A conversation mashup with Biren Shah
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    Biren Shah and Tana Paddock met through the Learning Societies Unconference in Bir, India in 2011 and have been engaged in a fascinating exchange about the nature of social change work ever since. Biren has challenged Organization Unbound’s thinking in many ways and called into question some of the taken-for-granted building blocks of social change work. What follows is a collage of their conversation, created from a mix of Skype calls, emails, Facebook posts, and interviews.

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    TANA: You recently posed an interesting question that I’d love to explore with you more deeply. You asked: “Why is it that so often forming a group or organisation with a social/environmental mandate actually creates the opposite of what the group sets out to do?” Can you give an example of this?

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    BIREN: Sure, I see it happening all the time- a forest department that goes about its work in a way that ends up creating more disconnection between nature and humans or an NGO for the upliftment of the downtrodden that creates more helplessness. And to extrapolate, I think this dynamic may be true for each and every organization in the world.

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    TANA: I came across some pages in a book I was reading recently- Artists of the Invisible, by Allan Kaplan, that very much speaks to this question: “The more something is emphasized, the more it turns into its polar opposite. In The Tao of Leadership John Heider states: ‘If I do anything more and more, over and over, its polarity will appear. For example, striving to beautiful makes a person ugly, and trying too hard to be kind is a form of selfishness.’”

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    BIREN: It seems like this dynamic is fed by our obsession with purpose. When we are so driven by purpose, we are less aware of the place from which we are acting. We are too focused on what we want to achieve and not enough focused on the quality of our interactions and being-ness as we go about making change. We are actually missing out on the bus, which is life. And that it is only when we don’t have a social purpose that we’re truly serving the world.

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    TANA: “It is only when we don’t have a social purpose that we’re truly serving the world.” That’s a pretty mind-bending statement, especially for those of us who are working in social purpose organizations. What exactly do you mean by this?

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    BIREN: The moment we see a thing as something we want to change, two things happen below our awareness. One- we see ourselves separate and outside the thing we want to change. Two – without intending to, we see ourselves as larger than the thing we want to change.

    The image that comes to mind is of someone holding an egg, which they want to change to a chick. Since they are outside, larger and more powerful, all they can see to do is to break open the egg to release the chick. That’s what I see all change efforts essentially doing. And it is the only thing we can do as long as we see ourselves as separate and outside the things we want to change. The reality is, we are inside and part of the egg. And only when we engage with social issues from that perspective will we be able to take actions to truly change things… to birth the chick.

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    TANA: Love this analogy. So what you are saying that in practice social purpose organizations would be more effective if they focused less on an articulated purpose and more on a lived purpose…seeking out the desired future that already exists in themselves and in the world and growing more of that? Or do you think that the root of the problem is having the intention of trying to change the world in the first place?

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    BIREN: What is problematic is that we often try to change something without being aware of where our desire for change is coming from. If our motivation is coming from a place of fear, as opposed to love, then everything that comes out of fear perpetuates that same fear. That initial seed of change that you’re feeling is pure. You feel something in the world that rubs you wrong, which means you are yearning for something right. That yearning for something right is pure. It’s just that we tend to focus on the rub rather than what the good is that we are yearning for.

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    TANA: You once said to me that “all change efforts come from fear.” And for that reason you feel that people shouldn’t be trying to change the world. Can you talk about what you meant by this?

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    BIREN: It feels like I was MADE to live through the response to this question. Life brought me an experience that forced me to recognize that it was fear that was pushing me to engage in this dialogue about the nature of change.

    So, yes, it does appear to be the case if you examine the dynamics of many change efforts, including my own, that fear is a primary driver. But it doesn’t have to be that way. The ground we decide to put our seed of yearning in is what matters most- we have a choice whether to plant it in love or fear. I am myself struggling to root myself and my efforts in love, as I face my seething anger and frustration and fear about the apathy that I think I am surrounded by. When I do manage to drop the idea of changing things and root myself in love, I end up teaching myself. I’ve come to realize that I cannot change anything. But I can have a conversation, and when I have a conversation, things change. As long as the conversation is one of engagement, discovery, disclosure and unconditional acceptance of myself and others.

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    TANA: In our experience and learning, social purpose organizations will only develop the capacity for deep and lasting societal transformation when they start the change they are seeking from within. What does that mean for you?

