Schismogenesis—the creation of divisions—made futurist Rebecca Ryan’s well-curated Top 10 list of the trends that will define the next ten years. It’s natural, even wired into our nervous system, to sense boundaries that divide: self from other, my family from not-my-family, my favorite sports team, tribe, or political party from all the rest. Our reinforcement of those divisions can be fairly benign when held within a stabilizing context. We can passionately root for our favorite sports team, for example, without tearing apart society because at a deeper level we’re still united in respecting the rules of the sport or our love of the game.
But in other cases, schismogenesis does tear apart societies when we no longer agree on one set of rules, beliefs or facts. Moreover, the creation of divisions disrupts the effectiveness of collective action, hence the adage: united we stand, divided we fall. Were we living in a time when the collision of alternate realities was less fiery or the need for collective action less pressing, schismogenesis might matter less. But in a time of existential threats such as the climate crisis or runaway AI, schismogenesis could be our undoing.
Fortunately division has a countervailing force that is also natural and human, and well beyond the human world. One could call it the bonding force of love, or the unifying force of truth, or harmonizing with nature. This is not a soft, squishy, sentimental force, but one so powerful it can fuse atoms, regenerate landscapes, seal wounds, and heal the deepest trauma. To prevail over the fly-apart forces of schismogenesis, this time calls for enough leaders who can build even greater resonance behind loving, truthful, healing actions.
The term, “schismogenesis” is credited to the systems-thinking anthropologist, Gregory Bateson, who recognized that organizations, systems and societies interact via feedback loops. When those are positive feedback loops, that is, where more leads to more, the system is unstable and headed toward disruption. Examples include an arms race between countries or the AI race between companies, where the more one does, the more others do to push ahead in a winner-take-all race. Extractive business models are also based in positive feedback loops where the more one extracts value from an undervalued resource (like the earth), the more money one makes and the more one can extract. The division of wealth is similarly fueled by positive feedback loops where it takes money to make money and those with wealth have vastly more ways to multiply it. Bateson recognized that to avoid schismogenesis, the relationships within an unstable system have to be restructured to mitigate excesses (e.g., with negative feedback loops) and restore harmony.
Living systems give us plenty of examples of what restored harmony looks like. For example, eating delicious food gives us positive feedback that makes us want to take another bite until we start to get signals, i.e., negative feedback, that we’ve eaten enough. Viruses enter a host and start multiplying in positive feedback loops that, unchecked, would kill the host. But they also alert the host’s immune system that acts as a negative feedback loop in producing antibodies.
The challenge in our social, economic and political systems is that more leading to more is considered a good thing by those who benefit—it’s the American Dream, a sound investment, being too big to fail—even if it destabilizes the climate, destroys ecological systems or unleashes a runaway technology. Adding another destabilizing loop of positive feedback, the greatest benefactors of more leading to more are also more protected from the climatic, technological and worldly instabilities they’re contributing to. For some, instability and chaos are good for business. Political parties learned decades ago that they could raise more money and win more votes by demonizing and dividing the other side than by cooperating. In her book, Prequel, Rachel Maddow makes the case that sowing divisions is the runup to power for autocrats, even as it’s the demise of democracy. So, for some, schismogenesis is not an unintended consequence, but a deliberate strategy.
Unfortunately, when used in this way, it’s a strategy that takes us backwards in our development, happiness and health, and certainly in our ability to address complex, existential threats. We devolve to a more primitive stage of development where we feel more separate and tribal, rather than connected and inclusive. We descend to more negative emotions such as rage, fear and greed and feel less positive emotions like gratitude, awe and joy. We decline in wellbeing, characterized by more rigidity and chaos, to use psychiatrist Dan Siegel’s terms, and less flow and harmony.
If we are to live true to the evolutionary impulse that flows through us and grow up, rather than down, we will lift up the healing power of love, truth and harmony. While that may seem soft as compared with the war-like aggression of autocrats, its strength lies in resonance with larger forces and connection to wisdom. As Integral Theory reminds us, each successive stage of growing up can solve problems that were intractable at the previous stage as it embraces a bigger picture and, ultimately, the whole picture. The science of resonance reminds us that we are changed by what we vibrate with. When we attune to nature, for example, we become increasingly informed by nature. When we attune to creating healing relationships or restoring harmony, we become increasingly wise in ways to do that.
The pressure of this time creates both the threat of devolving to medieval mindsets and the opportunity of evolving to lead as a force of nature. How might we resource ourselves to land on the side of growth? Here are a few best practices.
Find Places In Nature You Love And Let Them Inform You
Waves lapping on sand, a great oak tree, a busy squirrel, the moon reflected in water—any of these could be a teacher we resonate with and hence learn from. Immersing ourselves in nature, it’s a good practice to first honor our connection by asking permission to be there, to listen, to learn. Perhaps we put a question to this beloved place or being. Slowing our breathing, expanding our awareness 360-degress to be totally attuned externally and not in our heads, we wait. We watch. We hear. We feel. We breathe in the scent of the place. We may receive something of a download related to our question—or not. We will certainly come away feeling more restored and connected.
We can extend this connecting practice by tuning into each person we interact with as a seamless extension of our self, sensing their rhythm and interacting with respectful reciprocity. We can extend this to the non-human world as well and treat every being, every thing, with this reverent quality of one-withness. This intention fosters a quality of listening and responsiveness that helps us get on the same wavelength with others and work harmoniously with larger forces, aligning our sails with the wind.
At the Institute for Zen Leadership (IZL)*, for example, we cultivate one-withness in the practice of meditation, using hara breathing and posture to create a condition where the illusion of separation falls away and what’s left is one-withness (i.e., samadhi). We also extend this to everyday acts of leadership as we, “Become the other, go from there.” Breathing, standing, or walking as the other helps us feel what they’re feeling and better sense how to move forward with them. Actions from this place of no separation are more likely to be loving, healing, harmonizing actions.
Build Resonance With Like-Hearted Others
We can extend this sense of connection or one-withness further still as we join with like-hearted others in communities of practice. Resonance builds as we lift up one another’s voices, learn from each other and create a contagion of loving, healing, harmonizing actions. Divided, we are turned around by circumstances; united, we turn circumstances around.
As an example of this at IZL, the more we live into our purpose to equip leaders with these connecting practices, the more we find other like-hearted organizations with whom we can foster connections and be of service. Moreover, those relationships get stronger as we do purposeful work together, for example hosting or participating in one another’s events and helping more people find practices and communities they resonate with. Kosha Joubert at The Pocket Project positions this growing resonance as a “global healing movement,” which they champion through such efforts as an annual summit to cultivate connected consciousness. Similarly, Wisdom Weavers of the World is building harmonizing resonance through a series of Indigenous-led events culminating in a grand ceremony of reconnection and reconciliation. Another approach comes from World Systems Solutions, which is integrating AI technology and connected consciousness to create a new kind of utility to build resonance around collaborative solutions to the climate crisis.
As we face existential threats like climate and AI, we will see a split in human reactions—a schismogenesis in its own right. On the one hand we will see some people fall back into more primitive forms of living and leading, hoarding what power and wealth they can to be the “last man standing.” We will also see others use crisis as an evolutionary impetus to leap forward, manifesting connected wisdom that can heal relationships with nature and one another and build resonance around loving, truthful actions. Here’s to all committed to growing up.
*The author is the founder of the Institute for Zen Leadership.