The Art of Hosting Conversations that Matter: A glimpse into the more beautiful world our hearts know is possible

This article first appeared in the spring-summer 2016 issue of Kosmos Journal.

The quality of our conversations makes our world what it is. How we talk to each other determines whether we walk away from each other and prepare to fight for our separate interests, or hold fire, stay together and open up into a future of mutual understanding and brighter possibility. Conversation is an art that can be practiced at any scale, from ones and twos to thousands, on timescales ranging from minutes to days to permanently ongoing.

This article is an introduction to a body of practice and a growing global self-organising network that I feel holds a crucial piece of the puzzle of how to start to embody the new story of the civilisation that we deeply intuit is possible, and that human hearts and souls long for. The ‘Art of Hosting Conversations that Matter’ is a participatory approach to life where personal practice, dialogue, hosted collective inquiry and co-creative innovation support the healthy unfolding of human life on Earth in the complex conditions of today’s world. It is especially effective in those situations and contexts where the complexity is such that our habitual resort to ‘predict and control’ just makes things worse, and we barely dare to admit that we don’t know what to do. The pattern of this practice spans the personal and the collective, the local and the global, the inner and the outer, the visible and the invisible. Its domain—the place where it thrives—is the complex reality of living systems, the sweet spot between chaos and order where resides the co-creation of the truly new. Its ethos is a love of wholeness, a delight in the aliveness of diversity, a fierce and radical inclusion of everything that shows up in the world.

An example of co-creation in action

Mike speaks

Mike speaks. (Photo by Hans Stockmans)

“Imagine you have everything set up for the next five years, and then suddenly it all goes wrong. You end up losing everything. One day you lose your money, on other days you lose your friends. Finally, you lose the safety of your home. You have lost it all because your society has gone wrong. And so there is nothing left to do but leave, to go somewhere else. That’s when you discover that wherever you go, people are afraid of you. After a long and difficult journey, I arrived in this country. In the 4 months I have been here, this is the first place I have found where people have the courage to meet strangers without fear. Thank you.”

The speaker of these words is a young Syrian man called Mike. He is speaking into a large and diverse circle of people in a historical manor house deep in the rural hinterland of Flanders, the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium. He has been brought to this place and this circle by a string of synchronicities, in response to his own heartfelt request – and that is another story.

So what is this circle of people doing together in this place? And, as I allow the shivers to run through my body on receiving Mike’s story, why am I not surprised at the magic in this room? We are more than 70 people, from three continents and 14 countries. Our ages range from 14 to 70. We come from different cultural and historical backgrounds and social and financial circumstances. Most of us did not know each other when we arrived. We have been together in this place for two days already and this is the morning of the third and last day of our gathering. Each of us has chosen to be here in response to the call of a question that matters to us: “What if it were up to us to embody a society where everyone and everything can thrive? Where I can accept and celebrate your culture and values without having to devalue or sacrifice my own?”

This question arose from a collective inquiry among a handful of people living in Belgium and in search of more satisfying ways of relating to the diversity that is an inescapable fact of life in today’s society. In language, culture, politics, ethnicity, creed, age, profession, role, personal history – the ways in which we differ are infinite. Wherever we look, we see chasms to be crossed, bridges to be built: how can top-down meet bottom-up? How can we engage with all stakeholders? Integrate successive waves of refugees? Reach out across the gulfs between generations, faiths, languages, worldviews and cultures? How can we invite all these differences into an appreciation of our abundance, instead something to fear?

And what is the point of gathering to inquire into such a vast question when we are, relatively speaking, so few? What difference can it possibly make to the turmoil pounding against the borders of Europe and frothing into its heartland to disrupt our quiet lives? The point is: to learn together. We are here together for three days to learn and practice the Art of Hosting Conversations that Matter (also called the Art of Participatory Leadership): a body of methods and practices to help us stay present with these questions in our daily lives, in ways that can transform our experience, individually and collectively. This is a practical approach to building the capacity for a different way of being together that is essentially participatory and co-creates collective intelligence, where we talk with each another, and not about each other. These practices help us to bring forth action (and non-action) based on the best collective wisdom present in any human system.

Learning gatherings like the one described here have been taking place throughout the world, on every continent (except Antarctica), for almost 20 years. No one has counted how many there have been. Each one is unique. Each one finds some new way to innovate, always building on and bringing forth the shared practice and models of the Art of Hosting, which is in essence a pattern for co-creation.

Foto 07.02.16, 10 25 21

Loaves and fishes manifesting as tea-time

As an example, in this gathering in Belgium we added two experiments related to the aspect of embodying the new society. Firstly, instead of buying in the catering, we ‘hosted’ the kitchen: we invited in a team of volunteers to participate by preparing our meals (Syrian Mike was a valued member of the kitchen crew). The result of that experiment was a bit like the miracle of the loaves and the fishes. We wallowed in a veritable banquet of exquisite, organic, vegetarian dishes at every meal, with a budget that came in below the estimate and debouched upon half a barn full of unused ingredients to give away. The second experiment was the ‘shared economy’. Learning how to embody the society where all can thrive also means finding new ways to relate to money and value creation. We therefore deviated from the convention of charging a standard fee for the gathering (also offered as a training) as a transaction, opting instead for a learning experiment to discover what the future holds for communities that can work well with economy, currency, value and generosity, bringing relationship back into the exchange. This took the form of a cooperative, responsibility-based calling in of the resources needed to make the event possible, where the community as a whole—and not just the organising team—held the financial responsibility. That experiment resulted in a rich exploration of the shadow and light of our diverse relationships with money, meaning and value. The budget and finances (including the diverse fees asked by the hosts/trainers) were held in full transparency and we ended up with enough of a surplus to offer a financial contribution to each of the volunteer members of the kitchen crew (who had asked for nothing). We also came away with some co-created principles that our community wanted to use to determine its economy – principles that can (and will) travel out into the future beyond our group and context. I see such experiences as prototypes for the ‘circles of creation’ referred to in the series of articles on Collective Presencing I co-authored with Ria Baeck.

