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Gentle Action: Surviving Chaos and Change

Condensed Version (see the expanded version)


How can businesses, institutions and individuals achieve stability in a world of rapid change and engage in activities that are more appropriate to the world that surrounds them? In what ways can new organizations arise so as to be more flexible, sensitive and organic? How can they provide an environment in which natural creativity and human talents can flower? How can we foster such basic principles as openness, transformation and sensitive awareness? What role will they play in personal growth and psychotherapy?

Out of the new structures and institutions that are discussed in this essay, emerge a new form of action, one that unfolds out of the very nature and dynamics of the system, or issue, in question. Such an activity is creative, gentle and highly intelligent and therefore differs profoundly from conventional approaches that tend to be rigid, externally directed and only take a limited account of the whole context in which a particular intervention arises.

Gentle Action provides a new approach to decision making, policy planning and creativity, one that will be especially important in dealing with highly complex systems, organizations in a state of crisis, problems arising from within a rapidly changing context, and policies that must be formulated in the absence of complete knowledge about a particular state of affairs. This new approach will have applications in business, institutions and government, and will be particularly significant when dealing with questions of ecology, economics, social order and global networks. As a natural process leading to growth and healing, it will also prove invaluable in psychotherapy and self-development.

The Anxiety of Change

Many rapid changes are taking place around us. These include globalization, developments in technology, fears of terrorism, the instability of the Developing World, the rise of the Pacific Rim and a United Europe, the breakdown of inner cities, economics that appear to be out of control with the consequent challenges of inflation, recession and unemployment, spiraling health costs, revolutions in communication technology and information processing, the demands of consumers and special interest groups, threatened species and ecologies, the dangers of global warming and ozone depletion, increasing rates of teenage suicide and drugs use, the transformation of management and the breakdown of conventional institutions.

Governments, institutions, organizations and individuals experience considerable anxiety in the face of such rapid change and feel powerless to ameliorate the problems that surround them. Indeed, it sometimes appears as if their plans and policies, as well as the traditional structures of their institutions, are themselves part of the problem.

In so many cases policies, plans, interventions and other actions, all taken in good faith, have not only failed to resolve an existing situation but in many cases have acted to magnify and render the problem even more intractable. In other cases, the attempt to impose a solution in one location or context has had the effect of creating an even larger problem elsewhere.

Organizations and individuals feel control slipping from their grasp and their natural reaction is to become even more intransigent in their attempt to clamp down on events and exert ever more control. The result is a spiral of control that has literally gone out of control! The realization that plans and policies are ineffective leads to a sense of depression and hopelessness. Faced with the insecurities and flux of the modern world many institutions fall into a state that, were it to be detected in an individual, would be diagnosed as manic depression!

How did this cycle of anxiety, hopelessness, panic and the desire for ever more control arise? I would argue that it is a paradigm of thought and behavior that originates in our particular view of reality, a view, moreover, that modern science had now demonstrated to be fundamentally erroneous. Thus, when our perception of the world around us is astigmatic, the actions we take become increasingly inappropriate and incongruous. It is only by entering into new modes of perception and acknowledging a new paradigm of reality that more appropriate forms of action can be taken.

The Myth of Control

One of the great themes of Western civilization, a theme of virtually mythic proportions, involves the way in which nature has been tamed and controlled over the course of the last few thousand years. Other cultures and civilizations have, for example, developed the techniques of farming but it appears that only the civilizations that expanded from their Neolithic birthplace in Northern Europe and the Fertile Crescent of the near East possessed the hubris necessary to impose themselves to such a marked extent upon the landscape. Thus, even in prehistoric times, European forests were cleared, marshes drained, vast tracts of land converted to farming, and tracks and walkways established as human beings sought to recreate the landscape according to their own needs. And, as ever more powerful technologies and social control became available, this path of domination continued.

Within our own time, social critics have pointed out that this desire to exert control has led to our distancing ourselves from the natural world. The effect has been for us to place an increasing faith in human reason, science, technology and the effectiveness of plans, directives, and policies while, at the same time, to decrease our sensitivity for the complex and subtle nature of the world around us. In short, we tend to stand outside the world, like observers, indulging in constant analysis, making predictions, and exerting corrective control when situations do not move in the direction we desire.

When human our society and its associated technology were relatively simple and localized, and the resources that it called upon were unlimited, then this pattern of control was relatively successful. But as societies attempt to deal with ever more complicated issues, their boundaries became more open, their resources are found to be finite, the environment fragile, and technologies and world economics become increasingly complex then these conventional approaches simply fail. Ultimately, by virtue of its early success, the desire to dominate grew to the point where it began to subvert itself and, in the process, endangered the whole planet.

Engaging Complexity

Over the last decades, however, there have been indications of a remarkable transformation within this traditional vision; a revolution in the perception of ourselves, our culture and the nature of reality that is truly Copernican in its implications. Just as in the 16th century astronomical observations were to dethrone the human race from a central place in the universe, so, too, in our own century relativity, quantum theory, chaos theory and systems theory, along with new insights in psychology, ecology and economics, have demonstrated the fundamental fallacy of our belief in definitive control. At the same time, they are affirming our basic connectedness to the whole of creation.

