I would like to start this one off with a story:
A while ago, I was visiting a dear friend in his hometown of Munich, a city I had spent a year of my own life, well over a decade ago. As friends do, we agreed to meet for dinner, so in the evening I picked him up at his home and we ventured out into town on the quest to find a nice restaurant for us. As we walked around, we got talking and eventually forgot about time, space and the fact that we were hungry, so engulfed were we in our conversations and the steady pace of our walk. We strolled around town for a good two hours until eventually we “looked up” and found ourselves on the outskirts of central Munich with our bellies rumbling and little concept of where we could get some decent food in the area.
Then my friend remembered a small Afghan restaurant that happened to be in the very street we were finding ourselves in, and so we decided on it for our dinner. This restaurant was somewhat of a “locals’ favourite”, a tiny place with great, authentic food. As we reach the place, a couple approached it at pretty much the same time as us. My friend, being the eternal gentleman, opened the door for the couple and invited them to walk through instead of using our half-a-step advantage to claim first arrival at the place. They gratefully accepted and walked in, where the owner of the place greeted them emphatically and asked them “for two?”, while simultaneously showing them to an empty table. Then he walked up to us and asked us the same question, to which we responded with a smile and a nod, to which he responded with a grimace and the words “it’s gonna be a 45-60 minutes wait” – he had just given away the last table to the couple that had walked in before us. Since we had enjoyed our walk up to that point and felt that we still had more to talk about (and since we didn’t know where else to go in the neighbourhood), we agreed to the wait and told the owner that we’d take a stroll around the area in the meantime. We promised that we would return to the place in an hour’s time.
So we set out on our second walk of the evening, this time more aware of our surroundings as we intended to use the occasion to also explore the area a little. We took turns through quiet residential streets, letting our feeling guide us, until our feeling got us a little lost again. Being in good company though, we didn’t make much of it and instead engaged in a game where we’d alternately choose the next turn every time there was a choice to be made. Eventually we reached a dead end, which I had “chosen us into”. As we approached the end of the street, we noticed an interestingly lit place just a few metres ahead of us, and I suggested we’d check it out. We walked up to it and from the outside could tell that it was a restaurant-bar hybrid. Feeling the hunger suddenly, I figured we could eat here as well, after all we were lost and who knows if the guy in the Afghan restaurant hadn’t given the table to someone else by now… We spent a brief moment in hesitation, and then decided to just walk in and check it out.
I opened the door to the place and immediately had a view onto the bar right in front of us with the bartender behind it. This guy gave me somewhat of an inquisitive look as we approached him, so I returned the same look when suddenly, in both of us, the inquisitiveness turned into joy and surprise: The guy behind the bar was a long lost friend of mine, who had helped and supported me enormously during my year in Munich and with whom I had lost touch almost 15 years ago.
Needless to say, the encounter was really emotional, and after we both shed a few tears of joy, the three of us sat down together at the bar and spent a beautiful evening together.
When we finally left the place, I looked to my friend and told him in awe: “Man, what an incredible chain of events…if we wouldn’t have turned into this street, we would have never met this guy! And then again, if we wouldn’t have deliberately gotten lost, we could have never taken the turn…but coming to think of that, if you wouldn’t have offered the door to that couple, we would have never gone on this walk…can you imagine?! Where did this wild coincidence start?”
To which my friend responded with great clarity: “It started with the Big Bang…”
I loved that answer because it exposed an essential truth central to the systemic worldview – that the question of “What is cause and what is effect?” is effectively a question of boundary.
Depending on where I draw the boundary around a situation (e.g. the walk, the evening, my trip to Munich, the Universe’s evolution over the past 14 billion years), the perceived “starting point” of a “chain of events” shifts, and therefore, the narrative of “cause” and “effect” shifts. Was the couple walking through the door before us the cause of our fortuitous encounter or the effect of us going for a walk for two hours prior to deciding on a restaurant?
