[This is an excerpt of a chapter in The Age of Thrivability: Vital Perspectives and Practices for a Better World]

How do we actively embrace our organizations and communities as living systems and work to cultivate thriving within them? How do we move forward into the Age of Thrivability that the living systems patterns suggest is just within reach?

Part of the answer is: follow the signs. A path forward is becoming clear, as pioneers lead the way. In cities around the world, there is a positive frenzy of activity around “social innovation” – new, systemic approaches to problems that plague society at large. Participatory organizational models and life-affirming investment methods are sprouting up and flourishing. Communities are being gathered and stewarded in novel ways, inviting unprecedented levels of inclusion, connection and creativity. Young people, in particular, are jumping into action to change the way things are done. Experimental spaces are being created – social labs, festivals, art hives, fab labs – in which the new story can be tested and experienced. And the language of living systems thinking is present throughout, with concepts like resilience, ecosystems, emergence and agility as the implicit mantras of the movement….

At the same time, the more substantive challenge is that those design changes must be accompanied by changes in thinking, in perspective, in consciousness, or they won’t stick and they won’t have the full desired impact.

And so I would also say that, “The answer to how is yes,” as bestselling author Peter Block advises in his marvelous book of that title. If thrivability is in some ways about following the energy of “yes” on its own terms, noticing and nourishing life as it shows up, then Block advises us that, “Transformation comes more from pursuing profound questions than seeking practical answers.” Rather than rushing into action (or perhaps alongside the action), there is value in reflection, in talking with others and checking in with your own understanding, intentions and assumptions, in plumbing the deeper implications of this new story of organization. “For the human species to evolve,” Margaret Mead observed, “the conversation must deepen.”

Because every living system is unique, there will likely be relatively little that can be prescribed and limited value in prescription. The much more significant benefit – be it in an organization or a community – comes in the awareness, connection, discovery and commitment that result from time spent reflecting together on what is needed most. An invitation-based, broadly participatory process of discerning and developing opportunities is as important as the opportunities themselves, enriching the community through learning and relationship. A strategic plan will take shape. A path to positive change will become clear. But it will be richer, wiser and more comprehensive than you could have imagined, rooted as it will be in a compelling story, in people’s passions and in place. Even more importantly, an enriched, activated and thriving community will emerge along the way.

Julie Bourbonnais describes such an approach at Space for Life, the complex of four Montreal-based nature museums [and one of the case studies in the book]:

We actually listened to what was in the center – to what the organization wanted to tell us, what does it want to become…. What we heard was that there’s something really important to be done…. It was to become not only individual spaces for life. Each individual institution is a space for life. In all its beauty, it’s how do we create awe and invite care so that we all together are one huge space for life. It was to invite people to love and protect and create spaces for life in their own environment, home, garden or school. It became something so much bigger than just who we were. That vision sustained the passion and the innovation, and it’s still going on today. Are things perfect? No. But that heroic cause keeps people mobilized even when they get discouraged.

As we consider the question of “how,” what is called for, then, is not an all-purpose checklist or a set of best practices (though these may come in handy). Instead, what is most called for is an action-learning orientation, enabling people to listen and respond to the unfolding story of the organization as it happens. What is needed is an ongoing and active practice of stewardship.

At the heart of this practice is the cultivation of courage. Courage to try new things, certainly. To experiment, learn and sometimes fail. But there is something more. Perhaps even more than “life after death,” it seems to take courage to believe in “life before death” – to believe you may be part of an epic narrative of vibrant aliveness. That you may have a special role to play. That life might be truly beautiful. It takes courage to open your heart to those possibilities, knowing your heart may be broken along the way. It’s so much easier to deny the imagination, to remain cynical and closed, to settle for the familiar outlines of the incremental and transactional. But as Anais Nin shared of her own experience: “The day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.” For many, that day has come. The pain is in us and in the world. And we need each other if we are to find the courage to blossom.