These scientific insights happen to have come at a time when the world has been experiencing rapid revolutionary change. States have risen and fallen. The notion of government is being transformed. Institutions are questioning their effectiveness. Businesses are desperately searching for new ways of operating. Technologies have developed so rapidly that people are unable to keep up with its implications. The overall effect has been to create a profound sense of anxiety, a fear that things are out of control, that the future is increasingly uncertain and that we have been left with nothing to hang on to. Yet what if this anxiety actually points to an essential truth about the world, that ultimately control and definitive prediction are strictly limited and that we must discover new ways of being and acting?

Our current economic, social, ecological, environmental, and institutional systems are now enormously complex to the extent that we may never have complete knowledge about the inner dynamics of such systems, nor the ability to predict exactly or exert total control. In this we can draw on metaphors from the new sciences of quantum theory, chaos theory, systems theory, and so on which also indicate essential limits to prediction, description and control. It is for such reason that so many of our plans and policies have been unable to meet the complexities of the modern world and why some supposed ‘solutions’ have created even deeper problems and more intractable situations. The myth of eternal progress and control that has lain behind Western civilization can no longer sustain itself. The island of order and certainty on which we have been living has turned out to be not solid land but a rapidly melting iceberg, and we have no alternative but to plunge into the boiling sea of flux, uncertainty and change that surrounds us.

The Dilemma of Action

These are the dilemmas that many organizations find themselves in today, dilemmas that translate into the anxieties and uncertainties faced by many individuals. Programmed by their goals and mission statements, as well as by their very structures, many organizations inevitably seek ways of exerting control and believe that they must always take positive action in the face of uncertainty. Yet increasingly they discover that these actions are inappropriate. And so organizations, institutions, governments, groups and individuals retrench, break apart or in some other way get trapped into a spiral of ineffective decision making, paralysis and anxiety.

These organizations, governments and institutions have been created according to our traditional image of reality; that is, of a world that is external to us, predictable, relatively mechanical, and whose dynamics can be controlled by the application of directed force. As a result, organizations are themselves relatively rigid in their nature, operating from fixed plans, policies and mission statements. Their internal structures are often hierarchical in nature, their lines of communication are limited rather than being flexible and dynamic, and their response to challenge and change is often predictable. In other words, most organizations are far less subtle and complex than the very systems they are attempting to address.

The basic problem facing our modern world is: How can society respond to the flux and challenge of the modern world when all its institutions are inflexible and over-simplistic? When situations move more rapidly than an organization is capable of responding, policies and programs are outdated even before they are put into operation. Rather than acting to render organizations and policies more flexible, the apparatus of modern technology tends to rigidify and entrench the problems and rigidities that already exist within an organization.

Organizations are composed of individuals and here too the conditioning of our society tends to inhibit natural creativity and abilities. Just as organizations have areas of rigidity, limitations also apply to the psychology of the individual. The issue becomes, therefore, one of freeing and fostering the natural intelligence and creativity of individuals and allowing them to operate fully within society, governments and institutions. In other words, how can organizations and individuals transform themselves so that they can become as subtle, sensitive, intelligent and as fast-responding as the world around them? How can institutions heal their separation from society; society from the individual; and the individual from the natural world?

Creative Suspension

Paradoxically it is the very effort to change that establishes an internal resistance and rigidity that sustains the blocks that are to be removed. The first step towards transformation lies in an act of ‘creative suspension’ and ‘alert watchfulness.’ This is an action that has the effect of relevating and making manifest the internal dynamics, rigidities, fixed positions, unexamined paradigms, interconnections and lines and levels of communication within the organization and the individual.

The nature of this creative suspension is related to other approaches and techniques whereby unexamined assumptions and rigidities are brought into conscious awareness. For example, Sigmund Freud’s notion of ‘non-judgmental listening’ as well as various meditative practices. Artists, composers, scientists and other creative people often describe how their work unfolds from a form of creative ‘listening.’ These acts of listening and watchfulness have the effect of dissolving rigidities and rendering a system more flexible.

But how can organizations and institutions, created in non-traditional ways, sustain this watchfulness? In place of relatively mechanical, hierarchical, and rule-bound organizations there would exist something more organic in nature. By way of illustration, one could draw upon ideas and concepts in systems theory, Ilya Prigogine’s dissipative structures, cooperative and coherent structures in biology, neural networks, quantum interconnectedness and non-locality. In such a way organizations will be able to reach a condition in which they are as sensitive, subtle and as intelligent as the systems and situations that surround them.

New Organizations, New Dynamics

With this increased flexibility, organizations will now be able to internalize and model the complex dynamics of the systems that surround them. Rather than seeking to predict and control, they will now be able to enter the flux of change and engage in those actions that are appropriate to each new situation.

Successful organizations of the future will have more open and organic structures. Their systems of communication will be closer to those of neural nets than to fixed telephone networks. They will draw naturally upon the creativity of their employees and, in turn, employees will be self-directed and satisfied by the exercise of their natural creativity and initiative within a caring environment.

