In this essay I expand on the idea of “intrinsic participation”, a concept I introduced in “Creative Participation of the Whole – a North Star concept”. It stresses that our efforts at participatory democracy are manifestations of a far larger Reality in and with which we are forever dancing – this participatory, co-incarnational universe. It notes that we couldn’t NOT participate if we tried! The implications of that Reality are quite vast….
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We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. – Martin Luther King
In 1986 I participated with 400 others in the cross-country Great Peace March for Global Nuclear Disarmament from Los Angeles to Washington, DC. It took 9 months and contained many unusual events – like this and this – which launched me on my explorations of co-intelligence.
But right now I want to tell you about the remarkable moment the Peace March was born.
A man asked his seven-year-old niece what she was going to be when she grew up. She replied, “I’m not going to grow up. I’m going to die in a nuclear war.”
The uncle, David Mixner, was so stricken by her statement that he set aside a lucrative political PR business to organize a Great Peace March, which ultimately involved thousands of people over more than a year.
So what was the impact of that tiny moment of conversation that seeded the Great Peace March?
No one will ever know the full story. But I know parts of it. As part of the ongoing reverberations of that 7 year old’s comment and the resulting cross-country March, I’ve done 35 years of research … authored four books starting with The Tao of Democracy … written hundreds of articles published on my websites and in alternative journals … and created the entire Wise Democracy Pattern Language… among so many other aspects of my work.
I also know of other offspring of that niece’s comment and the Great Peace March she unwittingly called into being. I know of several marchers who wrote books about the March. Many songs were written about it. Hundreds of lives were radically changed in many ways by it, as was mine. Several Russian-American peace marches were undertaken, some in the U.S., some in the Soviet Union. A group took over the Peace March’s mobile kitchen after the March; they ended up not only serving food at other peace demonstrations for years afterwards, but also feeding rescue workers in the devastating 1989 earthquake where it had collapsed a section of freeway in Oakland, California, and later feeding hurricane victims. Another marcher organized a “March for a Livable World” across the U.S. and subsequently founded an ecovillage in Ithaca NY with people she met on her march. The list goes on. It could easily fill a book all by itself. All from a small seven-year-old’s poignant response to her uncle’s simple, caring question.
David Mixner’s niece, in her wildest dreams, could not have imagined the impacts her comment would have. She was like the proverbial butterfly whose flapping – under the right conditions of complex iterative dynamics – triggers a hurricane thousands of miles away. Her unpredictable impact was perhaps a bit like that of ordinary Black citizens – from Rodney King to George Floyd and so many others – whose video’d abuse and/or killing by police have triggered massive responses from millions of people that have begun shifting racial consciousness in the US. These ordinary people – and the police who beat them or killed them – never dreamed they would have the impact they had, especially during their beating and murders. Add to that the people who created mobile phones with videographic capabilities and the often ordinary people who use such phones in such watershed moments. It’s almost like they aren’t just individuals. Without realizing it, they are also sparks in a far larger field of social tinder.
Similarly, little did David Mixner and his niece and the hundreds of peace marchers realize the role they would play in the advent of the work and worldview of the Co-Intelligence Institute. And who can tell what will happen next as the ripples of their influence spread. A song written on the Peace March proclaimed “echoes of our care will last forever…” It has proven prophetic, so far.
Sometimes, when I imagine you reading these pages, I get the vivid feeling that each of you has done something which led to these words being written. At the very least, most of you have played some role in creating these exciting and terrifying times that have impelled me into this work and given me so much hope and such deep concern. We are all creating it all.
Our impact in the world unfolds, often without us even knowing it is happening.
This insight can be overwhelming or wondrous, depending on how you look at it. We are all playing roles in the development of gravitational fields, children, economies, planetary weather, the health of people in Tasmania in the year 2053. Every single person in the world unknowingly conspires with every single green plant to maintain the right mix of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to sustain life – or to undermine it. Every citizen who stays home on election day participates – along with every voter – in electing their President or ruling party. Everyone who picks up trash on the street – or leaves it lying there – plays a role in determining whether or not the next piece of trash will fall on the ground.
We are active participants in everything that happens – even when we think we’re “doing nothing” – even when we’re totally ignorant of what’s going on. We are never merely irrelevant observers, spectators or bystanders. We are – each of us, right now – yes, right now, as I write this, and as you read it – actively participating in the unfolding of the world into its future.
