The fiery gifts of the dragon

First – look the dragon in the eye

Two weeks ago, a board I serve on was brave enough to look the dragon in the eye and see the truth: it was time to let our organization die with dignity. Despite her fading spirit, we were expending excessive energy keeping her alive. Before it faded too far, we needed to find a new home for her spirit, a place to serve what she longs to be today, without the substantial, gloomy baggage that has been bringing her down and holding back her potential for years.

The people closest to her heart, the board of directors, knew the status quo was no longer possible. We named the decision to celebrate her dignities and wind down her current ‘home’ so she could have a fresh start in the fullness of possibility. As we started to talk to others, in confidence, to figure out how to do this with the greatest of care, a colleague and friend tweeted the news out to the world. We were chucked under the bus, unable to get up when battered with accusations of misconduct and hate mail. Our ability to respond well to reasonable demands for information were lack-lustre. We weren’t ready because we were just figuring out how to handle the news ourselves. Everyone was hurting.

But let’s pause here for a moment . . .

The dynamics in play are bigger than the people involved, including me and my twitter friend. It is a cultural norm to do whatever is necessary to deny endings, and in doing so we refuse to see the possibilities that come with an ending. An ending does not have to be an end. It is only a catastrophic birth – a transition from one stable state of being to another stable state of being with a messy, awful feeling in the middle.

Assume for a moment my colleages and I were accurate in discerning a diagnosis of “terminal illness” for our organization (I’m always open to a second, informed opinion). As we reached our decision that day, we realized that we had been experiencing the stages of loss and grief (Elisabeth Kubler-Ross humans feel when facing death in loved ones. Our love for our organization and the loss and grief of its end are no different:

  1. We denied the reality of the situation. We found endless reasons and means to keep her alive. We blocked out the facts.
  2. We were angry. We looked for other people to blame for our situation.
  3. We were bargaining. We looked for excuses, recognizing that if we had only (insert action here), we would be ok now.
  4. We were crying. We were sad and low, full of regret. We wished it didn’t come to this, wished we could have done a better job. We wished the facts didn’t say what they said.
  5. We accepted that death was inevitable. This wasn’t a matter of giving up, but rather choosing to be in a good relationship with our organization – and her membership –  for her last days, enabling us to retrieve all her goodness to share with others. We no longer needed to know why, no longer needed an explanation.

This is what transition feels like, when we move from one reality to a new reality. A typical first reaction is that we don’t want change so we deny the transition is needed or we get angry. These are natural human reactions my colleagues and I recognized in ourselves, and we knew would be experienced by the members of our organization.  This is exactly what happened after the tweet and the ‘diagnosis’ spread: demands for facts, new facts, better facts, precise facts; anger and fury and frustration; and even bargaining to find a way to keep her alive.

My sadness in this whole endeavour comes not in the death of the organization, because I accept that it is the right thing to do, but in our inability to tend and care for the people affected by the diagnosis. We did not have an opportunity to figure out how to do the ‘ending’ work with care. In an effort to make me feel better, a friend said to me, “the band-aid came off quick and at least the band-aid is off now.” My colleagues and I feel like someone swooped in an punched us in the face before pulling the band-aid off. Mostly, I feel bad that there was no opportunity to care for people, even to feed them the facts they were looking for. We had just reached the realization ourselves and it wasn’t as simple as, “the cancer has spread throughout your chest cavity and is inoperable.”  It’s like the doctor’s friend took on sharing the doctor’s diagnosis because it seemed like the patient shouldn’t have to wait a day or two, even though the doctor had a role to gather the evidence in a way that would be helpful for the patient. It was the doctor’s information to share, not the friend’s.

Second – trial by dragon

I feel a dragon in my midst.