Given the timing and context of this learning event, the choice of ‘calling question’ was very deliberate. Our three days together taught us much about what it takes to embody that society where everyone can thrive. In fact, by practicing the patterns of the Art of Hosting, we co-created it in microcosm at the same time as we talked about it. Together we confirmed that it is possible to design processes which create a ‘safe container’ where people can show up in their diversity, their vulnerability, their authenticity, their curiosity and their creativity. Within that container, sharing our stories allows us to see each other in our humanity, beyond gender, history, culture, place of origin, rank/status, occupation, etc. When we meet in our humanity, diversity is not a threat but an opportunity: our differences are our wealth, what allows us to thrive in the complexity of life.

Café in full swing

World Café in full swing (Photo by Damien Versele)

So what is this Art of Hosting Conversations that Matter?

The Art of Hosting has been described in many different ways. This makes perfect sense, since it is a multi-faceted, continually evolving set of practices, models and perspectives. One way to think of it is as an ongoing inquiry into how to create collective intelligence and collective wisdom, and what happens when it becomes emergent – when deep conversation and cross-pollination bring novel insights and new shared meaning.

Another way of describing the Art of Hosting is as an iceberg. What appears first to the eye is a palette of conversational methodologies and approaches, many of which (Circle, Open Space Technology, the World Café, Appreciative Inquiry) were ‘invented’ elsewhere and are beautifully stewarded by their own communities of practice. One thing that all these methodologies have in common, though, is that while they mimic natural, spontaneous conversation, to do so effectively they must be skilfully invited, designed, hosted. The art lies in knowing when to use each, in service of a worthy purpose. The Art of Hosting takes the basic architecture, principles and processes of these methods and mixes, matches and adapts them to meet the needs of whatever context it is serving. This weaving and blending is our art form.

Beneath these methodologies that appear as the tip of the iceberg, we find the invisible scaffolding, attitudes and practices that allow the whole thing to float. Underlying everything are the basic assumptions that make up the Art of Hosting world view. Foremost of these is the awareness of human organisation as a complex, living system: just as living systems exist everywhere in nature (bacteria forming colonies, ants creating an anthill, complex ecosystems adapted to different climates, etc.) so people and organisations are complex living systems as well. In other words, they are intelligent, creative, adaptive, self-organising, and meaning-seeking. This is why participatory practices are so vital today: because they enable everyone to participate and be empowered. The innovation that humanity needs to get us out of the trouble we are in grows out of the dance between chaos and order, in the cross-pollination and new linking of ideas, experiences and insights. Conversations do, indeed, matter, because wise action (and non-action) emerges from the shared meaning we create together. (See also my article Evolutionary Entrepreneurship, engaging the collective will.)

The power of practice

Out of this view of the world as a living system springs an attitude to life not as a quest for knowledge and understanding, but rather as a practice of participation – a sacred search for the wicked questions that will open us up to experience more of life, more of our own depth, more of the mystery of the other and the magic of what we can create together, in service of Life. At the heart of the Art of Hosting lies what practitioners call ‘the four-fold practice’. The word ‘practice’ is prime here: we are learning together, one conversation at a time, to identify and strengthen the muscles of awareness that will allow us to develop mastery of a key social art form of the future. (The Art of Hosting provides a perfect portal into the practices of Collective Presencing).

  • The first dimension of this practice is that of developing personal presence as the basic instrument of participation. Presence is that quality of authenticity, vulnerability, confidence and courage which allows me to stand in the midst of intense emotion, to tolerate not-knowing-yet without rushing to fix anything, to be comfortable with silence, to work in service of purpose bigger than my ego. The practices that can support the emergence of presence are many and varied to suit all tastes: yoga, dance, martial arts, meditation, prayer, psychotherapy, time in nature, tantric sex, art, music – the point is to commit to regular practice and apply it here and now!
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    An aid to good dialogue: passing the talking piece

    The second dimension of practice is participation. On one level, this means practicing engaging in good conversations, in dialogue with deep listening. At a deeper level, we find in every waking moment an invitation to participate with all of life. Practices within this domain include active listening, dialogue, asking powerful questions, owning one’s own projections, expectations and assumptions, clarifying intentions, cultivating curiosity and opening to nature.

  • The third dimension of practice is hosting conversations. This is the domain of the methodologies that are the most obvious hallmark of the Art of Hosting. Beneath the surface, we learn the art of creating and holding a container in which people can have deeply meaningful conversations—even in a 2-day conference with 800 participants. We learn to ‘set’ the conditions that will allow a group to settle into collective presence, and to hold that space through the confusion of leaving familiar territory so that new order, fresh clarity and deeper relationship can emerge. Such conversations are much more likely to happen in the presence of clear intentions, a powerful calling question, a compelling invitation, good design, skilful framing, and the presence to hold space for emergence. One of the central tenets of the Art of Hosting is “never host alone”. This is not work for the solitary hero – “it takes a field to host a field”. It takes many years to master these subtle arts of collective interaction, and that is another reason why we call it ‘practice’!
  • The fourth dimension of practice is community. It is one thing to go to a training and learn the basics of the hosting practice. If we are to sustain our learning and keep our practice alive and growing to transform ourselves and our environment, we need to stay connected to other practitioners: we need a community of practice. The traditional way of ‘controlling the quality’ is to create an organisation or association that sets the standards. But to give emergence a chance, we share our knowledge through collaboration and conversation, without any formal hierarchy. In a way, this practice of community—this community of practice—is the culmination of dedicated practice by many people in the other three domains.

