Tried and true: ‘Constructs’ and ‘the unknown’ in regenerative design and development

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 of mine, Tarchin Hearn, in Aongatete, near Katitkati, the foothills of the Kaimai ranges. At the time I remember applying this thought to the way I looked out at that landscape. As I saw the rolling hills, fields stretching down to the sea and birds circling, I realised I had automatically made the 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. And yet, my understanding comes from a shape or pattern from the past. However similar it looks, I can never really know this landscape I am seeing before me if I’m only ever using my shape recognition software. 

But these visuals and labels I have stored in my mind are helpful to some degree, for navigating, for communicating with others. But they can also be a trap. 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. 

I think about the familiar saying, “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. Necessary, and yet never a complete picture. 

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.  

 We need the stories, the stories are helpful, but how do we use them without being fooled by them? 

I think of another teacher, Ben Haggard as he speaks about the difference between a mental model and a framework from his work in the field of regenerative development. He describes the former as something a kin 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. He gives the example of ‘wholeness’ as one of the many frameworks of regenerative practice. It is not merely a piecing together of parts. It is not a recipe, it is only graspable through experiencing it. 

I used to work as a therapist with children and teenagers, and although my job always started with a pile of documents being handed to me of 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. 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 this relationship. You can’t scale an understanding of wholeness. And yet, without understanding it, no meaningful work can happen. 

I come into a therapy room with a mental library of stories, ideas and tools. All helpful, but without experiencing this human being in front of me as a unique, living, whole, I can never bring to life my stored knowledge in a way that is actually relevant to the developmental journey of this particular child. 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 the sometimes terrifying unknown space of true relating.

How often do we do this in our lives? When we build buildings, design services, come up with business strategies. We seem to give 99% of our focus to the tried and true recipes – the reports, the assessments, the models, the policies, the strategies, the examples, the studies, and spent precious little time giving ourselves over to the experiencing and the relating to this actual living system we are working with. Perhaps a child, a customer, a community, a place. 

Tried and true.

A recipe might be tried, but what makes it true is it’s marriage with direct experiencing, from which a recipe comes alive and continues to evolve, adapt, reinvent, drop away, be reformed, recreated, in service to something real, not an abstract ideal.

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?    

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