Emergent Design ~ Finding the White Tiger

By Jennifer English Morgan

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“Design creates culture. Culture shapes values. Values determine the future.” ~ Robert L. Peters

During the 2016 election cycle in the USA, I experienced an upheaval of my emotional stability, as anger, elation, and fear arose during and after the November election. Shifting to see what was behind the emotions, I recognized the presence of a collective force. The feelings were not mine to hold. I am an empath. The emotions were arising out of my link to the state of the world around me.

I had already once been verbally assaulted by a Trump supporter in a grocery store parking lot over a political bumper sticker. That wasn’t enough to rattle me. Overall I felt fairly calm, yet many members of my community were experiencing similar situations either first or second hand. The media also portrayed an increase in violence and hate crimes.

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I was feeling the collective response to a Trump Presidency, his Cabinet appointments, the initial executive orders and an onslaught of negativity spewed over mainstream and social media. It was like a valve burst. The pressure in the system ruptured and few knew how to respond immediately, other than by venting. The situation was in a state of chaos.

Instead of engaging on social media, I found my own relief valve and shifted from being overwhelmed by these emotions to witnessing and releasing them as they appeared. Detaching ironically left me with an invigorated sense of purpose to become more politically engaged and integrated into my community. I also felt inspired to skill up in cultivating increased resiliency and responsiveness in dealing with crisis situations.

The national circumstances continued to escalate. Though I was able to keep my emotions in check, the circumstances were so complex; I soon after started questioning my motivation as a designer. I was tripping over my choices around taking strategic political action. As a seasoned activist and healer, I had already learned that focusing my energy on resistance wasn’t as productive as proactive change making. I understood that what you resist persists. However, in the year before and months following the election, it was all too easy to get swept up in resisting the momentum of the neoliberal and neofascist political agendas. Recognizing my own pattern of engagement, in February 2017 I set out on a journey to find my will and purpose for taking political action. I found what I call my White Tiger, and here is my story.

We are designers of life. It’s in our nature as humans. In one of my earliest designs, I built a forest fort as a young child in the woods of Pennsylvania. I began working as a professional designer about 15 years ago, and am now one of the design instructors at Gaia University. With a lifetime of experience in the field, I took this inquiry about strategic political engagement as a design challenge. I began tracking the weariness and confusion around my ability to step into direct action. I used Emergent Design as a lens and container to follow the observation of these emotions and managed to apply the process and principles outlined in this article to find my peaceful center and a clear focus on taking political action.

The White Tiger is what I refer to as my designer archetype. She represents that part of myself choosing to collaborate with the Universe to generate a strategic intervention. Before I intimately introduce you to the White Tiger, I’d like to first define Emergent Design and overview motivation, systems thinking, emergent behavior, chaos theory and patterns in nature.

Emergent Design

An acceleration of planetary chaos has many people equally waking up to a sense of accountability and a desire to live more intentionally and purposefully. I wish to harness this later momentum and support the development and refinement of pathways for people to engage in life with increased authenticity (being true to and connected with one’s nature) and agency (stepping purposefully into one’s power and sense of purpose).

The process of Emergent Design achieves this by emphasizing conscious engagement, as well as the exploration and refinement of self. Consciousness activates keen observation (witnessing) of our experience and engagement illuminates the focus of our participation. Design choices are explicit interactions with the world around us. The interactions are how we apply our agency. At the core of a design is an intervention or leverage point within a specific system, with the intent of manifesting a particular outcome, by using and monitoring an appropriate process adapted to the unique context of the situation. In applying an intervention, we seek the smallest effort for the greatest yield.

Author Zainab Zaki shares, “In a world of 7 billion interconnected and interlinked people, the slightest change — positive or negative — can snowball and create massive impact. Often, in order to solve big problems, it is not required to create big, complex solutions. Finding ways to make incremental change, the smallest nudge for the biggest impact, is the right way to go.” I hope that by the end of this article, we will all have a better sense of how and when to make incremental changes towards altering our current political compass.

Pro Tip: Throughout this article I’ll be tracking these three sets of qualities 1. authenticity/witnessing/consciousness/flow, 2. agency/experience/engagement/form and 3. design/will/interventions/leverage points, with various analogies including the metaphor of the White Tiger. See if you can observe these patterns as they develop. I’ve added a chart towards the end of the article that weaves all the layers together.

The word ‘emergent’ means that we are tapping into the present to witness the unexpected arise into being. As witnesses, we accept and receive the authentic nature of the moment. The concepts of emergence and emergency share in common the act of attention, as both require responsiveness at the instant something appears. Sometimes what emerges is an emergency, though true crises are rare. However, because we are often in a state of stress, with fear, anger, and attachment as common frequencies, we have an increased tendency to react to events (instead of respond), activating our adrenals to fight, take flight or freeze, even in non-emergency situations.

This strain exists and is perpetuated by the fragmentation and disconnect present in society, along with social conditioning that causes a pursuit of unhealthy or misaligned lifestyle choices. As an example, advertising pitches a new car to consumers, with a happy family exploring nature in the background, as if the car was going to bring this connection and happiness. Often someone will purchase a new vehicle seeking fulfillment of these needs, and end up with debt and dissatisfaction, causing more stress and adrenal activation. Our society also neglects to adequately teach us holistic skills for accessing our authenticity and agency. Instead, we are taught to identify and objectify. This fixation on the material world causes us to get stuck and attached to a cycle of over-consumption and reactionary engagement. This cycle wears out the nervous system.

In my article Cultivating the Designer’s Mind, I share, “Mass media manipulates us in our compromised and vulnerable state even further through layers of fear. Naomi Klein in her book The Shock Doctrine — the rise of disaster capitalism, shines a light on controlled distraction.” She explains that those in political and economic power deliberately manipulate our society into states of chaos through prescribed ‘shocks’ to pass unpopular legislation or distract citizens from corrupt doings. They aim to oppress our power through stress and an attachment to false needs. To dismantle this vicious cycle of oppression, we must become actively and consciously engaged. We must also step beyond fear and shock by reducing stress and reclaiming our authenticity and agency.

The opposites of stress and attachment, in this case, would be comfort and liberation. To alleviate this tension within our minds and bodies, we can cultivate more surrendering to the present moment and be more attentive to accessing our peaceful center, even in the midst of chaos. As the political situation continues to escalate, we can benefit from this type of preparation.

We must balance rest with activity. From exploring this ever-fluctuating state, we can learn to respond to external chaos without causing internal stress. Finding this equilibrium is critical. Because complexity is the nature of evolution, the world will continue to experience an increase of options for organization and disorganization proportionately. Complexity is beneficial as it causes openings for growth. We can focus our attention on placing momentum behind manifesting desired change or healing, instead of reacting to what is (or feels like) chaotic states of emergency.

Presence and responsiveness are essential in the context of our current work as designers because we can use design principles and practices to create order even in the midst of chaos, and ultimately reshape the direction of our evolution. Join me as I share how we can become self-empowered, conscious co-evolutionaries and co-creators through Emergent Design. Barbara Marx Hubbard defines this potential as collaborating with creation. She says, “The emerging co-creator archetype is at the root of this next evolution of humanity. As we embrace it, much of the stress, isolation, and fear of the last era dissipates, and we can grow into our full self-expression.”

The rest of this article is on my discoveries of stepping into my power as an Emergent Designer. I believe that we can — as individuals and as a collective force — alter this evolutionary momentum. Specifically, in the case of this inquiry into taking political action, we can do so by reshaping the direction of our evolution as creative problem solvers and change makers responding to the chaos arising from the turbulence of neoliberal capitalism, neofascism and global issues such as climate change.

I began this inquiry by asking why. I wanted to know what was driving me. Seeking to understand my motivation helps me create clarity and momentum.

Understanding Motivation

Within my article Cultivating a Designer’s Mind I look at motivation and decision-making. During that inquiry and still present today, I’ve been paying a lot of attention to my emotions, thoughts, and actions. I notice times when I feel peaceful and other instances when tension arises. Again, the key to Emergent Design is conscious engagement. Unconscious decision-making doesn’t equal active design. We are often unaware of the complex mental functions happening, beyond our biological processes. I’m referring to those times when we make decisions that are out of alignment with our authentic self. It’s important to look at how and why we make decisions and the driving force of motivation shaping our behavior.

There are internal and external motivating factors. Internal motivation is influenced by our genes, health, sensory preferences, history of experiences, knowledge, and our sense of purpose in the world. External motivation includes incentive-driven factors (such as buying a house with a white picket fence), generated and manipulated by our families, communities, politics, and culture. Combined, these shape our beliefs.

These attitudes are a collection of feelings and values based on a lifetime of experiences and education, which includes enculturated worldviews passed implicitly and explicitly as societal values, often by those in political and economic power. Most conditioned responses do not serve our authentic self-interests, the interests of our communities or, indeed, those of the planet. Governmental policies often serve the upper class rather than meeting the basic needs of its citizens. As a society our motivations are convoluted. In some cases we have so bought into the message of the ruling class that we easily fall prey to manipulation and end up protecting the interests of others instead of our own. Many of our habitual behaviors and attitudes derive from illusion, judgment, attachment, aversion, addiction, habit, re-stimulation, assumptions, and unwarranted expectations. Assessing these patterns and societal worldviews help determine what and who is in the driver’s seat of design choices.

The more we derive our decision-making from conscious personal motivation, the more we can develop an awareness of and a drive for self-actualization. Through this self-fulfillment, we can maximize our potential as human beings, and even reshape our political landscape. To do this, however, we must identify and unlearn counterproductive attitudes that have developed through negative conditioning. Engaging consciously through goal-setting, and through applying transformational thinking and action, creates a broader awareness and confidence in one’s abilities while dissolving barriers and unhealthy patterns.

How do we make this transformation happen? What is a healthy pattern? I think it’s important to look at how systems function through emergent behavior and identify existing patterns in nature. We can utilize these guides for transformation.

Systems Thinking and Emergent Behavior

The elements of a system can generate properties, wherein an emergent behavior, pattern or structure is the result of the active relationships between the individual components.

Author Zainab Zaki says in her article on Thinking How To Build Products in the New Age, “There are two key concepts that define systems thinking. One is emergence and the other is leverage points. Emergence refers to the patterns and behavior that arise from the interactions of the components of a system. A system is bigger than just a collection of its parts and this is because the interconnectedness of its parts creates synergies and feedback loops which change the behavior of the system… Leverage points (interventions) refers to the smallest action or change that can be made in order to make an impact on the overall system.”

A system is a set of parts that are interconnected to form a whole. Atoms, cells, organs, and organ systems interconnect to form living organisms. Therefore, a human is a whole functional system. Barry Richmond, who coined the term Systems Thinking in 1987, defines the field as, “the art and science of making reliable inferences about behavior by developing an increasingly deep understanding of underlying structure.” Behavior arising in a system is an emergent property of its structure, not its parts.

Steven Johnson, author of Patterns — The Art, Soul, and Science of Beholding Nature says, “connectivity between individual parts is essential for emergence to exist. The connection creates a spontaneous increase in order.” Emergent behavior of a system does not depend on its parts but their relationships to one another. We cannot predict emergent behavior by an examination of a system’s parts.” For instance, symptoms and traits occurring in the human body, in an ecosystem or within society are emergent behaviors that trace back to the structure, cohesion and particular interactions between relationships. They cannot be found within individual components. Our current society and Governmental policies operate within compartmentalization, silos (departments functioning without integration) and fragmentation.

A great example is a Naturopathic versus an Allopathic approach (promoted in the USA by the American Medical Association and big pharmacy) to healing symptoms. I like to use the body metaphor because it’s something we all likely relate to and can easily influence. Natural medicine takes a holistic approach to curing the human body of disease by focusing on healing the root conditions and integrating the health of all the organ and energetic systems to function harmoniously, rather than the more modern Allopathic approach which often isolates symptoms and treats them individually. An Allopathic Doctor may overlook the impact that emotions, thoughts or even diet have on the body. They also depend heavily on pharmaceuticals and invasive treatments like radiation therapy or surgeries. All techniques that dis-empower the individual and create codependency on a corrupt system of power. Naturopathic Doctors are trained to seek out connections between complex parts, to align with and activate the bodies natural abilities to heal. Most of the treatments aim to empower the individual through lifestyle changes. We can design healing interventions that are holistic, and that simultaneously return our power.

Daniel Schmachtenberger, in his video called Emergence, links connectivity with evolution. He says, “Synergy is a result of relationships. Emergence is a result of synergy. Relationships are driven by attraction. Attractive forces guide us metaphysically and physically… Attraction drives the entire Universal story and the arrow of evolution.”

Linking back to healing, ongoing anger, for instance, is going to cause digestive issues. Anger attracts and accumulates heat and inflammation in the body. A Naturopath would seek to alleviate the heat and shift the underlying behaviors causing the anger to restore synergy.

Synergy, like complexity, creates opportunity. Schmachtenberger continues, “Evolution in complexity theory is more elegantly ordered complexity. Bringing things together doesn’t create emergence. It’s bringing them together in a way that is particularly elegant is the key.”

Johnson gives the example of how beehives, bird flocks, and coral reefs are elegantly ordered complex systems, referred to as super-organisms, that behave in ways that are not predictable from the behavior of their members. These systems operate as if they have organized themselves as an emergent behavior caused by the actions of all “individuals within the system acting upon a fixed set of rules.” These rules are a set of algorithms, he says, “An algorithm is a list of the exact steps necessary to carry out a desired computation, a list that comes with a guarantee that the computation will stop with the correct answer… This compacting of information is a fundamental aspect of life, for indeed DNA itself is a template of rules.”

When the algorithm is functioning synergistically, it allows the hive, for instance, to respond to necessary changes. The response is emergent behavior. This understanding is a template for change. How is this hive mind relevant to our current situation? Do you agree that during and after the 2016 elections many people woke up to a new sense of purpose? Would you say that something is emerging on a very large scale, despite the sense of chaos? Opportunity exists.

Schmachtenberger says that the bee is serving a huge role in evolution in pollinating the plants, but they don’t know they are participating. They can’t consciously make it better. But we can, in a meaningful way. We have adequate order and complexity to contemplate our engagement and consciously choose how to participate using the templates provided. We can help steer the direction of evolution in cosmos. Again, we can reshape our political compass. He says, “In our ability to think about the whole and the direction of the whole we become an agent for the whole to serve life.” He also shares how we are all responsible for showing up authentically. How are you choosing to show up? What are you designing?

In an article on Emergent Behavior, emergence is considered an essential ingredient to solving the systemic problems in our world. The author shares, “Unfortunately, most designers past and present, in the form of (healers), activists, leaders, and organizers, are mostly studying individual parts of the problem that is not that crucial to resolving the root causes.” Connecting again to the healing analogy above, we can understand the complexity and respond to the emergent problems to create change, especially when we align authentically with our innate healing capacities. Cultivating this understanding, and practicing exploring and witnessing the world as a complex system of synergistic relationships, enables responsive feedback loops to drive the system’s behavior, and transform the root dysfunctions and solve systemic problems.

© Pixabay

Complexity Theory and Chaordic Thinking

From my studies of eastern and western philosophy, there seems to be considerable agreement among physicists, philosophers and theologians that we exist within form and emptiness. Eckhart Tolle calls these object and space consciousness. Ken Wilber shares that emptiness is not evolving, however, the world of form is evolving and moving towards complexity. As this complexity increases, the options for order and chaos expand, which is significant because it explains where emergent patterns and relationships within a system arise: on the edge of diversity. The more complexity and diversity, the more options for emergence. This increase in possibilities is why in the last section I suggested we have a real opportunity for change to occur, despite the seemingly dominant chaos. If you look around closer, order is equally gaining momentum.

Chaordic refers to adapting creatively to this dynamic. How can we be a part of this evolution? Our agency and authenticity add momentum to creating elegantly ordered complexity and synergistic diversity. The momentum refines structures and pathways in consciousness to attract more of this dynamic. Wilber often speaks about psychoactive maps that help us understand the territory of our consciousness.

The first step is to learn that the territory exists. We need an accurate map. There are two types of knowledge: description and acquaintance. Some may refer to this as theoretical versus experiential. The map is the description. Then, through practice and exploration, you gain a direct, immediate experience and become acquainted with the knowledge. The map directs our evolution as it contains the deeper dimensions that we can grow into if we continue to develop. Wilber says, “It is our obligation to pass on structures of those who are practicing. It’s our dharma, which means duty.” He means that once we understand how to use the map/structures/templates (patterns and pathways of consciousness), we must share and teach others.

I believe, as does Living Systems Theory, that once we learn how to navigate a pathway towards healing, then the entire system has access to that pathway. It becomes a part of the genetic template. Therefore, doing the inner work of learning how to heal and respond to chaos is beneficial to everyone in the system. Directly responding to this concept, I would like to share some tools on how to organize your response to chaos.

The MHA Institute generated a guide called Definition: Complexity, Chaos, Systems, Surprises, Emergent Properties, where they define chaos as the changes over which we have limited or no control, as they appear unpredictable. This theory identifies underlying patterns.

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The Institute defines complexity as the edge of chaos. They suggest, “If you draw a line down the middle of a blank page, you can write the word order on one half of the page and the word chaos on the other. The line then represents the edge, or what is defined as complexity. It is on this edge that life on this planet exists, because everything that is alive is defined as a complex adaptive system.”

Emergence has unexpected and unpredictable properties. In design, you can’t know what an intervention will produce until you intervene. We benefit from remaining alert and responsive to the changing conditions of our design endeavors.

In an article called Chaordic Systems Thinking, Frans M. van Eijnatten shares how chaos is applicable as a lens and metaphor for change. He explains design thinking in layers, beginning with purpose and ending with practice. Each of the levels can be thought of as a unique lens to examine the circumstances giving rise to a new organization or to preconceive an existing one.

There’s another tool called the Cynefin framework which helps a designer make decisions taking into account this complexity as we consider interventions. I was introduced to this framework in Gaia University within the module Projects and Design Thinking by Andrew Langford. The module included the following overview, for which I will provide examples related to health and healing of the human body.

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Cynefin Model ~ By Snowden [CC BY 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

The Cynefin framework has five domains related to cause and effect:

Simple, in which the relationship is an obvious and known. Example — Swelling occurs in the location that a wasp stung. The cause of the condition is easily identifiable. Another example would be that the Republican GOP is currently controlling the White House and Congress. A simple solution to shift policy would be to vote in 2018 for a different party.

Complicated, in which the relationship requires analysis until it is known. Example — An allergic reaction arises immediately after eating a meal. The cause of the reaction is linked to the meal, however experiments need to be trialed to determine if it was a particular ingredient in the soup or the entree. If an allergy arises after isolating specific ingredients, the cause is determined. However, it’s increasingly complicated as the overall health of the body in that moment of digestion may have been jeopardized. Meaning the reaction might not be repeatable as the body’s histamine response isn’t fixed. Another example would be by understanding the steps necessary to change a specific Governmental policy in your community. You would have to research how policy is made, the history of the particular system, and then take specific actions towards changing the policy, such as attending a town meeting. All of this information is complicated yet available online with some investigative effort.

Complex, in which the relationship can only be perceived in retrospect. It is not known in the present. Example — Chronic digestive issues have become exasperated. The cause of the condition is not immediately evident. At this level people often need to triangulate with specialists in the field to gain insight into the possible origins of their symptoms. After seeking council, the person may understand that there are specific dietary and lifestyle adjustments necessary to alleviate the condition. A political example is the fall of the Democratic Party in the USA. Some might say that the cause and effect are simple, not complex, however as a whole, the majority of post-election analysis inside the party has yet to decipher clear reasoning even with retrospect.

Chaotic, in which there is no known relationship between cause and effect at a systems level. Example — Similar to complex, this likely requires triangulation with specialists as there is much evident turmoil and an acute state of dis-ease. In this case, however, there’s more of a trial and error period. There are numerous stacked causes to the condition. The healer will likely focus more on getting the body back into a generalized state of alignment, than deal with isolated symptoms unless they are life-threatening. Once the body gets closer to a state of homeostasis, or some of the most exasperated conditions ease up, then the more underlying issues often arise. Politically, many of us here in the USA are feeling the chaos unleashed by rapidly changing policy. Though the general cause of the change is knowable, the dysfunction is so stacked (so many variables) that the specific reason for any situation is unknowable. My suggestion is that we each go within and find our homeostasis and then branch out aligning our families, communities, and networks.

Disorder, which is the state of the unknowable. Sometimes there are psychological or physiological conditions that the causes or the miraculous moments of healing are unknowable.

Depending on the level of complexity, designers can take different approaches to respond. Simple often has a specific remedy that can be singular or linear in its application. Complicated is similar though iterative. Complexity will have more generalized sets of healing regiments that require intuition, agility, and further iterations. Chaotic will need a more emergent process. The above levels help to contextualize the perspective of the circumstances shaping cause and effect.

Think about your own examples. Start with your body. Can you come up with four different cases (simple, complicated, complex and chaotic) of acute or chronic conditions that you’ve experienced? How about your political engagement? Does this model give you additional perspective?

As knowledge increases, one can move through the layers, and choose appropriate interventions. Systems thinking, emergent behavior, complexity theory and chaordic thinking all enhance our ability to understand relationships and points of leverage. I am intentionally highlighting how presence awareness, responsiveness, and pattern recognition are essential threads in the fabric of design. I’d like to unpack patterns further, as it relates to presence.

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Romanescu Vegetable © Pixabay

Natural Patterns for Presence Awareness

As a Yoga instructor and student of meditation, I have found the breath to be a consistent and helpful anchor for conscious engagement and presence awareness. The breath is a means of rooting in the present moment. It is the lungs of Emergent Design, as a supportive and holistic pattern that exists at the foundation of life. The breath pattern is a process with three phases (divergent, emergent and convergent) in these actions (<in — transition — out — transition>).

The following chart shows these actions of the breath, linked to attributes of engagement. Each phase has different and complementary ways of thinking and working, and directly connect to the three stages of breathing: in (lungs expanding), transition or holding (emergence), out (lungs contracting). Expansion/divergence (free flowing non-linear thought) is when we open up as designers by surveying ideas and creating possibilities.

Contraction/convergence (formulated, organized and structured thought) is when we make decisions through analysis and sharpen our focus. Emergence is the balancing place in between. Inside this central phase, you will discover a choice to transition or hold incoming energy. Ultimately everything is received and released. Our ability to skillfully navigate and find synergy in the center is the apex of Emergent Design.

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Laura Kaestele and I generated the above chart, adapted from Sam Kaner’s book “The Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision Making.”

Building on this concept of expansion and contraction, there are two common patterns in how people engage in the world at the apex of decision making. One emphasizes too little and the other too much. In the 25 years working in the community, business, non-profit and higher education sectors, I have observed two common design approaches that mirror this pattern. Andrew Langford, my colleague and co-founder of Gaia University has identified the polarities of ‘predict and control’ and ‘using no system at all.’ The following graphic overviews the attributes of each polarity.

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Which polarity is dominant in our political context? What is your personal tendency?

I’m also a student of Ayurveda, which is the life and medical science in India. In Ayurveda, this concept of too much/too little has to do with the flow and utilization of energy. Ayurveda recognizes rajasic energy (excessive) and tamasic energy (deficient). Neutralized harmonious energy is called sattva. If we think of all conditions as states of energy, this Ayurvedic perspective provides an awareness of patterns to alleviate aggravated states of energy. For example, we apply cooling herbs to excessive heat.

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Emergent Design is the balance between these two design patterns. In Ayurveda, I’d refer to Emergent Design as having sattvic attributes, which bring about peaceful harmony and refines the art of balancing flow and form. This pattern reminds me of the characteristics of the Phoenix and Dragon, which are deeply rooted in Chinese culture. The pair is regarded as the most sacred of mythical animals and were once emblems for the empress and emperor.

As I considered how society seems to be shifting towards further chaos while stuck in an objectifying, egotistical state of controlling and grasping for power, I started thinking about the qualities of excessive yang (masculine), and the necessary balance of yin (feminine). Interestingly on January 21st, the day after Trump’s Presidential inauguration, close to 5 million people participated in the Women’s March to advocate legislation for human rights. 2017 was deemed ‘The Year of the Women’ by the Washington Post and other media sources within the United States of America.

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The Phoenix and Dragon are considered yin and yang in Chinese Feng Shui. In my exploration, I’ve come to understand that the Dragon represents form and focus and the Phoenix represents emptiness and flow. In Yoga and Buddhism, enlightenment is considered the union (yoke) of form and emptiness. This symbolism is synonymous with expansion and contraction in the design language shared above. All of these descriptive attributes have energy in common. Ken Wilber says, “The world of form is spirit manifested in action.”

As a metaphor for engagement, the pairing of Dragon and Phoenix is a powerful sign of good fortune in life, reflected in the ancient Chinese expression, “When the dragon soars and the phoenix dances, the people will enjoy happiness for years, bringing peace and tranquility to all” (author unknown). Become the Phoenix awakening in the fire of change. Rise above the ashes of transition and the center will emerge. Be the Dragon in the infinite sky. Focus and refine your power in the present to illuminate the path of creative change.

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The Phoenix and Dragon represent the clearing and focusing of the mind at the same moment. The Phoenix is clearing. It empties and frees the mind of attachments. It is the vastness of space: We are One. In comes energy and life emerges. It is the birth of the individual: I am, the Dragon. The Dragon is the focus of setting the intention and directing awareness in the present moment and then tracking the course and illuminating attention. The Dragon is the world of form, which is evolving into ever increasing complexity. Within this complexity, the Phoenix once again emerges. Ultimately, this metaphor represents energy being received and released. What we do with that power determines our experience and evolution. We are limited by this power until we collaborate with the energies to co-create action. It’s a continual dance with the Universe.

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The Universe seeks our participation. In enters an opportunity — our will. The White Tiger. This archetype represents our choice to design. If you can visualize the Dragon and the Phoenix’s dance in the sky, and link it with the pulsation of the breath, their energy is all-encompassing. It makes up the Universe in and outside of you. It takes a powerful being to harness that energy. The White Tiger represents that part of yourself co-creating with the Universe.

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The symbolism of the White Tiger represents our pursuit of personal truth and the power of conviction. It is the balance of our authenticity and agency. Inner strength allows the tiger to stand by her values, even if they are not the popular opinion, to champion political and philosophical freedoms from a place of non-judgment. To step into the energy and attributes of the White Tiger, one needs to acknowledge and accept both the shadows and the light. I chose the White Bengal Tiger rather than her orange brother, as the White Tiger (a very masculine version of feline prowess already) signifies the more lunar, feminine part of our will that embraces the shadows and not just the solar radiance. The white and black stripes also represent the accomplishment of dancing with and harnessing the yin and yang energies.

Spirit of the White Tiger

With Power and Strength, you glide through the night,
 silent as the mist that evaporates with
 the first rays of morning light
 Eyes, glowing with a blue fire that reflects both water and sky,
 you stare deeply into the Soul, leaving nothing unknown,
 for all is revealed before your penetrating gaze
 Keenest of all is the gaze you turn Inward,
 searching the depths of your restless spirit
 in a quest to know your Self
 The Hunt for Personal Truth is called
 . . . and swiftly answered
 When the Truth is revealed, torn free from the grasp of the past,
 any fear felt is faced with stealthy observation
 and unrelenting determination,
 for fear now is the prey.
 ~ Poem by Crystal Wind

Finding the White Tiger and balancing the energies of the the Phoenix and the Dragon requires an exploration of the edges and transitions between their dance and flight. The White Tiger arises after much inward reflection. The following illustration represents my experimentation with traversing these edges. After years of observation and interaction with my state of being, I realized that my center, learning (or growth zones) and stress zones have very distinct frequencies. I can feel when I’m on the edge of one zone, about to enter the next. This awareness is helpful in keeping me balanced and intentional about how I’m engaging. I’m able to expand further to deal with new or challenging situations, and quickly contract to center when needed.

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I’ve added to the idea of Michelle and Joel Levey’s learning zone model to incorporate the energies of too much and too little. In the center, there’s a space of sanctuary, peace, and comfort. The terrain is well known, and we hone the skills needed to thrive.

Out from the center of the model exists an area of learning and growth, where expansion and contraction occur. In this space, we step outside of our comfort to gain a new skill, solve a problem, face a challenge, and critique or expand our thinking. As we engage in life, we often move from this central place of order out into difficulty, complication and, in some instances, pure chaos. Emergence occurs in the diverse and complex zone of learning and growth.

Problems can merely be areas of skill that are unfamiliar to us, or they can be complexities in society related to handling all the bureaucratic red tape related to business transactions or shifting policy. What is stressful for one person may be growth for another. Someone who doesn’t know how to cook and who is preparing dinner for twenty people will be moving out of their comfort zone. How they handle the situation will determine if the experience becomes learning or stress. The more time they spend in the learning zone, refining the process of learning, the more likely the person will incorporate the lesson and expand their center. The center is a place to integrate and embody learnings into wisdom and intuition.

Through learning, we extend our skills and ability to be comfortable amidst challenges. By living on the edge of our comfort, our learning zone can expand within complexity, and enable us to better respond proactively to emergent behavior. If we stay only inside our comfort, we can get stuck in unresponsiveness, and, if we wait too long in chaos without learning comfort, we can burn out from over-responsiveness. The goal is to stay on the edge of aliveness and in the present moment.

Because our society has an excess of yang energy (as felt through the rise of hate crimes and violence), we may be experiencing that sense of culture stuck in chaos. Being able to find our internal balance of yin and yang is so critical for the healing of this planet. As each of us finds our pathways to center, and learning expands, our entire consciousness evolves.

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The above chart combines the attributes discussed in this article, minus the concept of growth. I’m still working on that one. Here’s my best thinking: if the Phoenix were the center and the Dragon the directional force moving away from the center, it is within the learning zone that complexity and divergence creates an emergent opportunity for the Phoenix to rise again, expanding the center of awareness. The Dragon evolves. It grows up. The Phoenix rises. It wakes up.

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This pattern mirrors DNA, which has two strands running in opposite directions. Cell division is essential for an organism to grow. When DNA replication occurs in the leading strand, it undergoes base pairing and copying similar to a zipper. Like the Dragon, it’s moving in one direction, and ever evolving. The other strand replicates in a sewing machine pattern. Because it’s in the opposite direction of the lead strand, the pairing is a back and forth motion. To me, this is the energy of the Phoenix. The act of learning causes a wave of surrendering that awakens the Phoenix. How do we learn? Through conscious engagement and practice.

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The White Tiger is our willingness to practice Emergent Design. Practicing and experimenting with edge exploration both refine our ability to perform successfully in Emergent Design. The more we skill up as designers, the more we can reprogram our response patterns and be useful in co-creating the world we live within. We can reshape and redefine our designs and even reprogram our brain’s neurocircuitry through repetitive practice, helping us to choose the best and quickest responses. Rapid cognition streamlines brain function, and this can happen through practice.

Practice builds and refines our ability to access an intuitive response. Some call this being ‘in the flow’ or ‘in the zone.’ Both refer to a place where we perform an activity immersed in a feeling of energized focus and enjoyment. Intuition derives from experiences. Our gut reaction, or that part of our brain that makes automatic decisions, is part of intuition. This thought led me to consider The Art of War by Sun Tzu. Naturalistic decision-making or recognition-based decision-making are tools to help us understand how people make choices in demanding real-world situations. These tools would be used to assess how a human decides in a circumstance, limited by time, uncertainty, high stakes, constraints, and unstable conditions.

In war, we have no time for logic. We need a situational response. Our brain functions in if/then statements. Compacted information is a pattern in life, such as DNA, which is a template of codes. This model is essential when reprogramming our brain’s ability to function in chaos. Reprogramming is possible through neuroplasticity (the capacity of the mind to change) and epigenetics, (variations caused by modification of gene expression).

We need analysis to understand and respond to systemic problems, and to deconstruct our internalized oppression by reprogramming our situational response patterns. We also need intuitive presence, because ultimately that is where our brain is thriving at the moment, and responding to emergence. Understanding this increases our capacity to refine the art of balancing form and flow.

We use this dynamic to receive or release what is emerging, similarly to Aikido, a form of martial art. The word Aikido means “the way of unifying (with) life energy” or as “the way of harmonious spirit.” We move with the emergent energy towards an optimal evolution. An Emergent Designer witnesses and interacts with the unexpected, while creatively moving towards and along a pathway of self-actualization and the manifestation of intentions.

We can even engage our mind as a direct platform for practice. Jane Houston’s Alternate Temporal Process is a quantum practice where you visualize an alternate reality in your mind as a temporal experience by entering a trance state. You can study with a Master in Aikido, learn a language or practice playing your violin. Jane says, “Lift the barriers of time, and you also lift the blocks to creativity, learning, and memory. For example, my friend Gay Luce, at one-time chief science writer for the National Institutes of Mental Health, had been stuck for months on the last third of a book she was writing for the NIMH on biological rhythms in medicine and psychiatry. I taught her the ATP technique…. She did so, and then returning to ordinary reality, she… spent the next several days typing out the remainder of the book as she had read in her inner world. When the book was published, it won a number of awards for science writing.”

Athletes have benefited from visualization practices for decades. Angie LeVan in her Psychology Today article Seeing is Believing says, “Brain studies now reveal that thoughts produce the same mental instructions as actions. Mental imagery impacts many cognitive processes in the brain: motor control, attention, perception, planning, and memory.” Numerous studies prove athletes perform better when they practice and train with visualizations. The New York Times has an article on how Olympians use advanced imagery for mental training. There are dozens of similar articles from Research Institutes like Oxford, and sports journals like Shape Magazine. Research is finding that both physical and psychological reactions in certain situations can be improved with visualization.

In fact, new studies have shown that people who exercise in their mind can even generate muscle tissue. Guang Yue, an exercise psychologist from Cleveland Clinic Foundation, compared people who exercised in a gym with people who did visual workouts. LeVan quoted his work, sharing, “He found that a 30% muscle increase in the group who went to the gym. However, the group of participants who conducted mental exercises of the weight training increased muscle strength by almost half as much (13.5%).” If athletes can use these guided imagery techniques, so can we. We can activate our minds to shape our reality.

I started this article with the importance of presence awareness (authenticity) and responsiveness (agency). This section, beginning with the breath, has so far highlighted the significance of design patterns and practice (White Tiger) to harmonize and harness the energies of yin and yang (Phoenix and Dragon). Patterns are commonly occurring design parameters. Practice includes a repetition of intentional patterns and an application of principles. The next section of this article introduces Emergent Design principles for use as guidelines of practice.

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Graphic By Laura Kaestele

Twelve Emergent Design Principles

Gaia University Masters Associate Laura Kaestele and I have been experimenting with applying Emergent Design to our internal explorations of authenticity and agency since 2015. Through our collaboration, we have observed twelve principles that guide the process of balancing form and flow that can be used by a designer. The undercurrent of these principles relates to cultivating a harmonious mindspace for making decisions and design interventions. Remember that points of intervention are specific places in a system where a targeted action can efficiently interrupt the functioning-as-usual and open the way to change. The principles are patterns of engagement with holistic properties in consideration of process. It is essential to accept the concept of emergence during the use of these principles, finding value and opportunity in what arises, and feeding that back into the process, rather than attaching to the path or an outcome.

I suggest that you approach these principles in two ways. First, connect with their meaning. Get to know their patterns. Adjust the language so it makes sense to you. Use them as intentions. Practice cultivating them as skills. The more you know and practice, the more they will happen naturally. The principles will become part of your flow. Second, use the skills as a check-list or filter to gauge your design choices. You can accomplish this by turning each principle into questions. Check how your options, decisions or outcomes align with each value. Incorporate this process as part of the design and/or the evaluation. In this manner, they become part of your form and structure underlying decision making.

1. Presence and Connect

Staying present and having a realistic appraisal of the current moment creates authentic connectivity. The groundedness in and acceptance of what is, exactly and intrinsically, is the foundation for any change to happen. In that sense, the first position and ongoing practice of a designer are to be present, centered and connected before, during and after taking action. Routine reflection also keeps us linked to the present moment and focusing an eye on real emerging opportunities and constraints. By all means, appreciate the aliveness of presence whether in awe or celebration. Smile.

2. Regenerate

The term “regenerative” describes processes that restore, renew or revitalize their sources of energy and materials, creating sustainable systems that integrate the needs of society with the integrity of nature. As designers, we filter our choices by ensuring our direction is towards creating and serving life. We can regenerate the sources of energy and materials, thus creating sustainable, healthy and evolving systems that integrate the needs of society with the integrity of nature. It is a process-oriented way of living based on the understanding of our radical inter-connectedness and we humans as nature actively co-evolving on a thriving planet.

3. Insight and Ideation

Insight is the capacity to gain an intuitive understanding of something. Ideation is the ability to form ideas and thought. As emergent designers, we make the best use of both our intuitive and intellectual mental capacities depending on what is appropriate in the particular context. Actively engaging and connecting with life gives us access to our full creative potential beyond the limits of what we know.

4. Expanding Edges: Utilizing Creative Tension

Contradict the contrary thoughts from a place of calm center. Don’t get stuck in analysis or doubt while applying critical evaluation. There is no right or wrong. Creative tension allows us to focus on what we want to create, rather than reacting to stressful challenges or avoiding responsibility and taking action. This zone is the difference between emergence (attraction — pull) and emergency (pain — push) or applying generative energy versus reactive energy. Edges create diversity. An increase in diversity equals an increase in learning opportunities and possibilities for adaptation and integration. Learning includes facing and incorporating the shadows of self and society.

5. Attention and Intentions

Understanding the motivating force behind the change you want to see in the world produces a powerful sense of purpose. Those thoughts can become charged with the power of our intentional manifestation. Through visioning and attracting energy, a project has more potential to manifest. The more you put your energy in a specific direction, the more the Universe responds to that energy and opens up opportunities for desired possibilities to arise. This response is an attraction. Our thoughts and where we place our attention generates momentum which attracts similar energy. Being transparent and conscious of your purpose also helps you be more ready and agile to catch opportunities that may otherwise go unrecognized. Having a willingness to experiment is essential in releasing attachments to outcomes and overcoming fears of success or failure. Cultivate a sense of simplicity in creating experiments that are not overly complex. When it comes to the focus of the mind engage in stacking functions rather than multitasking. By stacking you can get a lot accomplished with a singular effort. Multitasking divides and fragments our attention.

6. Dynamic Adaptability

This dynamic creates agility and enables forward intentional momentum without fixation or attachment to an outcome. Use grace and a proactive attitude to welcome and greet the unexpected as it arises. In this space of open, curious flow, expectations are released, problems become solutions, and new opportunities are harvested and woven into an integrated whole. Attachment to outcomes is limiting, and even painful as things take their course and can neither be predicted nor controlled. Releasing expectations and attachment to results opens us in a humble way to the awe-inspiring magic of and being in flow with life. Dynamic adaptability describes our capacity to thrive while responding to and navigating changing situations without attachment.

7. Take Action: Practice, Cultivate Pathways and Embody Knowledge

The authentic voices of reason are intuition and wisdom. Pay attention and set an anchor to the quality of these voices and how they arise. Anchoring means intentionally establishing a reminder of pattern recognition. This identification might be any form of memory recall, such as using your senses or by naming the qualities or voices. Utilize the anchor and signs to help find your way through life. Set observing and interacting from a heartfelt center as the default brain state setting. If you lose your aim or the path, this is a useful place to rest your mind. Cultivate healthy confidence. Practice and learn. Become the embodiment of your skill. Follow your intuition and trust the unfolding of the journey, your aim, and focus. Continue to hone your craft and power as it is ever-changing.

8. Liberating Structure

Supportive frameworks and models create order and a liberating structure when applied within an emergent context. This arrangement allows evolution — which is more elegantly ordered complexity — to happen. Liberation in this regard means that the conscious use of specific tools can help create enough innovation and order to free up energy. The aim would be to create a greater sense of power for the individual while removing traditional control or social conditioning.

9. Receive and (Release Attachment)

Hold knowledge, not power. Power is current, and we are both conductor and transmitter. We can’t give or take control. Celebrate, like a dolphin riding a wave. The ego tries to harness power. The issues in society are a reflection of ego trying to identify with, objectify, capture and control energy. As with power, observe, receive and release ego and identification. Similarly, when taking action, suggest and observe, rather than manipulate and control. Also, skill up in methods to release stuck energy. This skill can reset our ability to be authentically present. To hone the ability to witness the current, practice welcoming and thanking each thought and experience as it received and released. Also study the dynamic of power and energy across fields such as physics, chemistry, biology, ecology, and eastern and western life sciences.

10. Interacting With and Accepting (Feedback and Reflection)

By observing patterns, we can use them in our design work, to engage with the natural flow of life energy, not against it. Observation enables us to understand complex systems to make a small informed intervention. Carefully observe and incorporate feedback by tweaking interactions. Together, careful observation and thoughtful interaction inspire design. Rapid Prototyping is a simple process to integrate feedback from our environment, actions, and people as exact instructions for what to change to get the intended results. Rapid prototyping with built-in feedback loops is critical to active learning. Small iterative and integrative processes allow for agility and responsiveness through continually developing and refining a design based on feedback, reflection and evaluation.

11. Transforming Obstacles: Relearning

Free the stories and worldviews that prevent the realization or acceptance of a process, pathway or destination. Reprogram the voice of ego that hides peace behind illusions. Refine your mind and states of consciousness with a flexible, dynamic collection of assumptions, viewpoints, and mental attitudes. Refining our minds’ ability to flex is inherent to our learning capacity and a process of actively engaging with and changing thinking rather than being trapped by dysfunctional worldviews and thought patterns. Skilling up on dynamic adaptability, agility and other emergent design practices creates awareness, sustains liberating structures, encourages transitions and embraces life’s uncertainties. It’s essential that we exercise the mind and hone our ability to learn. However, we all need rest and restoration for the full integration and embodiment of knowledge to anchor. Practice techniques for being still, recuperation, deep restfulness, and tools that reset your focus on the center.

12. Holistic Thinking: Observing Frequency and Patterns

Holistic thinking characterizes the understanding of the parts of something as intimately interconnected and explicable only by reference to the whole. Whole systems thinking focuses on linkages and interactions between these elements, their frequencies and patterns of interaction. Life is like a song; it has crescendos, flows, and stops. Our bodies and minds are fine instruments. There are different frequencies for different types of experiences, and we can train ourselves to recognize those transitions between frequencies. There’s a moment when everything is ripe. Sometimes we pick things too soon or too late. Recognize patterns in what is driving our motivation. An example is to notice the voices of “I’m great, and I’m not good enough.” Practice focusing the mind, surrendering the mind, and facing some of the shadows of our motivation. Fine-tune yourself with patience.

