Pattern #95


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Working the Field

In and around us we can discern subtle but potent collective fields of influence which shape our lives and activities. Sensing into the stories, forces, expectations, and behaviors they generate — and that they depend on for their power — can enable us to consciously cultivate them to better serve life. So notice shared patterns of belief, energy, response and systemic influence in groups and society, and help shift them in healthy directions.

  • What do we sense about what’s going on in this situation or space – not the specifics, but the flavor or atmosphere or contextual “feel”? Should we do anything about that?
  • Where are all these strange behaviors coming from? Is there something about the systems, the stories, the images….?
  • What relationships can we discern between collective fields, individual experience in groups, and group synergy?
  • What kinds of social or group fields have we experienced or heard about? What do we seem know about them? How can we consciously and fruitfully interact with and within them?
  • What makes a collective field wholesome or fragmenting, life- enhancing or life-degrading, static or evolving?

Going Deeper …

This is an edited version of the video on this page.

When you “work a field” you are not thinking so much about linear impact.  You are shifting a field of influence that is shaping lots of things going on within it.

The picture we came up with to illustrate this shows a gardener working in a permaculture field. He is tending to parts of his garden that we labeled “needs”, “voices”, “stories”, “forces”, “energies”, “possibilities” and so on.  The whole field has all these things in it and he’s working with them, influencing how they show up and evolve.

We had some discussion about what kind of “field” we would use in the illustration. Usually when I think of fields, I have in mind things like magnetic fields and gravitational fields. Objects inside a field – planets in a gravitational field, iron filings in a magnetic field – may move in certain ways because they are being influenced by field they’re part of. Of course, these are different than the kind of field we see in the picture, but both kinds of field work as metaphors for what we’re talking about in this pattern.

So see if you can hold onto these images and ask yourself: “What is like that in society, in groups, in collectives of people?”  One answer I like is related to stories.  Stories can actually generate fields that shape the lives of people within them. I actually helped put on a whole conference to explore narrative fields – the Story Field Conference of 2007.

Think about it:  We all live in a vast, complex, multifaceted story. When you see advertisements, the things in the pictures or which are talked about in the ads contain certain assumptions about what life is all about. They’re designed to move you in various ways, to get you to behave in ways the advertiser wants.  But while they’re doing that, they’re shaping your thinking and feeling.  If the advertisement has a sexy woman next to a car – and so many ads have sexy women with a car – many people will think (first of all) that women are about being sexy and (secondly) that cars are about attracting such women, or about helping women attract men. Little narratives like these are hidden away in the ad and in thousands of other communications and images and behaviors we are met with every day.  They all add up to a story field that shapes our lives.

Metaphors are also all over – and they’re mini-narratives.  PR experts work with metaphors a lot in the world of politics. Consider messages about taxation: Is taxation a burden? Or is it the dues you pay for living in civilization?  Or is it a co-creative act to create the things that you want, together with other people?  These are all different ways to frame what taxes are – to involve you as a character in a particular story about taxes and life.  Each framing carries with it a whole narrative about how to feel, think, and behave in relation to taxes.

Political parties play with such metaphors a lot.  (It’s interesting that the word “party“ refers to a “part” instead of a “whole”.  So people belong to a political party instead of a political holy! This pattern language explores what political wholes would be like…)  So we find part-isans in political part-ies pushing one or another of these metaphors or narratives about taxes (among other things). They are doing it for their particular purposes, but the metaphors they use become part of the collective story field that is shaping how we think and behave.

So we are living in this big story that has all these different dimensions to it, including competing story fields.  The feminism story field feels very different from the patriarchy story field, but they both occupy the overall story field we live in, exerting influences and shaping responses (including both alignment and resistance) from everyone living within the overall field.  Aligning ourselves with a particular set of story fields involves a different set of assumptions and we behave in different ways than people who live in other story fields.  And our respective interactions with our selected media reinforce those story field dynamics, strengthening them and their power over us.

Consider the idea of a career, a marriage, a family,… These things all have narratives attached to them and tend to be woven together into a larger narrative about what we can expect in life – and out of life – and that we should work for. It can be quite hard to think outside the narrative boxes imposed by a story field.  So people participate – usually unconsciously – in shaping, reinforcing and respond to life in ways that are dictated by such narratives.

So, given that story fields are so powerful, perhaps we should think about how to intervene creatively in the field itself? – not just to send a message on a particular topic but to shape the whole field?  Feminism has been doing that for decades. It’s been impacting all different aspects of life to reframe them as seen through the feminist perspective. And in the United States, conservatives and liberals have also been doing that.  In fact, in any country we can watch people working to shift the whole field in particular directions.  They seldom think that’s what they’re doing, but they’re doing it nevertheless.