An emergent pattern of the New Paradigm: viral community

Within a little over a decade, the Art of Hosting community has grown from a handful of friends experimenting and sharing ideas together, to a global, self-organising network of many thousands, with new members joining all the time. For most people, the entry is through a three-day training like the one described above. For many, it is life-changing. There is no central institute rolling out cookie-cutter training seminars. Indeed, there is no licensing, trademark or copyright (other than a creative commons copyright for the co-created open-source companion guide), no organisational structure, staff or headquarters, no financial expectations or agreements. Each learning gathering is unique, called forth by a need in a local context and brought into being by the efforts of a few local practitioners, usually supported by one or more very seasoned ‘stewards’ of the Art of Hosting pattern, who might come in from another part of the world and who safeguard quality and protect the integrity of the DNA of the practice.

The people who attend these local training events come from all walks of society – local government, NGOs, schools, businesses, social workers, local community activists of all flavours, and just plain people who care to make the world a better place and are hungry for deeper human connection. Typically, in obedience to the injunction never to host alone, new practitioners then call in their local ‘mates’ to support them in applying the practices of Art of Hosting in their own contexts, where those practices begin to spread and transform what they touch. This is how local self-organising communities of practice have popped up in countless locations around the globe, allowing practitioners to support and deepen their practice together, and growing as ever more souls are touched by the practice and themselves call for training so that they, too, can immerse themselves in these patterns.

And then comes application: the practice in practice! Often a specially designed event is called for in a specific field, so as to engage with the full diversity of real stakeholders – examples include both food and finance in the UK, education in Lithuania, healthcare in Columbus, Ohio (USA), young people in Nova Scotia, business all over the place. In other cases, the Art of Hosting practices have taken root in a community or organisation and begun over time to transform it from the inside, stitching together the dynamic and healthy ecosystem that lives in potential within every space of human endeavour, despite the boundaries that tend to fragment us. Examples of this are Kufunda Village in Zimbabwe, the city of Columbus (Ohio) and the European Commission (now spreading to the other EU institutions) in Brussels. Stories from these and other contexts can be found at

All of these local fields are connected through a global, self-organising network that supports collective learning through a mailing list, online forums, a growing resource library and informative website.

In conclusion, what emerges

Over the years that the practice of the Art of Hosting has been developing and spreading, certain patterns consistently show up at different levels of scale:

  • Individuals step into their personal leadership to champion what they care about.
  • Teams increase their capacity to take wise action in complex situations.
  • Communities and organisations embrace more diversity, reconnect with their purpose and manifest more of their potential.
  • Globally, healthy, collaborative ecosystems of diverse communities and organisations emerge, seeking ways forward that benefit the whole.

I am writing this at a time when humanity is facing perhaps its ultimate challenge, as it is called to evolve away from our instincts of fight/flight/freeze towards our new capacities of witnessing, articulating and generating from conscious intention. The Art of Hosting Conversations that Matter offers a very effective training ground for building these new capacities. May we together fulfil our potential!

Diversity flows

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What are the practices of a Learning Village?

Statenberg manor

As we prepare to move into our second iteration of the International Learning Village at Statenberg Manor in Slovenia, I have revisited my notes from last summer to distil some thoughts that can help us to start from a more intentional place as we gather to take up where we left off in August 2012.

The following is simply a list, in no particular order, of the practices I observed us developing during our time together last year.

  • Generosity – At the heart of Circle Practice is the injunction: “offer what you can, and ask for what you need”. Dropping beneath the often disturbing conversation about money, last year we learned how important it is to openly express real appreciation and recognition. Many of us who live in the capitalist West have forgotten this, used as we are to close our transactions with an exchange of money, which tends to preclude the opportunity to build the relationship further. Living in the spirit of inquiry in the Learning Village offers us an abundance of opportunities to explore how generosity in both giving and receiving can deepen and broaden the web of interrelationships that form the basis for true community.
  • sacred fire

    Keeping the sacred fire – The presence of an ‘indigenous’ culture carrier last year allowed us to experience the extra dimensions that some lineage and ritual can provide. Regardless of the tradition that is practiced – in our case it was Pawa’s Nuu-chah-nulth lineage from the west coast of Vancouver Island – we entered collectively into a shared sense-making grounded in the practices of offering to the spirits of the land and place, the directions, the ancestors. The ‘grandmothers’ of the community stepped up explicitly to the practice of holding space for the gathering and offered sessions of deep sensing every morning in circle, in the presence of the flame that burned all the time that the community was in Open Space, open to all who wanted to attend. These turn out to be alchemical moments in the cauldron together: if we cook together for long enough, some wisdom will infuse into the stew.

  • Harvesting

    Inviting in the subtle dimensions – our community turned out to have quite a few ‘Aquarian shamans’: individuals sensitive to subtle energies and the teeming life that goes on behind the veil of surface appearances. In the Learning Village, everybody is invited in to subtle sensing: no one person has the whole picture, but each one is encouraged to speak what he or she senses into the middle – even if you don’t know what it means: somebody else might hold the key.

