The frenzy
  • I find myself returning so often to these words of Thomas Merton that I figured it would be worth dedicating a blog post to them:

    “There is a pervasive form of contemporary violence to which the idealist fighting for peace by non-violent methods most easily succumbs: activism and overwork. The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence. To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything is to succumb to violence. The frenzy of the activist neutralizes one’s work for peace. It destroys one’s inner capacity of peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of one’s work because it kills the roots of inner wisdom which make work fruitful.”

    I’ve suffered from this tendency towards frenzyness for years and can’t remember the last time I came across a person or organization in the social change field that doesn’t share this struggle. Certainly there are external pressures to blame, from funding scarcity to the sheer weight of the social problems we’re trying so hard to address. But I think that a good portion of this frenzy is internally generated. Not just individually, but organizationally.

    We often create organizational rhythms that lead to perpetual burn-out. We fully recognize they are unsustainable, but either accept them as the sacrifice we make for the greater good or fail to see how we might change them. I wonder what we can do to develop our capacity for organizational mindfulness. What practices can we adopt to help maintain healthy levels of collective energy? How can we forecast energetic tipping points so that we can manage our shared workload more proactively?


    October 17th, 2012 | Tana Paddock | 11 Comments

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  • Michelle Holliday 10.17.2012

    So good, Tana. I’ve been thinking about this myself lately, wondering first how we can develop the capacity to distinguish between being “in the juice” (positively energized by our challenges) and feeling unhelpfully frenzied. I’ve also noticed many of us assume that being burned out is not only inevitable but necessary. (“If you’re not burned out, you probably don’t care enough, or maybe you don’t realize how high the stakes are.”) But what if that feeling of frenzy is a signal that something needs to shift? I’m exploring that possibility for myself, thinking about what internal structures (assumptions, fears) and external structures (business model, partnerships) need to evolve to support higher levels of complexity in my life/work.

    Thank you for feeding my exploration so eloquently!

  • Hi Tana…

    Interestingly, I brought this quote (certainly you posted it somewhere else where I took note and copied it down in my notebook) to a gathering in Switzerland this summer of the Global Cooperative Forum. I read it in what we called our ‘heart round’ the first morning of the gathering and so many people were moved and touched by Merton’s words. I even ended up writing them on the “wall of the people” harvest paper in the entryway to the hall.

    My biggest question is: if so many of us feel frenzy and are aware of this pattern, how do we change it? I have long been aware of a condition I seem to have. It’s something called Horror Vacui and it’s normally used in the art world to describe works that are just so full of content that one can hardly make out anything within them (see attachment). But I find that I have Horror Vacui in my own LIFE… an addiction to fullness. So I am experimenting with being consciously lazy. Doing nothing. Enjoying the empty spaces. I wish it were easier to do… but I do feel that I am beginning to learn about breaking these patterns.

  • That’s so cool to know the quote traveled with you to Switzerland : ) One of the reasons I posted it is that it seems to resonate universally with folks whenever I’ve shared it. Even the healthiest organizational cultures I’ve experienced, like the Roulant, struggle with it.

    Thats great to hear that you’ve been able to make shifts in your own life. I made a strong effort to use my recent transition to Cape Town to kick the habit and it’s been wonderful. Some of the things that have helped me…the blank slate of being somewhere completely new, working alone a lot so that I am forced to face my own Horror Vacui demons head on (there is no one but myself to blame), a strong will to want to change (I really, really, really meant it this time), incredibly supportive work partners, and the decision to keep Org Unbound illegal (i.e., no superficially imposed board or funder expectations).

    I fall back into the pattern from time to time, but for the most part I seem to have kicked the addiction and as a result the quality of my work feels much fuller. However, this new state feels quite vulnerable. I could totally see it collapsing around me if I were to start working for an organization that had externally-imposed deadlines and was not oriented towards keeping the collective frenzy in check.

    So I’m curious about the organizational practices that can help. Maybe I’ll host a conversation around this at an upcoming “personal sustainability” retreat I’m helping out with. I love the Horror Vacui metaphor. I’m going to see how I can work it into an exercise at the retreat, so thanks for the accompanying visual.

