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Deliberately Developmental Spaces: a key to addressing the Metacrisis?

The piece reflects Life Itself’s experience with practically creating developmental spaces in the last five years as well as our research, discussions and engagement with many others. We especially acknowledge ongoing discussions with Tomas Bjorkman and colleagues (whose terminology, borrowed from Robert Kegan’s ‘Deliberately Developmental Organisation’, we have unashamedly adopted and built on) as well as with Oren Slozberg at Commonweal.

By Theo Cox and Rufus Pollock

Introduction

In this time of metacrisis, development in individual and collective “being” is a top priority. But how do we achieve this? The short answer is we don’t know – evidence and theory in this area remains limited. Nevertheless, one promising approach is the creation of deliberately developmental spaces. This idea draws inspiration from a diverse set of sources including millenia old monastic traditions, the folk-schools of 19th-century Nordics as well as the varied experiments in intentional living more recently. In this piece we outline the key features of these spaces as well as some principles for their design and operation. 

A note on terminology

In this piece we will regularly talk about “being” both individual and collective. At the individual, personal1We actually prefer the term personal to individual as individual brings with it misleading ideas of the atomic individual. However, for the simple contrast to collective we have tended to use individual here. level “being” covers the whole spectrum of our “being in the world” including our cognitive, emotional and spiritual dimensions. It is synonymous with what other authors term consciousness or ego (e.g. Wilber, Graves, Loevinger etc).2E.g. Wilber tends to talk about consciousness cf Integral Spirituality where he talks of States of consciousness and stages of Consciousness etc. Thus, when we say “development in being” or “growth in being” one can read “development in consciousness” or “growth in consciousness” or “ego development”.

We use ontology and ontological in the sense of being concerned with the nature and development of being. Ontogenesis (the “genesis” of being) when used is to specifically denote the study or process of how being develops, i.e. the factors supporting or blocking it.

Collective being is the “being” of a group of individuals – its “body, mind and spirit”. This is a little vague and it is simplest to see collective being as roughly synonymous with what we term “culture”: the common network of conversations, practices, artifacts and behaviours of a coherent group. 3There is much, much more we could say here – the exact definition of culture is still something of a contested issue in the anthropological community. However, for the purposes of this article this rough definition is enough. For the study of culture and its evolution we use culturology and culturogenesis.

In this time of metacrisis, development of individual and collective “being” is a priority

We are in a time of metacrisis and transition. From the climate crisis to the meaning crisis it is clear that the old paradigm is breaking down. Addressing these challenges and transitioning to a new paradigm will involve an ecology of action with work across all sectors: technology, institutions and being both individual and collective (culture).

Whilst work will happen in all areas, we believe there is a priority to work on “being” – the “Primacy of Being”. Put simply: development of our individual and collective being has priority at this time. Our focus in this piece will be on the natural question that follows from this claim: how do we develop being? Hence, here we will not elaborate on the “primacy of being” thesis and those seeking a more detailed exposition can find one on the Life Itself website.

We still have much to learn about how being develops

If ontological development is so important it would be good to know how it happens and what we can do to support and nurture it.

We first need to acknowledge how little we know and how much there is to learn about the nature of ontological development. For example, at the individual level there is still much debate (and limited empirical evidence) on the dimensions and stages of development beyond childhood.4On the individual side, Wilber and the Integral movement present an impressive synthesis of a variety of existing developmental work e.g. Kegan, Kohlberg, Graves, Gebser, Cook-Greuter that provides compelling evidence for the existence of a variety of dimensions for development. However, the empirical base on which this rests remains slender – the best documented in the cognitive domain (e.g. Commons et al). And on the question of how that development happens (ontogenesis) our research remains at an early stage.5On the spiritual side there is obviously material to draw on: the many traditions which over millennia have cultivated a variety of practices for “waking up” (state development). However, we have had until very recently very limited rigorous sense of what works and what doesn’t – for example, it is really only in the last couple of decades that we have got solid evidence and insight around meditation and yoga.  At the collective level, i.e. culture, it is even more rudimentary: simply defining and “measuring” culture is still in its infancy and our empirical knowledge of how culture develops is barely existent.