The ultimate dragon is within you, it is your ego clamping you down.
Jospeph Campbell

The dragon isn’t my friend, but rather the feeling of betrayal, swooping down on me each day, breathing hot fires of sickness and disappointment on me. Searing tears from a wound deep down in my soul come forth, rocking me, demanding a deeper-than-usual inquiry between my ego-self and my Higher Self. A Higher Self that is not from a ‘high’ place, but a deep place. I need new language to describe my Higher Self, but I’m struggling to find it. My Deeper Soul-Self?

… it’s not about what the dragon looks like; it’s about what the dragon activates inside of us that makes it so difficult to face.
Sera Beak

The metaphor, or symbol, of the dragon has shown up a few places this week, calling me to look at what is difficult for me to face inside me, not in the outside world. The friend that betrayed my confidence is a metaphorical dragon. What does the betrayal activate?

The important thing to remember about dragons is that they guard our buried treasure. When a dragon appears, it means gold is right behind it… if we have the courage to stand our ground and fully meet it.
It is Meeting time…
Sera Beak

Here’s the gold I met behind the dragon: the truth is I don’t believe I am good enough. Deep down, my ego-self believes I deserve to be taken out at the knees. Deep down, my ego-self believes I deserve to have 200 colleagues continue to kick me while I’m down.

The true betrayal is that I have betrayed myself.

We’re our own dragons as well as our own heroes, and we have to rescue ourselves from ourselves.
Tom Robbins

The betrayal has nothing to do with whether I was right or wrong when it came to ending an organization. That was right. The betrayal was my lack of confidence in trusting the decision we made, and feeling shaky about that decision in the face of powerful forces that work hard to keep change from happening, that keep improvements and evolution at bay. It was a much deeper betrayal.

It was a test of me, revealing that my ego-self does not trust my Higher Self, my inner authority, or my Deeper Self, my Soul Authority.

That is the power of the status quo – it works deep inside of me. Even when I feel I am immune to it, I am not. It is deeply at work, tricking me into feeling weak, tricking me into thinking that transition is not what I want. All along, it was lulling me into indifference, denial, anger, bargaining and tears. Then undermining even my acceptance of Me.


The powerful force in the world that does not want change works on my ego as much as it works on others’ ego.

Third – receive fiery gifts 

In unwrapping the betrayals I am experiencing, I have so far received 10 fiery gifts from the dragon’s mouth.

What I now understand about the world around me:

  1. There are unconscious energies running the show. Huge forces are at work, at every scale, to keep us where we are. They are all around us and all within us, at times healthy and at other times unhealthy.
  2. And they take whatever action necessary. The systems in which we work are attached to the status quo and will work hard against anything new that will cause upheaval. The systems, and the people in it, will go to great lengths to maintain the status quo.
  3. We spend vast amounts of human energy on denial and anger. We deny transition, often without even thinking about it. We hunker down in anger and join in mob-like defiance of realizations we don’t want to acknowledge. We are quick to fuel the status quo, often unconsciously, saying things we regret later. A friend and colleague was saddened by the sharp words he spoke in the emotion of the situation: “you should be ashamed of yourselves.”
  4. The words ‘this isn’t personal’ are code for ‘this is personal.’ When angry, we often say and think that our attacks on others are not personal, that we do not mean to hurt others. The truth is that the speaker is hurting and the words allow the speaker to deny the hurt within himself or herself. It is personal, just not where s/he thought. Transition hurts.
  5. Possibility for the new is more nourishing than the anger and denial that fuels the status quo. There’s a tipping point where serving the status quo, or some hybrid of it, takes more energy than switching gears to fuel a fresh start. But the myth of stability and the status quo will tell us this is not so, fuelling us with denial and anger and a misplaced investment of our energy. There is a point in the transition from the old to the new where there is more energy for the new possibility. The trick is in noticing when this happens.
  6. The birth of a new system is impersonally personal. Even though our reactions to change are personal – it hurts – the changes themselves are not personal. Perhaps it is the impersonal nature of the world around us that hurts us. The Universe is not conspiring to personally attack you or me, but it is sending us experiences from which to learn. Maybe it is personal; just not how we think it is.