  • Passion and responsibility – life in Open Space can manifest its full potential only when each person participates fully: bringing their unique passion and individual responsibility as a contribution to the whole. This is when we truly learn what it means to live by the Law of Two Feet: my most authentic contribution is to be fully myself at all times, and to live the fullest expression of that truth.
  • Community – is a side-effect of the Learning Village. The foundation is learning to host myself.
  • Contribute by being yourself

    Conscious intention – Speaking our intention makes the implicit explicit – and life goes more smoothly when we do this. Good intentions can lead to unexpected consequences, especially when left implicit. Those unintended consequences can offer great opportunities for learning, but only when made explicit. So in the face of misunderstandings and disagreement, we examine our assumptions and speak them in the name of shared clarity.

  • Protect a minimal structure – last year someone offered this wisdom: “Lock everything you think you will need inside your house (with the key), then check later to see whether you still need it.” Collectives have a tendency to want to keep tweaking and adding refinements to the group norms, that then crystallise into rules. We learned last year that the minimum structure of Open Space was all that was needed. All other attempts at refining and improving gave us opportunities to reclaim our passion and responsibility for our own two feet, to reclaim our own judgements and expectations, and to LEARN our next lesson.
  • Hosted learning – having learning as the purpose of the village and our reason for participating allows us to release our judgements about what is going on. Hosted learning provides both witnessing and container. The field calls out my behaviour.
  • Celebrate connection

    Hosting with Place – last year we recognised some of the many ways in which the manor of Statenberg, the neighbouring village and its natural surroundings hosted the community and contributed to its wellbeing. Place is very present to intentional gatherings of humans, and when we explicitly invite and invoke the place to participate, it shows up in remarkable ways. As we move around the space, we can notice small details that give us pleasure through their beauty and evanescence – the way the sunlight falls on a stone, the butterfly that lands on my knee just as I speak a profound insight. This little miracles of cosmic presence are amplified when we share them with each other.

  • Hosting diversity – in a Learning Village, some folks want to innovate, whilst others want to preserve. We live in creative tension, understanding that the Art of Hosting – the common core of our learning community – has some basic foundational patterns that define its identity.  Last year we learned that being in community is like ‘homeopathic broadband’ – it amplifies whether or not I am connected to myself. In a diverse community, settling down can happen in one place (in the men’s circle, for example) at the same time as wildness is happening somewhere else (around the fire)… At the core, this is about hosting diversity: how do we allow it all to be there? The introverts, the people who hate being here, the people who aren’t ‘joiners’? We learned that the stronger the centre, the further the diversity can spin out the fringes without fragmenting the whole.

    Butterfly meetings

  • Recognising roles – the very fact of identifying the different roles, elements and functions that show up in our community enriches its complexity. Last year we witnessed the emergence of a number of roles, and naming and claiming them made their practice more intentional: there were historians who made meaning; map-makers who saw what we were doing and how it affected the whole; hosts who stewarded certain inquiries on behalf of the whole; harvesters who captured and represented our village life in colour and form; shamans who sensed the subtle and offered sacred ritual. And there were intentional apprentices to each of these roles: we come to the Learning Village to build relationships so that we can identify those who can mentor us in our development. The role of mentor earned special attention, because it comes with some baggage, so some etiquette is needed. Mentorship is invited by the mentee. The mentor does not teach, she holds up a mirror: as the mentee, the invitation is to witness me, and to bear witness to those parts of me that I do not yet see. It goes without saying that the mentor also learns.
  • Butterfly meetings  – those chance encounters around the ‘official’ sessions allow for synchronicity to play its full part. In fact, the whole gathering is one big butterfly meeting, and understanding this can help to open our eyes to the way the Kosmos shows up and participates.
  • Holding space

    Holding space is a core activity in any Open Space context. Seen from the outside, it looks a lot like ‘doing nothing’. In reality, though, it is an intentional practice that demands full presence: when the space is not held, the subtle container of the minimum structure that lends the community and its conversations overall coherence is weakened, and everyone feels it. Last year, because we were in Open Space for five whole days, we invited all members of the community to step in and hold space on behalf of the whole when they felt called to do so – no need to be a member of the hosting team, in other words. Although space holders don’t participate in sessions, they could be seen taking pictures, bringing fruit snacks to the different groups, and even walking in the local village! At the end of the session, the space holder would share with the whole community what he or she had witnessed or learned from that perspective.

  • Harvesting is an act of generosity towards the whole, capturing moments of meaning and weaving them into a coherent picture that enables the community to witness itself. The presence of some truly gifted graphic facilitators last year brought inestimable value and gave villagers of all ages the opportunity to learn new skills and contribute in unexpected ways. Photography, poetry and prose produced a number of artefacts that have outlived our time together.
  • Celebrating love

    Celebration – the very fact of coming together as a village that learns is a happening worthy of celebration. Our friendship, our differences, our children, our longings, our passions, our creativity and good will – the fact that as human beings we are coming together because we choose to co-create the future our hearts tell us is possible, rather than staying at home and surrendering to the dismal prospects that await us if we carry on ‘as normal’. And so, as a learning village, we practice the art of celebration at every opportunity: celebration is in the knowing of it.

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Woven back into Nature – leopard in the long grass

I remember the moment, at a Women Moving the Edge gathering in 2008, where the truth percolated through to me (for the first time in my adult life) that magic is real. It felt as if every cell in my body suddenly became fairy dust. Fizzing and tingling and luminous. Obviously, this was not a ‘discovery’ but a ‘re-membering’. Not a remembering of something I have known, but a re-membering into what I had forgotten I belonged to. That first time, the experience was fleeting. It didn’t long survive re-entry under the stifling blanket of social consensus, where the very word ‘magic’ is seen askance. I squirreled the knowledge away in my safe inner sanctum, like a sacred virus contained in a slow-release capsule.

So what is it that I belong to, that I had forgotten? The short answer is ‘Life’. The longer answer discerns some strands or dimensions – specifically ‘space’ and ‘time’ – that we tend to look at as physical properties of the universe, but which I am now discovering as entities with their own presence, intelligence and willingness to engage with me as I allow myself intentionally to be woven into the fabric of the kosmos.