Emergent Design as a Tool for World Change

This article has provided you with patterns, practices, and principles of Emergent Design. The first section began with a political context and then continued by emphasizing a personal application of this process through emphasizing presence awareness and responsiveness. I want to bring the article full-circle by connecting back to political worldviews.

Ken Wilber’s Integral Theory identifies four predominant systems that are functioning in the world. Three of these systems operate with opposing worldviews. Wilber calls these three the Culture Wars, and the other more world-centric level (Integral) aims to accept and integrate the functionality of each of the other methods. Wilber says, “global issues are not going to be resolved” if we as designers aren’t capable of designing and “thinking at a world-centric level.” The four systems are Traditional (Mythic/Authoritarian), Modern (Rational/Analytical), Postmodern (Relative/Pluralistic) and Integral (World-Centric). Each of the first three systems opposes the other two. In the USA, we can see this opposition evidenced in the conflict among the Republican, Democrat, and Progressive political parties.

In my article Principles of Presence: Applying Permaculture Design and Integral Theory to Personal Development, I provide the example of the 2016 US Presidential Primaries. I share, “It was quite evident to me that Donald Trump represented the Authoritarian Nationalist (Traditional) operating system, while his Republican opponent Ted Cruz embodied the Authoritarian Religious/Mythic (Traditional) operating system. Hillary Clinton openly spoke to the Rational/Analytical. Her Progressive Democratic opponent Bernie Sanders inspired the Relative/Pluralistic.”

In that same article, I also share, “Authoritarian traditional and rational types can get stuck in trying to predict and control the exterior sphere. An example of this is the hyper-control of systems with excessive policy (traditional authoritarian) or manipulating facts and worldviews through science (rational). Both get stuck in fixed realities. Mythic and relative can get lost in the interior. They rely heavily on their perception, often to the detriment of a design or lack thereof. An example of this is making decisions based on a belief that God has intervened (traditional mythic) or in avoidance of design for the sake of rebelling against mechanistic analysis or hierarchies (relative).”

I would strongly suggest that you read the above article for more detailed examples of how these operating systems (levels) shape our self-identity and culture. For now, I reference them here in regards to Emergent Design. The fourth Integral approach and worldview is the operating system Emergent Designers will want to download, as it takes a whole-system and post-disciplinary approach to viewing and responding to the chaos-rich culture wars. Integral Theory views all of the previous levels as necessary components to human development. It works with them instead of against them.

I’ll link us back to the concept of synergy and the edge of complexity. Surfs up! Catching these waves and edges of diverse operating systems is an excellent place to witness and harness emergence. I find that Wilber’s theory synergizes the responsive growth and evolution of Dragon energy, with the presence awareness of the Phoenix. It also integrates the exterior and interior approaches of how we process and gain knowledge as humans.

As a tool for world change, we can apply Emergent Design principles and practices, to discern which operating system is actively driving our behaviors and decisions or choose how to intervene mindfully. We can activate our White Tigers to harmonize the Phoenix and Dragon energies to both grow up and wake up. By engaging on the interior and exterior, and balancing flow and form, we ultimately shape culture and steer the direction of our evolution.


This article is a result of my inquiries into my authenticity and agency as an Emergent Designer, in response to my desire to consciously engage in taking political action. I set out to explore my power and purpose. Through that process, I discovered the dance of the Dragon and Phoenix, and my will, the White Tiger. I am more in tune with my philosophical and political values. I also know they are not definitive. I will meet each moment with purpose, conviction, and non-judgment as tools in my satchel. Aside from what I’ve shared as patterns, practices, and principles, I’ll also share some quick highlights that summarize some key talking points from the article in the form of steps for engagement.

Responding to Chaos: My Approach

  • Observe — Get present. Breathe. What do I see and feel? What patterns do I notice? How is the energy flowing or stuck? Be the witness. Receive and release, rather than resist.
  • Assess — I’ve learned to use an integral (holistic/post-disciplinary) approach to gaining perspective to deciphering the situation. What is driving my interpretation and motivation for wanting to engage?
  • Intervene — Through my assessment, I’ve likely determined how and where to attempt to make changes.
  • Heal—I go within to find the pathways for healing the worldview, judgments, conditions or patterns that aren’t in alignment.
  • Practice — I use repetition to interact with the new learning. I also practice interacting with the principles, and in accessing the White Tiger.
  • Share — I offer the template for healing to others through my words and actions.
  • Engage — I choose to take appropriate action that aligns with my authenticity and agency in each moment. Place energy proactively into what I wish to attract. Give it momentum. Co-create with the Universe!

By moving through this sequence, I’m also better able to respond to challenging situations as they arise in the immediacy. Each moment requires a unique response. Receive and release. Stay calm. Respond with elegant simplicity.

I appreciate Schmachtenberger’s concept of elegantly ordered evolution. We have the opportunity to reshape the direction of our growth in response to the chaos arising in the world. Chaos is a metaphor for change. Because chaos relates to changes over which we have limited, or no control, applying Emergent Design confronts that confusion with wisdom and intuition. It refines and actively engages our authentic self, and gives us agency and direction to take action.

Author Zainab Zaki shares, “In a world where our social, political, professional and financial lives are inextricably linked, we cannot design solutions without understanding the emergent patterns and impacts that our solutions will create.”

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Consciously engage. Find your White Tiger and balance the energies of the Phoenix and the Dragon. The process of Emergent Design creates awareness and agility, enabling people to gain more skill in embracing life’s uncertainties and in recognizing emergent patterns. We can release expectations and indeed be proactive in harnessing the opportunities of the present moment. If we accept change, upgrade our outdated operating systems, and move towards an approach that values and serves life, then we are tapping into powerful possibilities. I highly recommend watching Schmachtenberger’s video after reading this article. His work aligns with my thinking on Emergent Design and emphasizes how humans have the capability of impacting the planet in a meaningful way.

Life. We can consciously choose how to participate. We can create and steer the direction of our collective experience by applying appropriate interventions within a system, guided by our center. We have the opportunity to engage with a participatory and regenerative worldview that serves life. It is our responsibility to consciously choose to participate on this path as active change agents.

Previous published in issue #105 of Permaculture Design Magazine and in the Gaia University Newsletter.

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