    Let me know if you’d be interested in co-hosting an on-line conversation about this at some point. We’ve been thinking about starting to organize on-line conversations at Org Unbound but are feeling blocked by our lack of tech savvyness. Have you had any experiences in the on-line conversation-hosting realm?

  • I think the distinction you’re making between “in the juice” and “frenzy” is an important one. However, when I think back over all of my different experiences working in social purpose organizations, I think I mostly experienced both simultaneously. The Roulant for me was a place where I felt both really strongly. I’m wondering if this came up at all in your conversation the other night…

  • Hey Tana, Aerin, Michelle…. this is a conversation that interests me a great deal too. Organisational mindfulness and the horror vacuii! I personally don’t suffer from horror vacuii and have wondered about how to be more intentional in offering ways of overcoming the horror vacuii and breaking the patterns. Would love to join an online conversation if you get this together and will be interested to follow what happens in your personal sustainbility retreat Tana.

  • Tana, thanks for raising such extremely relevant point. I work in a “purpose-driven”, at times activism driven work and the feeling of doing (or say at least: wanting to be doing) something good for the world can easily lead to the shadows: selflessness has a shadow of egocentrism, care has its shadow on cynicism, and extreme engagement has the shadow of the times when one desires just to leave everything. I have become interested in the “engaged Buddhism” approach, for example taught by Nhat Hann. It has helped me greatly to make peace with my shadows and see and put in context the ego-issues. Gratitude for your post. Marco.

  • tana, aerin…
    one of thing, i feel, that seems to be at the core is…
    how is the organisation born?
    if it is out of a need or ‘external purpose’… chances of ‘violence’ are inherent.
    maybe because (till today?) our organisations are formed to ‘correct’ things? and thus, to fight the present conditions?

    instead… an organisation that forms itself – like biological/ecological connections in nature – through natural connections (affinities and aversions)… orgnisation that ‘forms and grows’ organically… chances of actions rising from it being violent is highly reduced.

    i am not sure if i am being clear or not.

    easy to get caught up in the convoluted thoughts…


  • “But I think that a good portion of this frenzy is internally generated. Not just individually, but organizationally.”

    Thanks Tana for the post, and to the other commenters for useful and generous responses.

    Could I suggest too, how it might be useful to think-feel-remember how organisations are not just what they seem to be today, but are also the carrying forward of a history (founder-vision energy and/and patterns-events of the past), express that larger system (funder-fundee parallel processing, sector characteristics eg charity, welfare, fee-for-service, for profit), and resonate with the individuals’ valences of those attracted and temporarily retained (within the boundary of the system)… and all this takes place in the larger field of the larger sense-making known as Source (aka how is the larger meaning given shape here?)

    There is (for me) a really useful model offered in the UK Grubb Institutes Transforming Experience framework – see which sees-invites the perspectives of person (activated/defined by yearning), system (activated/defined by purpose), context (activated/defined by resources) and Source – which cross together in the central experience of the self-in-role.

    I find it helps to disentangle some tangles – to see some of what is occurring is generated, held, welcomed by attractions and resonances beyond this moment, this person, this particularity of circumstance playing out here in me, in front of me, with me.

    Bringing our selves-attention into the here and now (frenzy and elation can both be the negation of doing this imo) reminds us the system is always in the room, and actively available for negotiation, re-positioning, re-siting, and more. Even seeing what and where the blindspots are makes good data.

    Practically, this looks like open enquiry, withholding-judgement, seriously inviting disparate perspectives, staying awake breathing into the groan-grown zone, self-work in company, allowing time for ‘group digestion’, reflective pausing within the work group to notice patterns playing out as data…

    With a few together, this common language can be a starting point for wider narratives of exploration, risk and discovery. And taking leave of the known shore, it is bound to change the language you/we/I start off with.

  • I really appreciate the point you brought in about organizations carrying forward a history and a larger field. It got me thinking back to a reflection that Warren wrote called “whole person, whole system” ( and interested in digging back into the Grubb Framework. Thank you Simon!

  • Yeah, spot on!! Thanks for this!!!

  • You’re welcome!

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