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  • Writer's pictureDavid Patterson

The Gifts we are Given and Whole System Change

Updated: Jul 31, 2023



Here is a little story about the gifts of insight and community.


A couple of weeks ago, my wife, Anne and I took a one-week holiday to Prince Edward Island, a tiny island province in Canada off the east coast. At first, we thought we would spend most of our time touring this picturesque part of the country. But we had bad luck in the timing of our visit. The day before we arrived had been sunny with 35˚ Celsius (95˚ F). However, the day we arrived it was 6˚ C (43˚ F) and rainy and that was the weather every day for the week we were there. But the rain and cold turned out to be a blessing. We were able to do some touring of the beautiful coastline and rolling farmlands in a car in the rain but we, in large part, stayed in our rented cottage. We caught up on our reading and went to the spa, exercise room, and pool in the adjacent hotel. It became a rest and relaxation holiday instead of racing around trying to take in the whole island. For me, it became a delicious time of reflection.

Before I left on holiday, Olivia, one of my colleagues at Common Earth introduced several of us to a book by George Mumford titled Unlocked: Embrace Your Greatness, Find the Flow, Discover Success. That was the first book I chose to read on my holiday. Mumford is recovering from drug and alcohol use disorder. After going through detox, he became a counsellor in mindfulness/state of mind training and ended up teaching this to the Chicago Bulls with Michael Jordan and the Los Angeles Lakers with Kobe Bryant and also in prisons. I liked this book, so I also read Mumford’s earlier book The Mindful Athlete – Secrets to Pure Performance. In both books, Mumford speaks of expanding the space between stimulus and response. How we humans can use that space to decide on our response. And that in turn reminded me of a dear friend named Clair Woodbury who led a teen summer camp I attended 60 years ago who would say “you are not a Coke machine.” The Coke machine responds - push a button and get a response. Both Woodbury and Mumford were pointing at the freedom we have in the space between stimulus and response.


I went on to reflect how much of the trouble I get myself into comes from my competitive nature. It arises when I am surprised or disappointed by a friend, colleague, or client. As this was passing through my mind, I looked out the window at the stormy weather battering a young tree out front of our PEI cottage. The tree just seemed to take the beating of the wind and rain and go with it. It bent to the wind. Then and there I decided to watch out for my times of disappointment and surprise and to bend like the tree rather than turning on my hyper-competitive mode.


Within hours I had my first surprise. A colleague of mine (not from Common Earth) decided to argue in an email against a business initiative I had decided on. My normal response would have been to make my point stronger and write a “convincing” email. But this time I decided to tone it down and I edited out my strongest remarks. But before I sent the email, I again delayed and reread the intended email. This time I saw I was still trying to argue my point. So, the email again got edited down to a friendly comment that we could revisit the topic. I really don’t know how that will come out, but I do know that I felt better about the approach on the other side of getting advice from Olivia, Mumford, Woodbury, and the tree. They became my pop-up community. They all contributed to me getting an insight and thus getting to a state of mind I wanted to inhabit. A state that felt right.


The gift of insight is a little like an anonymous gift. We are often not looking for it, but it just shows up one day at our front door. Insight surprises us because we find that we can go back to that door repeatedly and find a gift of new insight each time. The “door” in this case is just a matter of getting rested and having our mind in a quiet state. In that state, we often find ourselves with access to our internal wisdom that is far beyond what we know in the forefront of our minds.


Joanna Macy


I read the book, Active Hope, by Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone, a while ago but recently Debbie, another Common Earth colleague again got us focussed on Macy’s work and this book in particular. In this book, we find their description of the four stages of a spiral which they call the Work That Reconnects. These stages are: coming from gratitude, honouring our pain for the world, seeing with new eyes, and going forth. So, let’s look at some of the understandings we have come upon through the lens of what we might call the Macy Spiral.

Coming from Gratitude


What are we thankful for? The path humankind has travelled over the past 500 years has brought us to the edge of catastrophe, but the modern age has brought us many things to be thankful for. Here are three of them that I appreciate:

  • A massive expansion of knowledge and education.

  • Networks of global communication that make global communities possible.

  • In most parts of the world, an increase in physical health over the last few generations.

In each of these categories we can see that the modern fossil fuel driven economies have created surpluses that resulted in these benefits.

The expansion of knowledge could not have happened to such a degree in a subsistence society. The leverage our society has had from coal, oil, and natural gas has enabled the building of hundreds of great universities around the world. I am grateful for the understanding we have of the earth systems, and the history of the universe.


At Common Earth we sometimes have video calls that include participants from a dozen or more countries. I am grateful for the modern society that has created the communication networks that allow me to get to know people on the other side of the world. These relationships have greatly enhanced my well-being.


There have been many times that the healthcare system has saved the life of members of our extended family, and we are immensely grateful for modern healthcare.


There are many other things that draw my gratitude but these three are examples of things that exist because we live in a modern society built on the burning of fossil fuels. This is the very society that is now destroying the planet that sustains us.