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    BIREN: For me the outer work of an organization is an exact reflection of its inner life. It’s like a movie being projected on a screen. We cannot open up the filmstrip and see the movie, so we need it to be projected so that we can see it. But unless we are very aware that what we are seeing outside is nothing but a reflection, a true and complete reflection of what is happening inside, I think we get caught up and lost thinking that that is real and separate from what is happening inside. If we can see it’s just a movie playing of what’s happening inside then I will be able to go inside and look at what is creating this movie.

    I think that the practice of Inscaping has the power to change the soil of fear to love. But only if it is clearly recognized that inscaping is not a tool to improve the efficacy of the work you do – but the work itself. The real work is inscaping, and the outer purpose (the social purpose work you engage in) is the laboratory where the material and substance for inscaping is gathered, by real life experiencing.

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    TANA: This is certainly what we’ve seen and experienced in action.

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    BIREN: Here’s how I see the current dynamic playing out, both at an individual and organizational level: We struggle to change ourselves so we try to change others. Each one is doing the same. I go out to change you. And you have left your house to change me. And no one is left in their homes to let the change happen. Despite all the talk about change, we seem incapable of experiencing it ourselves. We need to allow ourselves to be shaped and then the change will happen. And then it becomes a dance. For example, maybe I’m wanting connection as an activist. So if I’m feeling connected as I go about my work, then the purpose is being served in every moment of the work I’m doing. Only when we reach this level of integration between the inner and outer are we able to do truly transformational work. I found something recently that expresses this quite eloquently – words from a book shared by someone on Facebook:

    “’Fixing’ or ‘helping’ is not a relationship between equals. In fixing we see others as broken. A fixer may see others as weaker than they are, needier than they are, and people often feel this implied inequality. The danger in fixing is that we may take away from people more than we give them. We may diminish their self-esteem, their sense of worth, integrity, or even wholeness.

    When we try to fix people or situations we may feel our own strength, but when we serve we don’t serve with our strength alone, we serve with our totality and we draw from all our experiences. Our limitations serve, our wounds serve, and even our darkness can serve. My pain is the source of my compassion; my woundedness is the key to my empathy. Service is a relationship between equals and it heals us as well as others. Seeking to fix the world is ultimately draining and over time we may burn out, while serving the world is renewing.

    And we can’t serve at a distance. We can only serve that to which we are profoundly connected – that which we are willing to touch. We serve life not because it is broken but because it is holy. We learn that our humanity is more powerful than our expertise alone. Personally I find this recognition liberating and the ground of a contemplative approach to living.”  

    -From Showing up: Notes on taking action in the world, by Elizabeth Rabia Roberts

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    TANA: Wow. That’s powerful, and so beautifully articulated…I’m wondering, how do we take this approach to change into contexts where there is an immediate need to respond and the stakes are extremely high? For example, we’re in a country where genocide is happening and we’re organizing fellow citizens to stop it and to keep it from spreading.

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    BIREN: There is no easy answer. I would say to keep the question alive as we go about our work: ‘If the genocide is happening, how have I/we played a part?’ How are we part of what we want to change? I do rape people. Not physically, but I have raped many people in the way that I’ve treated them. The people we are trying to change are simply showing us what is wrong in us collectively. In an organization, we have the opportunity to help each other to bend the telescope back on ourselves. That said, I would say we should keep doing the work we are doing. We are very resilient.

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    TANA: I agree that it’s important to be gentle with ourselves. The more we can move in this direction the better. The beauty of working together with others to create change is that there is an opportunity to help each other and to forge a collective intention that can hold our individual intentions around this.

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    BIREN: What we don’t often realize is that the world is like a massive magnet field. Whenever an iron filing moves (an individual) or a collection of iron filings (an organization), it changes the larger magnetic field. Our only choice is to change the field within us. We can only have that agency. And so in a group, we can be mirrors for each other. And in helping each other see and shift our way of being we are creating a powerful magnetic field that can have an even larger effect on the world.

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    TANA: On the flip side, a lot of positive change has happened in the world using a more instrumental, analytical and linear approach to social change.

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    BIREN: The mind has immense capacity- both life-giving and destructive. But somewhere along the road we became so enamored by its beauty it that we made it into the leader and blindly followed it, unaware that, akin to following a child, its sincere curiosity and exploratory nature has taken us into dangerous territory.

