from psyche), where in earlier cultures and up to the medieval period, they were not separate. Hence philosophy, (now meaning love of sophy!) meant love of wisdom, and included equally enquiry into the inner and outer workings of the universe.
This separation allowed science and technology to experiment and act apon a newly inanimate material world, and to develop very rapidly, but literally ‘split off’ from spirit, from the worlds of meaning, emotional significance, or a deep morality. A divided rather than holistic consciousness; knowledge little tempered by wisdom. This division has also led to ongoing hostilities and reactivity between scientific and religious establishments , and a ‘swinging pendulum’; from persecution of scientists, to the killing of huge numbers of wise women, women healers as ‘witches’, to dominance by an aggressively materialistic world view, to an anti-scientific flakiness and avoidence of critical thinking, to a broad brush aversion to ‘flakiness’, sweeping all manner of alternatives indiscriminately into the dustbin. There are legacies of great wounding and trauma in the name of both religion and science.
Collectively, it is as though our capacity to exploit the apparently inanimate earth as well as each other has developed far beyond our inner growth/development/capacity to heal ourselves/maturity. ‘Brilliant’ technologies of war and of consumption are harnessed to separative states of consciousness heavily laden with greed rather than sharing, revenge rather than forgiveness, judgement rather than compassion, arrogance rather than humility….etc, ; the territory of inner growth, usually known also as spiritual growth.
Transition therefore needs not to side with one side of this split against the other, which would be to perpetuate rather than heal the problem. It absolutely needs to integrate and support our inner/moral/spiritual growth, as this is arguably where the problem lies. It is knowledge grounded in and held within our deeper growth in human collective consciousness that can take us through these times. We most need to grow in wisdom, more than in knowledge.
The inner/outer split historically has also split politics from the psychological/spiritual. Radical political movements have believed that if we change the outer (economic and social structures) then how we feel and are will change, we will become happy. Unfortunately political success has been limited, arguably because our old inner patterns eg greed, dominance, quickly reasserted themselves. Humanistic psychology, modern spiritual movements, have taken the opposite stance, that we must always begin with the inner, and that outer change will necessarily follow from this work….though with contradictions clearly appearing here, such as flying off to meditate…. I believe it has been a new and amazing opportunity in TTT and thence the Network, for these two positions to come together in one movement, to literally sit around the same table and talk to each other, and to constantly attempt to embody the integration of these two complementary insights.
However bringing two sides back together which have been split apart, may release pain and difficulty, as well as liberating energy and insight. These difficulties need to be understood in context, to be met with insight and compassion and care.
– Science describes the problem, inner work helps us with our response?
I don’t think this view, which is being explored by various of us here, is quite right. It feels like that split reasserting itself again, as it tends to. I would say that seeing that there is a problem, and roughly what it is, is happening all over the world, by people of much academic education or little or none at all. Indigenous peoples and peasants, dwellers of high mountains and encroaching deserts and flooded plains and cut down forests and threatened low islands – can and do often speak with complete clarity of the limits of the earth and hence of ‘growth’, of the total unsustainability of the huge industrial growth machinery that is plundering their world, and of the distortions of consciousness that go alongside this plundering machinery. I have found that the clearest most insightful psycho=spiritual portrayals of what we are in consistently come from such cultures . Glued to my television on the last day of the Copenhagen conference, I was greatly impacted by the power and simplicity and spot- on analysis of the speakers interviewed from the poorest countries and situations; everyone from the most polluting nations seemed to speak with fluff in their mouths.
I suggest that the diagnosis of the problem arises as much from aspects of consciousness /clarity of vision as from science, and involves a delving into the inner reasons for this problem as well as the outer manifestations of it. In finding solutions, we need to look to both science and the measurable and rational, and to addressing these inner dimensions. (And I think it would be great to have local science/rational thinking groups alongside food, building and heart and soul, as Rob says.)
– ‘The Healthy Holon’
When Rob’s experience of needing to defend Transition from the accusation of being a cult came up, I was immediately struck by some key differences. Cults tend to have a paranoid basis, be closed systems defined by a ‘them and us’, and to involve misuse of power, domination and control. The Transition movement is an open system, attempting to model inclusion, a richness of belonging, healthily devolved ‘power with’ rather than ‘power over’, and seeking to move towards what is healthy – for individual, local community, and widening circles of community, human and greater-than-human. We have long known that a healthy human has mind, body, emotions and spirit, all ‘present and correct’ – integrated, in balance, with an easy flow between them. I think this is useful for us – that all of these can, and need to, be paid attention to, and gradually find their place, within this movement.