Deliberately developmental spaces are one major, viable approach

All that said, we can make some good guesses on what could work based on existing research6To give one example that speaks to the group and physical colocation aspect. Development in being will involve (at a minimum) a) sustained engagement with developmental practices b) shifts in worldview. In addressing these we can draw on two basic psychological insights that have robust empirical support: a) even when we have a practice that we know will benefit us we tend to find it hard to do on our own but easier to do in a group (think of meditating or going running in the morning); b) we “believe together”, that is we tend to learn from and share the beliefs of those around us (or, conversely find it harder to think differently from those around us). and the examples and experience over the millenia. Examples include monasteries, Bildung schools in the 19th-century Nordic countries7See the Nordic Secret by Lene Andersen and Tomas Bjorkman (2017). or intentional communities in more recent times. There is also our own recent direct experience at Life Itself and we know there are other similarly focused groups in existence, for example the Monastic Academy (which has locations in Vermont, California and Canada) and K9 intentional co-living in Stockholm. We also see relevance for other communities who have interest in new forms of social organisation, for example ProtoB communities and those interested in the idea of a “metamodern monastery”.

Drawing on these, we can hypothesize three key characteristics for environments that would consciously support “development of being”:

1. Space. These environments are spaces in both a physical and temporal sense. They are a site for a group to live, work, practice and engage with one another with shared time that can be dedicated to these ends.  

2. Developmental. These environments are explicitly developmental spaces: their practices and activities revolve around fostering the growth of participants “ontologically”, both individually and collectively. As discussed above, ontological development is a shorthand for sustained development in the capacities which enable us to make sense of and engage with the world around us, particularly in how this relates to our own inner states. This can extend to more traditional education but also, and arguably more importantly, the domains often covered by spirituality and personal development such as emotional intelligence, self-knowledge and so on.

3. Deliberate. Development is intentional in that both the creators and participants are consciously orientated towards ontological development. This may not be the exclusive focus (as it is with. traditional monasticism, for example). However, it should be a clear, conscious and central component of their participation.

Putting this together we define  “deliberately developmental spaces” as:

Physically colocated groups together for a sustained period of time with a conscious engagement in multidimensional developmental praxis.

Key principles for the design of these spaces

In addition to these defining characteristics, we hypothesise the following principles which inform the design of these spaces to maximise their transformative potential at both the individual and social level.

Sustained: months rather than weeks

First, the experience should last months rather than weeks. The kind of sustained growth we seek requires extended engagement with practice and the group setting to properly develop. Practices, habits and shifts in worldview take time to fully embed in any context, and we expect the more time that can be spent with the messy interference and countervailing pulls of everyday reality minimised, the more likely this process is to succeed. 

Collective

Second, the spaces will be significantly collective or communal in nature (though not necessarily entirely so). Our relationship to the collective, and what this brings up in us as individuals, is both a significant challenge and one of the greatest stimulants to our inner growth. This is particularly true for the “interbeing” pillar, which we view as vital for any new social paradigm.

This collectivism also engages with the deeply social element of human nature, which causes our experience of the world to be bound up in the web of relationships and interactions we exist in. The more embedded in a given social context we are, the more likely this context is to impact our ways of being. This thread runs all the way from the cognitive science of human mimicry to the contagion of views and values outlined in some strands of social psychology. The implication of this is that, if we are to shift our ways of being, we must engage at the group, rather than the individual level.

Presence and praxis

Next, spaces will prioritise presence, praxis and felt experiences, particularly as they stand in contrast to theory and purely rational awareness. Despite the caricatures of rational agency which abound in our discussions of economics, and in mainstream discourse more broadly, we are creatures whose worlds are shaped by our feelings, and who cognise as much with our bodies as with our brains. From the role of emotion in social movement theory to the epiphanic transcendent potential of psychedelic and spiritual experience, it is that which lies beside or beyond thought which holds the greatest power to transform our ways of being. If we are to bring about these shifts, then we must focus on providing experiences we can feel deeply and strongly enough to have a catalytic effect.

Integral and multidimensional

We also believe that, to be truly transformative, an integral approach must be taken. This means addressing the various elements of human development holistically and interconnectedly, or, to use Wilberian terminology explicitly, a focus on practices which facilitate waking up, cleaning up, growing up and showing up together, rather than a mere focus on any one of these individually.

This means spaces would focus on engagement with (secularly) spiritual practices such as mindfulness and meditation, shadow work via psychotherapeutic or similar practices as well as other activities to develop sensemaking and other important capacities.

