The 3 2 1 of Changing the World

a couple head s leaning on a globe

Over the last few months some ideas have been crystallising for me around the implications of what I am learning about information and energy for the way we think about engaging the great ecological and social challenges before us.

I spent many years as an activist, from being on the front lines of anti-road protests to engaging in green politics and bringing together multiple stakeholders to solve problems related to climate change. Yet something doesn’t feel quite right now about those approaches. As I watch the activities of Extinction Rebellion, see the passion around CoP 26 and notice the urgency of the UN’s climate “Code Red”, I feel somehow distant from it. Not that long ago I would have been highly engaged in the increasing campaigning and action to influence our leaders and create our own solutions.

So what happened? Have I just gotten older and resigned myself to humanity’s doom? No. Something else has emerged – a growing awareness of the interconnectedness of it all, a real embodied feeling of how everything is organising itself in fundamental relationship. Life on Earth is trying to work out if it is possible to continue this experiment in self-awareness that is the human being.

The fundamental issue at the heart of our current condition is I believe a deep split at the core of our individual and collective being, that I have written and spoken much about with The Pain and the Promise. This split has created a way of seeing and acting in the world that is based on separation – looking out at our world and seeing lots of separate objects. Through the split, we lost our awareness of the fabric of relationship between every thing.

This way of perceiving and interacting with the world is so pervasive that most of us are not even aware of it. It’s just how we live life. Yet anything that we create from that place will be created from a context of separation and is likely to simply amplify the core of the problem we are facing. Apparent solutions to our environmental and social challenges, if they come out of minds that see separation, are just going to make things worse.

The fear that fuels much of the activism and urgency around climate change is urging us to speed up, quickly come up with solutions, which only increases the likelihood that the solutions we create will come from contraction. Rather than focusing on the “what” of solutions, we need to focus on the “how” of coming up with the solutions. If we come up with solutions from an experience of separation, we will just create more mess. We need to learn what it really means to come up with responses from a place of wholeness.

For many years, I would probably have said in response to this that of course I understand that everything is connected and that we need to take as much of it into account as possible as we create our solutions. The thing is that the starting point of my understanding and creation process was my rational mind – and the rational cognitive intelligence divides things up into parts, by definition. That is its great strength – analysing differences. Not only is it based in separation in terms of space, it is rooted in the past in terms of time. The cognitive mind can only come up with solutions by analysing what it already knows – by definition information that has come from the past! Yet what we need are solutions from the future.

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The dominance of the rational mind in industrialised culture permeates our language, and the way we name things determines our relationship to them. The best example is the use of the first, second and third person in our pronouns – I, you/we, and it. Embedded in this language structure is the belief that there is an objective “It” reality that is independent to the I or We. Our modern science has long proven that that is not the case – as observer we influence the reality around us. Yet we have not yet really taken on the implications of that reality.

Something I discovered recently is that the way I relate to pain or discomfort in my body determines its intensity or healing (return to wholeness). If I go “Ow, what’s that? It’s a horrible feeling and I want it to go away” then I am using the third person objective “It” to describe it. The use of that energy to describe something fixes it in its current state. I have made it an “It” that is a fixed object in my awareness. That has never helped to relieve the discomfort and usually ended up with me having to take some kind of pain killer to suppress it. Then I started playing with engaging the discomfort from a second- and first-person perspective. “Hello pain, what are you doing there?” – creating a second person relationship. Now there is a conscious connection between me and the pain, and energy and information can flow between us. Every time I just greet any discomfort in that way, I feel instant relief. What is happening? I am seeing it as part of a whole that I am a part of, acknowledging the actual interconnected nature of things – as opposed to assuming a false separation between us. When I acknowledge that relationship, the discomfort usually starts to move in some way – tightness reduces and there is relaxation. The final step is to remind myself that “I am that discomfort”, a first-person perspective that recognises the fundamental nature of reality, namely that it is all one, and all I experience is also part of me. That brings a next level of relief, and a smile to my face that radically changes how I experience the discomfort that usually then resolves itself. Note that the verb “to heal” is etymologically the same as the word “whole”. What am I doing in the above practice? I am reintegrating something that I split off into a third person by noticing that illusion, creating a relationship and making it all whole again – healing 3 to 2 to 1.

