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  • Writer's pictureAlan Sieler

What Really Has To Change?

by Alan Sieler

Part of the discussion about the current global circumstances of economic downturn, global warming, environmental degradation and living a more ecologically sustainable existence, is that it presents an opportunity for change. Some commentators point to the failure of capitalism and the importance of strengthening the quality of our institutions and systems that are assessed to have failed so badly. Others put forward a view of the need to develop different values, better leadership and the imperative for higher quality thinking.

Every crisis brings an opportunity for learning and constructive change. However, the commentary on improving global circumstances may be missing a crucial point that is essential to deep positive change. Without this change, our efforts in confronting the significant challenges that face humanity may be ineffective. This article poses a novel and possibly contentious set of ideas that has the potential to profoundly shift how we are as Observers of current global, national and local circumstances.

In this article we draw on the innovative thinking of Chilean biologist Humberto Maturana, who has developed a ground-breaking approach to understanding the nature of perception and cognition, as well as a practical theory on the role of language, conversations and emotions in the cultural existence of humans.* Maturana’s carefully thought through ideas have been described as requiring “a radical expansion of our scientific and philosophical frameworks.”**

Cognition for Maturana is nothing more than how we understand and participate in the world, an integral part of which Maturana refers to as our “emotioning”. He uses the expression “emotioning” to emphasise that emotions constitute an ongoing process of human life and understanding. “Emotions and moods constitute at every instant the relational background in which life takes place.” In other words, we relate to the world from nature of our emotioning.

In his most recent publication, Maturana addresses what he considers to be the deep emotional foundation from which most of humanity including Westernised societies, its institutions and many key decision-makers, operate.*** He is referring to what can be regarded to the core underlying emotional currents that are always present and impact the of the quality our thinking and effectiveness of our actions in dealing with challenges that confront us.

You may not agree with the ideas that will be presented. If you disagree you are invited to stay open to these ideas, to reflect on them and test them out by observing how they may be relevant to the way we live and deal with major issues.

Maturana contends that distrust is the central mood that guides our relations, especially in the economic, political and social world, but also too often in family life. The related emotions and behaviours that flow from the central mood of distrust are:

  • control, domination, submission, appropriation and discrimination;

  • arrogance, aggression, competition, greed and political manipulation;

  • abuse, violence and wars.

Maturana contentiously claims that although the constellation of moods and emotions that accompany distrust has dominated the last 5000-6000 years of human history, this is not the emotional essence of the nature of humans. The emotional undercurrents in which we live are a contradiction to the emotional basis of humanity. The emotional essence of humans is that we are loving beings, because essentially we care for each other. As a psychologist recently commented about the recovery process after the devastating bushfires in Victoria, Australia, in the absence of deeply caring about each other social and community life is not possible. Maturana writes, “How is it that we can live in mutual care, have ethical concerns, and at the same time deny all that through the rational justification of aggression?”

Maturana offers an unusual and expansive definition of love that includes but goes beyond our association of love with intimacy in personal and family relationships. At the heart of Maturana’s view of love is mutual respect and acceptance. Love is exhibited in our behaviour towards each other where we allow another person to “arise as a legitimate other in co-existence with oneself”. In other words, we have a deep or fundamental respect for the other person as a fellow human being and accept the legitimacy of their existence, even if we are in disagreement with their behaviour or ideas. Love arises from self-respect, which is the basis for mutual respect. Maturana’s idea of love includes robust discussions of different points of view that occur in mutual respect with openness to listen to and understand the perspectives of others.

“Daily life shows us that even though we sometimes live in war and hurt each other, we are loving animals that become bodily and psychically ill when deprived of love and that love is both the first medicine and the fundament for the recovery of somatic and psychic health. Indeed, most if not all human suffering arises in the negation of love and it is cured through the restoration of love.”

