We are delighted to offer a new series of sessions in our Systems Library! The aim of the program remains: to deepen systems literacy by reflecting on key publications in systems thinking and practice. However, this time we are experimenting with a more ambitious format:
The idea is to make the Library a place of genuine collaborative learning. We don't want to merely accept an author’s arguments; we want to examine and metabolise ideas, tease and reshape the logic, and make it our own. It is not necessary to buy the book or read it in preparation for the sessions.
The program is organised online on 4 evenings (CET) in May 2022. A Zoom link will be shared upon registration. Participation fee is 200 euro (VAT included). It is not possible to register for individual sessions. The number of seats is 16.
Why this book – a glimpse
Systems thinking continues to evolve, as it explores the fringes of thought and practice concerning change, learning and life. 'Solving global problems' requires us to fundamentally examine our relationship and interactions with the world. There is an urgent imperative to transcend the limitations of the modern worldview, increasingly seen as responsible for these global problems.
But how to question the air we are breathing? It seems a fiendishly difficult challenge. We need only to remind ourselves that we are not required to invent something that goes beyond our humanity. Indeed, the task is simply to rediscover ways of knowing that have been practised across human cultures over many centuries.
Dr Rajagopalan (Raghav) 's book is the outcome of his PhD research at the Centre of Systems Studies, University of Hull, UK. It enfolds his rich professional experience spanning rural and organisational development work in India. Raghav begins his argument from a distilled summary of contemporary applied systems thinking. Leaping forth, this intellectual footprint is projected on a wider philosophical canvas to build a bridge from current systems practices into several innovative (but sometimes also very old) ways of knowing, presently outside the scope of systems thinking. This is the realm of “immersive systemic knowing” – the beguiling title of the book.
'Solutions' for 'wicked problems' do not hinge on our ability to wield some nifty toolbox. Instead, the task is to become aware of the “air we are breathing”. We are not outside the system, and how/what we think and do is part of the dynamic that creates the problems. Therefore, this reflexivity is central to any corrective orientation. ‘Immersive systemic knowing’, in its excursions into ways of knowing from many times and places, teaches us ways to reflect and intuit. Taking responsibility starts at this origin point of witnessing our interaction with the world.
The Library experience
This edition of the Systems Library encompasses four online sessions of 90 minutes in the presence of the author. Each session is animated by two or more moderators and mixes three ingredients:
Visitors are invited to join in the unfolding conversations and practices, and to reflect, guided by a blend of dialogic and expressive arts techniques. In this way, we offer a space for the group to collectively metabolise this rich collection of insights and to actively explore a new systemicity. This is a unique opportunity for people who seek to meaningfully expand their systems practice and literacy through guided reflection and bring their abiding passion for genuine change into the real world, creative practice and dialogue.
Why bring systems thinking and expressive arts together?
Systems thinking aims for holistic knowing, and explicitly seeks to overcome the limitations of mechanism, reductionism, and subject-object duality. A key element in the systems approach is the idea of enactive cognition. This is the understanding that reality is neither something entirely out there (functionalist approach) nor entirely fabricated in our minds (interpretive approach). Rather, it is fashioned in the interaction between some elements we hold in our minds and the elements we identify or recognise outside in the world through our senses. What we perceive: how we construct our idea or model of reality – is an outcome of this interface and interaction between the inner and outer worlds.
This idea of enactive cognition arises from the careful and brilliant experiments that Humberto Maturana and Francis Varela carried out - to show that "colour" is neither a given fixed property of objects outside (such as the physics of light-wave absorption, reflection and refraction), nor a template of perceptual filters inside our visual perceptive apparatus or system, but a combination of both. So, you can have cultural phenomena like the absence of perception or name for the colour blue in a particular tribe, but also the fact that colour names like ‘blue’ or ‘red’ can represent a universal and common experience for all members of the human species (who are conversant with those words).
Current systems thinking theories and practices attend to the issue of the subjective in constructing models or representations of reality by being ‘aware’ of ‘mental models’ (this refers collectively to all preformed ideas, values, and frameworks). However, it is not merely rational ideas or conscious values/prejudices/emotions (the stuff of mental models) that determine how or what we perceive. There is another vast baggage of unconscious deposits, or residues, of past experiences and their imprints that come into play when we are attempting to see and act in the world: stored information we are not consciously aware of. Contemporary Western society, in particular, restricts, prohibits and regulates attention to and expression of raw emotions and intuitions - especially those considered negative.
When the body-mind apparatus's natural sensing and reactions are blocked, repressed and deposited as scar tissue into inaccessible and unconscious regions of our minds and bodies, they lock up psychic energy that is no more available for free participation in life; they also block the expression of intuitive wisdom and contribute a distortive element to our perceptions.
Knowing in action research and indigenous wisdom traditions
Formal systems thinking and practice seeks a pattern of dots (elements) and connecting lines (relationships) to thereby identify a ‘system’. Whereas, it is basic human nature to intuit a far more complex web of relationships than what formal systems tools and techniques can capture. Numerous wisdom traditions (including many contemporary inquiry practices like action research) address this stored information with more sophistication. They harness it by formal sensing techniques to verify and triangulate what can be known or understood about our influence on the resultant dynamic system behaviour.
Expressive Arts, as an applied practice to therapy or inquiry, is one of the approaches that open up this aspect. By connecting to our stored embodied knowing, and becoming aware and alive to our sensing capabilities, we uncover precisely those hidden, unconscious deposits of past experiences and memories that influence our current perception, and thus mediate the enactive cognition process.
Arts are indigenous to all humans. Martha Graham said that the body never lies. Expressive Arts builds on that: your mind can tell you various narratives and you can believe them. However, your body won't. In expressive arts, we create a space for a discovery of the suppressed, undiscovered, unconscious, intuitive, and natural. This is the canvas that expressive arts practitioners tap into and mediate for others.
Expressive arts and indigenous practices can help people to expand their so-called "window of tolerance" (after D. Siegel), "range of play" (after P.Knill), or "circle of capacity" (after C. Malchiody), using various forms of expression as movement, sound, storytelling, ritual, and silence. These guided practices allow people to unlock the psychic energy stuck inside: the memories and imprints from a rich life lived.
The Systems Library experience is faithful to the book!
Participants can ‘meet themselves’ in an experience of ‘embodied knowing’ and create space (or rather internal spaciousness) for this kind of new knowledge. The Indian Vedic tradition, the Buddhist and Taoist traditions all hold that awakening to this inner spaciousness centres the person to engender a vastly deeper appreciation of the complexity, paradoxes and dynamic pulse of the outer world.
Any discovery and learning require dying to the old knowing, embracing a transitory realm of the unknown and navigating into the new. Expressive arts offers a safe container for such exploration.
The proposed library edition experiment “Immersive Systemic Knowing” will mix cognitive activities: book presentation/discussion and reflection, interchangeably, with invitations to art-based activities. The process will flow spontaneously and naturally and there is no separation.
The design of the library edition demonstrates the argument set out in the book. Clarity of knowing arises in the witnessing of the dynamic inter-shaping praxis between practice and thinking. It supports venturing forth to know and act responsibly in the world, with justified hope: a hope that is grounded by first embracing the liminal space of not-knowing.
Picture left by Witold Vandenbroeck