So what does that mean for the way we should be relating to all these challenges that we seem to be facing, such as accelerating climate change, the persistence of covid, and conflict around the world? Notice how often we put them into the third person object: “Stop climate change!”, “Defeat covid!”, “Resolve the conflict!”, “Stop it!”. Every time that we address an issue in that way, we fix it more into its current state. In fact, we amplify its current state by giving it energy through our objectifying attention and strengthen its boundaries through our fixed definition. All these issues have become entities due to the fact that we have given them a name and a definition. We have brought them to life and now we are charging them with our fear and anger. No wonder they have such power. Underlying the way we relate to them is a fundamental perspective of separation.

As with healing pain or discomfort in the body, we need to make what we have fragmented whole again. That means that we need to shift from the illusory objectifying third person relationship with these issues to a second- and ultimately first-person relationship – 3,2,1. The first step is to discipline ourselves to stop thinking about and describing these issues as entities that are separate from ourselves. What I notice in my own behaviour is that I then actually stop talking about them so much. Whenever an entity such as “climate change” surfaces in the news or in a conversation, I find myself first of all feeling into a relationship with it from my heart space. If someone asks my opinion about it, I find that I can no longer jump into a simple response about “it” – I have to zoom out to tell more of a story about a process, a dynamic. I find myself using more verbs than nouns. It’s not easy as our linear language doesn’t lend itself to describing reality in that way. Many of the indigenous languages use more verbs than nouns and predominantly -ing forms in the present continuous tense. Some don’t even have structure for the past and future as in their worldview everything is emerging as a process in the present moment. You’ll notice that in this experience there is no space for judgemental opinion – the reality is simply too complex and dynamic to fix something in that way.

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Let’s say then that we are managing to suspend our objectifying of an issue in the third person, what do we “do” next? Wrong question of course… In my experience we shift into being with the issue that has very little to do with our rational mind. We sense it in our body, notice its dynamics, how it moves and feels. That’s the second person relationship. We then remind ourselves that we are it – and all tension between me and the other dissolves. There is no space for fear or anger, simply wonder and playful curiosity.

Does that mean that we stop “doing anything about it”? I have to laugh at that text in quotes – just look! – “doing” “thing” “it”, all reflections of a fragmented worldview in which I am separate from the thing I am talking about. So at one level, yes, we do stop “doing anything about it”, as that is likely to create even more fragmentation. However, what does happen is that we start to be moved to action from a space of compassion, in which there is no attachment to the outcome of our actions, simply a playful curiosity to see where the journey will go next. We become more of a vehicle for something that wants to be done, rather than a separate individual who thinks up a plan to do something. It’s a very subtle but absolutely fundamental difference. We need a well-honed self-awareness to sense when our impulse for action really does come from a bigger whole and when it comes from our sense of separate self (ego).

Coming out of a couple of retreats that I recently hosted, the conclusion I drew for myself was that the way we can be most effective in the world is to firstly practice experiencing ourselves as the ground of being – that place of stillness where nothing actually happens but from which everything is born. The place of absolute oneness. Then to notice what question emerges for us – a moment of distinction between the present and the potential future, an in-tention, a creative tension. Staying at rest in the ground of being, we hold that tension with curiosity, and in that space an insight or impulse drops in, that guides us to take the next step in this relative world. We take that step, unattached to the outcome, and then sink back into the ground of being and sense what’s needed next. That’s the 1 (oneness in the ground of being), 2 (tension between poles) and 3 (manifesting some-thing). The act of manifestation is sourced from the oneness and guided by natural intelligence (or some might say “Spirit”). This I believe is how we access the natural intelligence of life, how we can be guided to act from a place of wholeness and deep relationship. Finding ways to do this is I believe the only way as humanity that we will be able to co-create a future that is aligned with the fundamental principles of life and creation. Anything else will just lead to more fragmentation and we should not be surprised if life presses the (R)Eject button. Regeneration out there means regeneration in here.

Does this mean that we need to stop using the third person completely, no more “It”? No. David Bohm made a very useful distinction between “multiplicity” and “fragmentation”. By “multiplicity” he meant the wonderful diverse expressions of life held in a perspective of their interconnectedness. The problem comes when we forget that that diversity is part of an underlying web of relationships. That is when we get “fragmentation” and perceived conflict between apparently unrelated pieces of our reality. It is still okay to use the third perspective “It”, as long as when we do we re-member that “we are It” and feel our relationship to it. In my experience, we actually stop using the third person so much, and generally stop talking “about things”. It can become quite socially awkward in moments, however as long as we are fully present with our hearts open, then connection and flow just happens – and the most surprising things can emerge out of our conversations.

If this resonates, do give it a go, and share in the comments below about your experiences and discoveries. I’m sure people would like to hear your stories – I certainly would! It’s time for us to learn a new practice.