What this implies is that our narratives about the situations we find ourselves in (as well as our narratives about ourselves and our positions in those situations) set those boundaries that determine our perceptions of what is cause and effect in a given chain of events.
With that in mind, when we go back to the question I asked just a moment ago, whether the couple walking through the door was cause or effect, really, the perceptive answer is that, once I draw a sufficiently inclusive boundary, it is in fact both, cause and effect, and is so simultaneously.
This is an important insight with far reaching implications, as it challenges three vital assumptions:
- That situations have definite starting points
- That we can determine these starting points
- That starting points and their effects are organised in a “chain” (i.e. happen in a linear sequence)
This is not to say that there aren’t definite causal relationships out there – definitely, the big bang had to happen for us to meet in Munich. However, our perception of these causal relationships is almost always imperfect, as a perfect understanding of these chains would require a perfectly inclusive and complete understanding of all the events in cosmic history that have led up to a particular moment.
But even if we could muster such an incredible radius of inclusion in our perception, insisting to arrange all causal relationships into a linear chain of “causes” and “effects” would eventually create unresolvable tension, since a “cause” can becomes its own “effect” and/or an “effect” can become its own “cause”. In other words: “Causal chains” are in fact often not “chains” but rather “causal loops”.
This is where the concept of dynamics comes in.
When observing any given situation, rather than trying to determine which occurrence is “cause” and which occurrence is “effect” (implies a difference in quality between the two and a direction in the order of events), we simply observe a situation with its occurrences and note the “relationships of influence” or “dynamics” (Greek: dynamikos – “powerful”) between them, without making the qualitative difference (“cause or effect?””) and without trying to determine their order in a chain of events (“first a then b”).
This could be compared to the Buddhist concept of simply observing what is there rather than getting entangled in the narratives that the mind attempts to project onto the observed.
It also brings to mind Lao Tse’s opening lines from the Tao Te King:
The Way – cannot be told.
The Name – cannot be named.
The nameless is the Way of Heaven and Earth.
The named is Matrix of the Myriad Creatures.
(as translated by A.S. Kline)
When we do this, we begin to observe three qualities to the nature of relationships of influence (dynamics):
- Interdependence: all causes are also effects and all effects are also causes
- Circularity: relationships of influence tend to integrate in loops
- Emergence: these loops of relationships of influence are in themselves dynamic and can give rise to new situations from within
These observations have significant implications for transformation and the process of achieving transformation.
Interdependence – Beyond Cause and Effect
I will venture out to say that two of the reasons for our obsession with determining causes and distinguishing between them and their “effects” are that we assume that…
- if we understand the cause(s) of a situation we understand the situation
- the “cause” naturally is the best “intervention point” to transform a situation (i.e. point of highest leverage)
Consequently, in problem solving and transformation work (e.g. certain types of psychotherapy), a great amount of time is frequently spent on Ursachenforschung, the search for the cause of a situation.
Now, what the observation of interdependence suggests, is that in fact, all dynamics (i.e. relationships of influence) in a situation are a form of “cause”. This means that the search for the “one, original cause of it all” is somewhat futile. Moreover it suggests that, to understand a situation, it is not enough to identify its “root causes” – we need to understand ALL of its dynamics to truly understand a situation. Of course, given what we said about boundaries earlier, this is somewhat impossible. But what is possible is that we strive to understand as much as possible about as many dynamics as possible in as wide a radius of inclusion as possible of a situation when attempting to successfully and sustainably transform a situation.
Again, this is predominately a change in orientation and intention. Whereby in Ursachenforschung, in order to drive our understanding of a situation, we try to eliminate as much of the complexity as possible and focus-in only on those relationships of influence from where “the whole situation emerged”, in an Interdependence Approach, we do exactly the opposite: We try to include as much of the complexity and as many dynamics as possible in our enquiry of a situation, without necessarily passing judgement as to “where it all started” or which of the dynamics is “the most important / the original cause.”
This then has consequences not only for how he go about understanding a situation, but also for the way we think about transforming the situation, which brings me to the second concept, circularity.