Spot the robin

In recent years, I have been discovering kinship with different ‘segments’ of nature’s population. From one day to the next, for example, I started to notice birds. Each time I look out the window or step out of doors, my eyes are instantly drawn to birds. I have an all-at-once knowing of where the birds are in my immediate vicinity, and it is as if my boundaries snap out to embrace everything that is between those birds and the surface of my skin.

The greatest impact to date, though, has come from the trees. I’ve always loved trees, but I know the exact moment that ‘trees’ became psychoactive beings in my world. I happened to be at a wedding at Chaudfontaine, and a huge and ancient plane tree literally summoned me to come beneath its shade and stand against its trunk. You see me, so I call you to me. It is time for you to learn from the trees. The gates of my heart flew open and the membrane of my skin dissolved into music. A few hours later, a massive cyclone blew through Belgium.

tree-dimensional space

Its path took it right through Ransberg, where it uprooted one of the two walnut trees on the land I am stewarding. I learned of the devastation the next morning, seeing photos Ria posted on the Dorpsstraat blog. Just seeing that tree in a photo was enough to bring a flood of sensation and information washing into me. Since that time, I have come to know trees as knowledge bearers. It is as if ‘tree’ is a globe-embracing dimension of being and knowing that fills the space above and below the ground. Since the other grand old walnut tree on our land fell, silently and gracefully in the night of 21 December 2012, I have known the truth that every tree that ever stood on earth yet stands and shares its being and its knowing through the ether. This ‘tree dimensional space’ is permeable, intensely alive and aware, intimately interwoven with every aspect of the natural ecosystem both physically and in the subtle realms. It is full of story, sensation and light – and seamlessly compatible with the human sphere, provided the human psyche intentionally invokes contact.

I have given the trees blanket permission to permeate me, permanently, and now I am tree sister.  When I walk outside I feel how their fabulous coherence heals and cleanses my own aura, unknotting all the pockets of dense attachment and stress, bringing me to wholeness and rest. When my father died suddenly last new year’s eve, within 15 minutes of learning of his death, with the shock of it coursing through my body, my feet took me out into the street. Instantly, all the trees in the neighbourhood were leaning in to me, sweeping through me, swiftly, surely, firmly, settling my trembling nerves, restoring my coherence, connecting me to the place that knew the truth of my father’s soul-vacated body.

Leopard in the long grass

Just as the dimension of space is alive and aware, so, apparently, is the dimension of time. I have been struck a lot lately by the way timing is showing up as an active protagonist these days. Right Timing appears like an angelic force, omnipresent as I learn the rules of this delightful new game. Where in the past I might have been tempted to force things, now I just accept them: aah OK, it’s not the right time. This creates a different stance in life – I’m no longer succumbing to the ingrained human habit of thinking about what I want to do or achieve in life (or even just ‘today’). Instead I feel much more like wild nature – like a leopard in the long grass. All I have to do is be a leopard in the long grass and dinner will show up. What I need to thrive is given to me – it’s not that I have to go and kill something: dinner simply shows up and is absorbed – the meaning is different: the lower life form is somehow absorbed into the more complex one.

Just having Timing showing up as a protagonist in the cosmic unfolding brings everything into a completely different place… Instead of thinking, I am listening. Not only with my ears, but with my whole being. All my judgements and expectations become like the buzzing things that inhabit the sun-drenched heat of the plain, as the leopard sits in the long grass, perfectly still, alert and alive. Even the prosaic and down-to-earth context of the work place becomes just another stretch of long grass for me to leopard in…

Learning this new game feels a little like stepping out of the map and into the territory. Through the back of the wardrobe into the world where space and time, nature and past-present-future are living presences that interact with me. Instead of an unconsciously held map created by my mind, I am empty mind and presence in the landscape, alert and listening to see what shows up, suspending judgement and waiting to see what wild nature, as helen, responds to. What leopards do when dinner shows up. What’s the natural thing that happens? What is my natural mode of expression in the territory, when I step away from my conditioning?

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In Memoriam – an Integral life in the Navy

In memory of my father, Commander Roy Titchen, who passed away suddenly on new year’s eve, I am republishing a post initially published on my old blog back in November 2006. 

photoMy parents have been visiting, and a fascinating story leaked out from my dad while we were cooking the porridge. My mum couldn’t see what all the fuss was about – but she didn’t realise I had never heard this story before.

My dad used to be an officer in the British Royal Navy, and in 1962-3 he was posted on HMS Jaguar as the weapons engineering officer (WEO). It just so happened that he also had an experienced, mature assistant for training, so he wasn’t as occupied as he might have been with the guns, cannons, torpedoes and whatnot, especially in peace time.

The ship was on its tour of duty for a year, with a crew of 200. They visited Gibraltar, Malta, Jordan (Aqabah), Kenya (Mombassa), South Africa, Mauritius, the Falkland Islands, Uruguay (Punta del Este) and Tristan da Cunha.  A floating community with not a woman on board (except for a minor incident off Punta del Este, involving a storm in the middle of a cocktail party, where half the crew was ashore and half the shore was on board and the ship had to move back out to sea before it had time to ditch all of the Uruguayan beauties).

Roy portrait webOf course, there are plenty of jobs to do in a community where nobody gets to go home after office hours. My jaw dropped as my dad explained to me that he was also responsible for the wardroom food and finance (but not the wine – that involved all sorts of tedious auditing…). Rather typically (for my dad) he also made it his business to write his name and the date in the dust on the walls, as a message to the steward, who was somebody else’s responsibility.