Rational mind has been associated with the masculine, emotion with the feminine. This is fine if these things are in balance within and between us; however under patriarchy, from which we are still emerging, the masculine was valued over, and dominated, the feminine. Males were (and still are) taught to cut off from their ‘weaker’, emotional, ‘feminine’ side, and to attempt to embody a superior rationality. Yet it is this very disconnected ‘rationality’ that has proved so dangerous. Much of the modern humanistic psychology movement sprang up after the second world war in a mushrooming of attempts to understand how the holocaust had happened ; a particularly crazy mis-use of ‘science’. Repeatedly, the insights came that humans can be trustworthy when all of us, feelings and all, is welcomed and integrated in our beings. Sophy spoke of the common defence of ‘retreating into our heads’, not really being in our bodies, or very present, as a way of avoiding our feelings, avoiding pain, avoiding feeling vulnerable. Again, this is surely part of the problem, not of the solution.
To me it seems clear that the right place for the rational mind is as a tool, within a circle of aspects of being a human, not at the top of a hierarchy where it has been put. That would be the same mistake as putting humans above, and disconnected from, all the other life forms amongst which we dwell, and has similar consequences. Science equally is a tool; it has been used to substantiate and clarify what is going on with climate change, which as Rob says, has been very useful ; it was also used the create the technologies to drill oil and gas out of the earth, and to turn them into plastic, fuel, and a thousand other things. Social and psychological research have been used to keep the market growing, to keep us consuming, and to keep us believing that war is a good idea. It depends greatly who is the master, who is asking the questions, and to what end the learnings are put.
So; Transition needs to be, and come across as, – well, healthy – based on clear thinking, emotional openness and intelligence, practical competence, and spiritually rich and rewarding. We would lose people if we seem irrational and flaky, but we will also lose people, and weaken what we do, if there are whole areas of human life and mystery that we dare not touch, that we cut ourselves off from. I thought it was amazing timing that the day after this discussion I received an email about a ‘World Spirituality’ free teleseminar, bringing together a very large number of world leading spiritual teachers, to look at pressing questions of our times, including spiritually addressing the environmental and social turning point we are at ((Centre for World Spirituality). Of course pushing transitioners who are not interested to engage with this would be wrong, but surely this is also exactly something that could be mentioned in the transition newsletter, as potentially of interest to many, as we meet the challenges ahead, and attempt to reweave our broken web. I think the movement is already much richer for the inclusion of the emotional, intuitive and spiritual, whether explicitly in heart and soul projects, and the transition trainings, or implicitly, in the incredible lightness of all that Rob does, and in the courage and heart of zillions of others as they do what they are drawn to do.
– Finally; patterns
As well as the possibility of including emotional intelligence and mindfulness, and ethics as a ‘backstop’, I have been wondering if there might be another one – that includes the importance of being able to sit with not knowing, to sit with paradox, with the fact that sometimes two opposite things are both true, or are true at different levels. To hold our beliefs lightly, to practice tolerance to each other, to be genuinely inclusive, in these ways a rainbow movement. To allow our different stories to be told, and to hear without judgement. The pattern of ‘not knowing’, perhaps?
Ben Brangwyn (participates in Transition Town Totnes and co-founded Transition Network)
– how I was feeling
I started the meeting feeling a lot of grief on account of all the pain and suffering caused by unfair power structures throughout the world, all the species that have already been lost and all the tough times ahead, particularly for those poorer people in climate sensitive locations. And I also felt happy and privileged to be in the group discussing these matters.
– knowing through intuition
While much of science is about knowing through rational thinking, it seems absolutely crucial to recognise that in many instances it was intuition that created the initial scientific breakthrough (see quotations below). This important stage seems to have been missed out in the accounts of science that I recall from school. Intuition seemed to be kept to the arts classes or perhaps the soccer field. Our society’s focus on rational seems an inaccurate reflection of the skills and aptitudes needed to journey beyond our ecologically destructive systems.
– rational thinking
There’s another problem with the way we use our rational ways of thinking, and that problem becomes really apparent when we look at our climate or our ecosystems. Any long-term rational thinking around this subject would force us to make dramatic changes in how we behave. However, it looks like combining rational thinking with a short-term perspective causes us to create completely unsustainable systems, exemplified for example by industrialised agriculture and the plight of fish stocks worldwide. And when you combine that approach with a linear way of looking at the world and its resources – as opposed to using systems or complexity theory – you create even more grossly destructive systems.
