The thing I love most about systems and process thinking, and what makes it relevant to my work, is its power in application through metaphorical language to explain every aspect of lived experience. One of my favorite systems thinkers, Fritjof Capra, describes the differences between linear and complex processes using the metaphor of a river. Linear process is the river flowing in one direction, uninterrupted. Complex process is when the river runs over rocks, creating eddies and dynamic, “chaotic” movement.
I do a lot of thinking about the way that humans relate with our environment. I work with people individually and in groups with the purpose of establishing true connection with self and others and building community. In addition to joys and successes, I witness a great deal of discomfort in the forms of conflict and trauma, and resistance to discomfort, ambiguity, and complexity. Theory is clean, life is messy. Especially during conflict, people seem to prefer linear process, clear definition, and goal-oriented instruction. In terms of achieving balance, introducing linearity to complexity might be useful and it might not, but the ability to remain skillful in those chaotic and complex, messy human moments is crucial to effective therapy and justice work.
I had an a-ha! moment this week, thanks to the river metaphor. I was contemplating the nature of the mind’s resistance to chaos while walking through the forest preserve near my home in southeastern Pennsylvania. (We have a large, protected section of forest that follows the White Clay Creek from source to end, one of the most beautiful places in the world.) Our little creek is a perfect place to witness linearity and complexity—there are long stretches of still current and also places where she starts to rush and churn around rocks and fallen trees. I observed my responses to each as I hiked and then stopped at a noisy spot to listen and watch. I noted that what I was experiencing was indeed the sound and sight of chaos, and that it had a calming effect. In fact, the sight and sound of running water has a calming effect on almost everyone. We normally don’t tense up, resist, or run screaming from a babbling brook. The a-ha! came when I realized that the response of the nervous system and the psyche to the sound and sight of chaos indicates the inherent naturalness of complexity and how underneath all of the rigidly defined expectations and narratives of Western culture, we are at home in chaos—the hallmark of interdependence.