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There’s an urgent need to slow down: allowing ‘maplessness’ as we lose our bearings

Over the last two years working to establish and nurture the Deep Adaptation Forum, I have often encountered people who express a desire for more answers, actions and impact. Given the latest news about how fast the environment is changing, and how many people and species are suffering, it feels natural to want to do something immediately. But given the depth and scale of the problem, what should we do? Might our desire for urgency and agency be both an asset and a hindrance? I believe that the predicament we face is such a challenge to our way of life and understanding the world, that there is also a clear need to slow down, to allow ourselves space and time to feel deeply into our emotional, embodied, and intellectual responses, in order to explore possibilities more fully. It is why processes for dialogue have been so central to the first years of the Deep Adaptation movement, and why volunteer facilitators have been so key to the Deep Adaptation Forum.

As we experience long-held certainties about self, society and the future beginning to dissolve, it can be natural to want to have a new set of answers to believe in and apply. However, rather than offering a map for a disruptive era for humanity, I regard Deep Adaptation as an invitation into maplessness, where we cannot rely on either previous or new ‘perceived certainties’.

Maps can be a useful tool, but are neither true to the complexity of any landscape, nor free from assumptions about how to engage with a landscape. They can create an illusion of safety through the sense of being in ‘chartered territory’. They condition us to take notice of certain features and ignore others. Road, footpaths, streams and boundaries are included, but not the smells, sounds, and emotional responses to a landscape. They focus on unchanging landscape features, not the seasonal migration of birds, changing colours, or the life and death that inhabits every place. Although a map is never the territory, and a model not the reality, the implicit suggestion of both maps and models is that to map is to measure and name in order to know, and that to know is to control. The trend towards ever greater mapping and detailed measuring of our infinitely complex and changing world reflects the aim, since the Enlightenment, to attain a sense of safety through protecting ourselves from the mysterious. And the history of cartography is insidiously entangled with colonialism and global injustice. The mapping impulse is therefore an expression of what the DA initiator Jem Bendell has called the ideology of e-s-c-a-p-e. Likewise, the emphasis on carrying out ever more detailed research and analysis as a response to growing evidence of the catastrophe unfolding around us can be seen as a habit – even an addiction – for coping with feelings of extreme vulnerability.

As we witness both ecosystems and societies increasingly break down during the 2020s, so our processes of mapping and modelling are challenged. That is not only because those breakdowns reveal that we are neither ‘safe’ nor in control. Rather, the breakdowns are occurring because sufficient numbers of people, over centuries, have used the power of mapping life to exert a destructive power, and have not been able to understand our living world in order to make any meaningful efforts towards averting its destruction. The anticipation of societal collapse is therefore to acknowledge a crisis of epistemology, and a collapse of the hitherto dominant ways of seeking to know the world. That anticipation invites us to explore other ways of understanding life and our places within it. It means people become interested in relinquishing reliance on redundant and harmful mental ‘maps’ of who we are, who we are not, and how the world is, and begin to rediscover or restore forgotten ways of being and knowing. This means bringing the somatic, the affective, and the relational – the wisdom of our bodies, hearts and communities – wholly to bear on how we face into the unfolding predicament.

From my perspective, Deep Adaptation is primarily a container for dialogue that begins with an invitation to unlearn; to let go of our maps and models of the world and to not prematurely grasp at any new ones. That can be difficult, because a habit of needing fact, certainty, and right answers means people are often uncomfortable being with uncertainty or ‘not knowingness’. It is for that reason that alternative ways of relating in groups on all aspects of our predicament is so important. Which is why facilitation of group processes has been so central to Deep Adaptation, with modalities such as deep listening and deep relating.

Unfortunately, the difficulties of late capitalism, as more of us are pressured to compete with each other in distorted markets, while we increasingly perceive the turbulence both around and ahead of us, means that anxiety is increasing in many parts of the world and for many age-groups. Within our modern cultures, we have also been schooled to feel fearful of not knowing. A growing sense of vulnerability, due to increasingly precarious personal circumstances and perception of a more turbulent world, means we can grasp for ‘correct’ answers rather than allow for more ‘not knowing’ and more maplessness.