I think of this as “intrinsic participation.” We can’t avoid participating.
But it’s not just us. Everything and everyone is co-creating everything and everyone else. Everything is bringing the next moment into being. As David Spangler says, we live in “a co-incarnational universe.” This, it turns out, has profound implications for who we are, how we are in the world, and how the world is.
It is an assumption, just one way of looking at the world – a worldview that happens to be quite profound:
Everything is co-creating everything else.
If we accept this as a valid perspective, then certain other things become true as well. I’ve listed some of them below. The first we’ve already talked about. The others are no less remarkable.
• We are inevitably participating in everything – and thus we are never fully innocent nor uninvolved. Our task, therefore, is not to “get off our duffs and start participating” – because we’ve already done that, simply by being born. Our challenge is to become more conscious and intentional about the roles we’re playing – to try to choose our present and future roles more wisely. For example, when someone discovers how much chocolate is made with child slave labor and tons of pesticides, they may decide to switch to chocolate bought from organic cooperative farms using fair-trade arrangements, even though it costs more to buy that kind of chocolate.
Now, I want to make it clear that I don’t think such a choice makes a person particularly pure. I don’t actually see purity as possible – or relevant, or even desirable. What I do see as desirable and important is to make an ongoing effort to be conscious and to choose. Sometimes we may even transcend ordinary choice by becoming so aware of the interconnectedness of life that the sensible path simply becomes obvious, and we just do it, even while recognizing its inherent limitations and moral ambiguities. After all, our actions are only part of the picture…
• We are not the only participants – and so we are never fully in control. Because of that, we are never fully guilty – but then, again, neither is anyone else. Everybody has more or less influence, but no one’s actually fully responsible. From this perspective, blame, shame and regret start to look odd, incomplete, potentially misleading and distracting.
Rather than blaming ourselves or others, it begins to make more sense to figure out who or what else is significantly involved here, and try to work consciously and co-creatively with them – while not being too attached to what happens then, since nothing is fully predictable or controllable or even final.
For example, I can’t control what you do with what you read here. But I can do my best to help you see what I’m seeing, and I can be open to what you might have to say about that, and then be open to whatever might grow in your life, or in mine, or in our shared life as a result of that openness. Responsibility, it turns out, is more about responsiveness than about whose fault it is or who’s in charge.
• There is never only one single cause for anything. Everything has multiple causes, collective causes, contextual causes. The single, linear causalities we track in our laboratories and rational thought experiments and moral codes – as useful as they may be for understanding isolated relationships – simply don’t translate adequately and as neatly into the nuanced and multifaceted complexity of real life.
Once we understand that everything is co-creating everything else, we realize that the greatest power lies in influencing the things that shape or mediate that co-creativity – things like relationships, systems, dialogue, story, vision, contexts, and habit patterns. These things generate causal fields we can recognize, understand, use and influence. Consider, for example, this kind of causal field in action:
We co-create a beautiful community with well-supported meaningful livelihoods, walkable destinations and a non-toxic natural environment with inviting places to hang out together creating and pursuing shared dreams and joys, where people find they don’t need to invest so many resources in addressing disease and crime because they find so much less disease and crime happening. There’s just too much good, healthy life happening in this place, this context we’ve co-created.
• The world influences us as we influence the world – and vice versa. Mutuality is unavoidable, a fact of life. Even competing teams and enemies co-create their mutual outcomes and transform each other’s lives. And there is no starting place and no end; there are always prior influences and reverberating ripple effects. And everyone changes everyone.
We can use that understanding to develop conscious, intentional mutuality. We can use democracy to create social realities that influence us all in positive ways. We can learn together and from each other. We can cooperate for mutual benefit, even when we are competitors.
More often than not, I need your cooperation to pursue my self-interest, and you need mine to pursue yours. There are very few pursuits that are best pursued alone. Furthermore, I can use my awareness of my mutuality with the world to open myself to learning about the physical, biological, cultural, psychological, experiential, and other influences that have shaped how I see and relate to the world. People call this “making the unconscious conscious,” “overcoming cultural bias,” and “suspending our assumptions.” We can try to work with these things – individually and collectively – to heal and enlighten our own lives and to help create more life-affirming communities and cultures.