Empirical, open-minded and non-dogmatic

An empirical, open-minded and non-dogmatic approach is vital to ensuring that these spaces fulfill their social potential, not to mention are attractive enough to gain the requisite support. Whilst any given spaces will necessarily be informed by different traditions and teachings, one must avoid indoctrination and dogmatism.

Authenticity and critical freedom of thought are important characteristics unto themselves, but also it is notable that a great many teachings around transformation emphasise that it is a journey one must take oneself, and that can only be achieved through coming to realisations or sensual experiences distinct from what one has been told by others. Thus, deliberately developmental spaces must be structured as containers for exploration,capacity building and asking fundamental questions, rather than attempting to give answers..

Accessible and proximate

If the shifts stemming from residencies in deliberately developmental spaces are to translate into social change, then it seems likely that they must apply to some significant proportion of a given population. Thus, such spaces should be accessible and do their best to remain proximate physically and mentally to the mainstream.

This suggests they should be structured in such a way that a broad range of individuals can participate given the realities of their everyday lives. For example, while spaces may require months of engagement it is infeasible to ask the years and decades expected of monastics. Similarly, the opportunity to continue working (where one’s job allows, of course) while spending time in these spaces will greatly open up the potential for broader participation. 

This principle also implies that the practices, language and broader norms of the spaces are not so exclusionary or ‘out there’ that those less familiar with the ideas underpinning these spaces and approaches are unable or unwilling to engage with them.

Sangha and support

The spaces should create “sangha” amongst participants that sustains them both within the space and, even more importantly, outside and after it. Specifically, whilst the space itself is necessarily physically demarcated it should be embedded in a broader network of support ranging from practice centers to job boards that enable participants to sustain and deepen their growth beyond their time in the space.

The time seems ripe for this 

At Life Itself, we have been researching and trialling these kinds of spaces for several years. The definition and principles above draw on that experience and research as well as discussion and engagement with many others who share similar interests or are travelling similar paths such as the monastic academy or intentional communities such as Tamera.

We are now beginning a new phase of prototyping deliberately developmental spaces in the form of Praxis Hubs in Bergerac, France and in Berlin. These will begin with a series of experimental, co-curated residencies where participants can explore a variety of communally-centred practices ranging from sitting meditation and zen food preparation to collective intelligence and contemplative writing workshops.

Not only are we hoping to use these residencies to model and expose people to new ways of living and being together, but also to rigorously evaluate the impacts of the experience on participants’ ways of relating to themselves and the world around them. In this way, we hope to contribute to and begin to build an evidence base around these developmental efforts, and catalyse a dialogue around how we might use such spaces to shift ways of being in support of social transformation.

We also sense that this is a moment ripe for these ideas and models. Social and technological evolution accelerated by COVID has made “working from home” a reality for many. This in turns makes participation in a deliberately developmental space far easier as work can continue whilst participating. The growing visibility of our varied crises creates a steadily growing set of people viscerally aware of the dysfunction of the current system and in search of alternatives. A subset of  these sense the importance of being and are therefore seeking something like these spaces. Finally, there is a growing practical orientation from communities already strongly aligned with the idea of new social paradigms, for example the aforementioned focus on “ProtoBs” within GameB.

Further questions and looking forward

In closing, we are aware that this article only scratches the surface of the issues and avenues for exploration around intentional developmental spaces. Of particular importance as we move forward from higher level discussions around principles such as this one, are questions of implementation. Of particular interest are what physical form these spaces should take to maximise their developmental potential, how they might be funded to ensure they’re scaleable without collapsing simply into ‘luxury’ experiences for the privileged, how we should design experiments and evaluation frameworks which can both rigorously establish the impact of the spaces while being practical for real world use, and how we might marshall the learnings from other spaces and communities and apply them to new contexts. These are all questions we hope to address in our further work.

We really do know so little that there is immense value in research to learn what works and for whom (and when). We would be delighted to hear from any others engaged in similar enquiries, or who might have relevant knowledge, expertise or even simply interest. Until then, we would like to leave a provocation for all those who view inner transformation as a vital lynchpin to the transition: what do we do about it?

Colophon

This article was originally published by as an Emerge Insight Piece in the lead up to the 2021 Emerge Gathering. This version has some slight additions, primarily footnotes and formatting that weren’t compatible with Emerge’s system.