He was also Education Officer, teaching maths and science (the Supply Officer taught English) to the sailors who were studying for their ‘O’ levels. And Sports Officer, organising and playing cricket, tennis, rugby, football and hockey. Wherever the ship put into port, he refereed rugby matches between the local clubs at weekends.

When he left the UK, he took with him a pre-production model of the very first Moulton bicycle, famous for its small wheels and rubber suspension. The ostensible purpose was “climate trials”, but of course the real reason for taking a revolutionary prototype bicycle on such a journey was to see whether it was sailor-proof… Dad (a 17 stone rugby player) must have looked like an elephant on a tricycle. But he rode that bike out every time he went ashore, and the postman used it in the dockyard to collect the mail.

Talking of the absurd, as the cherry on the cake, my dad played the portable organ (“the collapsible pandemonium”) at church services on Sundays. Not to mention having to play the role of counselor to the men in his charge… The only thing I bet he didn’t do in this amazingly integral life, was meditate… “I did too!!” he replied, grinning: “I examined the backs of my eyelids, horizontally on my bunk after lunch every day!”

The more my dad talked the further my jaw dropped. I guess all the officers on that ship had a similar variety of roles. I find it hard to imagine any employer these days being able to rely on such versatility in their staff: the unions would never allow it. But then, perhaps that’s life in the forces for you. I would certainly like to think that the challenges facing humanity as we head into our common future on spaceship Earth will force us to expand our personal repertoires and look around to see what all else needs doing.

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Weaving from the collective womb space

Harvest from a women’s circle Brussels, 26 May 2012

In the evening of a beautiful, sunny day in Brussels, we were eleven women – ranging in age from 24 to 50+ – who answered the call to gather in circle, an almost monthly occurrence these days. The question or theme of our shared inquiry becomes more emergent with every gathering. In the beginning, Nina and I would sit together in our shared office a few days before and sense into what was ‘in the field’. This time, we just trusted that the theme calling for our collective attention would present itself at the right moment. And so it did. In the morning of our gathering, during my morning session of online presencing, I stumbled on a piece written by Filiz Telek, one of our dear sisters from Turkey, and instantly knew this was what was asking to be seeded in our field. This is the extract I read into the circle:

“I noticed something powerful during my recent journey along the Aegean: women are in creation! There is a very powerful creation energy infusing our world right now. I am not suggesting this based on any 2012 prophecies or astrological forecasts; I am claiming this based on what I see with my own eyes and the stories I hear. Most women in my life who have been in deep sensing and listening over the past few years are suddenly manifesting their dreams and visions – by stepping into their new callings, building partnerships, creating new initiatives. Everything that might have seem a little crazy, even impossible in the past is now manifesting full on at a very quick pace.

And this isn’t just any creation. This is the Feminine in creation! and it goes like this:

”I know the structure of the ceremony. I know that but when I go in to do the ceremony I have no idea what direction it’s going to go; I know nothing. Even to the songs that will come, even to all of that. Everything is just allowing something to come in. You prepare this place and you allow. It’s a very very new experience every time. You go inside and you allow those things to open out, like a flower. And you don’t know what direction this petal’s going to go or where that petal’s going to go.That’s the mystery, that’s the beauty, and it’s from within. Just like today – everyday is a new experience. That is Feminine power.”
Pansy Hawk Wing, Pipe Carrier

When I read these words, I get it.

This is a different kind of creation than we have witnessed in the past. This is a creation welling up from within women, from our wombs – the divine empty space that holds life -, from our longing hearts, from our intuition, from our hips, our finger tips and singing mouths and dancing limbs…This creation comes not through strategies made in sleek boardrooms, sterile labs, not for the insane growth of production for the sake of profit, not to control or exert power over a certain group of people. This creation comes from love of life and love of children (of all beings), from the instinctual urgency of a fierce mother to protect life, from the longing to be in harmony and flow with the natural world. This is a creative force far beyond our imagination and comprehension, sprouting and blossoming deep and wide in every direction.

This is Great Mother, Sacred Feminine manifesting through women (and men) in the world, creating and regenerating, mending the web of life. She is showing up in dreams and images, in songs and stories, and urging us to remember what we are in service of.

I remember. So do You.

It’s time to dream a new dream,
it’s time to create a brave new world.”

I announced my intention to Filiz (on Facebook) to share her words with our circle. She responded “I’d love to hear what you weave from the collective womb tonight, please share! I’ve been feeling the call of the womb wisdom ♥”.

And we truly did weave from the collective womb.

In the centre of Nina’s circle, there is always a bowl of Angel Cards ready to unveil the synchronicities present in the space. Just as we began our sharing, I picked the card ‘Synthesis’. By the time of our check-out, I really had something to synthesise: the fabric of wisdom collectively woven in our invisible womb space that evening.

It starts with some key words and phrases, born from sentences uttered by the different women during our check-in around what brought us to this circle, and afterwards, around the feminine in creation and what that evoked in us:

The account I weave here arises as a synthesis through my own filters of the conversation that unfolded among us. Gossamer threads were spun out into the centre, upwellings of intuition offered in from the rim, amplified and interwoven as the talking pieces were taken up and returned to the middle.

Shape and sound

Sound was present, frequency, harmony, resonance and vibration – the bell rang often, for silence to allow things to land and settle in every heart. We evoked the quivering thrum of our souls’ stirrings as they resonate in sympathy with calls coming to us from the world. We illuminated the process of learning to be played by the kosmos, so that our unique harmonic can join in the universal symphony of life and evolution, recognising that nobody else can bring what is uniquely ours to offer and be.