What I now understand about me in the world:

  1. I am capable of listening to, and hearing, a great deal of anger aimed at me. While not fun, I am capable of sitting through hours of what a colleague named as a “public stoning.” I recognize hate mail as an expression of anger and denial – and hurt.
  2. My ego-self is hurting, but not all of me. The parts of me not hurt are able to listen to my ego-self and hear her story. My Higher Self and my Deeper Soul-Self are able to see the bigger picture and support and witness the agony of my ego-self.
  3. I do not need to ‘fight’ to make my ego-self feel better. I do not need to hunker down into anger and denial of my own feelings and fight back. That makes it impossible for others to begin to hear themselves.
  4. The friend is not the ‘enemy’. I am just as capable as others of making decisions that hurt other people. My twitter friend is as human as I am. The trust is gone, but not the human I know and recognize as part of a powerful game bigger than the decision to share confidential information. If I put my personal energy in conflict with the friend, I give my energy to the forces that demand the status quo and suck the life out of anything new.

From a short distance of time, I see that the essential kernel of truth is out there – that the status quo of our organization is no longer possible. While sad we were unable to share this realization in a healthy way, I trust that this is how it needed to happen. An effort is underway to renew life support, and perhaps this long absent cry for life will embolden her spirit, or, better yet, fuel the fresh start that is waiting for our energy.

My fresh start is elsewhere.

This is my next discernment.

Fourth – the catastrophe of birth

These words of Joseph Campbell – the catastrophe of birth – help me see that what feels catastrophic is a flag for transition in me.  I am letting parts of me die off, and welcoming deeper, truer parts of me.

A calling may be postponed, avoided, intermittently missed. It may also posess you completely. Whatever; eventually it will out. It will make its claim. [It] will not go away.
James Hillman

I am engaging in extreme – but humane – self-inquiry, and I have a choice to make. Will I midwife myself into being more Me?

… there comes a point in your path where you need to fiercely embrace that which you are still in the process of becoming.
Sera Beak

There is a fiery Beth emerging. In dancing with dragons, she will shed her skin over and over again, renewing and regenerating, ever finding ways to live from and embody her Soul.

Every ending is a beginning.

The Ultimate ride for me isn’t about losing any part of my Self; rather, it’s about coming into conscious alignment with every part of my Self.
Sera Beak



Shift the locus of leadership


For Otto Scharmer and Katrin Kaufer, authors of Leading from the Emerging Future, making the move from silos to wiser ways of organizing means shifting the locus of leadership. Moving leadership from the center to the periphery, from one place to many, requires silos to connect. It is a shift from centralized leadership, to distributed and relational sense-making. It is a transformation of our relationships from ego (I-in-me) to eco (we-in-me.) A wee poem that captures the meaning I made:


I’m in awe of what we know

at the edge, in a mess.

With patience sparking, we lean

into the periphery, growing

the growing Self into the future,

work not to do alone.

______ ______ ______

Some friends and I have started a book club to explore Leading from the Emerging Future, Otto Scharmer (Theory U) and Katrin Kaufer’s new book. This is another piece, on Chapter 7. Here’s what came from my exploration of earlier chapters:

_____ _____ _____

This post begins a series of posts on Chapter 10 – The Emerging City, offering bits of the book I am working on. Here are some plot helpers of Nest City: The Human Drive to Thrive in Cities:

Infrastructure for precious communication


To transform the quality of communication throughout our social and economic systems, we must learn to see ourselves through the eyes of others and the whole. This is the next revolution, according to Otto Scharmer and Katrin Kaufer, in Leading from the Emerging Future.

To pull this off, we need an open mind, rather than denial. We need an open heart, rather than cynicism. And an open will, rather than depression. With these, we will have what we need to create conversations that will recreate the world.