Honoring Our Pain for the World


In these posts and in our Common Earth courses we have made clear that the current socioeconomic system has only a short time to live. When we make the highest value or purpose of our society to be the acquisition and concentration of wealth, we end up with some very warped results such as:

  • A handful of people control assets equal to all the assets of fifty percent of the global population.

  • A large percentage of the population is controlled and limited by indebtedness.

  • Modern farming practices are destroying the soil of our agricultural lands so that we may have less than 60 harvests left. (In PEI we saw beautiful-looking agricultural lands but heard a farmer say that “nothing grows in PEI without fertilizer.”)

  • The current society is pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere at an increasing rate knowing that those gases will continue to warm the Earth for more than the next thousand years.

  • We have gotten ourselves on a treadmill requiring greater and greater “GDP growth” while at the same time we know that we can’t have more growth without more energy use, and more destruction of the resources and sinks that allow us to exist.

We could enumerate hundreds of these contradictions in our current society. But just note that our present socioeconomic system is simply unsustainable. It will die due to a lack of social cohesion or due to famine or due to overheating or due to collapse of basic supply chains. These realities cannot be acknowledged without a significant sense of grief. Sometimes that grief plays out as denial, sometimes as despair, and sometimes as throwing ourselves into distraction. But underneath these defensive strategies we know the realities. We have been living in a manner that will never again be available to humankind. It comes as a great relief to acknowledge reality. Energy being used to avoid that reality becomes available for more productive purposes. We honor our pain when we acknowledge the truth. We need Whole Systems Change. No part of our lives will remain unchanged.


Seeing With New Eyes


The third station on the Macy Spiral is “Seeing with New Eyes.” In our Common Earth courses, we talk about “insight” which combines that seeing with a ‘look within’ direction. This looking within is a lifelong journey but let me say how this comes to me today. This seeing for me is seeing a new understanding of who we are – of who really is “I.” In our Module 2 course we read the Alan Watts paper titled “Ego.” In it he shows us that our ego image is an illusion. One of his images is the bee and the flower. Bees don’t exist without flowers and flowers don’t exist without bees. The two are bound together to the point of being a bee-flower – one entity. The sense we have of being some center of something called an I, leads to all sorts of stress in our lives. Our real self is as dependent on factors outside our skin as much as it is dependent on factors inside that skin. But how do you get rid of the ego? Well, Watts pokes fun at that question because it is asking how we get rid of the feeling of being an ego by using the ego to get rid of it. Trying to get rid of the feeling of ego just strengthens the feeling. Watt’s answer: you can’t do anything about that feeling of ego, so you just watch what is going on.


Let’s try a different direction to make a similar point. Science tells us that at the Big Bang 13.8 billion years ago, everything that is in our universe today was at a point. Think about that space being about as big as the last joint on your right thumb. From that point came all the energy that transformed first into hydrogen and helium and then pulled into stars that created the heavier atoms and eventually we were the result. Now ask yourself the question, “When did the Big Bang stop.” The question almost answers itself – it didn’t stop. It is the only thing going on here – the great unfolding of the universe. We are the first generation in all of history to realize that, in the words of one poet, “We are the universe looking back at itself.”


We know that energy can neither be created nor destroyed but only changes from one form to another. So, all the energy we use to think or run or do any human activity comes from that first moment. And how it happened is a total mystery. At the bottom of things, we are part of a great flaming forth and behind our life is the same mystery that is behind the Big Bang.


When our sense of self shifts to the whole, when we see that we too are a bee-flower, our whole world changes. That is the first gift, that will carry us forward. It will enable us to embrace our lucidity, our resilience, and our creativity.


Going Forth


The fourth and final station on Macy’s Spiral is “Going Forth.” In our Common Earth courses, we talk about the power of Community. To accomplish anything, that is, to go forth, we need a community. As we have been saying above, we are a person-environment like a bee-flower. But a community is more than an environment. It can be a group of people who consciously decide to be a community. Or a community can be a group like my community above that included Debbie, Olivia, Mumford, Woodbury, and the tree. Only Olivia and Debbie were consciously members of my community. And the only reason to be a community is to accomplish some purpose.


A community is a system with a purpose. The structure of the community system is in large part the made-up thoughts the members of the community have about its purpose. Without a clear consensus of why the community exists the community will fail and likely cease to exist. So common study and rehearsing of the purpose is critical to maintaining the community in good working order. Likewise, community symbols and celebrations help the community maintain its focus.


If the first gift we are given to go forward is the gift of insight, the second gift is the gift of community. The individual and the community live in reciprocity. Insight happens in community and community happens on the other side of insight. The motive power for both bees and flowers, both individuals and communities comes from the energy of the first moment of the universe. There is really only one thing going on here. It is the going forth of all of this big old universe.


© 2023 - David Patterson - All rights reserved.

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