Memory was present – or more exactly, forgetting. The way our hold on the details of past learnings and experiences can desert us, leaving us as an empty vessel, a content-free zone, a womb available to bring forth the mystery into manifestation. Such forgetting can feel scary – content and facts are so prized in our society – but it can also be liberating: an irresistible demand to be present to what resonates in the NOW.

These are the moments when we know that life is living us on behalf of the whole. That we are pregnant with something that is growing in our depths, without our having any clue as to what it will be, until it is ready and ripe to emerge. This is the feminine way – it’s the same with our babies. We have no idea what they will look like, or who they will be, until they leave our bodies after nine months inside. And even then, during the years of their childhood, we patiently witness their ever complexifying unfolding, not yet knowing what they will become (always assuming we are sufficiently awake to refrain from corralling them into replicas of our own worldview).

And letting go was present, together with its shadow twin letting come. We let go of our preconceived expectations of how life should be, our fear of others’ judgement, our archetypal social and familial conditioning. We let come our deepest, most authentic yearnings and desires, our spontaneous impulses and the primal promptings of our souls, of our places, of our peoples.

Weaving these threads into fabric, I see that we have been evoking and exploring the conditions for living our uniquely creative lives. When I see what we have brought forth together from our centre, I know that this must travel and take its place in the expanding conversation that is co-creating Filiz’s Brave New World.

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Evolutionary entrepreneurship – Engaging the Collective Will

Here’s an article I wrote for Kosmos Journal back in the autumn of 2008. It still seems topical.

This article gives a brief overview of what needs to happen if we— individually and collectively—are to wisely and effectively engage in shaping the future of our planet and our species. The community of evolutionary entrepreneurs has a rich toolkit of models, maps and approaches to work with, but they can be effective only if we deeply understand the habits of the living systems in which we use them. The guidelines set out below come from the distilled wisdom of the global community of ‘hosts of conversations that matter,’ as I understand them through the filters of my own experience as an evolutionary entrepreneur working inside the European Commission in Brussels.

As humanity awakens to an unprecedented collective awareness of the challenges and opportunities facing our species and our planet, the term ‘entrepreneur’ begs to be redefined. Entrepreneurship is typically associated with starting and running businesses. Most definitions of the term on the web refer to innovation, risk and business. But I think it goes deeper than that.

A living system participates in its neighbour’s development

While some entrepreneurs are motivated by the prospect of personal gain, others are driven by a desire to make the world a better place. An evolutionary[1] entrepreneur is someone who is willing to dedicate his or her life to fulfilling a collective need. But something essential that underlies the whole enterprise remains unspoken in all these definitions.

The word ‘entrepreneur’ comes from the French verb meaning ‘to undertake.’ A commitment to action is involved—a determination to manifest a vision and to bring something new to society in the broadest sense. When we think about entrepreneurship in this way, the concept can expand to embrace a much wider population—potentially every man, woman and child on the planet. This kind of entrepreneurship doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with business at all.

If we want to be evolutionary entrepreneurs who survive the acid test of natural selection—if we want our undertakings to take root in the world and thrive, to truly make the world a better place—then we need to understand what game we are playing, and the environment we are playing it in.

Entrepreneurship is about will. ‘Will’ is a word that doesn’t exist in science. Science sees our actions, but not what fuels them. Will is a phenomenon that we typically associate with the invisible interior of individuals and collectives. We cannot see it—only the outcomes of the actions driven by it. We could even see entrepreneurship as a driving force of evolution now that humanity is awakening into fuller consciousness of its own evolution.

At first sight, entrepreneurship is all about individuals. It is the individual will with a vision of change that starts the ball rolling. But the change can only happen if the will of the collective is engaged. How can we maximise our chance of making that happen?

Properties of Living Systems 

Collective sense-making

We start by understanding that as members of the human race living on planet earth, we are embedded in multiple living systems. Any aspect of society or the economy that we care to engage with counts as a living system. As entrepreneurs, that’s what we have to deal with. Understanding the properties of living systems[2] can inform us about what we must learn and what we must become if we are to succeed.

  • A living system pays attention only to that which is meaningful to it, here and now.Just because we have a vision of new possibilities doesn’t mean the rest of the world ‘gets it’ or cares. As part of the living system, our first step is to become aware of what has meaning to that system. To achieve this, we learn to live with an open mind, an open heart and an open will.

    A living system accepts only its own solutions

  • A living system accepts only its own solutions. If we wish to provide a solution to any of the world’s problems, then the parts of the system that are part of the problem (as sufferers or perpetrators) must be drawn into designing a solution that they will all be happy with. To achieve this, we must learn the art of participatory leadership—how to lead others into participating actively in their own future.
  • In nature, a living system participates in its neighbour’s development. An isolated system is doomed. The bigger the context we can get our arms around, the greater our chances of creating sustainable improvements together. To achieve this, we must learn to collaborate.
  • All of nature, including ourselves, is in constant change. Sometimes when we are trying to ‘change the system,’ we despair at how unchanging things seem to be. Perhaps we are looking through the wrong lens. Isn’t it just as valid to see the world in constant flux? When we do this, our work becomes lighter. To achieve this, we learn to let go of our habitual ways of seeing. We look at the way things are changing; instead of at the way they are not.
  • Nature seeks diversity—new relations open up new possibilities. How easy it is to succumb to the temptation of working only with ‘like-minded’ people. This leads us into ‘us-and-them’ thinking and compounds our difficulties. Rather than closing down when confronted by those who oppose our ideas or who hold critical attitudes that trigger our defense mechanisms, we can instead think of them as our precious teachers and open up to what we have to learn from them. They help us see flaws in our ideas and help us to bring to conscious awareness our shadows—detrimental patterns that are hidden in the unconscious.
  • Nature is not intent on finding perfect solutions.Even the best battle plan lasts

    Who we are together...

    only until the first shot is fired. Then ‘life happens.’ We are learning to be available, moment-by-moment, to dance with what is arising now.