– feeling safe, expressing and exploring our feelings
It’s my experience that for any person to feel able to express deeply held emotions, they either need to feel very safe (or perhaps very desperate). I’m not entirely sure how Transition Initiatives have done so well in this area – we frequently get feedback evidencing this. Maybe transitioners are becoming skilled in the art of active listening; maybe simply sitting in a circle to collectively confront the big questions of our time helps people feel safe; could be that the heart & soul groups are raising general levels of emotional literacy; perhaps Transition Training is building emotional resilience in communities; maybe it’s the act of naming the process that we see people going though – denial, negotiation, anger/fear, grief and acceptance.
Whatever the reason, or combination of reasons, it seems that transition groups are making a lot of headway in this area. However, it feels to me that we’re just skimming the surface, and that transition will deepen and accelerate in proportion to the safety, resilience and literacy we can inspire in the emotional realm. There’s more work for us to do there, for sure.
This is important, because if a large part of knowing involves an emotional element, then to having access to that emotional content is a prerequisite for knowing. So if we can pay attention to making sure we, and the people around, are feeling safe, then we’ll be able to put more trust in our knowing because it’s underpinned by a clear and uncharged (as opposed to stressed and confused) emotional state.
– reaching people through their deeply held cultural stories
It’s not really disputed now that one of the main drivers of humans’ behaviour is their deeply held stories or myths. It appears to me that these are frequently the result of something other than rational thought. Some examples of what we might call cultural stories that I’ve encountered are:
“I have no power”, “the government will fix the problem”, “technology will prevail” – these are all stories that prevent people from taking steps towards something other than ecological destruction and social inequities. Similarly, “They will stop us”, “I’m not clever enough”, “people will never cooperate” act as a brake on potential actions.
People can concurrently hold contradictary myths. My personally held myths certainly seem that way. My very deep sense of “I have extraordinary power” battles daily with “I’m an insignificant little pipsqueak of dubious merit”. Similarly, my myth that “People’s level of cooperation can be mind-blowingly mature and intelligent” has to daily square up to counterpointed “There’s a darkness in the human soul that relentlessly seeks destruction of self and everything else around it”.
This light and shadow is part of me and part of the world I’m looking at. It feels that my work in transition is to shine a stronger light on the creative and life-affirming elements, while demonstrating where the shadow might be leading us. And in helping individuals to make explicit to themselves their own personal myths – both the light and the dark – I don’t find using a cognitive approach to work at all.
I feel reasonably adept at using strong emotional content – through writing, talking and modelling – at shining a stronger light on our life-affirming facets. On a broader scale, I’ve witnessed Joanna Macy’s processes, used by expert practitioners, doing an amazing job of helping people confront their own unhelpful personal and social myths. In transition groups, I’ve seen active listening open someone up in such a way that they were able to switch off one of these limiting myths. Warmth, friendship and connection can help too.
And there are other people for whom neither the cognitive nor the emotional is going to help them make a change – it’s going to have to be experiential. They’ll have to see the shelves slowly emptying of bread, or their car rusting in the driveway, or their bank account shrivelling up before they finally realise that the government isn’t going to fix it for them and that it’s time for that myth to be switched off.
– in summary
For me, “knowing” isn’t the challenge – there’s myriad data out there to back up the transition approach at an individual and community levels. The challenge for me is making a meaningful connection that makes a person feel safe enough to push aside unhelpful personal myths and explore new ones. And it feels a privilege and honour to be walking alongside so many people who are doing just that.
– how I felt at the end
It always feels deeply affirming to be in a group where everyone has a voice and a right to be heard, and no one abuses that right; where divergent views don’t create discordant relationships and where everyone comes expecting to learn something. Westminster could learn a thing or two from tonight’s proceedings – both in terms of style and content.
Mathematical reasoning may be regarded rather schematically as the exercise of a combination of two facilities, which we may call intuition and ingenuity. – Alan Turing
The only real valuable thing is intuition. – Albert Einstein
There is no logical way to the discovery of these elemental laws. There is only the way of intuition, which is helped by a feeling for the order lying behind the appearance. – Albert Einstein
A marriage of animus and anima, in which reason represses intuition, just as husbands traditionally repressed their wives, cannot achieve scientific greatness because it asphyxiates a thinker’s greatest asset. A scientist’s mind must be a more progressive union in which reason guides and strengthens intuition as a colleague and friend. – Kelley Harris
Naresh Giangrande (co-founder of Transition Town Totnes and co-founder of Transition Training)
Firstly it feels important as Ben says above to acknowledge that there are other ways of knowing something is true or false other than critical thinking and its handmaiden the scientific method (which in any event can’t prove anything true, it can only disprove ). Clearly, critical thinking is vital in certain circumstances and not in others. When used properly it can cut through erroneous, or poorly constructed arguments and lead one to make good deductions and create satisfactory outcomes. In other circumstances it does not.
