Curiosity & Vulnerability Pt 2: When is it safe to be vulnerable?

We held our first Curiosity Lab on ‘Curiosity & Vulnerability’, viewing Brene Brown’s ‘The Power of Vulnerability’, and then launching into a fascinating discussion, with some marvelous attendees.

Brene Brown’s talk, which is truly worth a watch is, at heart, about the life affirming and revivifying benefits of living vulnerably.  She clarifies that this takes courage, and reminds us that the roots of the word ‘courage’ come from the French ‘couer’, meaning ‘heart’.  For her the definition of courage is “to tell the story of who you are with your whole heart.”  Which is also what it is to live vulnerably.

What keeps us from living this way is, according to Brown, uncertainty with regard to our own self-worth.  People who have intrinsic self-worth believe that what makes them vulnerable makes them beautiful.  People who lack this sense of self-worth find vulnerability excruciating.  For them vulnerability risks exposure to criticism, bullying, ridicule, loss of status, ostracisation … simply stated, fear and pain. They don’t experience vulnerability as liberation, but as a potential avenue to disconnection and isolation which, as Brown drives home, are the foundations of shame.  Shame is the gatekeeper of our personal prison cells and bunkers. It chokes out our vulnerabilty.  Brene Brown is a bold advocate of vulnerability.

Miriam, one of our bold participants in the Lab, persisted in posing the question,
“When is it safe to be vulnerable?”.
I’ve been following this question for a few months, and don’t anticipate this particular expedition to end anytime soon.  You could say easily enough that ‘it’s never safe to be vulnerable’ because the very nature of vulnerability is uncertainty and risk.  But the results of someone telling the story of who they are will be very different depending on what their story is, and who they’re telling it to.

 

What does the bullying lion in The Wizard of Oz lack?
Courage.  
“Why, you’re nothing but a great big coward”,  says Dorothy
on seeing how terrified he is after she gives him a slap for bullying Toto.
“I haven’t any courage at all”, says the Lion, “I even scare myself.”  
But why is, after all, Lion so afraid. [1]

CowardlyLion

There are good reasons for getting anxious about vulnerability.  There’s a cost for telling “the story of who you are with your whole heart.”  Your story may challenge cultural norms, shatter parental expectations, fray peer relationships, or alienate your employer. It may isolate you or, depending on the story, leave you in danger.  Loss of status, loss of work, criticism, ridicule, bullying, ostracisation, alienation, intimidation, violence … these aren’t fictions. These are real, and most of us have seen them or experienced them, and it can teach us to keep our mouths shut, our true natures ‘in the cupboard’, and our souls enclosed.

 Unlike Scarecrow,
Lion does have a brain,
and maybe he’s using it the way that life’s taught him.  

 

I don’t want to be naiive about vulnerability.
We live in a broken world where people are hurt, and hurt people hurt others, and traumatised cultures are traumatising.  The expression ‘pecking order’ – a reference to group hierarchy – comes from how chickens determine who rules: by pecking the weaker ones to bits.  The corporate and political worlds are said to be ‘full of sharks’.  From schoolyards to monasteries, from house league teams to corporate boardrooms, from cop shops to prison cells, from anonymous strangers on public transit to the person with whom you share your bed: we all have hurts, and we all have the capacity to be hurtful and to take advantage of another’s vulnerability for our own gain.  There are some people who are so emotionally and socially damaged that this is almost the only way they are able to be in relationship: by finding and exploiting vulnerability.

So when is it safe to be vulnerable?

 

 More importantly,
Lion is willing to challenge his fears to pursue what he most needs.

 

I heard an amazing episode on Radio Lab the other day.  The story of Stu Rasmussen, a transgender person from a tiny town in conservative evangelical USA who became…. the mayor.

How did that happen?

Stu, who had lived in the town all his life and ran movies and took tickets at the only theatre in town, started by painting his nails blue. Not pink, or red, but blue.  Then, some weeks later, he painted them pink.  Then, piece by piece, he donned articles of women’s clothing.  Each carefully staged gesture of transformation produced a new burst of gossip and the potential for ostracisation.  But Stu was tactical, and new the town extremely well, and furthermore, everyone knew Stu as a trustworthy, helpful, kind person.

 

So the Cowardly Lion, in search of what he most needs
– courage –
and through many trials and tribulations,
makes it to the ruler of his Kingdom, the Wizard of OZ,
where he fully expects to receive what he wishes for.  

We normally think of curiosity as risk-taking, and this is why we’ve associated it with vulnerability.  But it’s worth considering here that Stu Rasmussen must have had a generous measure of curiosity to so successfully strategise his ‘coming out’[2] in a town so culturally antagonistic to his gender choice.

