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Culture for a Healthy World

I’ve been musing a lot in recent months about culture, and its part in the inner dimension of Transition. I see culture as something that both expresses something of who we are – the books, films, TV programmes, art that we make, how we have conversations, relationships, come together in groups and organisations, what we share or not in terms of language, values, expectations and so on. But our culture also shapes us – tells us what’s expected in order to belong and be part of these groups, shapes what we perceive, feel, think about, imagine. Like much of our society, most of the culture we have arises in a way that is not designed to any particular end other than to entertain, to sell newspapers or books or to gain an audience.

Some of our media is more consciously aimed at raising awareness of injustice, telling stories that evoke or invite a response, or ask questions to challenge systems of thought. The one area which is very specifically designed using psychological research is the advertising industry, which has found that the way to get people to behave how you want is to speak to their inner world of aspiration, values or sense of identity. I wonder what would happen in a society where culture was created much more consciously, with greater awareness of how humans work internally, and designed to promote both the values and understandings that genuinely support well being and happiness?

At the last Transition conference in Liverpool we gave quite a focus on the issues of how groups work – and included a process to vision and discuss what healthy group culture might look like in the future. Another strand I’ve been exploring recently is around conflict and peace – I’ve been in a number of situations involving conflict in the last year; and I’ve been attending a training in facilitation skills which has moved my thinking around conflict on a lot. I also had the immense good fortune to spend a week last summer with an organisation called the Art of Mentoring, who include a lot of teaching about what they call “cultural repair” including the story of the Peacemaker from the Haudenosaunee confederacy of northern America (also called the Iroquois but not by themselves.)

I was fascinated to find out about this story, because it’s the second one I’ve come across that includes some elements of the inner dimension of the Transition that I think we’re engaged with, from a culture and worldview that leads to destruction to one that creates health and well being at all levels of scale (the other story I’ve heard is the one Rob tells, about the conversion of Tibet by Tsong Tsen Gampo, from the rule of feuding warlords to Buddhism and peace). The story is usually told as a ceremony – taking several days to tell. This is a very condensed version.

The story starts many hundreds of years ago when the five tribes of the Haudenosaunee are caught in cycles of increasing violence. War parties raid each others’ territory, stealing, killing and raping, followed by revenge raids which keep the cycle going. In such a culture – similar to gangland cultures the world over – the strongest, most violent, rise to the top and become leaders. Those willing to be most brutal gain power, and keep the level of violence escalating.

Across the waters of Lake Ontario were refugee camps for those who had escaped the violence and fled to what is now Canada. In one of these camps the Peacemaker was born. When he reached a certain age he prepared to cross the lake to take his mission of peace to the warring tribes. He made a canoe of white stone – rare and valuable – and crossed the lake, shouting his message as he paddled across. The first people who saw him were some people of the Onendaga tribe, who planned to steal his canoe, and would have killed him but were intrigued by what he was saying. So he made a safe landing, and persuaded them to let him live.

The first person he gave his message to was a young woman called Chigunzasee. It is said that when she heard his words she cried two kinds of tears. The first tears were for the dream she had lost – some part of her knowing that her birthright was not this world of violence and fear, that humans can live in a different way. The second kind of tears was grief at the realisation that she had given up on this knowledge, and become part of the system she knew to be wrong. She became his first supporter.

The Peacemaker (his name is in some of their writings, but we weren’t given it – it is seen as sacred and not written down) met with leaders from all of the five tribes, gradually convincing them to adopt a culture of peacemaking. The last leader to be approached was the fiercest of them all, a man called Tatadaho, reputed to be so skilled that he could kill with his thoughts.

The principles of peace are still a lived culture in the Haudenosaunee, one of the oldest democratic models that is still in existence. Tribes of the federation have, as much as possible, protected their culture and kept their people traditions as intact as possible during the time of the arrival or invasion of white people.