Throughout the book, Scharmer and Kaufer articulate 4 stages of our economic evolution, through which we have, and are, evolving, and our corresponding levels of awareness and modes of coordinating. They are (p. 74, 177-178):

  1. State-Centric (mercantalism, state capitalism) – traditional awareness; hierarchy and control. Communication is one-way “downloading”, manipulating.
  2. Free Market (Laissez-faire) – ego-centric awareness; markets and competition. Communication is two-way discussions and an exchange of viewpoints.
  3. Social Market (regulated) – stakeholder-centric awareness; networks and negotiation. Communication is multilateral stakeholder dialogue, allowing to see oneself through the eyes of another.
  4. Co-Creative (distributed, direct, dialogic) – eco-centric awareness; awareness based collective action (ABC); Communication is co-creative eco-system innovation: blurring the boundary of ego and eco.

The most common forms of communication, according to Scharmer and Kaufer, are linear, unilateral. They involve little inclusion of others, or transparency. The most precious forms of communication, for the transition to Stage 4, are multilateral and cyclical forms of communication that are high on inclusion and transparency. Notably, Stage 4 communication holds the intention to serve the well-being of all, rather than a few.

To make the move to these precious forms of communication, they articulate 5 innovative infrastructures that will allow us to reach our untapped reserves of creativity  (p. 187-188):

  1. Infrastructures to co-initiate – success means unconditional commitment of credible leaders. 
  2. Infrastructure for co-sensing – success means experiences where people learn to see the system from multiple perspectives.
  3. Infrastructures to co-inspire – success means the use of mindfulness and presencing practices that help people connect to deep sources of knowing, individually and collectively.
  4. Infrastructures for prototyping, or exploring the future by doing – success means simply acting on what we know, integrating feedback, notice what is learned, take out what isn’t working, strengthen what is working.
  5. Infrastructures for co-evolving – success means the larger system grows, sustains, scales and evolves the prototypes (cross-functional, cross-level, cross-institutional leadership), as well as support to the leaders’ learning journeys

While exploring this chapter, my colleagues and I were playing with the metaphor of “the bus”, and how easy, or difficult, it can be to get off a bus when the mode of communication is not your style. Or in Stage 4, who drives the bus?

In my sketchbook I connected back to Spiral Dynamics (click here for a primer on the emerging Spiral), another way to look at evolving levels of organization. Here’s how a fleet of buses would relate to each other, depending on the value system:

bus shapes of conversation

We organize in hierarchical structures of different degrees, as well as circular structures. In the top right, there’s another form, more fluid, that reflects all modes of communicating simultaneously. Conceptually, this fluid form, with various values flowing together, could look like this:

bus shapes of conversation all together

What Scharmer and Kaufer do not say clearly, is that while evolution to Stage 4 is necessary, it does not mean throwing out the use of the earlier Stages – they each have their time and place. In certain contexts, they will be the most appropriate ways to communicate. All together, they add up. What Stage 4 adds, that again they do not say, is a bridge to a place where we see the ongoing values of the preceding modes of communication, in the right context.

Which state of communication are you most comfortable with?

Which is the next natural step in your personal development?

_____ _____ _____

Some friends and I have started a book club to explore Leading from the Emerging Future, Otto Scharmer (Theory U) and Katrin Kaufer’s new book. This is another piece on Chapter 6. Here’s what came from earlier chapters:

_____ _____ _____

This post begins a series of posts on Chapter 10 – The Emerging City, offering bits of the book I am working on. Here are some plot helpers of Nest City: The Human Drive to Thrive in Cities:

Offer your Self to your city


There is a battle underway between individuals and our institutions, but it isn’t us vs them. It is a battle embodied within each of us, between my self and my larger, highest potential Self. Our collective efforts are only as deep and good as we are, as instruments of the future.

Otto Scharmer and Katrin Kaufer, in their book Leading from the Emerging Future, remark that the “world has enormous unexploited potential in the form of inspired, intentional, and collective entrepreneurship.” Its time for how we show up as collectives to evolve into something other than insensitive entities, but this will only happen if we choose to offer our Selves to make them better, rather than fight and scrap our way.