 

 There Lion discovers that the wizard-tyrant ruling over his Kingdom
is a frightened little man with a lot of smoke and mirrors
who has absolutely nothing to give him.

 

 

Stu understood the culture he lived in. He had it well gauged. That level of understanding takes focussed curiosity: an absorbent watchfulness, an openness to information and new understanding, a concerned interest in and care for the people of the community. That curiosity led him to the careful and deliberately patient strategy that would allow him to – eventually, and not without very great trials and real danger – “to tell the story of who he is with his whole heart.”

 

Almost nothing.
The wizard-tyrant has a medallion for bravery,
for setting out with a cast of misfits to find his courage.

And he has the insight and humility
– aka wisdom –
to bring Lion to see that he always had what he sought for.
His search for courage took courage.  

 

 

Curiosity is the opposite of blind faith:
it’s reconnaissant, observant, watchful, interested.
It’s gathering information through careful observation.
Care-full.
It’s questioning the situation you’re in with an open and non-judgemental mind.
Why is curiosity like this? Because, believe it or not, curiosity is rooted in care.
Seriously.
The word curious come from ‘cure’, and from ‘care’.
Curiosity is about caring.

Gabor Mate, in lecturing on addiction, regularly reiterates that the word ‘vulnerability’ comes from the Latin, ‘vulnerare’, meaning ‘to wound’.  For Mate, “To be a human being is to be profoundly vulnerable. And there’s nothing that you can do to make yourself invulnerable.” I agree, you can’t ever be invulnerable. But, by engaging your curiosity, you can be less or more vulnerable in situations that may be perilous, in keeping with your own limitations.
That is, while caring for yourself.


 


[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z2itQkiQUOE

[2] Stu has persisted in identifying as a heterosexual male.
https://feministphilosophers.wordpress.com/tag/stu-rasmussen/

Spasm, Splinting, and Change Dynamics: Injury, Immobilisation & Aggravation

Spasm & Splinting

So, I threw my back out…
Again…
I planted somewhere over a million trees in an evidently overlengthy treeplanting career, once upon a time rowed a dory down the coast of BC, and, for a time, took great pleasure in something called ‘Martial Dance’ which involved improvisationally and consensually flinging one another all over the place with great grace, so, my back has done its fair share and periodically lets me know it’s had enough.

fight flightThe cause is pretty much always a combination of heavy object(s), reaching, twisting and stress; in this case an innocent enough maneuvering of an amp into my ‘95 Honda (aka ‘The Blue Flame’).  Not uncommonly, having set one of my lower vertebra adrift, I exacerbate it by doing some other activity; in this case Lebron Jamesing with my ten year old who is on that delicious cusp of finally thoroughly whooping his dad at a game that he’s far more gifted at.  Baddaboom baddabay and I’m calling the game a little short and gentling home to lay my sorry ass flat on its back with a huge sigh of relief.

 ‘Herniated disc’ = one wrong move = shooting nerve pain + persistent exhaustion aching through glutes, hips, all through lower back, not to mention, in my case, a permanent slightly twisted forward tilt.  Like I said, I’ve been here a few times before and I know know that, despite an urgent desire to do something, anything to fix it as soon as possible – massage, twist, do yoga, stretch – the best thing to do at first is almost nothing except, as often as possible, lie down and give it some relief.

 Fact is, the pain is there for a reason.
Human physiology is a marvel.
Pain is a marvel – if an unwelcome one – and has a most compelling story to tell.  Pain’s great and powerful cut through all the crap nervous system megaphone announcement is “STOP”.   Stop doing whatever you’re doing that’s damaging some part of you.  In the case of back trauma it’s a whole lot of ‘STOP MOVING’ because a very high percentage of typical movements mobilise your lower back and/or pelvis.  Mobilising your lower back scrapes your herniated disc across the highway of nerves running just beside your vertebra and, nerves being what they are, you get an electric shock wave of shooting pain jolting you into immobility.

Mobility causes damage and excruciating pain, and excruciating pain is paralysing and debilitating, so the autonomic nervous system pulls a brilliant trick to immobilise the traumatised area.  It puts the muscles directly around the injury into spasm, which makes them as hard and unyielding as a piece of wood. The autonomic nervous system ‘sets’ the injured area in a splint of spasm.[1]  The traumatised area becomes effectively frozen.

Emotional & Organisational Splinting & Freezing

 Physiological ‘splinting’ is a good metaphor for some forms of both emotional and organisational trauma.  Splinting occurs, non-volitionally, around physical, emotional, organisational and social trauma[2] to reduce further damage and pain.

 The American physiologist Walter Cannon, who coined the term ‘homeostasis’ to describe the ‘internal fixity’ he believed necessary for an organism to survive, was the first to describe the ‘fight-or-flight response’; “a physiological reaction that occurs in response to a perceived harmful event, attack, or threat to survival”.  More recently PTSD specialist Pete Walker elaborated on ‘fight-or-flight’ in describing the 4Fs: fight, flight, freeze or fawn, which are psychological response to perceived harm.  

 Simply stated, the anxiety caused by real or perceived threat to which one feels helpless to respond can result in psychic ‘freezing’ well documented in PTSD sufferers.  The symptoms can be strong involuntary disassociation from situations which trigger memories, emotional ‘numbness’, or feelings of complete powerlessness, despair and futility.  They can also manifest as ideological and ideational rigidity or even fixity, as well as in addictive behaviour. In organisations a traumatic situation – a hostile takeover, deep layoffs[3], market failure – may be ‘fixed’ or ‘splinted’ by temporary authoritarianism, extreme legalisation or bureaucraticisation.

 Aggravation & Enculturation

 In physiological ‘freezing’ the functions of the immobilised muscle groups need to be covered for, so the brain calls up substitute muscle groups which, while not adapted for that role, can temporarily ‘pinch hit’.[4] A localised injury, by calling in temporal support, sets off chains of adaptations resulting in global shifts in the ecology of coordination that characterises healthy movement and posture.  Prolonged reliance on substitutions, however, will result in the brain neuroplastically rewiring itself such that aberrant and substitute posturo-movements becomes normalized and permanent.[5]

 The same can hold true for individuals and organisations: ideological fixations, addictive behaviours, authoritarianism, legalism – all of which may have been a temporary ‘fix’ for a traumatic situation – become normalized and enculturated.  However, because temporary fixes are inadequate long-term solutions they typically engender more instances of conflict and turbulence hence further aggravating an initial trauma. A vicious circle takes hold.


[1] “By ‘splinting’ the area with spasm, the hypercontracted (shortened) muscles, ligaments and fascia effectively reduce painful joint movements. Splinting is a common form of protective guarding clinicians address day-in and day-out… “
– True Grit of Muscle Spasm: Erik Dalton (http://erikdalton.com/media/published-articles/true-grit-of-muscle-spasm/)

[2] Taboo is social splinting. Taboo is a socially strategic immobilisation around an area of conduct in which there has been great pain and damage: sex, money, mental illness, etc.

[3] David Noer, author of Healing the Wounds: Overcoming the Trauma of Layoffs and Revitalizing Downsized Organizations, gives a compelling account of ‘layoff survivor sickness’. “Survivors of most organizations are angry, depressed, anxious and fearful. They are not able or willing to take risks or focus on increasing customer service. At the very time organizations need them to be the most creative and energetic; they hunker down in the trenches, absorbed in their own toxic survivor symptoms.” – http://www.cnbc.com/id/32990164

[4] “Regardless of the reason for loss of joint play, when vertebrae are not free to move, muscles assigned the job of moving them (prime movers) cannot carry out their duties and are substituted by synergistic stabilizers, i.e., the brain sends in the subs when a key player is injured.”
– True Grit of Muscle Spasm: Erik Dalton (http://erikdalton.com/media/published-articles/true-grit-of-muscle-spasm/)

[5] “Prolonged joint damage can set the stage for aberrant posturo-movement patterns which, in time, causes the brain, through the process of sensitization, to re-map and re-learn the dysfunctional movement as normal (neuroplasticity).”
– True Grit of Muscle Spasm: Erik Dalton (http://erikdalton.com/media/published-articles/true-grit-of-muscle-spasm/)

What is Translibrium?

QUEST-IONING HOMEOSTASIS


Translibrium: ‘Trans’ comes from the Greek ‘across’, and ‘librium’ is from the Greek ‘libra’ which connotes both balance (equilibrium) and freedom (‘libre’, liberty).


cloudstorm

The object of the pilgrimage turned out to be a pilgrim.
– Jorge Luis Borges

In 1986 I was involved in a reconnaissance of evolutionary biology. I was doing an undergrad at Trent University with a focus on the origins of consciousness (!?). I had been buried in grand speculators on the history of civilisation; Oswald Spengler, Pitrim Sorokin and Arnold Toynbee, with a nascent sprinkling of Teilhard DeChardin.

Amongst the historians Toynbee stood out for me, in large part because he was reviewed in an obscure book called ‘Experiment in Depth: A Study of the Work of Jung, Eliot and Toynbee’ by a Quaker, PW Martin, which I had stumbled on in a second-hand bookstore. Martin’s premise from reading the three authors was that cultural transformation and renewal were realised by individuals going through a quest-like ‘creative withdrawal’ from society, initiated and guided (called out) by an intrinsic creative source that Martin called ‘the deep centre’, followed by a ‘return’ to society now informed and inspired by a rejuvenated and compelling symbolic language and imperative.

Toynbee’s contribution was through his encyclopaedic survey, briefed in ‘A Study of History’, of the rise and fall of multiple civilisations, by which he derived a theory of ‘challenge and response’ to explain how and why some societies thrive and others don’t. For Toynbee the success of a civilisations was dependent on its capacity to respond to grand challenges. Civilisations succeed “not as a result of superior biological endowment or geographical environment, but as a response to a challenge in a situation of special difficulty which raises [it] to make unprecedented effort.”

From the grand historical syntheses I drifted over to Systems Theory and Cybernetics, and then from there over to evolutionary biology. And it was a first reconnaissance of that field that turned up the central thesis and nom de plume for much of the field, ‘homeostasis’.

The concept of ‘homeostasis’ was first described by Claude Bernard in 1865. Bernard held that the basis of organic survival is ‘internal fixity’. Organisms respond to challenges by returning to their original state; the ‘fixity of the internal milieu’, as he called it.   “The constancy of the internal environment” wrote Bernard, “is the condition for free and independent life.” More than half a century later, following on Bernard, the American physiologist Walter Cannon coined the term ‘homeostasis’ in 1930 to describe the ‘steady-state’ that any system requires to “maintain a constancy necessary for survival.” Internal homeostatic processes resist external pressures to maintain internal fixity. This notion quickly spread out of biology to find applications in the world of social sciences in general, and particularly Systems Theory and Cybernetics.

I had a problem with this notion of ‘homeostasis’ as a description of health.  I was an etymology junky and knew that ‘homeo’ is from the Greek meaning ‘same’ or ‘similar’, and ‘stasis’ means, you guessed it, ‘stasis’.  There was nothing that I had ever observed that could survive by staying the same or static.  So from my perspective, the notion of ‘homeostasis’ – a return to an internal fixity – was an excellent descriptor for the conditions leading to death.

Philosopher/Biologist Henri Atlan provided me with an alternate model and language.  Atlan understood organisms to have the capacity for self-organization; for emergence and newness.  In the language of biology he called ‘challenges’ ‘perturbations’. ‘Random perturbations’ are temporary disturbances to which an organism can react, neutralise, and then return to it’s original state. ‘Structural perturbations’ however are persistent, even terminal, disturbances through which an organism can survive only by elaborating a new structure.  Returning to the original state would result in obliteration.

Organisms need to continuously evolve, and their evolution creates stresses – challenges – for surrounding organisms, which must also evolve. Challenges require responses which will normally require subtle shifts in behaviour.  Greater challenges will require significant modifications, permanent structural shifts, or even full-scale migrations of identity.  Health is not the maintenance of fixity: fixity, and fixation, are fatal.  Health is a dynamic feedback requiring constant alteration, and renovation as well as periodic bouts of drastic innovation and structural transformation to respond to potentially catastrophic disruption.

As Heraclitus (is said to have) said, “You never step into the same river twice.”
And, I would add, we are all rivers.

Translibrium’ is a word I invented as a counter to ‘homeostasis’.
Trans’ comes from the Greek ‘across’, and ‘librium’ is from the Greek ‘libra’ which connotes both balance (equilibrium) and freedom (‘libre’, liberty).  Whereas ‘homeostasis’ assumes a return to an initial state as a descriptor of health, ‘translibrium’ assumes continuous adaptation as a requisite for survival.  Whereas ‘homeostasis’ emphasises returning to ‘fixity’, ‘translibrium’ emphasises a perpetual path of transformation, in response to a basic milieu of emergence and feedback, requiring novel strategies frequently characterised by an increase in complexity.

Culture Eats Strategy – Walls & Gateways

 

 

 

I sketched this diagram – depicting ‘Walls’ & ‘Gateways’ in transformative change situations – while in a workshop on Human-Centred Design.

 

CultureEatsStrategy - gateways

Culture Eats Strategy / Translibrium Brainstorm

A snapshot of a brainstorm towards developing a methodology to treat cultural obstacles to strategic plans.

Culture Eats Strategy Notes