Here’s an example of peacemaking as it might have occurred between white settlers and native people. For the tribes, a large part of how they lived on the land was through leaving tracts of wild forest as a resource for seasonal food – hunting, foraging, fuel, materials. White people arriving in a different season would see this land as unoccupied, clear the trees and start farming. When the tribe returned perhaps a young man would go to visit the forest they had left, only to find the cleared farmland. In many cases the white people, seeing a native man on “their” land, and believing fearful stories about the “Indians” would shoot him without asking questions. We might ask ourselves, how our system of “justice” would deal with a situation like this, and how it would contribute towards making peace?

The Haudenosaunee way might look like this. The tribal elders would invite the family of the dead youth to come to the place he died, and ask the white family also to join. His family would talk about his life, his skills, perhaps the children or wife he left behind. The intention would be to make a healing – that the white family should feel a responsibility for his family, and take on some part of providing for them. So that out of death and tragedy what came was stronger community, not revenge and continuing hatred.

We were told the three principles of peacemaking on the Art of Mentoring week, and some insights into how society is structured to embed them, and I offer them here to the best of my understanding.

The first principle concerns Peace itself. What is peace? It is not just the absence of war or violence. Living in peace means living a life which is deeply connected – to self, other and nature. Through these connections all experience a sense of belonging, shared responsibility for the well being of all. A large part of the design of the week I experience with the Art of Mentoring was spent in activities which strengthen all these levels of connection - story telling, a lot of singing and what they call core practices to build nature connection – done alone or in groups.

Living in peace also means living a life which is creative and fulfilling, and which serves the needs of the community. Children are automatically members of their tribe, but once a young person is old enough to have a mind of their own, and be responsible for their actions they are made to leave. To regain membership they have to show that they understand the principles of peace, and of service to the well being of the community as their priority as an adult. (And as an application to Transition it made me think of the question of inclusion in our meetings. Should we have a principle that anyone can be part of a group with a purpose of doing something? Or are there basic criteria that members should meet – for example, that we make agreements and stick to them, unless there is a good reason otherwise; or that members will not let personal needs or agenda interfere with the purpose of the whole group and its well being?)

The Haudenosaunee believe a human being can be in two states of mind which they call “Upright mind” and “Deteriorating mind”. These mirror the two states we talk about in the inner transition section of the Transition training. In some traditions these might be called the “Ego” – individualistic, narcissistic, fear based or other personality habits that are self serving, or attempting to preserve a false self-image – or the “Self” – connected to and in service to the well being of all (people write whole books exploring what these two things mean.. I hope it will mean something to all reading this!).

The Haudenosaunee include a particular role in their council meetings, someone who is responsible for ensuring the meeting stays in “Upright Mind”. If someone is seen in a council meeting operating from “Deteriorating Mind” this person will say something like.. “I can see there is an insect crawling near the fire, so I will just interrupt the meeting while I carry it away.” And he or she will take a stick and remove the insect. So no-one is named or shamed, but everyone in the meeting can check how they are feeling and what their inner state is. This role of “vibes-watcher” for a meeting is also something that Starhawk suggests, to notice and name any dynamics that may be present and perhaps interfering with wise decision making.

The second principle of peacemaking was summarised as “The Good Message”. It means, use your finest words to talk about, or to another, and in meetings. Don’t criticise or demean others, especially behind their backs. They call this poisoning that person’s water. Every group gathering in the Art of Mentoring week started with someone – usually an elder – talking about something they are grateful for.

I am interested also in the effects of emphasising the positive when we are working together. At a recent Transition event in Totnes the facilitator brought the wonderful piece of research that marriages, work groups and organisations that keep a ratio of 6 or more positive, appreciative remarks for every negative or critical one, are happy, stay together and perform well. Brain chemistry research confirms that we are wired to be much more sensitive and sticky to criticism than complements. (I imagine an exercise where people in a Transition meeting are given a stack of two coloured cards, and each person plays one colour each time they say something positive, and plays the other for criticisms or negatives. At the end of the meeting each person can see what their contribution has been, and what the balance is for the group as a whole. The facilitator might then need to take some responsibility to make sure there are opportunities in the meeting to really increase the level of positive contributions – for instance through rounds of appreciations or celebrations of achievements),

