Pattern #5


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We need the ability to tolerate disturbance without attempting premature resolution. Complexity, uncertainty, mystery, paradox, conflict, crisis and diversity can all generate such disturbance—yet all can also bring wisdom because they open us to fuller reality. So learn to co-exist comfortably with them so they can give their gifts.

Related: 2 Appreciative Thinking, 32 Integrity and Authenticity, 37 Multi-Modal Intelligence, 53 Safety First, Then Challenge, 60 Systems Thinking, 69 Wise Use of Uncertainty, 70 Working Through Feelings

Go deeper …

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

Capacitance is a term I picked up from a psychiatrist in Seattle, Charles Johnson. Capacitance is the ability to hold dissonance, the ability to contain difficult things, the ability to tolerate things that are uncomfortable without trying to get rid of them, without trying to deny them or resolve them, to just be there with them.

One of the things we have difficulty just being there with is complexity. It’s like too much, too complex, we can’t look at it anymore. We think we need to simplify it in order to hold it. Somebody who has a high level of capacitance doesn’t need to oversimplify something even when they come to conclusions about it or simplify parts of it.  When they do that, they do it knowing that the situation is more complex than they’re seeing or saying. There’s always “more to it than that!”

So they hold their models lightly and acknowledge that complexity is virtually infinite. They will sit with the fact that that’s true and work humbly with whatever pieces of the complexity they need to work with while admitting that there’s a dense fabric of interconnectedness, elements and causes or whatever involved in this situation. And they are going to work within that knowledge.

Uncertainty is very similar.  We can’t tell what’s going to happen for sure. Rather than acting as if things are certain, that they are stable and we know what’s going on, we acknowledge that we know things conditionally and temporarily. There are also a lot of uncertainties that bridge over into Mystery, into what can’t be known. There are some essential qualities to the way life and reality are put together which do not lend themselves to getting nailed down solidly. It doesn’t mean we can’t function as if we know certain things. You can pick up the spoon and be sure it’s going to your mouth 99.999% of the time; but 0.001% of the time it won’t, and knowing that can be very disturbing. Most things are much less certain than the ability to get your spoon from the plate to your mouth.

So having a collegial friendly relationship with uncertainty and recognizing that certainty is an emotion. Unfortunately, certainty is not necessarily tied to the factual truth of whatever you are certain of. You can be very certain of something that is totally false. So you need to maintain a sense of humble conditionality, an ability to be certain of some things conditionally and ready to shift if you get a good reason to do so.

So part of capacitance is being able to sit with the existential uncertainty of life, being able to just hold it, to tolerate it, to let it disturb you or not without feeling you must do something about that.

And then there’s mystery, when you look harder and harder and harder and you can’t figure it out. And beyond that there is the big Mystery, the fundamental unknowable basis where reality itself come from. We think we have established things like, “Reality is something solid.” You can pound on the table and it’s really there. Yet we have quantum mechanics telling us that, no, there are just fields of probability going on there. There is – in a very fundamental sense – nothing there. And mystics tell us it is all just void. But it is clearly still there, so what’s going on? We can tell various stories about that. That is all fine and good but language and concepts and human cognition are insufficient to grasp everything. So there is also a fundamental mystery to life – and we can be awed by that, be respectful of that, and carry-on with life even though there is this Mystery at its heart, or even be grateful that there is this Mystery at its heart. For some people there is a lot of flexibility in life because this Mystery is there. There is no box to contain it and therefore to a certain extent there’s no box to contain their spirit. There’s an ability to hold it without getting rid of it – to just be with it.

Then there’s paradox, the yin-yang, the sense that some things are opposites and should not (theoretically) coexist, but they do. Being able to hold that, to be able to see multiple viewpoints that seemed to be irreconcilable, to be able to step into somebody else’s shoes and just be there and go, “There may be no resolution to this.” There’s a dance going on between these incompatible realities.

As an example: Is a fetus a living human being? The pro-lifers focus on this and say “Yes, it is a living human being and you should never kill an unborn child, no matter how early its gestation process is.” And the pro-choice people say, “A woman needs to be able to control her body and there should not be unwanted children. A woman should not have to bear a child that was not intended and should not be born.” There is a sense in which both perspectives are true, and so there’s a dance that goes on between them. We usually feel a need to resolve this tension, to totally invalidate the other side in order to push the agenda of our preferred side. But capacitance involves seeing such a paradox as this complex thing that needs constantly to be part of our conversation and feeling our way. It never will resolve and perhaps it never should. There are lots of issues like that. The challenge is to work with paradoxes generatively, to see and use the dance between the two alternatives as forces that are ongoing, and just hold them and let them be there.