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    TANA: I agree, it’s so important to remember that our minds don’t have the capacity to access the deepest patterns of human experience. And that they get in the way of us accessing our experience. For me, social change is about growing a particular experience of the world. And we can only really understand how to grow that experience if we ourselves are regularly in touch with it in a lived way. I guess the key is to learn how to tame the mind into working in collaboratively with, rather than dominating, our other sense-making faculties like our emotions, curiosities, and intuition. Easier said that done!

    In many respects the points you are making are diving deeper than I think most people in the social change space are ready to go- the idea of not having a purpose or not being attached to a social change outcome to begin with. Can you elaborate on why you would suggest that we drop our outcome/purpose orientation?

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    BIREN: When we see something as ‘wrong’ in this world, it rings alarm bells inside us. And like Pavlov’s programmed dogs, we jump on the first stranger we see who seems to have tripped the alarm. It seems like this is how most change efforts work.

    What we are not seeing is: a) the alarm bells that we hear are set up by us, to warn us of possible danger, b) the stranger is not the danger, but rather an indicator of something that is unhealthy for us, and c) the alarm system is there, not to pounce on and kill the stranger, but to inform us to check if there is something we need to do differently for our own safety and health. Whenever the world trips a wire of ‘wrong’ in us the signal of ‘wrong’ that our control centre receives, is not saying the world is wrong, but there is something about it that may not be healthy for us. And so, we need to go inside – our control centre – and check what this signal is indicating.

    The real change work involves going inside our own control centre, which sensed and then rang the alarm bells in the first place. Without recognizing what in us rang the alarm, we will only continue to kill all strangers who trip the wires.

    The other aspect is that I think we are too focused on changing what people are doing rather than how they are seeing the world. Let’s not be so bothered by what people are doing, let them continue, but create spaces so that we can ‘see’ what we are doing differently.

    If we want to understand what creates environmental destruction, corporate greed, social slavery, concentration of power, etc. we need to look at how this mindset has percolated in each of us, making ALL of us guilty of being ‘accessory to murder’. For example, it is our ‘monoculture mindset’ that converts forests into farms, diversity into uniformity, dynamic organizing to dead order and democracy to the dictatorship of the collective. This mindset stops us from seeing opposition as a part of governance, and turns opposition parties into opponent parties. It stops us from seeing how we need to choose the ‘ruling party’ and the opposition party.

    If we can see the true essence of both, we would see that we need people who can get things done, in the ruling party, and people who can think in terms of right-wrong in terms of resultant effects of actions, in the opposition party. Democracy works when BOTH of these aspects are seen and valued.

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    TANA: So you are saying we need to focus on changing the way humans (change-makers included) see the world, not how they act in the world. And that when we change our way of seeing, our actions will eventually follow to align with that.

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    BIREN: Yes. And this important difference is not seen by almost all activism. It is a focus on ‘seeing’, rather than on ‘action’, that ushers in meaningful social change. I have never asked you this, but I realize it is so important for me as a context…How do you, Warren, and others involved involved in Organization Unbound see yourselves?…Like scientists?…like change agents?…or something else entirely?

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    TANA: That’s an interesting question, and I can only speak for myself. But the descriptors that come to mind most immediately are words like explorer, co-learner, connector, and illuminator. We try to let our inspirations, curiosities, and relationships guide our work. We spend a lot of time shedding light on examples of social change work that feel beautiful, paradigm shifting, and potentially world-changing. We care a lot about achieving depth and quality in whatever we happen to be working on, but don’t have much attachment to larger social change outcomes. This connects back to your point about the importance of detaching oneself from achieving particular social purpose outcomes in order for that purpose to flower. Of course it is easier for us to do that because we made a decision from the start not to go down the conventional nonprofit structure and funding routes.

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    BIREN: It seems like we (change-makers) want to create a change that will be permanent. We are looking for a solution, once implemented, that will keep on dealing with our errant ways. What we could do, instead, is be clear that we will constantly have to tweak our systems (our agreed or allowed ways of inter-acting) based on our ever-changing ways of responding. It is a never-ending process.

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    If any insights or questions have arisen for you that you feel inspired to add to the conversation, we hope you will take a moment to share them in the comment section below.

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    Homepage photo credit: This photo is itself a mashup from two different photos, found here: Theory U Plein

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    March 24th, 2016 | Conversation | 3 Comments

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