But this does not mean that organizations will abandon leaders and managers, for people with flair and the ability to make rapid decisions, inspire confidence and exercise knowledge, intuition and creativity will always be needed. Rather, the dominant stance, artificially enhanced status and negativity associated with the notion of authority will change. New forms of leadership will respect the initiative and autonomy of others so that each person brings their best abilities to a particular task. In an emergency, for example, a natural leader will often emerge yet as soon as the crisis is over that person will go back to carrying out their former tasks.

Reference to traditional and indigenous societies shows how leaders are elected in response to specific tasks and crises. Their authority does not arise by virtue of a particular fixed position that could be filled by a cipher. Rather individuals are chosen to give leadership during a particular emergency or in order to carry out a given mission, and their authority arises from the confidence that is placed in them by the group. In a similar way leaders will always be called upon in the new organizations and, as the particular challenge of a given situation changes, so too the internal structure of the organization will transform and particular individuals will be free to adopt new roles.

Enhanced and more effective communications will take place in these new organizations. There is currently a great interest in what has been called the ‘Dialogue Process,’ sometimes associated with the name of David Bohm. The idea of a ‘learning organization’ and of ‘creative learning’ has been proposed by a variety of experts, including Peter Senge. One could also draw upon the Native American process of arrival at consensus through the flow of active meaning around the traditional circle. To take this particular example, a flow of meaning differs in its inherent dynamics from the conventional approach in which formal agreement is reached through discussion and argument. For, rather than a fixed decision being drawn up and circulated at the end of a meeting, each person leaves the discussion knowing what he or she must do—even if circumstances should happen to change in the meantime. New organizations will therefore place their emphasis upon flexibility, creativity, intelligence and the ability to meet an unending challenge of change.

Gentle Action

I have adopted the term ‘Gentle Action’ for the new types of activities and actions that can be taken by an organization that is sensitive to the dynamics of its surrounding environment. It is a form of minimal and highly intelligent activity that arises out of the very nature of the system under investigation.

Actions and reactions that proceed from conventional organizations, plans and policies tend to be relatively mechanical in nature and are usually directed towards what is perceived, and often in a highly limited way, as ‘the source of the problem.’ Moreover, the greater the effect required, the stronger would be the action that is imposed. By contrast, Gentle Action is subtle in nature so that a minimal intervention, intelligently made, can result in a major change or transformation. The reason is that such action makes use of the dynamics of the whole system in question. This could be compared to the way in which a proponent of the Japanese Martial Arts makes use of an opponent’s strength to defeat him. Rather than using violence, or dissipating energy, the Martial Arts expert directs small movements and leverage in order to focus the opponent’s own momentum and energy in a new direction. In a similar fashion Gentle Action acts in a highly intelligent and sensitive way to guide and refocus the energies and the dynamics of the system in question.

Another image of Gentle Action would be the minimal movements made by a person in the sea in order to remain afloat. Floating occurs, not through the expenditure of energy or violent movements, but rather by remaining aware and sensitive to the movement of the sea and the position of one’s own body and thus, by making tiny movements of the arms, legs and hands, the body can preserve its orientation.

Conventional action could be compared to a stone thrown into a pond; it will create a splash at the right location but its disturbance spreads throughout the water. Gentle Action, by contrast, could be compared to the highly sensitive and intelligent correlation of wavelets around the edge of a pond. Normally such wavelets, occurring at random and without any underlying order, will interfere with each other’s movements and thereby dissipate their effects. But if each wave could be exactly correlated then the wavelets from all around the edge of the pond move in a cooperate fashion. As a result, they could actually begin to move inwards, focus and create a ‘splash’ within some predetermined region of the pond.

In this second case the action of the ‘splash’ arises, not through some action that is external to the pond, but out of the movement of the whole water. In terms of actual systems, it would be a corrective action that emerges out of the natural dynamics of the whole system. Moreover, it would be brought about in a highly intelligent and sensitive way, having its origin in very small corrective movements and minimal interventions. Rather than seeking to impose change externally and at some particular point in a system, Gentle Action operates within the dynamics of the entire system.

Analogies can also be made to Gentle Action and the functioning of living systems such as the human brain and immune system. In the non-biological world, there are examples of coherent systems such as superfluids and superconductors in which obstacles can be transcended without encountering resistance, not by the application of force, but through the cooperative movement of the whole.


Application of creative suspension and Gentle Action could be made within the following fields:

  • The structure of businesses, organizations and institutions
  • Policy planning, mission statements, determining goals and values
  • Decision making
  • Conflict resolution
  • Future of communications and office technology
  • Psychotherapy, human development, growth and therapy groups
  • Aspects of healing, alternative approaches to medicine such as homeopathy
  • The structure and function of governments and the changing notion of the state
  • Economics
  • Environmental and ecological issues
  • Fostering creativity and individuality
  • New social movements and structures
  • Dealing with chance, chaos and change
  • Developing new forms of leadership