It is also hard to just be with conflict, with your view versus my view.  We are going to fight about it, or be in the presence of people who are fighting, and not being able to just be with that. We feel the need to take sides – or the need to run away because the energy of the conflict is so disturbing.  These impulses tell us we need to have people who can hold conflict, who are not conflict averse and trying to get rid of it or to move away from it or to cause anything particular to happen. They are just there with it so that whatever needs to get worked through has the time and space to be worked through.

And then there’s crisis! It’s like, “Oh my God, I can’t take it. This is too much!” Again we have the sense of too much. There are people who are quite levelheaded in a crisis, and people who go totally off the handle in a crisis. The people who are more levelheaded tend to have more capacitance, although sometimes the seemingly levelheaded people are just pushing a solution. They say, “This is going to solve it, and you are going to have to do it my way” and they push everybody around. That’s not an example of capacitance. Rather, we’re talking about somebody who is moving with the crisis and feeling their way and responsive to the various forces and people that are going on in the crisis without getting thrown off their center. That’s more of what I’m talking about as capacitance.

And sometimes diversity is too much for us. We think, “You are so off-the-wall. I can’t even imagine how you could think this way, how you can be this way, how you can act this way! I can’t imagine it, or it is so totally distasteful. Everything about the humanist in me rejects the Nazi in you.” We encounter strange people, or people from another culture, and up comes that desire to have things simplified – like sinking into “us and them” – to minimize the diversity, to deny the diversity because it is too much, too other, too incomprehensible… Those are signs of lack of capacitance.

If we are all unique – which of course we are – diversity is an intrinsic part of life, unavoidable. And so it behooves us to be always kind of open to seeing that. We think “Oh, there’s another dimension of diversity and I’m either comfortable or not comfortable with it. But I can just be with that even if I’m not comfortable with it. It’s not them or you that is the problem. The problem is I don’t know how to deal with this or just be with it.”

All these kinds of disturbance can also open us up to more of what’s real, to more of what’s really there because reality is not black and white. Reality is always more complex, nuanced, uncertain, paradoxical than we like to believe. Again, “there’s more to it than that.” So it helps to be able to be with that fact, both generally and as it applies in the specific circumstance we are working with.

So we need to be able to face the often disturbing nature of reality and then take action anyway, make decisions anyway, relate to people anyway. We try to enhance life and make life more beautiful, more real, more sustainable, and to do it in the face of all this disturbing stuff. And the more we recognize these things, the more we become more able to hold. Our purpose is to take into account what needs to be taken into account for long-term broad benefit, and to have the capacity to hold more allows us to take into account more. “More” can include “the Other” and whatever’s confusing to us. To the extent we can take that into account, we are taking into account a larger reality, and that allows us to be more wise, and allows each of the elements in the complexity to offer something to us.

And it’s not only that there are complex entities and relationships going on in whatever we are looking at, but also that the complexity itself has lessons for us. The diverse people each have gifts for us to the extent we can hold these things without turning away from them or reducing them. Doing so allows us to fulfill our mission of taking into account what needs to be taken into account for long-term broad benefit.

Video Introduction (21 min)

Examples and Resources

There are some methods that will support us in this, most of which involve personal practices and consciousness.  But many involve group activities that support that expanding capacity.

Patience – A mindset of waiting even when you’re taking action because you don’t know what’s going to happen. You do your research, you test and ask and see how this works … and then you wait and find out. You don’t have to wait before you take action but you do have to have the ability to sit with the fact that you don’t know and you’re giving it a try and seeing what happens. That kind of waiting is an example of capacitance.

Meditation – Lots of meditations train you to just be present with whatever is. That can include internal conditions or external conditions. You can train your ability and consciousness and your attention to be present.

Prayer – Some people find through prayer the ability to accept and to trust. The Serenity Prayer is a standard prayer that emphasizes having the courage to act and change the things that need to be changed and can be changed, while also having the serenity to accept the things you can’t change, and the wisdom to know the difference. If you can live into that, there is a level of serenity there.

