A Systems Learning Platform

7 januari 2019, Martine Verweij

The world’s in agony. And almost all systems that I know of need changing.

No, more than that. They need transformation.

For someone like me, who is making a living contributing to systems change and teaching people about systems change and transitions, it seems as if I was born for this time. There are no boundaries to what I could be doing, the number of challenges to confront, the amount of coalitions to set up. The workload is potentially endless. Yet: my energy is not. And the paradox of being sensitive to what systems need, is that this outside-in awareness steers my behavior. Determines my agenda.

Okay. So why is that a problem? A paradox even, I hear you think?

Well. The truth is: I have – since a few years – discovered the energetic difference between living in tune with my inner creative spirit as a guiding force, versus following my systemic capabilities to survive in all kinds of systems. If I do the latter – which I’m very good at[1]– for too long, I start to wear out. My inner battery goes flat. As if I’m not fueling myself with the right kind of energy. The energy that I get is of a lower quality and therefore not sufficient to recharge and help me grow. At some point, physical ailments set in. I become structurally tired. Or I get a cold which doesn’t pass. Those near me, know I was sneezing the last few weeks of December ;-)

So, the challenge for me is: can I listen to what my inner creative spirit tells me to focus on, act upon, without foregoing my systemic awareness? Can I see clearly what I’m inclined to do because I sense the need of the systems that I am part of? And what I do because it truly is my unique role in all of what needs to happen?

What helps me distinguish between one and the other?

To get more clarity on this question, I’ve followed diversity of systemic trainings and worked on ‘my own issues’ using constellations. I read many books on the issue and became part of a coaching group called ‘the Edge’, which helped me become better at listening to my inner voice.

I’ve also followed other workshops, of which the most recent one was given by Clarissa Pinkola Estes, psychotherapist and author of the widely acclaimed bestselling book ‘Women who run with wolves’.

In this blog I want to share with you what her workshop brought me. Is breathing in systems healthy?

I needed a few weeks to chew on Clarissa’s core message, for she had a lot of ‘little messages’ as well. What remained after sifting through my notes and contemplating on the essence of it all, is captured below.

Tip one: The importance of becoming aware of our ‘overculture’

An important aspect of distinguishing between the voice of our creative spirit and what’s out there, trying to distract us, is captured in what Clarissa calls the ‘overculture’. ‘Overculture’ is a word that makes one connect with this extra layer we can sense everywhere. A layer which pretends to be things it is not. And tries to lure us into a reality that is made up. It is a layer of reality that is very good at demanding all our attention, yet, is nothing more than a shiny surface to cover up for something more true underneath. Something more hidden –  that is indeed worth noticing, for it helps us see what is going on within ourselves and others. I pretend not to be influenced much by the overculture, but only a few days ago I caught myself in its grasp[2].

The overculture in all its ‘disguises’ is a complicating factor – one of the sirens calling us when we sail by, trying to grasp our attention. Making it hard to distinguish what it is we hear, feel or see and how we should respond to it. It lures us yet is not good for us. So, we should let it pass by. But how? It seems so attractive! Well, first of all: by becoming aware that it exists.

HELPFUL EXERCISE: Clarissa’s practical tip on how to recognize the overculture at work is to draw yourself a grid, distinguishing between all that you do in a week.

  • What ‘must you do’ in a week, to survive or help your loved ones survive (feed myself, my dog and horse, sleep, cook, etc.)?
  • What ‘should you do’ (update my website, call my friends, work on projects, send a bill for the work I’ve done)?
  • What do you ‘desire to do’ (dance, learn how to make movies, meditate, write, kiss my partner, play with my dog, go on adventures)?

Clarissa’s message: become aware of how you spend your time. Notice what really must and should be done, versus what the overculture is asking of you. And within all that truly must and should be done (because of the systems that you are a part of): guard your creative time. Even fifteen minutes of drawing or writing in your diary is time well spent, for it has the power to refuel you.

