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. Surfing and skiing can probably be thought of in this way.
Action in Action
A number of examples of this sort of action can be given:
During the first half of the twentieth century Egypt normally imported concrete frame housing from Europe. However the architect Hassan Fathy pointed out that this was not only a costly process for the rural poor but did not fit well into the cultural fabric of the Middle East. His solution was to return to an ancient tradition and build houses, mosques and public buildings out of mud and straw. Despite objections that houses would be washed away in the spring rains Fathy build the peasant village of New Gourna Village near Luxor. Not only did he demonstrate the possibility of cheap housing for the poor but also trained villagers in the techniques for build their own houses. He later expressed his ideas in the book “Architecture for the Poor: An experiment in rural Egypt”.
A group of Italian business people discovered that the best way to help the street children in Vietnam was not through grants or charity but to give them the skills to open up their own small business – for example, repairing bicycles.
A School or a Well?
A group of business people in England wished to encourage education in an African community. Their natural conclusion was to donate funds to build a school. However the community told them they had no need for a school building, children could sit under a tree and learn. The real issue was the lack of a well. The children had to walk a considerable distance to collect water for the community. By donating money to build a well the children would now have free time to sit and learn.
Heifer International: Not a Cup but a Cow
Dan West was a relief worker during the Spanish Civil war giving out milk to refugees. The idea struck him that it would make more sense to provide people with a cow rather than handing out of cup of milk. In this way Heifer International was born. Today the organization donates livestock to poor areas in 47 countries, also providing training in the care and upkeep of animals. In turn, the offspring of these animals are passed on to other members of the village.
In the early 1970s a group of Columbians (scientists, street children and peasants), dissatisfied with the political turmoil and urban decay, decided to create a new community it what was considered uninhabitable pampas. Their idea was to create a totally sustainable community. One of the prime movers in creating the community was Paolo Lugari who said they wanted to do something for the third world by the third world. “When you import solutions from the First World, you also import your problems. He said that they wanted a chance to plan their own tropical civilization from the ground up, rather than importing models and technology from the Northern countries “as the Peace cord wants to teach everybody”.
Thanks to the cooperation of a number of universities, who sent out their students, many ingenious low-tech devices were created. For example, the power generated by the children’s swings and teeter-totters, for example, was used to power water pumps. The community also planted many trees so that the surrounding barren land was gradually converted into a forest. Today the community is totally energy independent. They farm organically and use wind, solar power and a wood-power turbine. Every family enjoys free housing, community meals, and schooling. There are no weapons, no police, and no jail. There is no mayor. The United Nations named the village a model of sustainable development.
One day Mohammed Yunus, an economist in Bangladesh, spoke to a woman making bamboo stools in a market. She explained that she had to buy the materials from a middle man and then sell back the finished stools to him. Her profit for a day’s work was two cents. Yunus asked one of his students to walk around the town and find out how many other women were in the same position. She returned with a list of containing 42 names. With only $27 all these women could be made independent. Yunus handed over the money and asked his student to distribute it.
On the following day, Yunus went to a branch of the Janta bank, a Bangladeshi government bank, to explore the possibility of the bank giving very small loans to poor people to help them work independently . At this the bank manager began to laugh at the impossibility of such an absurd idea. The amounts of the loans involved would not even cover the costs of filling out the loan documents, what is more most of those people would be illiterate and incapable of filling out the forms and signing their name.
Instead Yunus created his own Gameen bank that would deal in microcredit – small loans, given generally to women, who used them to buy things to sell at the market such as sewing needles and thread to become tailors and seamstresses); chicks to grow for meat and eggs to sell (i.e., agricultural loans).
The initial loans were very small amounts of under $100, As the women paid back the loans, they allowed more women to borrow and start businesses. Women were chosen since they were better credit risks than men in these cultures and because they spend their money for better food, clothing and education for their children rather than on imported goods. In this way money stayed within the village which began to prosper. Today Yunus’s scheme of microcredits has been adopted in many countries. He was event invited by the US government to set up a microcredit system in Arkansas.
Native American talking Circle
Non-natives often wonder how decisions are made within an Indigenous community. In a talking circle a pipe or feather may be passed around allowing each person to speak in turn. What is discussed are not so much plans or proposals but people feelings, memories, ancient stories. At first sight this appears puzzling until one realizes that a field of meaning is being created which is being owned by the whole group, rather than by the particular individuals who speak. In one sense their remarks are personal, in another they are an expression of the rich dynamics of the group.
At the end no decision is made and no plan agreed upon but somehow each person “knows what to do.” Action arises out of the group as a whole, not through the instructions of an elected leader. (Although for certain tasks a leader may be appointed, this authority always exists as an expression of the group and will therefore l vanish once the task has ended.)
If a ceremony is to be held, a building constructed the non-Native will ask the hour when this will happen. “When the time is right” will be the answer. Again “the right time” appears to be an inner sense.
Creative suspension: The King’s Cross project.
