Collective Presencing

The beating pulse of my last six weeks has been the Embodied Book Club at the Stoa, where a group of us have been reading Ria Baeck’s Collective Presencing book. Since I started my “self-directed masters”, reading and breathing Collective Presencing has been the greatest and most surprising gift: there was a strange synchronicity to how I was becoming-with it, where the chapters I read would mirror my lived experiences and insights. Reading it has also left me feeling transformed in a way that’s hard to explain: I’m exploring new sensing muscles/organs/capacities that I haven’t encountered before. This is simultaneously a homecoming to something I’ve always known, and leap off an edge into a vast new potential space that I’ve never known.

To be honest, I procrastinated on writing this entry because doing justice to Collective Presencing matters to me. My experience of Collective Presencing transcends words, it is embodied.

Learning to embrace the glory, pain and pleasure of embodiment is still relatively new in my life. As little as 5 years ago, I joked about my desire to become a “brain in a vat”, a disembodied consciousness uploaded from the physical suffering of the mortal coil. I felt betrayed by my stormy emotions and the way they made me feel out of control and disconnected from my level-headed intellectual brain. I’m realizing now that I was also afraid of and ashamed of being a woman – of being trapped in a body that cramps and bleeds every month, whose fleshly body feels unsafe around others. 

I can dig a lot deeper into my reconciliation with womanhood and the wildness within me (I also have thoughts about the influence of Catholic-Chinese-Confucian upbringing, in predominantly yang and historically patriarchal Western society, growing up with spiritual traditions that focus on the mortification of the flesh, the transcendence of our fleshly earthly bodies) but that’s a journal entry for another time. Now, I’m learning to love embodiment. I want to source from the powerful wildness within and become animal as David Abrams would describe it. I want to feel and know from the flurry of sensations, feelings and vibrations that course through my body, that carry bottomless information about my self and the way I relate to the world. Suffice it to say, Collective Presencing has been a significant part of sensefully recognizing the qualities of yin leadership that I’ve always tried to quell, of focussing on collective rather than individual leadership, of following relationships rather than outcomes. 

Perhaps this phase-change in my embodiment is best described by digging into how a session of Collective Presencing makes me feel: 

Being in Collective Presencing is very quiet, and very gentle. Somehow, a group of 25-30 people over zoom, with no order of speaking, are able to listen to each other deeply, and know when they are called to speak. The knowing doesn’t come from waiting your turn, it comes up when you sense the truth in your body – for me, it’s a slow build up of vibrational energy: my heart rate is faster, I start feeling hot and cold at once; my chest clenches with a feeling akin to anxiety, my head feels full, my body starts trembling. And my head – my head is so buzzing with so much energy that it’s no longer thinking in a stream of thoughts, so the information I receive is from sensation. 

The radical thing that Ria introduces in “generative” conversation, is the notion that you don’t have to know what you want to say before you say it. I am on the knife’s-edge of not knowing. So I trust myself and the container of the group enough to take a leap of faith and start speaking. Every time, I surprise myself with what emerges. 

When I speak, I feel the gravity of my presence in my bones. My voice is deeper and slower, the words are sourced into something deep inside me.  It feels like I’m walking down a spiral staircase into a deep bottomless well, and I realize that it is infinite and cyclical: the end is the beginning. Then there, in the depth of this expansive infinite space, I find a sense of home in the groundless ground. 

In Collective Presencing, I open myself up to feel when others share. Every time someone speaks – whether it’s an expression of sadness, pain or joy –  there is a sense of time being suspended and we hold the energy around that person with compassion and curiosity. When I watch the individual’s face on the zoom screen, everyone else’s faces fall into the background: the person sharing comes alive and I am transported to be with them. When I deeply presence, listen and truly receive what someone is vulnerably sharing, it feels like waves of empathy crashing over me. There is so much information in what shows up, but I resist thinking too much about it, and trust that it’s held and processed in my heart and body.

Suddenly, the words entanglement or interpenetration are just cool intellectual ideas, but they are deeply and sensorially felt. We are tentacular creatures, weaving in, out and through each other in constantly shifting tendrils. 

One of the ways I’ve been able to describe the experience of Collective Presencing to someone who hasn’t done it is by referencing a scene (s2e4) from the show Fleabag, where she goes to the a Quaker meeting with her priest and everyone is instructed sits silently and hold their peace unless they are moved to speak. She kind of scoffs in the beginning, but then suddenly stands up– not of her own accord – and blurts out that she wishes she had bigger breasts. I reference it because it is a hilarious and irreverent moment of genuine honesty, and I also love how Fleabag describes it to be surprisingly “erotic”. This matches a note in chapter 6, where Ria compares holding creative tension to Western Tantric practices: “Holding intensity means holding the bubbling energy – this feeling of being totally alive – and you can always choose to go one more step further before surrendering to a final release.” Damn. 

When I surrender myself to being present in the moment – which means letting go of the desire for knowing, for the control and safety of scripts – I open myself up to source something truly emergent and spontaneous. I described it to a friend as “living aliveness into every moment.” It’s living into kairos time, an ancient Greek word meaning “the right, critical, or opportune moment.” The “rightness” of the moment is transcendent of expectations, pre-judgements and scripting around “who I am supposed to be” or what I am supposed to say”.  While chronos is quantitative, kairos has a qualitative, permanent nature. As Ria describes: 

As we slow down, we learn to live in both Kairos and Chronos at once. We release ourselves from planned time and allow ourselves to inhabit a more unstructured time-space, never letting go of our intention. As we hold this awareness in us, this specific kind of knowing and consciousness becomes embodied in us and we can stay present in the ‘fast-forward’ world in a more conscious and grounded way.

