How do we understand reality, and can we change it and so change ourselves?

There is an ancient Sufi story of an elephant and some blind men which goes as follows:

Once there was a city, the inhabitants of which were all blind. They had heard of elephants and were curious to see [sic] one face to face. They were still full of this desire when one day a caravan arrived and camped outside the city. There was an elephant in the caravan. When the inhabitants of the city heard there was an elephant in the caravan, the wisest and most intelligent men of the city decided to go out and see the elephant. A number of them left the city and went to the place where the elephant was. One stretched out his hands, grasped the elephant’s ear, and perceived something resembling a fan. Another stretched out his hands, grasped the elephant’s trunk, and perceived something resembling a snake. This man decided that the elephant looked like a snake. A third stretched out his hands, grasped the elephant’s leg, and perceived something like a tree. He decided that the elephant looked like a tree. A fourth stretched his hands, grasped the elephant’s tusk, and perceived something like a spear. He decided that the elephant looked like a weapon. Delighted, they all returned to the city. After each one had gone back to his quarter, the people asked: “Did see the elephant?” Each one answered yes. They asked: “What does he look like? What kind of shape has he?” Then one in his quarter replied: “The elephant looks like a fan. And the second man in the second quarter: “The elephant looks like a snake.” The third man in the third quarter: “The elephant looks like a tree.” And the fourth man in fourth quarter: “The elephant looks like a weapon.” And inhabitants of each quarter formed their opinion in accord; with what they had heard.

The blind men and the elephant – everyone sees only a part of a more complex reality, and tends to assume that what they see is the whole picture

It is easy to confuse the part of reality we engage with as the whole.

Everything around us is a system. And every system is part of another system. By understanding how things around us interlink we become better at seeing how things work together and how these same things can be manipulated, changed, modified to our advantage.

This process is called systems thinking .

There is a fundamental mismatch between the nature of reality in complex systems and our predominant ways of thinking about that reality. Structures of which we are unaware hold us prisoner. For instance, our current daily routine is a system (but we often see it linearly). We get up; we brush our teeth; we go to work; we consume information; we do actual work that earns an income; we talk to people, etc. If we do these same things for 20 years, we’ll probably do the same things for the rest of our life.

Our system defines both our present reality and our future reality.

Conversely, learning to see the structures within which we operate begins a process of freeing ourselves from previously unseen forces, and ultimately mastering the ability to work with them and change them.

Being aware of these things allows you to change them, and so your future.

So don’t be put off by the term – Systems Thinking – it is simply a way of making sense of the complexity of the world by looking at it in terms of wholes and relationships rather than by splitting it down into its parts. At its best Systems Thinking helps us to stop thinking from crisis to crisis and approach the issues we face in a more integrated way.

Systems come in all shapes and sizes and Systems Thinking now pervades many aspects of business, science, and government, because it helps us to better understand our problems and identify how to promote positive change. It also offers us insights and can be quite revealing!

Systems Thinking is concerned with revealing truths, where the unseen is just as important as the seen. Remember the elephant story.

Authors Linda Sweeney and Dennis Booth, out of years of working in this area’, defined a systems thinker as someone who:

• Sees the whole picture;
• Changes perspectives, seeing new ways of approaching an issue;
• Looks for interdependencies;
• Considers how mental models (paradigms of how things work) create our future;
• Gives attention to the long term;
• ‘Goes wide’ to see complex cause and effect relationships;
• Finds where unanticipated consequences emerge;
• Focuses on the structure of the system and not blame;
• Sees oneself as part of and not outside the system;
• Watches out for ‘win / lose mindsets, knowing that they usually make matters worse in situations of high interdependence.

One of the components of Systems Thinking is recognition that, ‘at different levels, observed phenomena exhibit properties that do not exist at lower levels. They are called emergent properties since they only emerge at that particular level.’

As an example of an emergent property, think of your favourite team sport whether cricket or baseball, netball or soccer, rugby, or grid iron. Many of those who follow a team sport would fantasise about the creation of a dream team by identifying spectacular individuals that they would include. This is essentially what team club management does.

But in reality, one cannot always predict the success of a team by looking at individual player performance.

It is really about what ‘emerges’ when these talented individuals come together as a team.

Another example is in chemistry, the taste of saltiness is a property of salt, but that does not mean that it is also a property of sodium and chlorine, the two elements which make up salt. Thus, saltiness is an emergent or a supervenient property of salt.

In our society a common emergent property is distortion of information when errors accumulate as information passes through a social network such as social media.

This emergent property reminds me of the party game of ‘telephone’, which starts by giving a secret message to one person in a group. That person whispers the message to a second person, and the message is whispered from one person to another. After everyone has been told the message, the first person and last person tell everyone the message as they understood it. To everyone’s amusement, the last person’s version of the message is typically incorrect in many ways, even though the last person is not a liar.

A failure to realize that a property is emergent, can lead us to serious errors of judgement; similarly, once aware of emergent properties, it is easier to for us ‘see’ what is really happening.

When something adverse happens, our immediate reaction is often to attempt to locate the cause and to apply a fix. However, this “fix” will have effects of its own, and very often these are not positive ones.

So emergent properties will affect the way we interact at many levels of existence. They sit at the heart of the concept of systems thinking as the behaviour of a system is an emergent property of its structure, not of its parts. As Donella H. Meadows put it:
Once we see the relationship between structure and behaviour, we can begin to understand how systems work, what makes them produce poor results, and how to shift them into better behaviour patterns. As our world continues to change rapidly and become more complex, systems thinking will help us manage, adapt, and see the wide range of choices we have before us.

Significantly, she writes that systems can change themselves utterly by creating whole new structures and behaviours.

In our Newtonian world we have been taught to think linearly using our rational ability to trace direct paths from cause to effect, looking at things in small and understandable pieces; but we can complement that way of seeing and thinking with a more intuitive way, a way that allows us to stop casting blame and to see the system as the source of its own problems, and find the courage and wisdom to restructure it.

Systems thinking is concerned with revealing truths of nature, where the unseen is just as important as the seen.

So, as a starting point, we do this through inquiry into the reasons, the foundations, the meanings, and the ways of the unseen. This both broadens our paradigms and allows us to transcend them – changing our beliefs and our attitudinal address to ‘life’.

• Systems Thinking allows us to appreciate the non-obvious as well as the obvious ways we are connected to each other.
• Systems Thinking helps us recognise the unintended impacts of our intentions, thinking, and actions on others as well as ourselves.
• Systems Thinking helps us apply this self-awareness to changing how we relate to others in our system.

The trick to succeeding in our inquiry is to recognise which of our behaviours result from systems and what conditions release those behaviours. In this way we can work to rearrange the structures and conditions of the system to reduce the likelihood of self-destructive behaviours, such as addiction, and encourage more positive behaviours.

This requires self-awareness.

To build self-awareness, we must try to sense our own boundaries and limitations.

By being clear about ourselves and our abilities, gifts, and limitations, we can see the larger system much more clearly.

Guest Blogger Dr Brian Gordon, OAM

See our awareness meditations under Health and Well-Being  HERE