At first sight the Kings Cross project looks like the epitome of “ungentle action”. King’s Cross Station is designated as the British terminal for European rail traffic (the station at Charing Cross is only a temporary solution). This led a major European Union regeneration project for the surrounding area, a project in which other vested interests were represented, such as English Heritage, P &O and Railtrack. These extensive plans were drawn up without any consultation at the local level. It did not take into account that the King’s Cross area is part of the borough of Camden Town, in essence a village within a city, a very close knit community dating back for centuries and once home to Charles Dickens and the Bloomsbury Group. In addition to housing many small traders who live and work in the area it was also the residence of many of Britain’s leading writers, artists and actors.
The outcry against the development project was highly vocal. At first it involved the traditional approaches of protest and confrontation but in the end the promoters of the project were forced to stop and begin to listen to the many voices of the local community. It was at this point of “creative suspension” that the project managers realized that they could not proceed with development in its current form. Only by working directly with the community and understanding the complexity of the social structure were they able to come up with and new a creative solution.
Changing hospital attitudes
Therese Schroder Sheker is a professional musician, a harpist, who had worked with the dying in Denver Colorado using a system of musical modes inspired by the practices at Cluny 10 C. When she arrived at St Patrick’s hospital in Missoula, Montana she discovered that doctors were never present at a death and the hospital suggested the body should be removed and the bed made ready for the next patient within 30 mins. By working in a gentle way, and training others she was able to give people an easeful death, even to the point of being removed from painkillers. Over time she noticed that the doctors began to attend the deaths of their patients and allowed the relations to stay with the body for an hour or so. Now she has radically changed the whole attitude to death in that hospital. In turn her students have entered other hospitals across the state and her movement is expanding across the United States.
Each One Teach One
Paulo Freire has had a profound effect on the educational theory in the United States and elsewhere. He was most noted for his work amongst the poor, first in Brazil and then in Chile which, thanks to his efforts, experienced a dramatic increase in literacy. In his “Each One Teach One” approach an illiterate person, once taught the skills of reading who then pass them one to others in an ever spreading movement of education. This approach inspired many “grass roots” educational programs across the US and Canada.
Farming City Lots
In New York, Chicago and other cities people began to farm the vacant lots, making the city more attractive and producing food.
Artists and community
The art critic Suzi Gablik documents a number of instances where artists have been directly involved in community. One example is the design of a handcart for use by the homeless.
Knocking on Doors
Gordon and Claire Shippy lived in an inner city of a north of England town. It was an area of burnt out cars, drug dealing and crime. Children could no longer play outside. Despite the efforts of local government the situation did not improve. Then Clair and Gordon came to Pari, read about gentle action, and noticed how the local people knew each other’s names, stopped and chatted and even left the keys in their front doors. Returning home they hit on the simple plan of going down their street, knocking on each door and introducing themselves. Soon they were joined by another neighbor and, from the older people, they began to find out the history of their area. It did not take long before an association of householders was formed. Pretty soon they managed to block off direct traffic access to their area, the drug dealers left, the area was cleaned up and children now play outside. Their success was so marked that the University of Teesside is using their community as a study. What Gordon and Clair found particularly rewarding was the unity between the traditional householders and the new Muslim immigrants, working side by side to pressure the local government into making improvements.
One Person can Make a Change
One of the most discouraging aspects people sense about the modern world is that they really don’t count, that in the face of multinational corporations and big governments a single individual can do little about changing the world. One voice will never be heard amongst millions. One appeal will never touch the hearts of those in the board room. and so a general apathy develops. A significant side effect is that in many countries fewer people are turning out to vote or attend public meetings. Some may look back to that mythic time of the “swinging sixties” with its dreams of new freedoms, student protest and social and educational experiments but for most it is a time long buried in history, as remote as the dreams of the French and American revolutions.
Yet one person can make a difference as this story, told by Edy Altes in his book A Heart and Soul for Europe, Van Gorcum, Assen, The Netherlands, 1999), illustrates. It began with a new approach to warfare in which strategists pointed out it it is far more effective to wound a soldier than to kill one, since a wounded soldier requires an infrastructure for support and therefore uses valuable time and manpower which diminishes an army’s overall effectiveness. Far better, these strategists argued, a host badly wounded soldiers than mass graves of dead ones. One approach to this end is to use laser weapons capable of blinding soldiers at 1 km. Not only would a blinded soldier need help from his comrade but the fear of being blinded when going into battle would be considerable. A number of articles and television documentaries appeared but did little to dissuade nations to abandon this approach until a 76 year old Dutch woman wrote to Altes “I have never belonged to any peace movement or taken part in any action but this cannot be done”. She decided to act as a lone individual and ended up starting a petition that was sent to the Dutch Minister of Foreign Affairs. The end result of this one woman’s reaction was that the Netherlands signed the 1995 “Protocol on Blinding Laser Weapons to the CCW Convention” to prohibit the use of laser weapons specifically designed to cause permanent blindness. One person can make a change.