The great risk of such habitual responses is that they will lead more people to latch onto the simple stories offered to them by incumbent power, on the one hand, and opportunist contrarians on the other. Such processes could lead to even more extreme polarisation of mainstream public dialogue into various forms of xenophobia and authoritarianism versus conspiracies and cults. If that happens, societal disruption is likely to produce counter-productive responses that make matters worse. To help reduce that tendency, providing spaces for each other where we can build our resilience for experiencing difficult emotions such as the fear associated with uncertainty, and the anxiety of being with complexity, without grasping at quick and simple answers, is an important activity, and one I have been grateful to work on with many volunteers around the world over the last two years of the Deep Adaptation Forum, as well as bring to my teaching of leadership.

Katie is Senior Facilitator in the DA Forum. She will be co-facilitating a deep adaptation leadership course with Jem Bendell in July, in which these ideas are further explored. Download an academic paper where Katie and Jem discuss these ideas in more depth. Watch a video interview in which Katie explains her approach to facilitation for deep adaptation.

deep adaptation, facilitation, relinquishment, unlearning

Comments (5)

  • I like the term ‘maplessness’ as a way to try to encapsulate the state you describe. An advantage of approaching the future without predetermined objectives, as described by a ‘map’ of this type, is that you are always obliged to inhabit the future in a way that is responsive to the actual future you inhabit, rather than the one expected from the plan. There is then only further response from within the actually inhabited reality and no need for disappointment or frustration caused by unmet expectations. Conversely if the future encountered is more benign than may have been expected if a ‘map’ were used, this is a source of joy rather than merely a met expectation to be treated as if it were our due.

  • I love your words Katie ….

    As a shamanic practitioner and healer, yoga teacher and seeker, something I know more and more is that unless I arrive into any situation in and with ALL my bodies – by which I mean my physical body, my emotional body, my mental body, my spiritual body, my energy body – then I am only in part showing up. And as such, a significant part of my felt and embodied wisdom will be missing.

    The place of ‘something must be done and done now’, for instance, can be read as the response of a missing emotional body. That is to say when Mind does not want to have to deal with Emotion, and therefore steps into frantic states of doing, regardless of any proven efficacy. It becomes what can be called Spiritual Bypassing, in other words Avoidance. The narrative could be something along the lines of : I don’t want to feel helpless, afraid, bereft … and so I will busy myself to not feel what’s going on within me.

    It is only by arriving, one body at a time, until I stand here fully, wholly, and stripped naked of all my agendas, beliefs, concepts and habits, that I can be fully present in this moment with you, with Mother Nature, with the Plant and Animal Kingdom, with the Moon, the Stars, the Four Sacred Elements here, fully.

    And in that place of now-ness, of fullness and presence, Beauty, Art, Love, Compassion, Rawness, Ethic, Honour, Respect and Honesty are also present. And so we come into the presence of the Divine.

    My own intuition constantly tells me what will unfold will unfold. She says “you have your intrinsic soul-guided part to play and you know it. Beyond that, TRUST. It’s in the hand of the Mother Goddess, Pachamama, the Great Mystery. Do your part, and surrender.”

  • I think these ideas are abstract, speculative, and impractical, sometimes seeming to encourage or idealize ignorance, purposelessness, and inactivity. Of course scientific study of climate change is important to give us factual knowledge of the situation, and maps are just one useful tool in that. Of course slowing down is a good idea in many ways (e.g., manufacturing, consumption, doing business and pursuing profit as usual). But there are also ways it might be good to hurry (e.g., in learning more about ecosystems, environmental problems we’re causing, sustainable lifestyles, useful cultural adaptations, skills, & technologies, etc.). Also, people need practical, material help in developing a more sustainable culture and lifestyle; so, it would be better to try connecting with others globally to coordinate them so they can help each other materially to establish small enclave communities that are as self-sufficient as possible. Such communities could exemplify a better way of living, attract more and more people away from mainstream society, and challenge all its systems (both economic and ideological ones).

  • The bioreional movement that has its roots in the back to the land, intentional communities of the 60s and 70s, encourages mapping of the local landsape as a process of discovering the geology, hydrology, vegetation regimes, natural resources and human skills within the region in order to evolve resilient communities

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