And finally, the third principle of peacemaking is “Unity”. At a very basic level this could be expressed as – “Don’t let personal issues or agendas get in the way of agreeing together what is in the best interests of all.” This is something like decision making by consensus, or consent, such as in Sociocracry – where you need to have a reasoned and paramount objection why the proposal is against the well being of the whole group in order to block it. But there also is a deeper intention, which I understood as something like the shift from operating as an individual to operating as one part of a whole. For me this relates to the idea of interdependence, something that is challenging in society where there is such value given to independence. So staff at AoM spend time creating a shared message which includes the wisdom of the whole group and which everyone undertakes to deliver – as well as bringing their own personal emphasis and specialism.

The last piece on peacemaking was how their system of governance worked – and again this is something that is radically different from ours. First, that the primary objective of society, and therefore of the culture of society, is to raise happy, thriving, connected, community focused children. The work of adults is to ensure this, and the role of elders is to support the adults to achieve it. How opposite is that to our government’s list of priorities? And what would our world look like if the well being of children, mothers and fathers were put at the top of the political agenda rather than near the bottom?

One application of these principles is seen in the structure of AoM staff meetings. These always start with time to clear anything which is in the way of everyone being fully present and in trusting relationship to each other. If two or more people are having some kind of conflict or difficulty the whole meeting will take time to sort this out until it is resolved. This might take the whole meeting, but ensures that there is genuinely a feeling of full cooperation when issues are discussed and decisions made. The person describing this practice to me said that one of the main effects is that people make a big effort to clear anything before the staff meeting, not wanting to be responsible for holding up the business to deal with their personal issues.

How is this relevant to Transition? I believe our western culture includes a great mix of what the Haudenosaunee describe as “upright” and “deteriorating” mind. We live with everyday examples of generosity, selflessness, helping strangers. And we witness whole industries that are caught in a culture of competitive greed operating without any moral compass. We see people sharing power and wealth and working for the empowerment of others as well as those who use their privilege to get and keep ever more for themselves. I believe our culture expresses these two sides that each of us has within us, and at the same time continually recreates both. The goal of cultural Transition might therefore be framed as designing activities, resources, processes, practices, that strengthen the experience of well being, and reduce or minimise the experience that leads to contraction and fear. And this would include activities at all levels of scale – from how I live, to what I create in close relationships or friendships, to how I work with others in a group, organisation, or as part of my community.

It is one of the challenges – and maybe strengths - of Transition that there is no established culture for how groups should work. Sometimes I have envied the Art of Mentoring, or the Quakers, who have tried and tested practices and simply teach them to new people. I imagine most Transition groups go through some of the phases I’ve been part of in Totnes groups – the excitement of starting with people who share my vision; the pleasure of getting stuff done; needing to create more and more structures as we get more successful, as new people join, as the work widens; hitting tricky dynamics as differences surface – in communication style, needs, priorities, ways of doing or being together. The difficulty of keeping the energy going, of encouraging new people to get to a place where they are ready to pick up responsibility, and of long term members letting go. And in some cases encountering really challenging conflict, where it becomes hard even to stay in communication with another person (and please don’t imagine that because I’ve done all this studying of peace that I’m particularly good at conflict myself!).

I guess my purpose in offering this blog is to speak up for the need for thought out, healthy organisational culture which supports trust, generosity, acceptance, creativity, learning, meaningful action, reflection, honesty, and an ability to include, welcome and learn from conflict when it arises. To recognise that there will be cultural blind spots – for example a common tendency to emphasise doing rather than strengthening relationships, or spending time on designing healthy group culture. Another bias can be to think that we should be able to make groups work without giving it much attention – when I would say the opposite is true, that it’s probably the most difficult technology of all those we need for Transition. And as we include people with very different backgrounds to those already in the group, the skills we need to maintain trust can become ever more sophisticated and complex. I’ve really enjoyed reading some of the posts in this project that include descriptions of how relationships are created and develop, and I’m particularly interested in what helps groups be successful and enjoyable. As if we are creating and experiencing the post-Transition relocalised culture in every part of our lives, our relationships, meetings, and our organisations, already, today! Sophy Banks