Love, trust and cooperation constitute the emotional basis of healthy family life, learned as children from physical intimacy and the development of trust with our primary caregivers and other family members. Yet once we enter the pre-adulthood world of education and adulthood world of work, love can be negated if the emotional context is dominated by distrust, control, competition, and aggression, in which much of our living is permeated by the mutual negation of others’ legitimacy, often very subtly. How many ways do we have of subtly negating others and not respecting them as fellow human beings?

Let us pause and invite you to reflect on your response so far. Perhaps the ideas presented sound exaggerated and even naïve in considering the reality of what is involved in human interaction, a point acknowledged by Maturana.

“No doubt from the perspective of … living in a culture of domination and submission, mistrust and control, aggression, competition, political manipulations, abuse and wars, the claim that we modern human beings are the present of a biological history centred in love, trust, and cooperation seems preposterous and definitely wrong.” Yet perhaps unhelpful and destructive emotions have become so embedded in our cultures that we are habituated to them and are simply blind to their existence and their negative affects on our thinking and behaviour. You are invited now to reflect on your observations of the emotional underpinnings of cultures, organisations and groups that you are part of.

Maturana also comments, “We have invented on many occasions, religious and political systems in which peace and love are to prevail, or humanistic theories that are intended to save human beings from mutual exploitation and abuse. Most of the time our efforts have failed, or humanizing paradigms have ended up being dehumanizing, and the religious and political systems we invented with the intent of generating human wellbeing became sources of tyrannies”.

For Maturana, intelligence is simply responding adequately to the requirements of the environment and “love expands intelligence”, or our cognitive ability. Basic neuroscience now tells us that the thinking and emotional parts of the brain cannot be divorced from each other. Our everyday experience informs us that the quality of our thinking, communication and decision-making is severely compromised when we are in contexts dominated by fear and anger. When people feel safe, respected and trusted, there is an emotional response that is likely to result in higher quality decisions and thinking.

Clearly our current global circumstances reflect a significant lack of intelligence on the part of humanity, especially the Western world. If we accept or partially accept Maturana’s claims, what can be done to recover the emotional love, trust and cooperation as the emotional foundation from which we live? Love, trust and cooperation can be regarded as the emotional hearth for co-inspiration, creativity and collaboration, which are now so essential action for dealing with significant global challenges. A start has to be made somewhere, and two interrelated beginning points are:

  • personal responsibility; and

  • leadership.

Our corporate, political and community leaders play a significant role in setting the emotional tone of our organisations and societies. It is also important to highlight that perhaps the two most important leadership roles in our societies are parents and teachers, who profoundly influence the development of self-respect and emotional learning of children, teenagers and young adults. As a leader, what are you prepared to do examine and shift the deep emotional undercurrents from which you operate at work and home?

Whether we have a leadership role or not, how can we be personally responsible for the emotional essence from which we live? Is there an “answer”? Perhaps some indigenous wisdom from a story attributed to the North American Cherokee Indians provides an important clue.

An old Cherokee is teaching his grandson about life. “A fight is going on inside me," he said to the boy. "It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil - he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego. The other is good - he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. This same fight is going on inside you - and inside every other person, too.” The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather which wolf would win.

The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”

Three sets of questions may be worth considering in depth.

  • Which emotions of yours and others in the workplace do you feed every day?

  • Which emotions of yours and others in family life do you feed every day?

  • Which emotions of yours and others in the workplace do you want to feed?

  • Which emotions of yours and others in family life do you want to feed?

  • What exactly will you do to feed to emotions of yours and others you want to in the workplace?

  • What exactly will you do to feed to emotions of yours and others you want to in family life?

Finally, more general questions to reflect on in closing:

  • What else may be possible in the quality of our conversations and collective thinking if we lived and related more from love and mutual respect?

  • If love expands intelligence, what potential is there for humans to be more collectively intelligent?

* Humberto Maturana and Francesco Varela, The Tree of Knowledge: The Biological Roots of Human Understanding ** Fritjof Capra, The Web of Life. *** Humberto Maturana and Gerda Verden-Zoller,The Origin of Humanness in the Biology of Love

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