The Bhudda said “I too use constructs but I am not fooled by them.”
I’ve thought about this phrase a lot since I first heard it from a teacher, Tarchin Hearn, in Aongatete, near Katitkati (Ngāti Te Rangi), the foothills of the Kaimai ranges in Aotearoa New Zealand. At the time I was staying in the area and I remember applying this thought as I looked out at that landscape of rolling hills, with native forest behind me, fields stretching down towards the sea and birds circling overhead. I realised then that I had automatically made up a story of what I was seeing. My brain was doing instant shape recognition and labelling; relating these lines, colours, contours and shadows to shapes and names I’d seen before and had some understanding of. This constructed story helped me make sense of what I was seeing and yet, I had to also acknowledge that my understanding was being sourced from a shape or pattern I’d seen in the past. However similar these birds, hills, and sea look, I can never deeply know this particular landscape if I am only ever using my shape recognition software. Which begs the question, what else do I need to do/be in order to understand more fully, and therefore know how to behave within this unique place?
All the visuals and labels I have stored in my mind are of course very helpful for navigating and communicating. At the same time they can be a trap if they’re the only thing informing my understanding. My labelling creates a constructed barrier between myself and this other. It gives me something to hold onto, but I am only ever really holding the box I have created to try and understand this otherness. My intellectual mind can never really touch the living, moving, evolving, unique flow of energy within.
Once a family friend recounted to me their earliest memory. He was a very small child inside their home, hearing the siren of a fire engine go past their house. Except this was the first time he’d ever heard a siren before and had no other sound or story to relate it to. The way he described this siren, sounded to me more like an immersive art installation of intense waves of sound and vibration, than the sound I know as fire engine siren.
In that moment there was only the direct experience, no constructed story yet, just energy in the form of sound waves moving rather intensely through his eardrums and rippling the sensations associated with fear and confusion through his whole body.
It feels almost impossible to imagine, but it’s a fascinating thought exercise to play out in your mind a process of meeting a person, a river, a forest, an animal, as if for the very first time, without any story pre-empting the experience of meeting.
I think about a phrase I’ve heard many times from friends planning events and booking venues. “Let me go down and check it out, get a feel for the place”. I think this impulse speaks to these limitations of intellectual categorising. It’s necessary to get the back story, the facts and technical information, and yet it’s never a complete picture. There seems to me to be a need for a real-time lived experience that can only occur in the context of relating.
I used to work as a therapist with children and teenagers, and although my job always started with in depth stories from whānau (family) and teachers, and piles of documents, reports and psychological assessments, I could never experience the wholeness of the client through piecing all these bits of information together. The experience of wholeness only came through meeting them, face to face, whole being to whole being, and spending a long time getting to know them. Reports and assessments can be copied and shared, but my experience of meeting this child as whole is something only possible in this time, in this place, in the context of a caring relationship. Stories are helpful, they are one part of understanding wholeness. You can copy and scale stories, but you cannot scale an understanding of wholeness, you have to experience it.
I think of another teacher, Ben Haggard as he speaks about the difference he sees between a ‘mental model’ and a ‘framework’ from his work in the field of regenerative development. He describes the former as something akin to a recipe. A predictable set of steps that describes the transformation of something functionally. A framework on the other hand seems to be more like an invitation into direct experiencing, a letting go of the constructed box. ‘Wholeness’ is one of the fundamental frameworks used in regenerative practice.
So, I’m wrestling with the question… How do we use constructed stories and theories beneficially without them masking the valuable information that is flowing to us through live experiencing? I am becoming increasingly confident in the hypothesis that living system frameworks (not exclusive to regenerative practice by any means), is a powerful way of revealing knowledge that is only accessible through direct experiencing. And that this knowledge is necessary for sourcing the continual development and evolution of our constructed models, ideas and stories.
I would always come into a therapy room with a mental library of stories, ideas and tools. All helpful, but without experiencing the human being in front of me as a unique, living, whole, I could never bring to life the knowledge stored in my mind in a way that was actually relevant to the developmental journey of this child. Young people have always been wonderful for letting me know when I’ve crossed the line from true relating to pushing my own agenda because they just ignore you and go off and do their own thing. Children are wonderful teachers.
I’ve learnt that the recipes of how to be a therapist are helpful, but they are only ever a starting point from which I’ve had to leap off many times, into that sometimes terrifying unknown space of true relating. And then return to in order to refine, upgrade and regenerate my ways and practices.
From my small window into the world, journeying through Aotearoa New Zealand, Australia, Europe, UK and USA, through the fields of health, education, business, and community development; working on farms, in restaurants, in schools, at events, in therapy rooms, and in offices, I have seen a huge amount of focus being given to the tried and true recipes – the reports, the assessments, the models, the policies, the strategies, the examples, and the studies, and very little time given over to the ongoing relating with the unique living system we are working in service to. Perhaps a child, a customer, a community or a place. I lay no blame or judgement here, I simply wonder if some rebalancing would be of value.
I’ve been mulling a lot on this phrase – ‘tried and true’. A recipe or process might be ‘tried’, but I wonder if what makes it ‘true’ is it’s ongoing marriage with direct experiencing / relating, from which static recipes come alive and continue to develop, adapt, reinvent, drop away, be reformed and recreated, in service to and in collaboration with a real person, community, watershed, or place, ever evolving and interconnected within the living and evolving world around it. A living process as my teacher Caroline Robinson would say.
What is your experience in this moment? How are these words dancing with your own knowledge stories and constructs, your own breath in this moment, the shifting sensations from skin level down to bone marrow? What is it like to hold in this place of intellectual knowledge dancing with direct living experience? What newness is emerging?