Buddhist practice and theory is largely about acceptance and non-attachment. You know things are going to be changing, and the fact that you’re not attached allows you to let that happen without getting upset and to be with whatever goes on. Some people express that as trust in the rightness of whatever happens, and other people say, “I’m not attached. I don’t have the trust, I am just not attached to what happens.”

There’s a psychological dimension of capacitance that involves sharing feelings, as in support groups or in certain kinds of coaching. Having people you can share your feelings with as you’re going through periods of disturbance can allow you to hold disturbance without getting emotionally entanglement with it.

There is a practice called “tapping”, which helps reduce the intensity of various kinds of emotions including anxiety. Practices like that can help you manage your anxiety, your need to have things changed from what they are.

Then there is perspective. This can be intellectual or involve deep belief systems and worldviews, the way you look at things. The evolutionary perspective is about the big picture of evolutionary time and evolutionary change and can help you see whatever it is you’re wrestling within a much larger context. Similarly, from the big cosmos perspective, the universe doesn’t care about what happens in the situations we obsess about. So we don’t have to worry about it either. If a few people can take that perspective, it gives them a certain distance between them and specific situations. Of course, some people just disconnect from the reality of situations in a kind of denial.  People with capacitance just take some space to be creative and engaged and hold and coexist with the realities of life.

Systemic thinking involves being able to sense into larger systems. We can always assume and accept that larger systems are at play, are being impacted, are causing certain things. This can help us embrace more complexity because that’s what systems thinking is about. Complexity sciences add to that the awareness that much of what goes on has to be addressed with probability. We look at troubling complex crises in terms of probability rather than getting tangled up in specific causes-and-effects and linear kinds of consciousness. There can be peace in that.

Intuitive practices – We say that things are getting too much for us.  That phrase “too much” can have many meanings. It can mean too much of reality or it is getting too intense. When things get to be “too much”, intuitive practices can help shift gears from a stimulus-response place to a more centered pro-active place, or from shallow rationality into a deeper place. Some people do dream work, some people just sleep on it. Tarot and I-Ching and other oracles can be like a mirror or a pool, where you let go and look into that space and see what comes up. That can help you think and feel into the disturbance or whatever is happening in your life.

I have never done automatic writing but I’ve heard from some people that it’s a way for the unconscious part of us to show up, including parts of us from earlier childhood…

Poetry and art I know. I’ve used poetry and art that way. There are some very specific practices that help you move into the intuitive realms.

Computer modeling also helps us understand and face complex systems like climate, although it is only as good as what we put in.

When it is hard to face the big issues, some people choose to focus on smaller scales. The whole larger problematique of the world, as they say, is so big, and if we focus on personal and local scales but keep in mind the big picture, it is like, “think globally and act locally” – hold the larger field of information and perspective but apply that to the here and now.  It’s another approach that people have that’s not so much oversimplifying, as just localizing the dynamics that you are looking at and dealing with. From a local perspective, you can see the good and bad manifestations more readily and more substantively.

The idea of working together – If what’s happening is all confusing, it tends to be hard to hold it all by oneself so it’s good to talk about it. And having good facilitation helps talk about it in ways that the group is holding whatever it is. Whatever it is that you can’t hold by yourself a group can hold with you – as long as the group is of good heart, they know each other and/or they are getting good facilitation. Many different support and activist groups exist to help people hold some difficult thing together rather than alone.

And facilitators themselves need support, because they are having to deal with what other people in the group are not able to hold. The group has called the facilitator to help them hold all that collectively. The facilitator is being exposed to those stresses while not being able to enter into the conversation. They just have to learn to be present. Many good facilitators meditate a lot, to be able to be present with the wild and difficult energies that they’re facing in certain groups.

And for handling paradox, polarity management is a specific practice for noticing that polarities are not problems to be solved, they are energies and factors that need to be managed because they are always interacting with each other. When you get too much of one side, the other side pulls in energy to reduce it that so there’s more balance in the system. If it gets extreme – banging left and right and back and forth – polarity management offers ways to make it less extreme. That back and forth still exists but it’s more like a dance than a battle slamming back and forth.

So those are tools and approaches to manifest or increase individual and collective capacitance.