By Professor Stuart B Hill, originally published in Issue #2 of Pip magazine.
The aim of this article is to explain why sometimes actions fall short of professed high ideals, or even contradict them. It’s about psychological processes rather than just competence, some at a subconscious level, which can disappoint and lead to cynicism over time.
Each journey starts with a first do-able step
I believe it is important to prevent subconscious interference from undermining the theory and practice of permaculture. It became clear to me, many years ago, that most practitioners were held back by ‘unhealed psychological stuff’. This was affecting their creativity, and led to unfortunate tendencies to: promise too much, postpone action, blame others, fail to collaborate, and eventually suffer from burnout. So I started offering workshops on ‘Permaculture of the Inner Landscape’.
Everyone is psychologically ‘wounded’ during their lives, and few recover properly. Meaningful action originates from the psychologically ‘unwounded/healed self’. Most of what we do is compromised by subconscious censoring of our unwounded thoughts; and by the patterns of behaviour that, paradoxically, enabled us to survive our hurts (e.g. denial, pretending, postponing, changing the subject, blaming others). Unwounded actions are characterised by empowerment, awareness, clarity of vision and values, and love. However, in wounded actions one can recognise: disempowerment (e.g. postponement, failure to take responsibility, actions to impress and control); lack of awareness (e.g. narrow, shallow and short-term focus); confused and compromised visions and values; and actions in response to fears (mostly unacknowledged). All our endeavours, including permaculture, are affected and undermined by these processes.
The only way to change this for the better is to work on one’s own recovery, and to support and collaborate with others in their recovery; and, by doing this, participate in enabling our species to progress in its ongoing psychosocial evolution, towards our full potential.
Many crises and challenges facing the planet, our communities, businesses, families and ourselves are interrelated. And it is clear that the dominant, fragmented and curative (back-end) problem-solving approaches must eventually give way to integrated, proactive (front-end) approaches. These should aim to design and manage systems, to enable their recovery, and the maintenance of wellbeing at all levels.
Enabling meaningful personal change
To achieve meaningful personal change we must expand the boundaries of our habitual thinking and action; be open to major paradigm shifts, and the transformation of all of our institutional structures and processes (particularly business, government, and health and education systems). Achieving this as a species – and within our nations, communities and families – will require us to engage in profound personal change. And for that we need more opportunities for transformative learning, and access to healing therapies, supportive spaces and initiatives that enable us to act on our potential.
There are many ways to engage in such profound change; and what works for one person may not help another. However, all approaches must allow awareness of what characterises our wounded and unwounded thoughts and actions; and stop us denying the former. Then we need to try to contradict our undermining patterned behaviours, and become engaged in the ‘small meaningful initiatives that we can guarantee to carry through to completion’ that emerge from this process.
People often give up because they habitually say they will do things that are simply too large, so sooner or later those are abandoned. Each journey starts with a first do-able step, and it does not matter what it is. For example, if the only thing that you can absolutely guarantee to do after reading this article is to share it with someone you love or care about, and discuss it with them, then you will have taken that important first step. The next step might emerge from that discussion and associated reflection.
Bring about meaningful change
In 2007, after years of facilitating processes to envision and implement ‘progressive’ change, and continuously aiming to achieve better outcomes, I designed a paradoxical approach that has proved to be amazingly effective. It is based on lying: pretending that one has implemented a change. I’ve found that, while accumulated (unhealed) psychological wounds and vulnerability to current contextual limitations compromise a vision, bold lying bypasses such undermining and generates futures thinking that is closer to the participant’s real (deep, core) values and priorities. Through questioning, these creative ideas are then connected to actual past initiatives, and achievable next steps are clarified and planned, in detail. A commitment is then made to take a first step towards implementation. At subsequent meetings, progress is celebrated, and any difficulties resolved.
The lying exercise
The ‘bold lying’ approach avoids simply tinkering with the status quo. By daring to engage in deep reflection and committing to practical action, we can contribute to changing the world for the better. Here’s how:
First think about meaningful change: what issue do you most want to focus on at the moment? What do you most love about … (whatever that is)?
Ground rules for the exercise
- capture the very first (uncensored) thoughts
- focus on just one, two or three things (not a long list)
- in pairs, take turns to think and listen, take equal and adequate time; if in threes, third person can keep notes
- express in words, and/or drawings, sounds … (whatever works for you)
- note all associated thoughts, feelings, images, memories …
Then tell your ABSOLUTE lies
What are two things that have ‘happened’ over the past year (that have actually not happened) that have made significant contributions to addressing your chosen issue? Include:
- something significant that you – alone or with others – have done
- something significant that has been done nationally, regionally or internationally.
Next, consider one thing that you have actually already done, or are currently doing, that in any way relates to one or both of your lies.
And what’s one thing that you have wondered about doing or would really like to do next to address the issue?
What might be a possible next step or action that could help to make one or both of your lies become a reality?
What would you need to have access to in order to be able to take this next step – for example information, skills, resources, supports?
How might you go about getting these things that you would need?
What might be the barriers that stop you:
- external (e.g. judgements by others, lack of support)
- internal (e.g. fears, feeling incapable, lack of confidence, postponement patterns)?
How might you get around or overcome these external and internal barriers (e.g. by reducing the size of the initiative to make it more doable)?
Other strategic questions to ask include:
What small meaningful, do-able initiative(s) are you willing to absolutely commit to? Over what time frame?
Who will you ask to help you, or to collaborate with you, in this project; and what will you ask them to do to support you?
How will you celebrate your progress and outcomes so that others may learn from your initiative and experience (to make such progressive change become contagious)?
What have you learned from participating in this exercise?
 discussed briefly in the Afterword to Permaculture Pioneers (2011, Melliodora Publishing Hepburn Springs ).
Stuart’s invitation to the permaculture community, to begin to look within, was the initial inspiration for Permaculture Pioneers: Stories from the new frontier which charts the history of the first three decades of permaculture through the stories of some of it’s early adoptors.
Emeritus Professor Stuart B. Hill – Psychologist, environmentalist, permaculturist and much more, Stuart B Hill has been at the ‘People Permaculture’ edge for two decades. Hill was the Foundation Chair of Social Ecology at the University of Western Sydney and wrote the forward to Holmgren’s ‘Principles and Pathways’ .
His background in chemical engineering, ecology, soil biology, entomology, agriculture, psychotherapy, education, policy development and international development, and his experience of working with transformative change, has enabled him to be an effective facilitator in complex situations that demand both collaboration across difference and a long-term co-evolutionary approach to situation improvement. He has published over 350 papers and reports. Some of his PPT presentations can be found at: stuartbhill.com