  • Who we are together is always different and more than who we are alone. The next Buddha will be a collective. Evolution is marching on. Human consciousness is awakening to itself, to its own evolution, to its being an organic part of a larger whole, and finally to an embodied experience of this larger whole. As we enter this new stage of individual/collective awakening, we are being called to practice a new life-form composed of groups of mature and well-balanced individuals merging their collective intelligence as a circle being. Our practice as individuals is to deepen our self-knowledge, accept ourselves, accept the contribution we have to offer, and to fully and completely live who we are. The whole cannot be complete until the parts are fully individuated. We build ‘circle beings’ by sitting together in circle and sensing into the middle, by engaging in continuous collective inquiry about our shared purpose.
  • Living systems cannot be steered or controlled – they can only be teased, nudged, titillated. I work inside a very large living system and every day I watch ‘management’ try to steer and control it. But the system just doesn’t want to play. Instead, everybody ends up feeling frustrated and disempowered. We can influence a system in a wise direction only if we are an acknowledged part of the system. If we try to work on the system from outside and don’t see ourselves as part of the system, then although we can provide environmental stimuli, we cannot determine how the system will respond. As entrepreneurs on the lookout for evolutionary opportunities in the system we learn how to tread the fine line between chaos and order—the space where living systems self-organise.

We first understand that we cannot work alone. When we identify a need that is sensed in the system, we seek out others who sense it too. Even when we come together with others to find a solution, until we find a clear sense of collective purpose, nothing will move. But regular meetings to explore the situation in search of solutions will deepen the relationships in the group and help us clarify the principles that will govern how we pursue our purpose. A cohesive group with strong trust and a clear sense of collective purpose can move mountains. This is where the collective will becomes engaged.

We first understand that we cannot work alone

Once the purpose and principles are clear, new people will tend to be drawn into the group. The process experienced so far then needs another iteration. Each time new people come in, they need to go through the process of gaining clarity of purpose and buying into the principles (or adapting them). This helps understanding and engagement. We are building a living system that is creating its own solutions—concepts, organizational structures, products and even practices come later, almost as a by-product of the functioning living system. Living systems self-organise.

The stereotypical image of the entrepreneur as a rugged individualist, going it alone against all the odds, seems partial when seen from this perspective. Rather, in this densely enmeshed living system that is the planetary ecosystem, I see the Cosmic Will moving through the collective to the individual and then back to the collective [3]. As evolutionary entrepreneurs, we are coming not from a place of unconscious ego activation but from a place of deeply open will. We are not implementing our own individual vision, as much as sensing into the whole. We are rooted in our individual perspective within the living system, that is also conscious of the larger system and sensing into how it can fulfil it’s highest potential, for the good of the yet greater whole of which it is itself a part. The life path of each of us, embedded in our own unique place in the collective and endowed with our own unique gifts, equips us to play a unique role. Being an evolutionary entrepreneur means stepping up and undertaking to play that role with our full commitment. It means being who we were born to be.

Mastery Comes through Practice

How do we learn the skills and ways of being in the world that will lead us to mastery of evolutionary entrepreneurship? Through practice. A wise teacher of mine recently said that the highest a human being can attain is to become a ‘practitioner’ of something. The purpose is to cultivate an attitude of mind and a way of being. Four helpful intentions for daily use on an individual or collective basis are: (1) Stillness, (2) Inspiration, (3) Service, (4) Devotion/Gratitude. In martial arts, the place of practice is called the ‘dojo’. As evolutionary entrepreneurs, I invite you to start up a dojo in your neighbourhood today.

Informed by these understandings of the properties of living systems in an evolving universe, we can increase our impact by joining with others to create communities of practice. As cohesive communities of practice, we can reach out to other communities of practitioners in other neighbouring fields. We can then form systems of influence in which evolutionary entrepreneurs become nodal points of integral consciousness that can join with other civil societies, public and private actors to hold the field for global transformation.

[1] I do not use the term ‘evolutionary’ here to mean development in any pre-determined direction. Rather, I use it as an epithet to describe ‘entrepreneurship’ in its broadest context as something that engages—directly, consciously and with intent—with the living system, for the good of the whole.

[2] I first came across this articulation of the properties of living systems in the writing of Margaret Wheatley.

[3] When I speak of Cosmic Will, I am not necessarily suggesting that there is such a thing ‘out there’ with an independent existence. Rather, it can just as easily be seen as something that we co-create together as we consciously engage in this participatory, collaborative dance, creating intricate and beautifully functioning feedback systems that then become a trait of the Grand Living Field that embraces all things.

Posted in Aquarian practice, art of hosting, Emergence, organisational transformation | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Women move the Edge again: 20-23 April 2012, South Devon, UK

You are invited, as women, to move the edge of consciousness, through collectively inquiring into this question, from the presence of Source:

If land and stones hold a memory and radiate it out through the ages,

dare we open as a portal to re-member and co-create with Earth,

to sound a new vibration – a new song – for the future to come?

Avebury stone circle

The theme of this gathering is strongly related to Place. We will be gathering at beautiful Hazelwood House, itself a place with presence, and we plan to visit Avebury and environs to bring our collective inquiry alive in a place of real power.

For more information, please see the save-the-date invitation (pdf).

For an insight into our collective inquiry that has brought us to this question and these places, feel free to look at the notes of our hosting calls on the Women Moving the Edge Ning site.

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