Sustainability ~ The Matrix Factor

by Amina Knowlan | April 2009

"Sustainability, then, is not an individual property but a property of an entire web of relationships. It always involves a whole community. This is the profound lesson we need to learn from nature. The way to sustain life is to build and nurture community."
— Fritjof Capra

[Hope] is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.ii
— Václav Havel

I invite you to cultivate an understanding of how to intentionally develop a group as a Matrix or interconnected web of relationships. When groups (and the individuals in them) function as an open system with access to their full, collective capacity, divine possibility emerges. ... Together we can reinvent the world.
— From the Introduction to Matrix Leadership

AS WE RIDE THE WAVES of our current economic downturn, wisdom and hope can be found in understanding that we are shepherding the end of the mechanistic paradigm of individualism and separation. We are moving toward the realization of our interconnectedness.

We must cultivate the capacity to live and work in healthy social eco-systems or communities. Amidst the chaos that is an essential aspect of systems change, what will help us navigate these turbulent waters? What is the human dimension of creating sustainable life on earth? How can we move from fear to hope and possibility?

Individualism Is Unsustainable

First, a clear image of what we are differentiating from taken from The Progressive, which includes an excerpt from "Individualism—Seen in Destructive Phase," written by Theodore Dreiser in 1932!

What I cannot understand is why the American people ...drilled from the beginning in the necessity and the advantage of the individual and his point of view, does not now realize how complete is the collapse of that idea as a working social formula. ...As it is now, we have gotten no further than the right of the most cunning and strong individuals among us to aggrandize themselves, leaving the rest of us here in America, as elsewhere, to subsist on what is left after they are through.iii

Fast forward to 2009 and read an excerpt from David Korten's new book Agenda for a New Economy: From Phantom Wealth to Real Wealth.iv

The failure can be traced directly to an elitist economic ideology that says if government favors the financial interests of the rich to the disregard of all else, everyone will benefit and the nation will prosper. …

We have no more time or resources to devote to fixing a system based on false values and a discredited ideology. We must now come together to create the institutions of a new economy based on… a simple truth: If the world is to work for any of us, it must work for all of us…

The Essential Shift To Systems Awareness:
From Parts To Wholes

Fritjof Capra speaks to the distinction between the classic focus on structure (isolated parts, objects, individuals) and the systems thinker’s attention to, and inclusion of, the form—or pattern of relationships. Think Matrix!

...From the systems point of view, the understanding of life begins with the understanding of patterns of interaction.

... systemic patterns…arise from a configuration of ordered relationships. ... What is destroyed when a living organism is dissected is its pattern. The components are still there, but the configuration of relationships among them—the pattern—is destroyed, and thus the organism diesv. (emphasis mine)

This powerful statement is at the heart of most of our social ills. Read it again. "What is destroyed when a living system is dissected is its pattern. The components are still there, but the configuration of relationships among them—the pattern—is destroyed, and thus the organism dies."

If the connections between people are broken or not developed or minimized, the system (group) is not capable of growth. In a nutshell, Matrix Leadership is concerned with optimizing the connectivity and the resilience in those relationships.

It is in stark contrast to most of our socio-cultural norms that, in the name of protecting individual rights and maximizing efficiency, obstruct or impede the communication and connection between people. "Don’t talk about anything personal at work." Students sit in rows facing the teacher and don’t talk to each other.

Toward Sustainable Living Systems

Capra’s distillation brings us naturally to a question about what constitutes a living system — one capable of sustaining life, reorganizing and evolving?

Once we have the concept of a system (vs. a collection of individual parts), we can look at a group as an interconnected Matrix nested within many other matrices. These webs of relationships have increased complexity and capacity. "When spider webs unite they can tie up a lion." vi

We want the relationships between the individuals (or subgroups) to be fluid, flexible, adaptive, responsive and aware of each other and the whole group. We want to establish the life-affirming practice of ongoing feedback loops. We also want each individual to become more and more fully differentiated, or uniquely individual—while staying in connection and communication with each other person.

The Hope

Matrix practices ask us to move from "I vs. you" or "us vs. them" to focus on the connections between us. Why? Because it is only through developing and nourishing our connections that we will evolve into sustainable and fulfilling lives on this earth.

When we cultivate enough connection that is informed by love, all of the conditioning of separation simply cannot hold. When we begin to know ourselves as a part of something greater, we redefine ourselves as being held and supported by the whole (the group, family, community or organization). We all become servants of the larger world, from our families to the planet.

Our best shot at navigating ever-shifting sands and seas is to maximize the capacity to communicate while staying present in our connections with each other. If we can share the impact we have on each other, as well as our resources, we radically increase the chances that the parts (individuals) can stay in connection even as tidal waves of uncertainty threaten to rip the fabric of our cozy, familiar comfort zone.

Being linked to something larger—whether that is the group, the community or the Divine—ultimately dissolves all limited stories we hold about others and ourselves. It dissolves contractions that keep us small and isolated. It dissolves inflated egos that keep us consuming at the expense of others.

Globally and locally, we will evolve into a thriving sustainable future, if we can learn to live in the fullness of our connections.

iKnowlan, Amina, This article contains excerpts from several different chapters from Matrix Leadership, forthcoming.
iiHavel, Václav, Disturbing the Peace. Faber and Faber, London and Boston, 1990, p. 181 as quoted in Capra, Fritjof, Hidden Connections, Doubleday, New York, 2002, p. 268
iiiDrieser, Theodore, "Individualism," in "The Progressive," January 9, 1932, excerpted in The Progressive, April, 2009, http://www.progressive.org/wx040709.html
ivKorten, David, Agenda for a New Economy: From Phantom Wealth to Real Wealth, Berrett-Koehler, Feb 2009, excerpted in "Yes Magazine"
vCapra, Fritjof, The Web of Life, Random House, New York, 1996, p. 81
vi Ethiopian proverb


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