Photos: Conference participants exploring group culture; map of Five Nations territory; flag of the Five Nations of the Haudenosaunee; Certificate of being celebrated at TTT 5th birthday; Developing connections to our wild neighbours is a key part of the Art of Mentoring


For more information on the Art of Mentoring see
Facilitation training is with Arlene and Jean Claude at cfor,
Information on the Haudenosaunee Confederacy can be found at and other sites.


Caroline Jackson's picture

Healthy groups

Thank you Sophie for this thought provoking blog.  I am going to spread it as widely as possible to people in Transition City Lancaster, partly because it chimes so well with the 80/20 group recently formed in Lancaster around issues over the cuts (people of different social/political etc views concentrating on the 80% they have in common rather than the 20% that divides them).  We are not particularly troubled by conflict here but I think the ideas could bring a new clarity to our thinking about how groups interact healthily.

Kerry Lane's picture

 A fascinating post Sophy. I

 A fascinating post Sophy. I am also drawn to group processes and how to create happy, thriving groups. Your course sounds really interesting. I would love the opportunity to go on some of these courses myself.

At a point when I was about ready to give up on Transition Norwich due to the relationship turmoils it was experiencing I had the privilege of going on an Otesha tour. A lot of the training week for the tours is spent building a strong tour community and my 2 months as part of this community renewed my faith in the potential for happy harmonious community living.

This is an inspiring video about how Occupy Wall Street are making decisions - its amazing

Marella Fyffe's picture

Groups and conflict

 Hi Sophy,

Great piece . Thought provoking and incisive. Coming from Northern Ireland and having been involved with a voluntary organisation that trains leaders who want to make a difference in the world. At the end of the day no matter what culture exists or not it just comes down to one thing only. The art of communication. 

Iver Lofving's picture

I think we need to have some kind of trust first

I think we have to have an understaning between different cultures to create peace.  They can remain as different cultures, but they need to have some trust in order to make peace.  The Iroquois confederacy is still in existence.  One of the tribes came in from the south and was admitted into the confederacy.  I think it was the Tuscaroras.  We need to create a transition movement that incorporates other cultures.  For example the majority of Transitioners here in the US are on the left of the political spectrum.  We need to incorporate everyone that lives in our towns.  We are not going to care how he or she voted when we actually have to make the place work.   The transition will involve a shift away from identification with a political party and towards a committment to making it work. 

I saw a talk given by a permaculture guy from Australia.  He said that in nature when there is a growing supply of energy there is a lot of competition.  With a diminishing supply cooperation becomes a better strategy.   We are going to have to learn to cooperate not just because it's a nice thing to do, but as a means to survive.  

Iver Lofving's picture

double post

double post

Stuart Reddish's picture

Scandavian influence of Open Assembly on the Culture of Britain

Very thought provoking blog. There is some overlap in your thinking with projects I have been involved with in the past few years. Scandavian (or Viking) Thing sites hold a tradition as the foundation of modern democracy.

“Cultural heritage is an important resource in local communities. It is part of our cultural identity; it gives us something to take pride in, it gives us confidence that we possess a legacy that matters to our national narratives. The promotion of the thing (assembly) sites as birthplace of modern democracy in Northern Europe could benefit our region in many ways. There is a trend that people want genuine qualities in peaceful surroundings. Most thing sites, I believe, should represent such unique qualities”. Opening address by Heidi Grande Røys, Nordic Co-operation Minister and Minister of Government Administration and Reform, at the Gulating Summer Seminar, 23 June 2008.

Have a look at our site on tangible and intangible cultural heritage at:

and our local project in Sherwood Forest which has just received Heritage Lottery funding to re-engage the local communities with Viking and Forest heritage: