Power With and the Magic of Emergence

Photo by Giulia May

In philosophy, science, and art, as well as in Mindfulness Based Programs and grass roots organizations, emergence occurs when the outcome of collaboration exhibits properties that aren’t apparent in its individual components. The seemingly magical results of inspired, collective insight and action by diverse elements intersecting in a particular way, cannot be dissected to isolate their secrets. It’s a synthesis that results in something novel, often surprising, yet coherent.

Emergence has been defined as “the process of coming into view or becoming exposed after being concealed”. All the elements are already here, just waiting for the right causes and conditions to converge. Its less like a Joy of Cooking recipe and more like the delicious soup your grandmother always made when you were under the weather – there’s no formula and it’s impossible to replicate.

I’m happily (and sometimes uncomfortably) learning this lesson over and over in my coordination of the Midwest Alliance for Mindfulness, Kansas City’s first secular mindfulness organization, and Mindful Kansas City, a grass roots initiative to raise awareness of mindfulness in our Midwestern metro. Both groups are fortunate to benefit from the shared insights and energies of diverse individuals. We’re made up of school teachers, first responders, actors, activists, office managers, graphic designers, mental health professionals, researchers, immigrants, people for whom English is not the first language, young people, the middle aged, and well-seasoned people, child free people as well as parents and grandparents, men, women and gender fluid people, straight and queer people, Black, white and brown people, Christians, Buddhists, atheists and agnostics, the temporarily able bodied, people with disabilities and chronic health challenges, and many other intersections unknown to me.

This kaleidoscope of beings is unified by what one collaborator (thank you Beth Sarver) calls our common “intersectional why” – we believe that mindfulness is a fundamental and trainable skill necessary for sustainable collective health and wellbeing. We’re figuring out ways to empower anyone who is willing, to get exposure to and learn the practices. Our diverse groups are discovering how to work well together and trust emergence along the way.

Systems scientist Peter Corning said emergence is like a game of chess, involving more than just rules and players. The magic of emergence also includes “unfolding, moment-by-moment decisions among a very large number of available options at each choice point” and is shaped by natural structures and functions as well as elements of circular causality and feedback-driven influences.

Bringing it back to your grandmother’s soup analogy, maybe the recipe was passed down orally from generation to generation, a certain type of cook surface and a particular pot were used, ingredients came from a specific place, picked out of practicality and by her discerning senses, temperatures and amounts were adjusted according to the environment, the climate, and her particular palate – and then there was you, the taster, your circumstances, and the love between you. These things cannot be manufactured or replicated out of context.

The magic of emergence works best when the parts of a system have some freedom and aren’t strictly constrained. When it comes to social systems, power must be shared so that people have room to experiment and adapt together. Indeed, Social Worker Mary Parker Follett’s theory of power in management was based on the observation that shared power is the most influential kind of power. I’ve experienced this first hand in the Mindfulness Based Programs I’ve participated in, but it requires the facilitator to “let go” of the reins so to speak, allowing their groups to navigate this unique balance.

Power over is our default mainstream American method for seeking success. It’s motivated by unexamined fear, an unquestioned belief in scarcity, and an intolerance of uncertainty. Othering and separation must occur in service of creating a false sense of safety and security for the in-group through hierarchy, exclusion, extraction, exploitation, coercion, domination and control. It seems quicker and easier, because it doesn’t require consensus building – just brute force.

The catch is that, like all living things, power is fluid and dynamic, so a power over approach in a social system can never achieve the “winner’s” lasting happiness or wellbeing. This is why the relational, reciprocal, collective and co-creative approach of power with tends to be more sustainable. It rolls with change and thrives within difference. Proponents of shared power understand that greater possibilities arise out of diversity and flexibility. For expediency’s sake, we often elect not to share power, because the collaborative process can be messy and time consuming – emergence cannot be rushed. But, in my experience, the results are worthwhile.

The Work That Reconnects, pioneered by Joanna Macy and taught to me by Kathleen Rude and Molly Brown, posits that power with includes four elements:

Mindfulness has helped me cultivate all of these elements. It has enabled me to open to the complexity of systems, develop greater self-awareness, see beyond myself, and trust emergence. My practice has forced a paradigm shift and necessitated a broader worldview. At the micro level, I continue to clumsily learn how not to get in my own way in relationships, during the classes I teach, and in the inquiries I facilitate. While my cultural conditioning taught me to seize the day and be the master of my own destiny, and my professional training taught me to assess, classify and intervene, my community supported mindfulness training is showing me the wisdom of the pause and the truth of interconnection, empowering me a little more each day to set aside assumptions and allow the great mystery to unfold.

We shall be known by the company we keep
By the ones who circle round to tend these fires
We shall be known by the ones who sow and reap
The seeds of change, alive from deep within the earth


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