What to expect from this week’s post :
A personal confession about overthinking
My new favorite term: Systems Feeling
How awe changes our perception of self
A [potential] moment of awe
It’s only the second article in Awe for Action, but I’m about to share something deeply personal.
I think too much.
I know I’m not alone in admitting this. But I truly ‘think’ (there I go again..) that quieting my mind enough to feel through something, be it a challenge or decision, is one of the most difficult lessons I’m learning.
Thinking is addictive. A few of my guilty pleasures include brainstorming, overthinking, contemplating and spiraling. But my all-time favorite has to be systems thinking.
As someone who has worked as an impact strategist for many years, I have found systems thinking to be the tool I reach for the most when tackling complex challenges. I loved zooming in and out of a specific topic and connecting the dots between something as common as your polyester t-shirt and how it links to the microplastics floating in our oceans that are then eaten by the tuna sitting on your dinner plate.
At first, I saw it simply as a way to analyze and understand the chaos and possibilities of complex global challenges. But over time, I began to see it as a lens through which I could view the world and all the opportunities for change. If a line can be drawn between t-shirts and tuna, then we can start getting creative about solving problems.
But there have also been moments in my life where systems thinking has moved beyond being a purely cognitive experience. These are the moments where I have felt truly connected to a wider system in a visceral, embodied way. These experiences all too often emerge from a moment of awe.
I remember visiting my sister in Vancouver and walking amongst some of the biggest trees I've ever seen in my life. I was completely overcome by a sense of wonder that made me feel small - but not helpless. Small in the sense that I was simply a small part of a larger system at play. My brain started to imagine the highways of roots beneath my feet, the communication channels that I couldn't see but could suddenly feel. The system came alive for me in that moment of awe. I was Systems Feeling.
Systems Feeling is the embodied experience of sensing the interconnectedness of being in relationship with the world.
If you haven't heard of Systems Feeling before, it’s because I just made it up. I’m trying this definition on for size, and would love to know what you think.
I believe that Systems Feeling is an essential aspect of systems thinking. It is the ability to connect with a system on a deep, emotional level. It is about seeing the world as a complex, interconnected web of relationships and, even for a brief moment, feeling our place within that web.
Back in 2007, UC Berkeley conducted a series of studies to examine awe and self-concepts (ie. how we see ourselves in respect to the rest of the world). In a nutshell, here’s what they found:
‘Awe prone people are particularly comfortable with revising their mental representations of the world’. If you seek wonder in your everyday life, you’re more likely to welcome new ways of understanding the world, and how the part you play in it!
‘The experience of awe is associated with a sense of smallness of the self and the presence of something greater than the self’. In the forest in Vancouver, I not only felt smaller, I felt as though the system I was a part of was bigger than I could even understand.
Shiota, M. N., Keltner, D., & John, O. P. (2006). Positive emotion dispositions and cognitive processes in coping with stress. Cognition and Emotion, 20(8), 1255-1268. doi:10.1080/02699930600801631
Maybe Systems Feeling is an act of love. It reminds me of the Zulu word ’Ubuntu’. Archbishop Desmond Tutu famously described ubuntu as meaning "My humanity is inextricably bound up, in what is yours." In essence, ‘I am because you are’.
There are many awe conduits to Systems Feeling, but one of my favorites is in experiencing art. Creatives, filmmakers, designers, architects and musicians have a unique opportunity to become a portal for Systems Feeling. I still remember watching the documentary My Octopus Teacher, a perfect example of a petri dish eliciting Systems Feeling in its viewers. The film tells the story of a filmmaker who forms an unlikely bond with an octopus living in a kelp forest off the coast of South Africa. The film invites the viewer to see the world through the eyes of the octopus, and to feel a sense of awe and wonder at the intricate web of life in the ocean. By creating experiences that connect the viewer or listener to the world's complex systems, these artists can evoke feelings of awe, wonder, and empathy, and inspire action to protect and preserve these systems.
I live nowhere close to the giant trees in Vancouver that once surfaced this feeling of awe. But I do make it a point of searching for awe on the regular. I often forget, but awe can be found almost anywhere, and feeling part of a system can happen on any random day.
3 Steps to experimenting with Systems Feeling
Pinpoint one novel way in which you can engage your senses. The key is to do something, watch something, listen to something you haven't before. Go for a walk. Take a dip in the ocean. Whatever it may be - try to approach the experience with new eyes.
Whatever system you’re contemplating, surface it where you are in time and space. If you’re someone who meditates, this is where the skill comes in handy! Deep breathing and clearing of the mind to shift your awareness to the vastness of where you are and how it might connect - even slightly - to the system you’re contemplating. Even if you’re in the middle of a busy city - how might you feel where you are?
Let yourself be curious about what feels vast and what feels small about the moment. No matter how discrete the feeling of wonder might be, sit with it.
This may read as a completely obvious exercise. Maybe it is, and maybe that’s the point… What if awe could be found everywhere? Like doors that appear that open up the possibility of feeling through a system.
As I continue to explore this idea with other systems change practitioners and changemakers, I am growing this definition of Systems Feeling. If you are interested in exploring this feeling further, please reach out. Don’t overthink it!
PS. How awesome is this?
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Absolutely! Systems feeling! Love this, Laura. I would add that by dropping into out bodies and out of our heads we can feel into an experience on a deeper level and perhaps even empathize more with the world outside ourselves.