Mutual learning in context – everywhere – always…

A poem about another deep dynamic we can tap into to generate wisdom together.

What is it
about the fact that everything is interrelated
that makes it so
* exciting
* inspiring
* and overwhelming?

I once was called into
a poem-journey
about that vibrant dynamic ….

And many years later
(last month, in fact)
a dear colleague sent me a book by
Nora Bateson (Gregory Bateson’s daughter)
whose newly minted word “symmathesy”
highlights the idea
that everything is mutual learning in context.

That’s what Nora says:
everything –
at least everything with even the slightest hint
of aliveness –
is learning together in context.

Not only is everything –
every person, organism, system, and other life form –
learning from and with other entities
in whatever context they happen to find themselves…
but each of them IS
mutual learning in context
I mean, that’s what they ARE!

That thought boggles my mind –
taking me to places thoughts don’t normally go.
I have to take a moment
to poke around in the space of that thought
and feel my way into what it
just might mean to me….
and to us….

Nora Bateson is telling us that
mutual learning in context
is all that’s going on,
all the time
at every level of existence.
We could say
that symmathesy
IS what existence is made of.
And it’s what WE are made of.

Now, it is important to realize
that this learning isn’t like school learning.
It’s more like a dance
or a flock in flight
or a fight
or a closing down because it isn’t safe
or a learning to turn away or turn toward
or dive in
or escape
or respond in whatever way seems likely to work
in this moment
or for the long term…
intellectually, viscerally, emotionally, habitually, systemically…
in our bodies, our hearts, our stances, our stories,
our world….

Such learning isn’t always positive
it isn’t always cumulative,
it isn’t always conscious or even visible;
but it is always responsive
and mutual
with everyone and everything responding to each other all the time in big ways and small ways
and it never

Each part of us is responding to all the other parts (which are its context)
and to the world around us (which is its larger context)
and to our history (which is its deeply embedded context)
and to our assumptions and expectations (such potent ghostly contexts!)
often filtered through this or that perspective or system (contexts upon contexts upon…)….
so many contexts –
and they never ever

(I get this strange feeling that
reality is some kind of
evolving learningful field
that’s really alive
all around us
and totally within us

Nora notes that art
– being intuitive, evocative, contextual, relational –
is usually more able to comprehend, convey, and commune with
this vibrantly alive complexity
than science and reason
which (while being extremely useful)
are trying to nail things down
(like clouds, children, forests, feelings…)
that don’t actually respond well
to nails.

She also says that
when we are trying to “solve” something
we should – most importantly, truly, yes –
recognize that the “problem”
is connected, interacting and evolving
with everything else
and therefore:
we would be wise to be humble and curious
and to take the trouble
to explore it
through different lenses,
perspectives, disciplines, contexts
(a mind-expanding exercise,
a world-expanding exercise
she calls “transcontextuality”
which begets what she calls
“warm data”).

And after my mind finishes boggling,
I find I have questions:

How do we decide where to stop?
How do we choose the “best” lenses and contexts
to view through?
Or is it sufficient to humbly use
some clearly incomplete gathering of perspectives
that seem like they just might be enlightening
and see what we discover by looking through them all
and then humbly try things out in light of that
and see what happens
over and over and over…
as all of it changes?

And also –
since I want to be an agent on behalf of Life
and healthy evolution
(Is that even possible? What does that mean?) –
I find I want to translate all that
the primal power of conversation.

Because we can view all that
mutual learning in context
as conversation –
as conversation
of everything with everything else –
and that certain kinds of human conversation
can be humanity’s most fruitful practice
of “mutual learning in context”
that serves the life of everyone and all.

After all
(says my “change agent” self)
we know so much
about how to help conversations transform
differences, disturbances, destruction and dreams
into greater insights and creative energies
for whatever is next that is better
(or seems to us now to be better
in This Context)
over and over
and over
forever learning.

“Symmathesy” calls up
in my visionary mind’s eye
the possibility of
a vibrating evolving global web
of life-bringing conversations
among ordinary people,
special people, expert people, powerful people, marginalized people….
across the borders of nation and scale
across the chasms of “stakeholder interest”
across all the battle lines and disciplinary boundaries
across the illusory islands of “nature” and “society”
across the weave of past, present, future engaged
in finding what is new
that will work
for all.

mutual learning in context…

It seems so obvious to me now
that that’s all that’s going on,
even in this moment that I’m writing….
And it seems equally obvious that
that is how we human beings
live into whatever our destiny is,
into whatever destiny we are creating together
even when we think we’re apart, alone, opposed….
(because, of course, we’re not:
we’re always connected,
always learning together,
no matter how separate we seem…).

And in the midst of that realization,
I like to think
that being awake, respectful, humble, and curious
as we learn together in symmathetic conversations
could make all the difference in the world
we live in,
in the world
that we are,
and in the world
that we become.


Sources about Nora Bateson’s work

(book) Small Arcs of Larger Circles: Framing thorough other patterns
(movie) An Ecology of Mind
(podcast interview) Small Arcs of Larger Circles
(videos) An ecology of mind (and related videos in the margin)
Limnal Leadership


Tom Atlee, The Co-Intelligence Institute, POB 493, Eugene, OR 97440

Evoking and engaging the wisdom and resourcefulness of the whole on behalf of the whole

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