Tip 2: Become aware of inner ‘mind-driven’ chatter

The other complicating factor is our inner chatter. Our beautiful and powerful mind often makes over-hours trying to explain everything. Even things it can’t explain. The mind feels só responsible and has been called upon só often while growing up, that it has become extremely powerful. Related to the strength of our brain, is how we deal with emotions. Children, especially in western countries, are often told to suppress their emotions (they should not cry too long or too hard, nor be angry for too long, nor outright cheerful for too long). This form of suppression is only possible if the mind interferes with a thought: ‘I should not cry since that is wrong of me’. The mind in western culture has become a force of its own. It is hardly connected to the body anymore, that is trying to signal things. It is trained to overrule.

Whether you practice mindfulness, yoga or some conscious breathing technique: all of it is directed towards the same goal: becoming aware of inner ‘mind-driven’ chatter and how it tries to steer you, away from listening to your body and your soul.

HELPFUL PRACTICE: One of Clarissa’s ways to go beyond the mind-chatter is by what she calls ‘trance-work’. I would call this an inner search using deeper ways of knowing. Trance-work, when done by therapists, helps clients go beyond their mind chatter. During the training Clarissa talked us ‘down the stairs’ in ‘one, two, three’, but told us not to try out deep forms of trance with other people.

The light trance version she taught us was do-it-yourself and felt safe, but no different from other ways to go into a deeper chatter-free state of being. How I usually do this, is by breathing, centering (feeling the earth beneath my feet ánd feeling all that is above and around me) and visualizing a very nice spot in nature where all is well, all is good and I can meet a deeper part of myself. Different teachers of mine have called this spot different things: ‘the center of your head’, ‘the safe place of your soul’.  It is a place where I can ask myself questions and get an answer beyond the answers of my mind.

I sometimes use an inner symbol to get a clear yes, or no to an option. My symbols are ‘butterflies’ for YES and the thorny part of a rose, for NO. But I’d recommend: check within – when you’re in this deeper state of being – what unique symbols pop up for ‘yes’ and ‘no’, for yourself.

Tip 3: Become aware of your unconscious and how it steers you

A third dimension that distracts us from listening to our inner creative voice, is the whole of our unconscious. Our unconscious consists of different imprints that steer us, unconsciously (huh huh). We can all find our own non-functional imprints and see them with clear eyes. I’ve learned not to judge my imprints, but rather become aware that they may steer me.

Some experiences I had as a child, make me freeze when someone talks to me with a certain tone of voice. Realizing this, helps me deal with current ‘freezing episodes’. I step out of them more easily.

Another imprint I became aware of, is that as a child I sensed some things were missing between my parents. This made me start compensating for that what was missing. Taking a position in the family system between my parents, even behind them. This is not normal for a child, but I became very good at it. Since this behavior is unconscious and born out of love, I’ve realized I will keep doing it whenever a system that I’m part of, needs it. Handy, but not healthy. It made me take up managerial responsibilities within weeks of every job I started, even as a junior. This is a recipe for a burnout, since there’s no end to it. One can take up endless things in order to help the systems that one is part of.

EXERCISE: One of Clarissa’s practical tips on how to become aware of ‘imprints’ that steer us, is by drawing a timeline of one’s life – taking a page for every five years of your life. Clarissa, who has a Mexican background, calls the imprints on the timeline ‘descansos’, which freely translate as, ‘imprints we acknowledge and put to rest’.

Though I was skeptical of the exercise, I must admit: some ‘descansos’ I put in, brought back emotions I did not know were physically with me. This happened especially when I drew rather than just wrote down the situation that had impressed me (e.g.: my mom’s burn-out when I was about 6 years old). I came to understand that using my creative self to visualize ‘descansos’ can bring back more of what was before unconscious, into the conscious realm. Helping me become ‘freer’ to listen to my creative self without distractions.

Tip 4: Strengthen your psyche

Clarissa’s fourth tip is to strengthen your own creative psyche. According to Clarissa, we all have a weak psyche, that needs to be nurtured. That is what life is about. She used a powerful mythological story to prove her point.