In each of these cases traditional solutions already existed: solve inner city decay through federal and local government intervention schemes; import a food aid program for the starving; improve social and economic conditions by giving loans to businesses that already have a credit rating; solve illiteracy through government spending for training professional teachers and opening schools;develop housing schemes for the homeless by subcontracting to established manufacturers of prefabricated houses; take actions based on pre established policies and existing government committees. Yet in each case there turned out to be a more effective solution, a much cheaper one, and one that empowered the communities directly concerned. Such solutions emerged by suspending the traditional reflex to take action and becoming sensitive to the meaning and structure of entire situation. In this way the “problem” was able to speak directly and suggest its own solution.
Social and economic systems can exhibit enormous complexity. Certain of their aspects, however, have been modeled by the currently fashionable approach know as “chaos theory”, or more accurately the dynamics of non-linear systems. While human systems exhibit much wider variety and depend upon such factors as meanings, belief and anticipation of events, it is sometimes helpful to explore scientific metaphors for physical systems. A number of examples are given below which may help to illuminate the underlying nature of gentle action.
In the height of summer a river may flow smoothly, but following heavy spring rains, eddies begin to form as different regions of the river move at different speeds. These currents and eddies act to drag on neighboring flows of water. In this way various regions of the river act as contingencies to other region and in this way flow becomes more and more chaotic. Likewise, when fast flowing water encounters a rock, a series of eddies form behind the obstruction, creating resistance and impeding regular flow.
This happens because the water does not move in a cooperative way; rather each tiny region behaves independently, yet exerts its effect as a contingency on immediate neighbor. Contrast this with what happens in a superfluid. There the entire liquid behaves as a whole, no eddies form and when the fluid encounters an obstruction it simply moves around it, as a whole. In this way a superfluid can flow indefinitely without encountering resistance. But how does this occur? The reason is that a very weak and subtle attractive force exists between molecules in the fluid that allows them to cooperate in a holistic way.
Similar cooperative, or coherent, behavior is found in a superconductor. There is also an analogous cooperation in metals at normal temperatures. The electrons in a normal metal have very long-range forces between them. But when each electron makes a small contribution to the collective (this is know as the plasma) it also finds itself relatively freed from the effects of this long-range force. In this way the collective is enfolded within the individual and the individual within the collective. Using electrons in a metal as a metaphor we could say that individual freedom arises by contributing to the overall well-being of the whole. Likewise the continued existence of the whole contributes to the well-being of each individual.
Conventional action could be compared to a stone thrown into a pond. The source of action is external to the system. It creates a violent splash whose effects quickly dissipate as ripples spread out. The reason is that ripples from the splash are distributed randomly and are what physicists would term “out of phase”. This means that peaks and troughs in one region do not exactly match peaks and troughs in the other. When ripples are out of phase in this way they quickly cancel each other out.
On the other hand, under special conditions, in what are called “solitons”, peaks and troughs remain in phase so that a ripple can move across water with undiminished size for many meters. This is because each peak and each trough are precisely coordinated and exactly in phase. (Soliton waves have been observed to travel, undiminished, for several miles in a canal.)
Let us pursue this metaphor of phase coupling further in terms of hypothetical situation in which a highly sensitive and intelligent correlation of wavelets occurs around the edge of a pond. Wavelets from all around the edge of the pond would then move in a cooperate fashion towards some predetermined area. This effect would arise not through an action that is external to the pond -such as the stone thrown into the pond – rather it arises out of the movement of the whole water. While this example is purely hypothetical it could certainly be simulated on a computer and it appears that the activity of the brain works in this cooperative way, with signals all over the brain converge into one area and spread out again.
In terms of social or economic systems, action would emerge out of the natural dynamics of the whole system, arising in a highly intelligent and sensitive way and consisting of small corrective movements and minimal interventions. Rather than seeking to impose change externally and at some particular point in a system, gentle action would operate within the dynamics and meanings of the entire system.
The dissemination of this research will be to bring about a new awareness of the inner structure of action and so effect a “change in consciousness”. Often such changes are brought about by the catalytic action of a few thinkers and writers. Take for example the notion of “sustainable growth”, the Oxford Dictionary of New Words credits the appearance of this term to the nineteen eighties. While the Club of Rome had earlier raised such issues with its report The Limits to Growth it was Bruntland Report Our Common Future (1987) that alerted the world to the dangers of unlimited growth. Today it represents an ideal so widely accepted that it is espoused in the advertising and annual reports of many corporations. We believe that Gentle Action has a similar potential to bring about a major change in attitude at many levels.
Likewise Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring (1962) produced a worldwide concern about the dangers of pollution, which lead to the creation of the environmental movement. Marshal McLuhan’s notion of the “global village” led to the notion of “global consciousness”, a term that eventually found its way into the mouths of politicians. Likewise the economist Ernst Friedrich Schumacher’s book Small is Beautiful (1973)produced a significant change in thinking.
Application of Creative Suspension and Gentle Action can be made within the following fields:
- The structure of businesses, organizations and institutions.
- Policy planning, mission statements, determining goals and values.
- Decision making.
- International Security and conflict resolution.
- Future of communications and office technology.
- Aspects of healing, alternative approaches to medicine such as homeopathy.
- The structure and function of governments and the changing notion of the state.
- Environmental and ecological issues