Here are Otto Scharmer and Katrin Kaufer’s principles and practices to help advance your individual journey from self to Self, from me to We:

  1. Practice, don’t preach
  2. Observe, observe, observe – become a blackbelt observer and listener
  3. Connect with your intention as an instrument
  4. When the crack opens up, stay with it – connect and act from the now
  5. Follow your heart – do what you love, love what you do
  6. Always be in dialogue with the universe
  7. Create a holding space of deep listening that supports your journey
  8. Iterate, iterate, iterate
  9. Notice the crack to the field of the future
  10. Use different language with different stakeholders
  11. If you want to change others (other stakeholders), you need to be open to changing yourself first
  12. Never give up. Never give up. You are not alone

Offering your Self to your city is an essential contribution. It allows your City to serve citizens.

_____ _____ _____

Some friends and I have started a book club to explore Leading from the Emerging Future, Otto Scharmer (Theory U) and Katrin Kaufer’s new book. This is another piece on Chapter 5. Here’s what came from earlier chapters:

_____ _____ _____

This post begins a series of posts on Chapter 10 – The Emerging City, offering bits of the book I am working on. Here are some plot helpers of Nest City: The Human Drive to Thrive in Cities:


Be a vehicle for the future


Humanity is the living embodiment of crossing over, say Otto Scharmer and Katrin Kauffer in their book, Leading from the Emerging Future, as they reflect on Neitzsche’s reflection of man as a rope, as a bridge, not an end. “At the beginning of the 21st century,, probably for the first time in human history, the living presence of the abyss – that is, the simultaneous existence of one world that is dying and another that is being born – is a widely shared experience for millions of people across cultures, sectors and generations (p. 153).”

The value of Scharmer and Kaufer’s work is in what they name. Here’s a snapshot.

Levels of listening 

These four levels of listening allow us to access increasingly deeper sources of Self by connecting the exterior world outside to our interior world within:

  1. Habitual listening – projecting old judgments
  2. Factual listening – direct the beam of observation onto the world around us
  3. Empathic listening – adopting the other person’s perspective and therefore seeing ourselves through the eyes of the other
  4. Generative listening – listening from the whole and the emerging new, which further turns the beam of observation onto the deep sources of Self

Conditions of possibility

Three conditions allow profound shifts to happen in ourselves as individuals and as collectives:

  1. Bend the beam of observation back onto its source – you and your Source. Listen to Self.
  2. Hold space for embracing the shadow – bending the beam of observation “happens in a social holding space formed by true listening from the heart.”
  3. Going to the edge of letting go – a “willingness to go to the edge of the abyss, to let go, to lean into the unknown – and take the leap.”

As we learn to listen to our Selves, and others Selves, and create the conditions for profound shifts in our learning about the world around and within us, “we are learning how to become a vehicle for what is emerging on the other side of the abyss.”  Our inner and outer work matters because we are the bridge connecting the present we have to the future we want.


 _____ _____ _____

Some friends and I have started a book club to explore Leading from the Emerging Future, Otto Scharmer (Theory U) and Katrin Kaufer’s new book. This is the meaning I made of our circle on Chapter 5. Here’s what came from earlier chapters: Chapter 1 – Life guard; Chapter 2 – The antennae of possibility; Chapter 3 – Prototype social habitats; and Chapter 4 – I’m not a salesperson.

_____ _____ _____

This post begins a series of posts on Chapter 10 – The Emerging City, offering bits of the book I am working on. Here are some plot helpers of Nest City: The Human Drive to Thrive in Cities:


The Cornice


Over spring break I took a leap of faith.

The final climb
Photo taken by my friend and fellow cornice traveller, Ron.

I climbed up, beyond the highest reaches of the ski lift, up onto a cornice of snow on Marmot Mountain in Jasper National Park. For years I have watched in awe as skiers appear as little specks as they climb, linger, and drop with smooth and curvy beauty down the mountain. Last week, I was one of those wee specks and I now know why they linger.