• Given all this mutuality, co-creativity and uncertainty, it behooves us to be humble and open to each other and life – because things are complex. There is so much we don’t know and can’t know. Perhaps we should be more curious than judgmental, more observant than pushy, more patient than frustrated. There’s so much going on. Most of it we’ll never know.
We need each other – all our different viewpoints and intelligences and sources of information – to paint as big a picture of what’s going on as we can manage, in any given situation – and even that will be only a small piece of what’s real.
In our efforts to be as big and nuanced as the complexities we face, our mutual inadequacies can become a resource, a way to connect with each other, as we seek to be, see and act with that greater wholeness which is accessible only through each other.
This is why I think it unwise for us to seek perfect wisdom as individuals, but rather to seek to be with each other in ways that help us see beyond our diverse blind spots into greater wisdom, simply because our differences are able to paint a reality that’s bigger, fuller and more life-like than any one of us alone could possibly imagine.
Co-intelligence and wise democracy challenge us – and empower us – to play our roles more consciously, more collaboratively, more congruently with the needs and resources of the whole systems in which we live – our relationships, our communities, our bioregions, our world.
“Being more conscious” involves becoming more aware of the roles that we and others play, more aware of the dynamics involved in our lives and of possible consequences of what we do or participate in, and making choices (or letting our actions arise spontaneously) from the center of our aware being, without shrinking from the fullness of reality, the complexity and ambiguity of real life as we have to live it.
Our ability to play our role consciously depends, of course, on our ability to know the effects of our actions. But in practice it isn’t always easy to track what our impact really is.
Most of the impact we have on the world is not individual and direct, but happens as a result of the larger systems we are part of. I am speaking of those impacts we have by reason of our individual, everyday participation in systems of industry and commerce, consumption, transportation, media, governance, and so on. I’m speaking of the impact I have by buying chocolate, passing on information, doing what we’re told, driving a particular car….
The impact of these vast collective systems we’re part of has become so powerful, complex and far-reaching, we can no longer track all the influences we have on the world around us. Our individual role is camouflaged in the vast, diffuse field of systemic impacts.
Some of that impact may be buried in the future, some deep in our cells, some in the atmosphere or in distant lands – all of which we can’t individually, directly perceive – and it’s all mixed in with everyone else’s influences. The systemic nature of our influence makes responsibility fuzzy, obscuring the moral nature of our everyday actions and making it hard to be sure when we’re acting ethically as individuals.
However, we can together collectively create the collective capacity to collectively perceive, evaluate and modify out collective impacts. That’s what “quality of life statistics” and “citizen deliberative councils” do. They aren’t about individual behavior and change. They’re about collective, social behavior and collective, social change. They’re about all of us, and how the systems we live in cause us to have positive or negative impacts on the world simply by living our lives. If we have ways to track our collective impact, to reflect on that together, and to act together on what we learn, we can together create or modify the systems that shape our lives, so that the ways we all live naturally have a positive impact when all our lives are added together.
So a big part of co-intelligent agency, co-intelligent participation, and co-intelligent morality is shifting our attention from our individual actions and impacts to the impacts of the collective systems we’re part of – and doing things to improve those systems.
And because of that, our biggest potential impact could lie in the roles we individually and collectively play in co-creating our culture’s collective intelligence and its capacity to bring forth and use effective collective wisdom.
If, for example, we could co-create the sort of holistic politics and culture of dialogue described in the “Co-Intelligent Political and Democratic Theory” articles and the Wise Democracy Project, we would be able to alleviate poverty, itself, not just the suffering of individual poor people. We would envision and create communities that are delightful for us all to live in, not just fret about whether we’re individually being good neighbors. We would have more environmentally and socially benign production, distribution, and transportation systems, so we wouldn’t each have so much garbage and recycling to handle, nor have to wonder whether our daily consumption and activities are damaging some natural or human community hundreds or thousands of miles away or endangering future generations.
Understanding that we are intrinsically participating in a fundamentally co-creative world can lead us to design cultures and systems that will enable us to co-create our lives more consciously and to weave ourselves more fully into the deeply healthy and incredibly powerful co-creative energies dancing in, among and all around us even in this… very… moment…
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Evoking and engaging the wisdom and resourcefulness of the whole on behalf of the whole
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