Observe and Interact

Posted: 8th August 2018

Observe and Interact

I am passionate about permaculture. I want to introduce more people to the core design principles and encouarge their application in fields as diverse as healthcare, criminal justice, finance, business and housing.

Last week I posted the second in a planned series of  vlogs about the ethics and twleve design principles. It’s title was ‘observe and interact’.

It is hard to say all I want to say in just five minutes (and even that is too long, nowadays, to capture the full attention of many viewers) because each principle holds so much wisdom and has so many possible applications. So I have decided to follow each one up with some additional thoughts and reflections.  I will share them in social media posts and networking forums like this in the hope that I will find like-minded people to develop the possibilities of bringing permaculture design to a wider audience.

Here are the three big thoughts that have come to mind since the recording:

1. We are already in a perpetual state of observation and interaction – over 99% of that is without our conscious awareness.
That happens because we too, of course, are natural ecosystems – mini-universes of essential bacteria and other microrganisms. It’s said that the very mitochondria – the tiny organelles that transform energy – in every cell in our bodies were once a separate type of living being. Cells, as we know them today, may in fact have evolved from an exquisite symbiosis of simpler life-forms that got it together and became the building blocks for a world of living complexity. (More about that when I get to the principle of ‘integrate not segregate’)

Our bodies are in a state of perpetual observation and interaction. They’re managing our body temperature, our oxygenation, our blood sugar. They’re digesting and metabolising our food to give us energy. They’re processing and removing toxins and the products of digestion. They’re perceiving danger and joy and every circumstance in between. Our eyes are altering their focal length. Our ears are tuning in to sounds both near and far and discerning their direction. Our skin is alerting us to an itch, a bruise, a soft texture, a hot fire. And it’s all happening outside of conscious control – our bodies are just getting on with the processes of living and responding to their circumstances to enable them to keep on doing that.

And the planet is getting on with exactly the same processes – respiration, digestion, energy transformation, recycling end-products, offering up feedback messages – but on a massively larger scale and over very different timescales. If you’d like something to contemplate or meditate on – I offer that as a suggestion.

2. The judgement we add to our observations is endemic and highly destructive.
I spend time on most days looking at social media. I choose to be exposed mainly to people who have the skills to ‘go for the ball and not the player’ when they engage with someone with a different world view from their own. Sometimes I stray into the world of mass media comments sections and quickly, so quickly, find myself struggling for air beneath wave after wave of judgement, accusation, counter accusation, threat, name-calling, assumption, dismissal, taunting, goading, mocking, put-downs, prejudice, generalisations, hatred, anger, outrage, offence and counter offence. While it may be easier to tap it all out from an anonymous keyboard or phone – if you listen to any phone or face-to-face conversation in most cases at least one of those elements will pop up sooner or later.

Those judgements fuel our emotional response which, in turn, drives our behavioural reactions. When we react, not thoughtfully respond, to the circumstances around us and to other’s words and behaviour, we are not in control and we are not in connection. It is a phenomenally destructive habit we have fallen into and I hope we can learn, collectively, to break it before it sucks us dry and leaves us in isolated silos of our own bitter creation.

There are two things about this judgement and criticism that I have been pondering.
The first is how seductive and thrilling it can be to throw it at someone else, how it can give a person a rush, like a drug, that is enticing and tempts us to repeat the ‘fix’. Have you noticed how energised people get? That spark in their eye, that quickening of breath and tension of muscle? Hatred is thrilling and exciting and if we band together with others who hate the same things, we can feel like we belong somewhere. That goes for every anti-fracking marcher as much as it does for every neo-nazi boot boy. I think it’s important to be very clear about what we are for – because only ever being against things will burn us out and leave us in a hollow vacuum. I want to beware of righteous anger and recognise the struggle for justice that it is trying, sometimes tragically, to communicate. I don’t want to be seduced, I want to be effective.

The second is a curiosity about how much of what we give out to others is a reflection of our own inner dialogue. Can a person who feels genuinely grounded, happy in their own skin, connected to others in relationships of mutual love and respect, and reverent of their place in the bigger span of things ever choose to torch others with their venom in such a way? Do we speak to others in the same way we speak to ourselves? If we do, then perhaps it is that inner dialogue that needs attention first.

This observation with judgement – once you start to notice it, you’ll see it everywhere.

3. Something stops us interacting with what we observe in some circumstances.
Have you ever heard shouting and the sound of broken crockery coming from a neighbour’s house? Have you ever seen your child’s friend turn up to school several days running in dirty clothes looking tired and hungry? Have you ever noticed blood on your toothbrush or a mole that’s changed shape? Have you ever recognised a pattern in your relationships with others that you aren’t quite comfortable with?

We may all be familiar with countless observations like these in our lives and many of us will not have acted to address them, at least not in a timely manner. What is it that stops us? Is it fear? Shame? Embarrassment? Self-doubt? Those thoughts and emotions arise as a direct result of the stories we tell ourselves about what we are observing and what we imagine will happen should we act on it.

“What if I’m wrong?”, “What if I get hit myself?”, “People will think I’m being nosy and sticking my oar in where it isn’t wanted”, “It’s not that serious – I’m sure it’ll get better by itself”, “I don’t want to bother anyone”, “It’s not awful all the time”, “I don’t want to make a fool of myself”.

If we could learn to be OK with observing without judgement it would be so much easier to act on those observations – the stories wouldn’t get in the way. This is why compassionate communication seems like such a perfect fit, to me, with permaculture and solution focused approaches to life. It helps me to understand the barriers that exist in some of our culture to putting the principles into action.

Permaculture is rooted in the premise of taking responsibility for ourselves and our own lives; for not ‘passing the buck’. It requires a maturity of mind and a willingness to acknowledge that to actively engage with what we observe in the world will be uncomfortable, difficult, even dangerous on occasion. Yet to not engage with it or to only engage with the intention of self-preservation will ultimately result in our own demise. No-one is coming to the rescue. We are the adults here.