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Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Book Review: Presence by Peter Senge

August 2, 2006

As part of my summer reading, I just finished this 2005 book called Presence by four of the world’s most eminent management theorists Peter Senge, Otto Scharmer, Joseph Jaworski and Betty-Sue Flowers. It has one of those odd academic titles that makes you wonder just what the heck it means. And when the authors initially do define presencing as “seeing from the deepest source and becoming a vehicle for that source” one might be excused to think they are simply trying to add a ‘New Age’ flavour to the stable of management theories. Yet a full read of the book reveals some uncommon insights into a profoundly different approach to problem-solving.

As someone who has spent the last decade conducting active research involving new models of governance and collaboration, I take my hat off to them for their rich appreciation of human behaviour and the potential for collective change they have identified from paying attention to their own inner experiences. On the other hand, as a long time practitioner and student of the dynamics of consciousness I can only say that it’s about time. It’s about time that the people studying human organizations paid more attention to the human part of those phenomena -- the most central part of which is conscious awareness. Senge and his collaborators have proved themselves yet again to be pathfinders simply by following the truth of their own experiences. I must say reading Presence was like suddenly feeling a torrent of fresh air poring down a musty, old academic hallway.

This is obviously a very personal book for the authors, prepared over time and drawn from a series of their ongoing conversations about the nature of organizations and the future of human society. But it is also about their various intimate experiences of transcendence, the circumstances under which they occurred, the impact those experiences had on the world views of the authors and the transformative power with which that transcendence could reshape people and events.

Senge et. al. suggest a new type of learning is required to effectively deal with the complex problems being imposed upon today’s organizations. They offer a model that comprises sensing (immersing yourself in the situation until you become one with it), moving to presencing (experiencing the interconnectedness of that alert wholeness within human experience) and then moving into realizing or the spontaneous, natural flow of action that is supported by that wholeness as a vehicle for its manifestation. This sensing-presencing-realizing model is less about matching solutions to problems than it is about ‘co-creating’ new futures among individuals, human collectivities and the larger, natural world.

Back in the day (and it seems like yesterday) I heard the same story described in Presence from one most profound spiritual teachers of this or the last century -- Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (although for me it was presented as a quick synopsis of the entire anthology of Vedic literature). It was the story of ‘nivardhatvam’. In Sanskrit nivardhatvam means to retire or to transcend. The story of nivardhatvam began with the need of a king to deal with all the trials and tribulations of his life, the heartaches and losses, the threats, the confounding challenges, the many things so out of his control. He goes to a great Vedic master pleading for advice and expecting to have to lead a life of denial and austerity. Instead the master, unwilling to be drawn out of his own contemplations of reality, responded with only one word ‘nivardhatvam’.

What the seer meant was for the man to retire -- not as a recluse from the world of events but to retire from the confused world of objective reality, to transcend it and experience the knowingness of his own inner consciousness. Then when drenched with that consciousness, the king was to retire from this transcending and be in the world once more. He was then to continue to transcend again and again into and out of this primal consciousness. The seer’s message also suggested that this pattern of transcending and action also had to be retired from, implying that the person’s actions became so fully imbued with consciousness that the king’s inner Self was fully realized 24X7. Retiring from this Self would then be impossible although he would experience his actions as if they were going on ‘almost by themselves’.

But the seer also meant that this clearly defined state of subject-object duality should also be retired from. The regular experience of the wholeness of consciousness would open a door through which he could begin to view a similar wholeness present in every grain of existence and every object of experience. Eventually, the king’s experience of duality would transform into a unified one where the “alien self” would become the predominant experience of both his subjective and objective realities. Here the practice of nivardhatvam came to an end for there was no non-Self place to retire to – all would be seen as wholeness. From that infinitely correlated source of the natural world the king’s every desire would emerge as a vehicle for the ‘source’ to emerge into the world, bringing him freedom from the bondage of events and the pains of his own limited understanding. Thus my teacher told me that within this one word, nivardhatvam, is encompassed the practical message of all of the books of the Veda and all their commentaries. Presence was a refreshing reminder of this.

“Learning based on the past suffices when the past is a good guide to the future. But it leaves us blind to profound shifts when whole new forces shaping change arise.” Therefore when the future is uncertain and unknowable and the potential paths forward are numerous and complex, the authors suggest a reliance on “primary knowing”, on nature’s “wholeness”, and the “source” of human experience in order to create an integrated and spontaneous response that can guide us into an emerging future. Sensing-presencing-realizing the authors suggest is a way of tapping that wholeness.

In a way the model presented by the authors is like the old way of dyeing cloth. You take some cloth and immerse it in dye. Then you take it and put it in the sun. (Old dyes were not particularly strong so the sun always faded the colour.) Then you would put the cloth back in the dye and then back in the sun. You would then repeat the process as many times as it took until the colour in the cloth was fast and didn’t fade. This same process is evident in the sensing-presencing-realizing model of Senge et. al. Yet the descriptions their experiences of this “second type of learning” while they resonate with familiarity they also suggest a certain impracticality. In one instance it resulted from a week-long vision quest, in another it resulted from seeing your house burn down, and for a third it resulted from the culmination of a long process of national reconciliation after a bitter civil war. None of the authors seemed to achieve it on a regular, on-demand basis. In fact, the authors acknowledged that that the kind of openness involved in this process was “rare in adults”, although their experiences confirm that the process is a natural one and one that anyone can have.

Yet if the need to resolve the many conflicts that collectively bring about the “requiem scenario” is as great as they suggest (and I personally have no doubt of that) then there is also a great need to democratize this “second type of learning” so that in each and every instance where people are making choices that impact the future, their decisions may be guided by that awareness of the whole rather the interests of a part. I would suggest that there are many more practical means of fostering that “primary knowing”, of transcending, that can be pursued on a daily basis – the most direct of which I have found is Transcendental Mediation. Yet the responsibility to be part of a solution in an emerging future clearly rests with each person. It can not be commanded or imposed.

The real value of Presence is that it gives real hope that positive alternatives to the requiem scenario may be found. Yet as I read it I am reminded of the ‘collective action problem’ so eloquently described in Joseph Heath’s “The Efficient Society”. Will we continue to shirk our individual responsibilities (in this case for experiencing presencing) hoping to ‘free-ride’ on the efforts of others? If so we are likely to continue down the path we are on, making quick decisions of convenience, using partial knowledge, blindly following the past paradigms that assume an independence from our environment and an ability to control people and events that are by now wholly discredited. As the authors of Presence have so plainly described, the answer to the ‘requiem scenario’ does not lie ‘out there’ but it lies in the heart and soul of each and every one of us. We will choose to embrace a new way or we will not. But the consequences of our individual choice will be found like ripples extending throughout humanity and the planet. Need I say, “choose well”?