As I gained altitude, so too did my anxiety. I realized that going down the way I came up could be potentially worse than the ski jump down. Was skiing down truly something I could do?

After the climb, the view itself reminded me to pause and gather myself. The view served as a wonderful distraction from the feat that lay ahead. I could see the whole landscape – the mountain tops and the valleys that are unseen from the lower altitudes I inhabit.

The mountaintops
Mountain tops beyond the edge of the cornice
View to Portal Creek
The upper reaches of Portal Creek and the Tonquin Valley

And with my friends, from 9 to 55 years old, I stood on a threshold: go back the way we came, or find a new way. We chose to go over the edge. When it was my turn, I chose to jump over the edge.

Young travel companions

As I embark on my exploration of Chapter 8 – The City Making Exchange with you, these words from John O’Donohue’s blessing, For the Time of Necessary Decision, ring true:

Trust that a richer life awaits us there,

That we will lose nothing

But what has already died;

There are times when jumping over the edge is the right thing to do. As I reflect my sharing my writing in progress with you, I know far less about this last third of the book than the previous two. I am jumping into Nest City’s third part and trust that I will learn what I need to learn.

What are you jumping into?

_____ _____ _____

This post is part of Chapter 8 – The City Making Exchange. Here are some plot helpers of Nest City: The Human Drive to Thrive in Cities, the book I am sharing here while I search for a publisher:

_____ _____ _____


The threshold of a new age


We are, at each an every moment, on the threshold of a new age. Each choice, each decision and in fact, each thought, shapes our present and our future. At each moment we stand at a threshold, choosing the age in wish we live.

Ben Okri,in Mental Fight, sums this up well:


Never again will we stand  
On the threshold of a new age. 
We that are here now are  
Touched in some mysterious way  
With the ability to change  
And make the future. 
Those who wake to the wonder of this magic moment 
Who wake up to the possibilities 
Of this charged conjunction, 
Are the chosen ones who have chosen 
To ace, to free the future, to open it up 
To consign prejudices to the past, 
To open up the magic casement 
Of the human spirit 
Onto a more shining world. 
Ben Okri 

Our future unfolds as we create it. It emerges in relationship with us, and, as I will explore it over the next series of posts, the future that we desire to create relies on three things: noticing thresholds, courage and risk. This revolves around three questions:

    1. What thresholds are before me?
    2. What part of me desires (or does not desire) to cross the threshold?
    3. What are the risks of crossing (and not crossing) the threshold?

The threshold of our new age involves a willingness to notice our choices, to examine our relationship with our choices, and being mindful of the consequences of our actions.

As John O’Donohue reminds us in his blessing, we drift through gray, increasing nowhere:

Until we stand before a threshold we know

We have to cross to come alive once more. 

_____ _____ _____

This post forms part of Chapter 6 – Emerging Thresholds, of Nest City: The Human Drive to Thrive in Cities. Click here for an overview of Chapters 4-7 (Part 2 – Organizing for Emergence). Click here for an overview of the three parts of Nest City.

_____ _____ _____

Destination and emergence


Over the course of the last nine months, I have been sharing bits of the book I am working on – Nest City: The Human Drive the Thrive in Cities. I made a decision to share the book on my blog while I was working on it. Five chapters and 126 posts later, the decision to share this work before it is officially in book form is one I revisit over and over in my mind.

For each post to appear on my blog, I have to hit this button:

'publish' button

The word ‘publish’ is rather official. A recent author acquaintance of mine cringed when she heard I was sharing what I was working on: “Why are you giving this away?” Another author friend says, “Good for you. I blogged most of my book before it turned into a book too.”  Others have warned me that publishers will not look at the book now that it has been ‘published’. I am of the opinion, still, that writing here is serving me and my readers well in several ways:

  1. I learn in bite-size pieces. I get to dive into small passages and sort and sift around in my being to seek out what I am learning.
  2.  I write in bite-size pieces. These are small pieces that serve to help me wrap myself around a thought. Blogging helps me discern the pieces I have to work with, that will later shape up into book form. This is essential time to practice the craft of writing.
  3. We find each other. By sharing the pieces of my exploration, fellow explorers and I are able to find each other. As I share, I reveal myself to my audience, and my audience reveals itself to me.
  4. We build supportive relationships. I am receiving feedback from readers: the odd comment here on my blog, an email, a ‘like’ or comment in facebook or Linked In, or new followers on Twitter. I am hearing about how my writing supports others and the work they do. In return, readers are supporting me too by using my blog posts on their webs sites, as they teach, and simply by giving me feedback on what resonates for them.
  5. We grow our understanding – of selves and cities. The more we explore individually and collectively, the more we learn and improve. We are expanding our consciousness.

I don’t know – yet – what my writing will add up to. I do know that my writing, when published as a book, will not read as it does here. While I have a destination in mind – a published book that we can lay our hands on physically and digitally – I do not know exactly what it will say and how it will say it. I have a frame that I am using here, with chapters and the like, but I an open to that changing if and when that makes sense. With each post, my sense of direction gets more clear. Even what the book will say gets more clear. But the real book to come is in the process of emerging.

The very process by which we create our cities, through the interplay of destination (chapter 4), a learning journey (chapter 5) and emergence (chapter 6), is in play for me as I craft the book. I have a destination/direction; I am on a learning journey; I am about to explore the thresholds that each of us, and our cities come across as we emerge.

The next series of posts will explore the role of emerging thresholds as we organize ourselves and our cities for continuous improvement.

_____ _____ _____

As I dive into sharing parts of Chapter 6 – Emerging Thresholds, here are some plot helpers for Nest City: The Human Drive to Thrive in Cities, the book that I am sharing here while I search for a publisher:



Conditions for evolutionary expansion

Our impulse to work to improve our world is an impulse to evolve.

I suspect that you recognize a deep impulse to survive and thrive in you, in other individuals, your family, your community, your nation and in the whole of us as a species. When faced with hardships and challenges, we do what it takes to protect ourselves and our clan, to survive.  We don’t often think of this, but it is ever present in our actions.  What is also present is our impulse as a species to thrive –to learn how to grow and change and adapt constantly.  Survival alone is not good enough.  We are always seeking more of what is possible in the world.  This is an impulse that even drives the creation of cities.

The last two posts, A primer on the emerging spiral and 7 principles that frame the Spiral, lay out one way of seeing how new value systems emerge within us as we evolve:  Spiral Dynamics.  As we move up the Spiral, our awareness and understanding expands as we meet ever more complex challenges in life.  Clare Graves called this movement up the Spiral a never ending quest.  Our evolutionary expansion, however, is not a given.

Potential for expansion – six conditions

Beck and Cowan outline six conditions that need to be in place for upward change on the Spiral to be possible.  Keep in mind that this is not a recipe – it is possible that most conditions are met and change does not occur.  It is also possible that only some conditions are met and change occurs anyway.  This is a pattern that offers some insight into how change happens, but more specifically, about the conditions in place as we move upward along the Spiral, at various scales – individuals, families, groups, organizations, nations, species.

1.  Openness to the potential for change.  Beck and Cowan are very clear that not all people are equally open to, or even capable or prepared for change.  Normally, humans are in a potentially open system of need, values and aspirations, but “we tend, however, to settle into what appears to be a closed state wherein we operate in a consistent, enduring steady way.  Once reached, we tend to stay in these zones of comfort… unless powerful forces induce turbulence.”[1]  So the potential for change revolves around three elements: thinking that is open, or at least arrested; having the appropriate intelligences, ie the ability to operate under more complex life conditions; and being free from restrictive patterns, ‘sink-holes’ and ‘baggage’.