In areas of ethics, aesthetics, love, and the abovementioned intuition, it is like using the proverbial hammer to cut wood when you really need a saw. Or turning it around, everything becomes a nail if you only have a hammer. We are richer and more complex than our minds lead us to believe. Finding our way through certain aspects of Energy Descent Pathways cannot be discerned using critical thinking alone. A cursory scrutiny of the climate change debate shows that very clearly.
Widening the question, there are many examples where even though we have more advanced and accurate ways of thinking and knowing about our world, we still revert to clearly inferior, outdated and simplistic models and ways of knowing. I am thinking, for instance, of why we adopt a linear way of thinking when systems thinking and modelling lead to much better understandings that more clearly reflect the world around us. You could label this poor critical thinking. However I think it goes much deeper than that and points to the safety issue Ben raises above that lies at the heart of why our culture adopts, or clings to, a single (albeit very powerful) tool when clearly multiple approaches are necessary; and why simplistic attitudes and modes of thinking are used instead of more sophisticated but complex ways of knowing.
My hunch is that there is an expansiveness necessary in both approaches, and an ability to embrace uncertainty. The roots of the inability to cultivate these qualities are rooted in deep psychological trauma and this may well lie at the heart the difficulty in making one the most profound shifts in paradigm that we as a culture are being called to do. This is why it feels important to examine and understand this issue and also have more than critical thinking in our tool box.
Peter Lipman (Chair of Trustees, Transition Network; part of original core team of Transition Bristol)
I found the evening totally fascinating, and am still very much in a process of developing where I stand in this discussion. I started from an assumption that we pretty much all use both critical thinking and other ways of knowing, and that developing more clarity about this is very important.
One example of such a use of more than one way of knowing for me is my own response to Stoneleigh’s talk, after it had had such an impact at the last (2010) Transition Network conference. I’d been keen for her to come and talk because I’ve been reading her blog for years, and mainly interacting with it using critical thinking to assess her analysis. Does her description of our financial systems stack up against what I can see? Is it coherent? Does it explain events? Does it have predictive power? Yet it felt key for me when I was reacting to what she’d said in the final session at the conference to explore not my abstract, intellectual response, but instead to try to look inside, at my feelings. In particular I talked about my relationship with money – and looking at that led me on to my relationship with fear, and the energy that I find if I engage with my fear instead of trying to pretend that it isn’t there. For me, a meaningful exploration of such things has a strong spiritual element as it relates to deep beliefs about truth and beauty.
In addition it is becoming clearer all the time that facts alone aren’t sufficient for us to change our lives – the science on climate change is clear, and the extraordinary consequences of our continuing with our current ways of being just as clear. Yet we continue with those ways, all the time knowing what we do. Given that, I believe that to change what we’re doing, we’re going to have to change inside – which means gratefully accepting that critical thinking is a key part of a range of ways of knowing but must be accompanied by other ways too. That doesn’t mean though that critical thinking doesn’t have a very particular role – I agree with Rob that it is absolutely key in checking, as he put it “how we know what it is that we think we know”.
However if we rely on critical thinking it feels very important to acknowledge how we’ll inevitably use it within instinctive, culturally determined (and so apparently invisible) parameters that we need to struggle to be aware of. When I talk to people who don’t share some of my beliefs about (for example) the dangers brought by continuing economic growth, let alone its impossibility, as well as wondering why they can’t see what seems so obvious to me, I usually end up asking myself just what it is that I can’t see which is right in front of me.
I also find Rob’s distinction between ways of knowing and ways of responding very useful – my response to Stoneleigh’s impact at the conference was personal in a way that an abstract assessment of her overall analysis isn’t. On the one hand I believe that as humans, as beings who make sense of the world we’re in through stories, personal reactions are vital and powerful, and on the other that they can easily alienate as many people as they attract.
Another important layer of this discussion for me is how much our approach must inevitably be culturally mediated – Transition has been developed in a culture riven by a whole series of oppressions and so naturally to some degree reflects them. As a middle class, professional white man, whatever my beliefs, I end up in a different place in many hierarchies to working class people, people of colour, women etc. In exploring how to counteract that and seek not to perpetuate it, I need as much emotional intelligence as I can muster to add to a political analysis. For me, this is another reason why we all benefit from looking inward, and questioning what might feel natural and inevitable to us.
So for me heart and soul work is absolutely crucial to Transition’s thriving and development. However, acknowledging that isn’t the end of it. I believe that for Transition to succeed it must strike a balance between raising fundamental questions about our current ways of being and remaining open and inviting to all sorts of people, whatever their identification, encountering it. For that to happen I think that many of us might need to engage with a variety of possibly strange and uncomfortable ways of knowing while doing everything we can to make sure that no-one feels forced to do so.