If we are to cultivate this type of practice, then we have to create time and space for it, both individually and collectively. We need to create our own “spaces for life” – practice fields where we can reflect and renew, like plants taken in to a nourishing greenhouse for a time. As my friend Vanessa Reid of the Living Wholeness Institute recounts:

I’ve been in many conversations with people in Canada and in my international network about the kinds of learning spaces that are needed now, ones that are integrated into an enlarged life, as the poet John O’Donohue writes, and where place and its stories have a place at the table, so to speak, as a teacher, not a consumable item.

There is a deep need for reflective space when there is such acceleration, complexity, urgency. The quality of our presence to ourselves, each other, to life, IS the work. This is the container for sustaining social innovation. These are the spaces, in other words, that simply sustain us on the big ride with life as it shows up.

Innovation, for me, is a life practice. It starts with how we connect to the “kefi” as they say in Greek, the life force. And once in tune with that, there is life that comes through us that allows the new to be seen. And sometimes, by a trick of the light, and as I wrote in my little poem, “there are very old things in the birthing of the new” so the newest shiny things are actually the essential gems that last and get re-discovered all over again.

As you dedicate such time and space to the practice of stewardship and the ongoing cultivation of thrivability – either in your organization or community – certain conditions will be most fertile:

– A field of action (something to steward, a practice ground, for example, a community project or your organization) – something bounded and purposeful and larger than yourself.

– Rootedness in the mythic story and geography of place – like plants, we and our projects require the soil of a particular place.

– A community of fellow action-learners:

  • Each of whom has a commitment to developing their own capacity to steward life, to listen for what is needed and to be of service.
  • With a shared commitment to being in healthy, open relationship and communication.
  • Ideally, united by love of a place and its community, which opens the door to the creation of shared fields of action.

– A regular, repeated rhythm of ample blocks of time for reflection and renewal. We need not to accelerate but to expand our experience of time, so within it we can develop our ability to sense what is needed and to feel our own aliveness.

– Practices for hosting participatory, generative conversations, both within the action and within separate times of reflection and renewal. (See the Art of Hosting, the Agile movement, and the Applied Improv Network for information about a wide range of such practices.)

– The necessary nourishment of nature, physical movement, creativity, the arts, beauty and music.

These are the ingredients of regular gatherings for the Community of Stewards within Crudessence [another case study in the book], for all members of the Enspiral network and for the Agile Learning Centers [mentioned elsewhere in the book]. Many of these are present in regular, extended staff meetings at Zenith Cleaners and CLC [two more case studies]….

Within these fertile conditions, you will be well supported as you respond to stewardship’s “four callings,” engaging in any or all of these generative conversations, or variations of them that seem relevant and timely to you:

  • What more could it mean at this moment in time for each of us, individually, to be able to bring the best of ourselves? To feel deeply at home in this place, in this work and in our own bodies? And what could support that?
  • What more could it mean at this moment in time for our infrastructure and interactions to support not only information sharing, decision-making, effective action and trust but playfulness, learning and joy? For our patterns of belonging with colleagues, customers and community to be infused with a sense of dedication, earnestness, perhaps even sacredness? And what could support that?
  • What more do we understand at this moment in time about the calling or purpose – the emergent, unifying story – that propels us into transformative action together, as citizens, employees, customers, community members? What new possibilities are now apparent for how we will craft and live into that story of wholeness and wonder?
  • How else can we integrate the first three conditions, ensuring coherence across all of them? And in all of them, how can we be inspired, nourished and renewed by nature, beauty, art, music, movement and celebration? How can we allow life to flow through us, so the new may be seen, or the essential gems rediscovered? How can we truly savor this experience of being alive?

Even without a group to gather with … there is value and insight available simply in journaling about these questions, reflecting on them during a morning walk, or engaging someone else in thoughtful conversation about them.

Our greatest challenge is not lack of answers to these questions. The world has exploded with new, life-aligned strategies and tactics, and even more discovery awaits us in our conversations and imaginings. Instead, the real challenge is to find the collective will and courage to ask the questions, to embark on these new paths, to create space and time to learn from the journey, and to focus not only on changing our systems, but on changing ourselves along the way. In a world that tells us that busyness and productivity are their own reward and that thriving is not a reasonable goal, the core challenge is to believe in our own worthiness and ability to thrive.

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