Beck and Cowan distinguish three states in which we may find ourselves relative to potential for change[2] that I have organized as follows:

Openness to the potential for change

2.  Solutions.  Change will not occur if ‘serious, unresolved problems or threats still exist within the present state’.  Satisfying this condition involves: adequately managing the problems at their vMEME level creating comfort and balance; and direct excess energy to exploration of the next, more complex system.[3]

3.  Dissonance.  “Change does not occur unless the boat rocks.”[4]  The sensation of dissonance is stirred when the waves of some kind of impact jostle the steady-state system.  The factors that create dissonance are (verbatim)[5]:

  • Awareness of the growing gap between life conditions and current means for handling those problems.
  • Enough turbulence to create a sense that ‘something is wrong’ without so much chaos that the whole world seems to be falling apart.
  • Abject failure of old solutions to solve the problems of the new life conditions may stimulate fresh thinking, release energy, and liberate the next vMEMES along the Spiral

4.  Barriers[6].  Beck and Cowan discern two steps in this process. The first is recognizing the barriers, which typically are external.  ‘It’s their fault.’  ‘The bloody establishment holds us down.’  The second step invites exploration into why the barriers are effective obstacles, which reveals both internal and external obstacles. In the end, we have to clean up both the world outside and inside.

So barriers need to be eliminated, bypassed, neutralized or reframed into something else to provide the needed solid foundation on which to build change.  But all this is to be done conscious of risks, consequences and the pain of barrier removal, as well as exposure of the excuses and rationalizations for not implementing change.

5.  Insight.  When leading change, it is critical to understand the thinking systems in play, and discern the different patterns, models and structure that come with those ways of thinking.  Further, “alternative scenarios must be active in the collective consciousness before they can be considered.  Too often they are guarded in the minds of an elite few ‘planners’ or ‘decision-makers’.  People need mental pictures of what things might be like for them in their own real Life Conditions, not for some distant Hollywood start or textbook case-studies.”[7]

Change is ultimately about changing patterns, and Beck and Cowan offer the following ways to initiate change in patterns[8]:

  • Greater insight into how systems form, decline, and reform – particularly one’s own.  People must accept the possibility of change as well as the means.
  • Put a stop to wasteful regressive searches into out-moded answers from the past which simply cannot address greater complexity in the present.
  • Consider optional scenarios, fresh models, and experiences from applicable sources.  Scout the competition and demonstrate concretely what alternatives look like.
  • Quickly recognize the appearance of new life conditions and the vMEMES required to shift into congruence. Custom tailor for best fit.

6.  Consolidation.  Beck and Cowan say this best: “When significant change occurs, you can expect a period of confusion, false starts, long learning curves, and awkward assimilation.  Those who change – either as individuals or as organizations – may be punished by those who do not understand what is happening and now find themselves left out, misaligned and threatened.  Old barriers may be rebuilt in the form of punitive rules, turf battles and power tests.  New obstacles might be set up.  Sometimes, you will have to go around, let the bridge burn and not look back.”[9]


There is a gap that sits between how we experience the world and how we see the world could be that propels us forward.  This is not a gap that we all see in the same way at the same time.  It is not a gap that we are all even able to see, nor are we all required to see a gap before making attempts to cross it.  But there is always a gap, should we choose to notice it, examine it, explore it and cross it.  We are always at a threshold.

My next post will explore the word “change” from a Spiral perspective, and the difference between changeability and adjustability.  When at a threshold, when is it appropriate to change or adjust?


[1]   Beck and Cowan, Spiral Dynamics, p. 76

[2]   Beck and Cowan, Spiral Dynamics, p. 76-82.  The text.

[3]   Beck and Cowan, Spiral Dynamics, p. 82

[4]   Beck and Cowan, Spiral Dynamics, p. 82

[5]   Beck and Cowan, Spiral Dynamics, p. 83

[6]   Beck and Cowan, Spiral Dynamics, p. 83

[7]   Beck and Cowan, Spiral Dynamics, p. 84

[8]   Beck and Cowan, Spiral Dynamics, p. 84

[9]   Beck and Cowan, Spiral Dynamics, p. 85