Transition Culture

An Evolving Exploration into the Head, Heart and Hands of Energy Descent

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25 Jun 2014

Sophy Banks on the politics of the heart


When I came across a set of principles for creating a peaceful society that has been working for over a thousand years I got really interested in what they were, and to what extent they were relevant to Transition. Their first principle turns our society inside out – instead of family and home life organising itself around the imperative of work to support the growing economy and “wealth creation”, it puts raising healthy, community minded, well adjusted children at the centre of its decision making – with the adult world of work devoted to this supporting children and parents. 

five arrows linkedI learnt about these ideas from a movement called the Art of Mentoring, which organise events in the USA and Europe looking at cultural repair and connection with the natural world. I wrote about the Haudenosaunee Confederacy and their principles of Peacemaking in a Social Reporters blog a while ago. It is one of the few stories I have come across where a culture mired in violence and destruction turned itself around to create a peace that has lasted for many centuries – and I was surprised that the Haudenosaunee were much respected by Benjamin Franklin, and influenced the creation of the Constitution of the USA.

Thinking about the theme of politics in a broad sense brought me back to those principles – which include an understanding of the priorities which help to organise a society to create peace, and the culture of leadership and service which can sustain it. This blog post looks at those principles for governance and asks whether they are relevant for Transition – and whether our current political system could ever be capable of delivering such a system.

Principle 1: Understanding what Peace Is

shadows of children with raised hands celebratingHow should a society be structured to ensure peace? In the Haudenosaunee tradition there is a clear order of priority. The aim of the society is to raise happy, community oriented, self confident people, so the focus is on how children are raised to give them the experiences that create this. Putting the children at the centre also means ensuring that mothers in particular, and all parents and care-givers are given the support they need. It’s as if these people had an instinctive understanding of what humanistic psychology has told us, and neuroscience is increasingly confirming, that having happy healthy mothers during pregnancy and in the days and months after birth is really important to creating resilient, caring and self-resourced human beings.

So the work of the adult work-force focuses on meeting the needs of children, mothers and parents and caregivers. This includes not only needs for physical subsistence – food, shelter, clothing, energy, transport and so on, but also for learning, self expression, relational intelligence, a strong sense of cultural identity and belonging, and learning how to participate in structures of governance.

The mechanism for keeping the whole society in balance, and preventing one group heading off to serve its own needs is a circle of elders whose responsibility is the well being of the whole. Having raised their family and left behind their individual role their focus attends to how the whole system is functioning, intervening when necessary to get things back on track. It’s an example of a  monitoring and feedback loop, with a correcting mechanism to keep the whole system moving in the right direction.

Could our current political system deliver such radical change? The only pathway that I can imagine is if groups of MPs from different parties decided – as they did in the second world war – to abandon the endless critical putting down of the other side, and find a way to work towards unity to address the critical issues of our time. This brings me to the second principle of Peacemaking from the Haudenosaunee.

Second Principle: Unity

haudenosaunee image of people with linked handsThe second principle requires that people put the well being of the whole first, and that meetings get to unity to make decisions.

In the 80s I was part of groups who had a strong belief in consensus – that we should all be happy the decisions that were made. This, combined with a belief in equality that prevented informal power structures from being seen and questioned, led to some pretty stuck organisations, where one person’s self interest blocked the progress of the whole. Since then I’ve come across more sophisticated versions of consensus – such as “Consent” used in Sociocracy, or the system used by Quakers in their meetings.

Underpinning the process of reaching unity we need something in our meetings similar to the culture the Haudenosaunee teachings describe – that we need to make decisions from a state of “Upright mind” – where we are in a state of openness, listening, and respecting the wisdom of the whole, rather than pursuing an individual agenda, or thinking that one person can know better than the whole group.

In last month’s blog post I attempted to describe the dynamic that “Upright mind” embodies – a way of valuing and including the whole – and what it is about human psychology and physiology that takes us out of balance and into a distorted sense of identity and view of the world. Speed, over-valuing action, marginalising feelings, disliking vulnerability and unpredictability are all signs of a system which is being run by those who identify with “doing” and “strength”.

In Transition Network we have adopted something which came from the last National Hubs meeting, where we set up three roles at the start of a meeting, in addition to someone who is chairing or facilitating the meeting:

  • The keeper of time
  • The keeper of the record – taking minutes or noting decisions
  • The keeper of the heart – speaking up when the meeting gets charged, tense, tired, conflicted or out of balance in some other way.

The keeper of the heart is the most unusual role, similar to Starhawk’s “vibes-watcher” role in her meetings protocol. Often the person in this role doesn’t say anything – but sometimes their reflection hold the key to unlocking places where the meeting gets stuck or difficult.

I can’t quite imagine the speaker of the House of Commons beginning each session with “Now who is going to be the keeper of the record, time, and heart?” But you never know…

The third principle of Peacemaking: “Use your finest words”.

Put simply, focus on the positive in what you are saying, whether it’s about another person who’s not present, presenting your own ideas or giving feedback.

words of appreciationI have a very strong critical mind so I’m not always so great at this one, but there is one aspect of it which I use a lot – and which I’ve seen makes a huge difference to how it feels to be in a group. It’s to use a LOT of appreciation, and positive feedback to each other within any working group. We often include rounds of appreciations with TN meetings, which can dramatically change the mood. It’s uncomfortable at first – because we’re mostly unused to hearing simple positive feedback, but over time getting through that discomfort pays dividends.

Much of this post contains ideas that are far from “realistic” in our current world. I’m heartened that in the UKat least there is a political movement attempting to get Happiness measured, and included in political priorities, as well as more grass roots organisations for well being such as the Happy City project based in Bristol, and Action for Happiness inLondon. I’m curious whether shifting the focus of political action towards measuring and improving something “inner” rather than “outer” can be an important step in turning our culture inside out – helping us to orient to what truly makes us happy as humans, including creating peaceful and sustainable communities.  

Useful links and resources

Schumacher College in Devon, UK is offering a new course in Right Livelihoods, starting November 2014, which includes time with the Gross National Happiness centre in Bhutan, the only country I know which has Happiness as a central political objective.