Contributor: Joanne Coysh
There are those moments in our lives when we are on a collision course with ourselves. We can see that brick wall looming up ahead and instinctively think that the faster we run the more chance there will be we can leap and clear that wall. If only we could get to the other side then everything will be OK. We run, we keep going, we are convinced, the shadow grows larger as the wall gets closer. Then -
We hit the wall and everything stops.
Some call these moments of crisis but rather I have come to see them as periods of transition and transformation. This experience isn’t unique to individuals. From what I have seen it happens to organisations too. Having worked for, with and observed many different international and non-governmental organisations around the globe for over 15 years, I have felt and feel this struggle first hand. The world of international development and human rights organisations is composed of individuals fighting for change. It is built upon a core foundation of people who have a deep sense of injustice which puts the fire in our bellies and sets us out on a journey to make the world a better place. But we, and I include myself in this, seem to be getting dragged into a system that says it wants to bring about change and yet continues to do the same thing. Then we puzzle about why nothing shifts. I wonder, are we collectively hurtling towards that wall?
Being on a collision course doesn’t necessarily mean we have to hit the wall, but avoiding it requires a shift in our ways of thinking and doing. In particular, I want to touch upon two critical aspects of this shift:
1. We have to retreat in order to advance
2. We need to let in space for not knowing
“We have to retreat in order to advance”
Sometimes, we just need to slow down instead of speeding up and there are times we need to stop. This is OK. Taking time to reflect and ask ourselves those critical questions is important if we are to find the right path and move forward. Yesterday, I was listening to Women’s Hour on Radio 4 about the possibility of the next Dalai Lama being a woman, something which is now a real possibility. Party to the discussion was journalist, Christine Toomey and a Buddhist Nun, Ani Rinchen Khandro. Ani was talking about her life and the practice of many religions of going into retreat and the idea, of some people, that this practice, whether that be for two days or four years, is seen as running away from life. In fact, both Christine and Ani suggest it is the opposite, that when you are on a retreat you are not running away but instead, you are coming face to face with yourself and the wider world. “Sometimes” said Ani “I think you have to retreat in order to advance.”
This one sentence immediately rang so true to my own work with organisations, the development of reflective practice and the need for activists and organisations to create space. To retreat is to take time out from our fast paced lives and day to day tasks, to create that space to step back so we can be more conscious of what is going on in our own minds and our interconnection with what is happening in the world around us in a very different way. It is about engaging with the world from a another perspective, asking some difficult questions and facing up to some situations in order to then move forward. Retreating can give the space needed to stand back, take stock and engage with the important questions.
For those individuals and organisations working for social change, while the wall is a symbol, it is also an opportunity and a message that before we can begin to change what is outside we have to look deeply within ourselves and reflect about what needs to change on the inside. The shadow of the wall is reminder to slow down and create collaborative, engaging but safe spaces where people can ask critical questions. Of course, we all have our own questions which we want to bring to the table, but as a learning and change facilitator, change processes start with three critical questions:
1. How did I (we) get here?
2. Am I (are we) doing the right thing?
3. What do I (we) want to be and what changes do I (we) want to see ?
Asking questions of ourselves and others is an important part of learning and changing, reflecting upon and acknowledging the assumptions which underpin our experience, engaging in critical inquiry about what we know and accepting that in fact there are many things we don’t know.
“Letting there be room for not knowing is the most important thing of all”
While we all make plans, build programmes and strategies based upon what we think might happen, the fact is, we don’t know what will happen and we don't know what is on the other side of that wall. We don’t know what will happen this afternoon, tomorrow, next week or next year. We just don’t know. We can only plan for the future based upon what think might happen given what we understand from the past and what is happening right now. Accepting and being comfortable with uncertainty opens up possibilities and engagement with the world through a different lens as something that is dynamic, interconnected and unpredictable. As Pema Chödrön says:
“Letting there be room for not knowing is the most important thing of all. We try to do what we think is going to help. But we don’t know. We never know if we are going to fall flat or sit up tall. When there’s a big disappointment, we don’t know if that’s the end of the story. It may be just the beginning of a great adventure.”
Accepting that we cannot plan for every eventuality at one moment can help us to build processes which allow for these moments of reflection and adjustment, to think about what we are doing and how we are doing it. It helps us to slow down. Making space for ourselves and within organisations to relax amidst the chaos can help us learn not to panic and instead take a step back and reflect upon the appropriate next steps in order to advance. It is a gradual process of learning. But only when we do step back and really look at the whole picture that we can see more clearly how we don't need to leap over that wall and sometimes it is just a case of slowing down and finding the path that goes around it.
So, there are those moments when we may be on a collision course, but it doesn't have to be that way, if only we slow down and create space. Space to reflect and space to connect. Space to retreat and ask those important questions. Where do these spaces exist for activists and within organisations? How we can create more inclusive spaces where people can take time out and reflect but also come together to share? How do and can these spaces impact upon the way we think about learning and social change?
Photo courtesy of F.Benotman: