Gentle Action

Gentle action is an approach, developed by physicist F. David Peat, to effect sustainable systems change—an excellent toolbox to have at your disposal. Peat notes that, in physics, equations (or processes) can be run, with equal validity, with the arrow of time moving forwards or backwards. (Running time forwards is just a convention, with no scientific basis.) Now, imagine a great stone dropping into the middle of a pond. There is a huge splash, then large ripples spread out. As they near the shore, the waves have become much smaller, finally lapping gently at the bank.

Now run that tape backwards. Imagine many people, spread out around the edge of a quiet pond, each dipping in a finger and creating little ripples. If their actions are very finely synchronized, by the time these ripples reach the center they’ve grown quite large. Suddenly a great stone shoots into the air!

We usually try to change things by using the biggest hammer we can find, to make the largest possible impact. Peat says that even very small efforts, spread out among many people and carefully coordinated, make huge changes. Of course it’s more detailed than that. I worked with David Peat to distill the essence of gentle action into the following two tables:

Building a Basis for Action:

  Typical Approach Gentle Action Approach
Change others or change ourselves? Typically, we try to bring about change from the outside. In doing so, we focus on trying to change others . . . . . . rather than realizing that true change begins at home. Gandhi said, “Be the change. . . .” This means that we can only bring change to a system of which we are (or have become) an integral part.
Act from a limited or a comprehensive picture? We tend to see things from a limited perspective (our own), then try to get others to see them our way and enlist allies to promote our own agendas. Even when we are part of a complex system, our individual perspectives are bound to be limited. To more fully understand all aspects of the system, we need to listen to a variety of other perspectives, working with others to build a comprehensive picture.
Focus on what’s wrong or what’s right? We tend to focus more on what’s wrong with a system and how we’re going to fix it, than on understanding how the system actually functions. By immersing ourselves deeply in the workings of the system, we can see what’s working well. This helps us to imagine ways to subtly redirect energies, refine processes, and readjust relationships, in order to achieve helpful changes with minimal disruption.
Wait till we’re certain or embrace uncertainty? We can never have complete information about a complex system or how it will respond to change. This may make us feel inadequate to proceed. Even as we try to build a thorough understanding of how the system works, we need to accept the fact that complete knowledge is unattainable. We must build a comprehensive picture, but we simply can’t afford to allow uncertainty to prevent timely action.

Taking Action:

  Typical Approach Gentle Action Approach
Central power or grassroots actions? We tend to equate power and control with change. That is, we think we need great power to address big issues. But complex systems typically change as the result of small, frequent influences over time. When we recognize this, we realize that even widespread or obstinate problems are within our collective reach.
One solution or many small actions? We tend to think in terms of “a” solution―one big hammer or silver bullet to make radical change. But a complex system depends on many small parts, functioning intricately together. By working in many complementary ways, we can influence multiple aspects (and levels) of the system at the same time.
Definitive plans or ongoing, flexible responses? We tend to try to make  detailed, definitive plans and think that we have to stick to them at all costs. Not doing so is seen as a sign of weakness. But complex systems are inherently unpredictable― we can’t know for sure how they’ll respond to our actions. So, as we proceed, we watch carefully to see how our actions are affecting the system, making continual adjustments to our plans as we go along.
Expect a dramatic response or watch patiently for small signs  of change? Complex systems can be highly resilient, and therefore resistant to change. When we don’t see the system changing according to our inputs, we may grow discouraged and give up prematurely.

 

Often a system stays in equilibrium until a “tipping point” is reached. Our actions may seem as if they’re having no effect. But, once critical momentum is achieved, deep-seated changes take root and begin to ripple out. Understanding that it takes time for momentum to build, we’ll be less likely to give up when success depends upon our ability to sustain our efforts faithfully over time.

An aspect of gentle action not discussed above is what Peat calls “creative suspension.” This takes place after we’ve made a thorough and sustained effort to learn about the system on multiple levels and from multiple perspectives. At this point we try to find a quiet inner space. (Getting away in nature—finding a quiet outer space—can also help.)

Creative suspension is a bit like the following experience: You’ve lost your keys and searched everywhere (including in your memory, trying to recall the last time you had them). Then you’re interrupted by an important phone call (forgetting completely about your lost keys). As you hang up, you find yourself remembering a metallic sound, just as you shut the car door, turned around, and walked away—as if you’d kicked something. Sure enough, you go to the car, reach behind the driver-side front tire, and there they are.

Peat gives numerous examples of scientific insights that are reached after the relaxation of intense, sustained concentration. But we tend to credit the active mode of focused thinking and discount the receptive mode of inner quiet. Actually, both are necessary.

I can help you utilize gentle action in your own life or in your organization. To SCHEDULE A FREE CONSULTATION, at which we will discuss how I might best serve your needs, go to Contact and call and/or email.

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