Circularity – Karma and Intervention Points
“What goes around comes around” goes the wisdom, and from a systemic perspective, this is exactly right. Because dynamics (relationships of influence) have a tendency to integrate in loops, i.e. one dynamic impacts on another dynamic which in turn impacts on another dynamic which in turn impacts on one of the earlier dynamics. A classic but overly simplified example of this is a person with severe self-doubt: The person doubts herself which leads to her having less self-confidence in situations, which leads to her making mistakes in crucial situations, which in turn leads to her doubting herself even more. (Another, more epic example for this would be your average karmic story.)
These loops needn’t always be “local”, i.e. the dynamics don’t have to “finish” where they “start” or all affect the same person or even occur in the same place.
And the loops needn’t always be “instant”, i.e. the dynamics could occur with delays, sometimes even in cycles that transcend the lifetime of the situation they occur in. The concept of Karma is a lovely illustration of this, or the trajectory of blood vengeance as a less lovely example, or global warming as an example where dynamics are neither local nor instant.
(note: whether something is considered “local” or “instant” is a question of boundary and radius of inclusion again.)
Whether we call it “karma” or “vicious circle” or “causal loop”, the insight that dynamics tend towards circularity furthers the notion that there isn’t a “natural” or “first” intervention point in a process of transformation.
Rather, it leads us to ask: In a situation full of interdependent relationships of influence, which are the potential intervention points (PIPs) – i.e. aspects of a situation where a change can be introduced – that have the most leverage or potential to transform the situation?
What is meant by this is best illustrated with an anecdote told by the great acting teacher, Konstantin Stanislavsky, in his book “An Actor Prepares”:
Freely recounted, he tells of a student that found himself on a stage with nothing but a table. The student had to enact a scared civilian who was scrambling for a hiding place during a bombing in a war situation. The student received the go from his instructor, but after a while there was still no movement on part of the student. So the instructor inquired why he wasn’t acting, to which the student responded that he just couldn’t believe the setting and hence couldn’t get himself into the scared emotional state that was required to act out the scenario. Upon hearing this, the instructor insisted that the student cower under the table on stage and hold that position. The student remained in that position for a while when finally the instructor asked him how he felt. The student responded that he was feeling scared to which Stanislasvky responded: “You see, sometimes you find the emotion and then you act, and sometimes you act and then you find the emotion.”
If we go back to the self-doubting individual in our earlier example, where would it be most promising intervention point in that vicious circle? Should we tackle her inner monologue of self-doubt head on? Or should we maybe intervene on her experience and narrative of herself? Or would it be most beneficial to tackle her attitude towards mistakes? Or should we tackle her expectations in new situations?
The point: Each of the dynamics in this scenario offers a potential intervention point and our choice as to which one(s) we address in a transformative effort shouldn’t be driven by the question “where does it start?” but rather by the question “which promises the most leverage to disrupt or change the dynamic loop”?
But how to decide where the most leverage lies? This question brings us to the third concept, emergence.
Emergence – Transformation as a Discovery-driven Process
The short answer to the question raised a moment ago is: you don’t really know until you try it out. Because dynamic situations are inherently complex (think boundary and interdependence), often perform in a non-linear way (think circularity) and are therefore difficult to predict.
What is more, at least in the human domaine, the emergence of new situations doesn’t follow a mechanical path but is rather exactly that: emergent. This idea is frequently captured by the phrase “The whole is more than the sum of its parts”, where the “more” in that sentence is that which “emerges” – often unexpectedly and unpredictably.
What this implies for transformation, is that any transformative effort will always tend towards being a dynamic, non-linear process that will require a certain degree of experimentation, observation, discovery, and adjustment.
I can’t stress the importance of this enough.
That said, in any process of change, tracking and feedback mechanisms should be employed to facilitate continuity, self-reflection and motivation as well as to ensure that insights discovered and lessons learned can be fully captured, understood, and integrated. In other words, we can embrace non-linearity and a discovery-driven approach without compromising the structure of a transformative process.