The story features a little girl that is born in a family which already consists of seven brothers. The girl is born weak and needy and her parents do everything to help her become stronger. Unfortunately, nothing seems to work.

This is when the seven brothers are sent out to fetch help. But the well they walk to doesn’t bring them the expected water that heals. The well instead, ‘eats’ their buckets and the brothers are desperate. They flee in different directions determined to find a cure for their little sister somewhere. They swear not to return home before they succeed. But the father doesn’t understand when his sons don’t come back home. Out of desperation he cries: ‘I wish my sons were ravens!’ If only he had known the power of his words, for the boys transformed into ravens that very instant.

Over time, as the little girl grows up, she does indeed become stronger. And one day, when she walks to the village, she hears the village people mumble. ‘Such a nice girl, but such a pity that after she was born, her seven brothers got lost’. From that moment, the little girl was determined to find her brothers.

As the workshop unfolds, we learn about the fate of each raven. Each one of them will in the end be saved by the little sister that represents our creative spirit. The little sister finds a cure to the particular deficiency of each raven. Whether it is not being able to fly, not seeing, not hearing, not tasting, running around in circles, sleeping or being in a state of catatonia.

Seven different blockages to our creative spirit. Clarissa challenges us:

  1. What do you not want to see?
  2. What are you not hearing?
  3. Where in your life do you experience running around in circles?
  4. How are you asleep?
  5. How are you not nurturing yourself with the right ‘food’, because you’re neglecting your taste buds?
  6. Where in your life are you experiencing catatonia – a numb feeling or frozen heart
  7. How are you not flying – not showing your potential?

Confrontational questions, that I did not have a simple answer to. But it helped to simply acknowledge the truth of them. Yes. Quite often I’m not flying and showing my full potential. Yes. I nurture myself wrongly, on a daily basis. Yes, I run around in circles worrying about things that are not in my sphere of influence. Yes, yes, yes.

For me, the biggest lesson in the raven-story is that it is within our own reach and power to strengthen our creative psyche. We are the little girl. And we need to step out into the world and both acknowledge and confront our creative blockages. Deep down we know the cure for each one of our blockages. Maybe not consciously, but if we quiet our mind and listen deeply enough, we will find the cures. Better still, our life will enfold in such a way that the cure turns up. We will meet that life partner that pierces us, with his or her confrontational questions, so we may hear again. We will meet a friend who rips open our chest and puts our heart back upside down, when it was downside up, because of some trauma we experienced, undoing us from our state of catatonia.

The little girl wants to live, she wants to thrive, and therefore she steps out into the world. And that is what I wish all of us would do.

Step away from that alluring overculture, go beyond our mind’s chatter, grow out of our unconscious limiting imprints and taste life so that our creative psyche may be strengthened.

Let 2019 be the year that your balance shifts towards inner forms of knowing. Let us develop healthy habits when it comes to breathing in systems!

[1]for all kinds of family-related reasons
[2]As I am preparing for a move of province and habitat – from the city of Rotterdam, to the countryside nearby Zierikzee, Zeeland – I spoke to my coach about a nasty pain in my ribs. We discovered together the pain stands for a fear of not having my own space in the new house. I realized every member of my newly composed family will have his or her own room. Except me. And I discovered too, that I really need my own space. This is not a nice to have, it’s a must. But could I take the one spare room, while expecting a baby? Since the baby will sleep with its parents during the first half year, I could claim this room for me. In the meantime, constructing a little cabin in the garden: my woman’s cave. Yes. That feels innerly right. And the pain in my ribs wears down. Until, the overculture kicks in – snapping at me with a judging voice that confusingly also comes from within: “You cannot do that! A baby deserves a private room, if there’s one available. The baby is more important than your private space! I heard myself utter to my partner: ‘People expect a baby room: can I really do this? Can I claim this room for me, for me-time?’ Luckily my partner said: ‘of course, you can’. ‘People expect differently, but you should do what’s good for you. For that is what will be good for the baby’.

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