This is obviously a tool that can be used for better and/or worse. In any case, it pays to stay conscious of that dimension – aware that that kind of influence and activity is going on all the time, that lots of people are working the field. And we can wonder what it would mean for people who believe in our potential for collective wisdom to be working to help the psycho-social fields of humanity evolve in ways that can support long-term broad benefit.  How would we do that?

Psychologist Arnold “Arnie” Mindell used to be a quantum field physicist and became a Jungion psychologist. He’s very aware of fields because of his quantum physics work. Also Jung talked about the collective unconscious, which can be viewed as a field phenomenon. So Arnie Mindell has developed an approach he calls Process WorldWork, or Deep Democracy. He suggests, for example, that there is a field of racism which we all live within and that lives within us. That field is everywhere. It’s not like you are racist and I’m not. It’s like the voices and energies of racism exist in the field and thus also in each and all of us – just like the magnetic field is in all of the iron filings and a gravitational force field resides in all physical entities as well as around and between them.

So just as all of us have gravitational fields even while we are being affected by them, we all have this racism field in and around us. Arnie works to bring the voices and energies of the field out into the open, to talk to each other and to interact with and through the people who are part of the collectively transformational exercises he is facilitating. I was part of a two-day WorldWork session on racism in Oakland California that engaged about 200 people of mixed race in various guided and spontaneous interactions. A reporter reporting on this exercise found that Oakland’s crime rate dropped for a time after it was done – which could be coincidence, but could also be signs of a “field effect”.

Various people talk about that kind of phenomenon. It can sound really woo-woo. And some of it is woo-woo – yet some of it is really intriguing and scientists are starting to study it.

The British biologist Rupert Sheldrake talks about a phenomenon he calls morphic (or morphogenic or morphogenetic) fields  He has inspired a number of experiments to prove or disprove his morphic field theories In essence, he notes that the more entities of a particular kind do something or know something, the more that pattern becomes embedded in their awareness and their behaviors such that the pattern becomes more natural for other entities of that type to know or do that kind of thing, without being taught about it or trained to do it. He once took a puzzle picture around the streets of London asking people: “What is this a picture of?” Most people couldn’t figure out what it was. And then he showed showed it on BBC TV, pointing out and explaining what it was. After doing that, he went out on the streets again and asked people: “Did you see me on TV with this picture?“ He picked people who said they had not seen him and asked them: “What do you think this picture is?” A much higher percentage of people could identify it the second time even though they hadn’t seen him on TV.  Mindell’s work intrigues me so much that I created a page on the co-intelligence website to describe a number of other experiments that were done to explore such phenomena

So what is all this about?  This kind of non-physical field phenomenon doesn’t fit our normal scientific understandings, but it certainly looks like we’re dealing with a field phenomenon there.  People are still trying to figure out what’s happening with it.

In complexity theory there is a dynamic called criticality. It’s a condition related to when, for example, an avalanche happens.  There’s a point where one more snowflake or grain of sand will launch the avalanche.  That’s the point of criticality.  Similarly, when there’s a supersaturated solutions in which, for example, lots of salt has been dissolved and then the solution has been cooled down.  Then, when you drop a few more grains of salt in it, suddenly most or all of the dissolved salt comes out of the solution and grows into a big crystal right before your eyes. We get a sense that things can reach a point of internal tension, such that a very small impulse can suddenly cause a major shift or event to happen.

Just recently (Spring 2019) we had a Swedish schoolgirl, Greta von Thunberg, who walked out of school to protest the lack of official action to address climate change. Within months this triggered more than a million kids from all over the world walking out of their schools to protest climate inaction. It is not that von Thunberg was a particularly great organizer. There are lots of people who are really good organizers and who try things like that and nothing much happens. So there is a timing factor in this that make things pop really quickly, similar to what’s called the butterfly effect in chaos theory. Criticality, catastrophe theory, there are all sorts of scientific theories about this.

So “working the field” has many many different dimensions, but it’s definitely a matter of stepping out of linear thinking into affecting the larger context within which all of us are doing our things. If we’re going to actually have an impact on the issues that are challenging civilization and humanity as a whole, we need to work in this realm.  Because the situations we are facing are way too complex.  Linear solutions – no matter how many of them wea try to weave together – will not be able to deal with these gigantic issues.  We are going to end up having to include strategies that involve “Working the Field“!

Video Introduction (13 min)

Examples and Resources

  • The resources for this pattern are under development and will appear shortly.