I work in a space that brands itself as “systemic design”, and we are very enamoured by scripts, approaches and methodologies to incite innovation (!!!!) and novel solutions (!!!) to our very complex entangled problems. We gather huge amounts of data, and attempt to make sense of it by creating elaborate maps of complex systems to fill the Borgesian Library. We believe that by reaching higher heights with more mapping, we will finally achieve the bird’s eye view and see the perfect leverage points to get ourselves out of the labyrinth and find the light. But I get the sense that we’re spinning out further and further into our elaborate towers of babel, further unrooted from territory. 

For me, opening up to and sourcing the profound mystery of Collective Potential is its radical counterweight. It embodies stepping inside of ourselves (rather than outside), and a movement downwards (rather than upwards) to our shared roots, sourcing from something much deeper. Ria takes us through the journey of ever-widening circles (a la Rainer Maria Riilke), rippling outwards from developing authentic relations (Circle of Presence) with the self (I and Myself), the other (I and You), the collective (I and Us), the possible (I and Potential), and then a leap of faith towards creation (Circle of Creation). 

The real ambition of  Collective Presencing to “build collective capacity for generative action”, to unlock the pregnant potential of collective creation/poesis: “bringing something into being that did not exist before.” Becoming collectively present is one thing, but to become collectively creative? This is what ignites the fire in me. It’s never felt more true that humans and the more-than-human need to live into radically new daseins, plural ways of being-in-the-world that look and feel fundamentally different from the Modernist cosmology that centers the human. 

When Ria Baeck describes what can be possible when we are in right relationship with collective potential, it’s nothing short of revolutionary.  Perhaps we are on the brink of a mutation, or a phase-shift in consciousness that Philosopher Jean Gebster describes below: 

Mutations have always appeared when the prevailing consciousness structure proved to be no longer adequate for mastering the world. This was the case in the last historically accessible mutation which occurred around 500 BC and led from the mythical to the mental structure. The psychistic, deficient mythical climate of that time presented a threat, and the sudden onset of the mental structure brought about a decisive transformation. In our day the rationalistic, deficient mental structure presents an equal threat, and the breakthrough into the integral will also bring about a new and decisive mutation.

And the thing is, Collective Presencing is simultaneously so ambitious, yet so humble. We can talk about this transformation of consciousness with the ambition of its very Yang counterparts, for example, the Metamodernism or Game B communities. But what I love about Collective Presencing is that it is radically simple: what is being asked of us is “full participation into life”, or as my Daoist ancestors describe: “let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like.”

When we step in alignment with our soul’s calling, we can act, and create with the flow. Actively living into the emergent moment is as much an act of surrender as much as it is a leap. You trust yourself, with the utmost humility to become what Bonnitta Roy describes as “the first mover” in the churning currents of change.

Becoming First Mover

It no longer feels selfish for me to slow down in these times of urgency (as Bayo Akomolafe would describe: Slowing down is not a function of speed, it’s a function of awareness): to meditate, to move my body, be openly curious without seeking to know, to go to therapy, to be moved by music (A change is gonna come – Sam Cooke), to laugh and cry, journal and draw, dance and make art. Ria read the following quote three times during one of our sessions, and I could read it every day, again and again: 

We can have the highest degree of authentic self-esteem just by being completely ordinary and average. Then we say to ourselves as to our beloved: That you are, is enough. What you are is a gift. How you are is a delight. Who you are is a ‘a mystery’.

— Yasuhiko Genku Kimura

I am a mystery. I am a constellation of relationships. I dance with others on groundless ground. I break old patterns and birth new ones. I am a shaman summoning the sacred, and a shapeshifting Loki poking fun at it at the same time. I choose to make meaning in the void, and trust that the universe is conspiring to help me. 

This is the visceral, bleeding edge of where I want to practice as a designer and as a facilitator. I want to hold container spaces where we can feel brave enough to step up to the edge of the event horizon, take a discerning leap away from the safety of the known, and unleash the cascading potential of infinite possibility. This is a life’s learning journey, and I am a young student learning through an ecology of different spaces and practices: 

Currently, one of my most cherished spaces is the collective midwifing of the Spiritual Innovation Sangha, a circle of four friends and “designers” (Peter, Zaid and Natalija) who are drawn to the role of the sacred and the divine in how we intentionally co-create worlds together. I want to share the breakthrough moment of how it started, and how it continues to unfold in endlessly surprising ways. 

The Sangha was catalyzed through a thread that I posted on twitter where I described the desire to: “move “down to earth” (in Latour’s terms), sinking into embodied ways of knowing, into deep and slow time, of exploring my calling as a designer and human” where “the world I want to create requires a leap of faith with every breath. A leap where how i choose to be in the world — guided by a compass that foregrounds care and interconnectedness across generations and species — might resonate with others.” 

I wrote this twitter thread on the morning of August 17, 2020, typing it all out on a picnic blanket in a park with no forethought or pre-planning, following the sudden rush of inspiration. For me, it was the beginning of paying attention to my “soul’s calling”, a voice that compels me to shed scripts and performative identity, and to source honestly and authentically from deep potential.

That day, I became a first mover, and I’ve been moving and shaking ever since.