May 19, 2020

Micro-worlds and Micro-identities: A Strategy for Lockdown and Life?

Francisco Varela (1946 - 2001) was Chilean theoretical biologist who, together with his mentor, Humberto Maturana, is best known for introducing the concept of autopoiesis to biology, and for co-founding the Mind and Life Institute to promote dialogue between science and Buddhism.

Both Maturana and Varela became very important to me when, way back in the late 1980's, I was researching my own practice as a mathematics education searching for an appropriate teaching methodology for transformation. I was working from a grounded theory perspective so it was really important that I found a theoretical framework of cognition which could embrace both what I was trying to do and what I was observing in my classrooms. I finally found my pot of gold in Maturana and Varela's Santiago Theory of Cognition and the concept of enactivism.

The Santiago Theory of Cognition identifies the process of knowing as the activity that allowed the self-generation of living systems – cognition is the process of life. In the case of humans, this includes language and conceptual thought. The physicist Fritjof Capra believes that the Santiago theory of cognition is the first scientific theory that really overcomes the Cartesian division of mind and matter and unifies mind, matter, and life.

In 1992 Varela gave a set of three lectures to an audience at the University of Bologna on the topic of ethical thought. These lectures were later published by Stanford University Press with the title: Ethical Know-How: Action, Wisdom and Cognition. The lectures cover a wonderful range of theory from contemporary scientific thought to philosophical reflection that includes non-Western traditions.

In the first lecture, Varela introduces the topic of micro-worlds and micro-identities.

His starting point is that we each inhabit a whole range of micro-worlds in our lives (as parent, child, employee, direct report, spouse, friend, lover, …), and for each of these we have a specific distinct and well-developed micro-identity that we bring to each of these micro-worlds. These micro-identities are not so much masks that we put on to hide our true selves but rather behaviours, skills or characteristics that we successfully foreground in spaces as we navigate this micro-world's specificities.

Before introducing this topic of micro-worlds and micro-identities in my Personal Leadership programmes, I use David Whyte's concept of Three Marriages and ask each participant to allocate the percentage that they on average give to each of the three marriages - to Self, to Other(s) and to Work.

The most common response by far finds participants acknowledging that they spend at least 80% of their time on their marriage to Work. (The most neglected marriage is the marriage to Self which scores between 0% and 10%. This is particularly alarming when Whyte claims that it is impossible it is impossible to have a good marriage to either Work or Other if one does not have a good marriage to Self!! I may follow this thread some time in another blog)

Discussing the implications of this over-commitment to the marriage to Work, I include a question about the ways in which this marriage to Work impacts on the lives of and interactions with their family when the come home at the end of the day. The most common responses include greeting the family while on the cell as they arrive home; immediate disappearance or collapsing in front of the TV on the grounds that they have had a hard day; continual cell phone use even at the dinner table and in the bedroom; an abruptness with the children with a heavily transactional mode of engagement (have you done your homework, tidied your room, time for bed, etc.); and a downloading of the worst experiences of the day with their spouse when at last they have some 'quiet time' together.

These responses are often given both with a degree of guilt but also a shrug of the shoulders that suggests that such behaviour is what is expected of them - so what can they do? However, they do look sheepish when I comment that their partners and children must SO look forward to them coming home each evening with their daily dose of misery and the intrusion into the home of their work. They also nod in agreement when I jokingly say that it must be such a pity for them that the people at home do not respond to instructions as quickly and as easily as their subordinates do at work!

It's important to pause and say that these are just ordinary men and women at all levels in the corporate world who are doing their best to survive (in many cases) or get ahead. The reader will no doubt have recognised some of their own behaviour in the above description and can easily add a few more similar examples!

I find Varela's concepts extremely helpful in both naming the behaviour and in finding ways to change these practices.

In essence the source of the disjuncture lies in the fact that the returning worker has entered the new micro-world of the home without letting go of their work micro-identity.

This is clearly a problem and inappropriate so I invite participants in my course to start working consciously working with the shift between micro-worlds.

The first challenge I give them is to start practicing with a challenge that should be simple. When we next go on tea- or lunch-break they will be shifting micro-worlds from classroom learning to social interaction. The task I set them is to be aware of their return to the classroom and the need to change to an appropriate micro-identity.

The specifics of the exercise are that I ask them to treat the doorway that separates the classroom from the outside tea space as the portal them that takes one from one micro-world to another.

I challenge them to see if they can stop at the doorway and become aware that they are about to cross the threshold. Once they stop they should take a deep breath and ground themselves and then say aloud 'I'm in!' as an indication of their readiness to change micro-worlds, leave the concerns of work and break conversation behind, and commit themselves to the learning that lies ahead.

This is far more difficult than it sounds and I, for one, really struggle to catch the moment of crossing the threshold.

There are some rules that are aimed at supporting this change of microworlds such as the chairs being in a circle, silence and no technology allowed in the circle,  gentle music playing, and an expectation that everyone is seated two minutes before the designated starting time of the session so that they have this time to close their eyes and do a mindfulness practice that brings their mind, body and heart into the learning space.

The process within the room is much easier to manage as all it needs is some self-regulation in the context of a shared objective. It is an amazing experience when we get this right and everyone is grounded and present as the timer goes for the start of the lesson. The increased quality of attention and contribution is amazing.

Participants are then asked to extend this practice in an appropriate form to the transition between work and home micro-worlds as a homework assignment between teaching modules. Each participant is encouraged to find their own appropriate ritual but I offer the following as a suggested exemplar for those who travel to work by car.

"Keep a stone in your car’s cubby hole. When you get into your car to go to work, take the stone out of the cubbyhole and put it in your pocket. Use the drive to work to think about the day that lies ahead of you and prioritise activities. Try not to be put off track by the unexpected crises of the day. When it reaches time for you to go home, try to make all necessary calls before you leave for home. On the journey home, your thoughts will almost inevitably stay at work and you will remember other calls you should have made. When you get near to home, consciously choose to park a block away (preferably where there is some greenery) and make those last calls. When you are finished with them, turn your phone off. Then take the stone out of your pocket and put it back in your car’s cubby hole. Ground yourself and think of all the reasons you have to be grateful for your home and the people there. When you are ready, drive home and enter the house with gratefulness ready to engage with an open heart with your loved ones as you navigate all the complexity that this entails'.

Sometimes I offer this activity as homework at the end of the first day of a two day module. The report back responses next day are very touching and also, at times, quite funny.

The majority report how much they enjoyed being home for a change and how they were able to see and enjoy their spouse in a new way. They found time to play with their children and this was a new and pleasurable experience. The lighter notes included spouses looking suspiciously at them and asking them what they had done, why they were acting as if they were guilty of something, or just 'what do you want?' Once this obstacle had been overcome all went well. One of the funniest comments came from a man who was started at how quiet it was in the house this evening and how smoothly everything went. 'Even the dogs were much quieter than usual ', he said. 'I can't believe that I have been such a disturbing influence in the past!'.

This attention to changing micro-worlds can dramatically change all aspects of our lives and drastically reduce tension.

For example. My phone rings while I am talking to partner. This is an invitation from another micro-world. I have a choice whether to accept this invitation or not. If I choose to accept the invitation, I take responsibility for taking a moment  to let go of my conversation with my partner and change micro-identities appropriately so I am ready to answer the call. I do not have to answer it as it starts to ring. The chances that I will regret my responses during the call decrease proportionally to the length of time I take to answer the call.

My partner and I have added some variations to this scenario through co-operative engagement and creativity. We do not live together so enjoy a regular early morning Skype call. The trouble is that I am a (very) early riser while Louise prefers to take her time (but would still be regarded as an early riser by normal standards!). I wake ready to run while Louise believes she is only fit for conversation after her first cup of tea of the day. You can see the problem that might occur when Louise wakes and goes through her tea routine and then lovingly starts the Skype video call. It's my beloved calling so I answer, and because I have already been up and thinking and maybe working for two hours there is a total mismatch in our micro-worlds and micro-identities which does not lend itself at all to loving, safe conversation.

So we talked about the situation and together came up with a new ritual that works well for us. It involves Louise taking her time as part of her tea ritual to check in with herself and find what she needs to let go of before making the call. She then types 'Talk?'

I may be busy or (hopefully, when it is legal again) even out on my kayak. When I see 'Talk?', I take a moment or two to check in with myself, let go of my current micro-world and it's focus, and prepare myself to enter the new micro-world of loving relationship. It's a very different, slow and grounded  and open-hearted micro-identity and can sometimes take a few moments. When I am ready I start the call and every time we have the most amazing conversation.

It may sound like excessive control is being exercised but the rewards of the huge amount of freedom (and absence of tension and friction) that arises from this boundaried beginning are well worth it.

My final offering came from a Follow Up session I ran last week with a group of senior corporate leaders who had completed a 6 day 3 module Personal leadership programme with me the previous year. This Follow Up Day takes place six months after the completion of the programme. It is held with the explicit purpose of giving participants the opportunity to report back to their peers their successes in fulfilling the intentions that they had shared with us (and had televised on day 6 of the programme).

This Follow Up Day had to be held virtually on Zoom as we were well into the tended total lockdown in South Africa.

One participant had a lovely anecdote as t how he had made use of the micro-world learnings on lockdown.

Each morning I get up and have breakfast with the family. Then I get ready to go to work and before leaving I say goodbye to the children and then I kiss my wife goodbye. I then leave and go into the spare room, which has become my office, and I close the door. I reverse the process when I leave my 'office' for the day. I close the office door when I leave the spare room and go 'home' and greet my children and my wife. All work artefacts (cell phone, computer, diary, notes, etc.) remain housed in my office behind the shut door and are generally only available when I go off to work the next day. 

His comment on this process was that he has never spent so much fun and loving time with his wife and his children before. He also spends far more time than before on his marriage to Self!

Thank you, Francisco Varela.