The Power of Systems Thinking: Beyond the Reductionist Mindset

It is unfortunate that it often takes a crisis for us to become acutely aware of how interconnected the world really is. We see how everything is immersed in a web of interlinked systems ranging from the economy, natural environment, health systems to our own personal wellbeing. Each input is a unique part of the puzzle, and is connected to the system at large through a series of information flows and interdependent feedback loops.  

Systems are everywhere. We see them in the complexities in our own bodies to the harmony that exists in natural ecosystems. Every unique organism has its role to play in the sustainability and continuation of our vast and diverse natural habitats. The success of a well-functioning system is dependent on how well its parts are organized to achieve a common goal.     

In nature we never see anything isolated , but everything in connection with something else, which is before it, beside it, under it and over it.

Johan Wolfgang von Goethe
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Despite this, as a culture we have a tendency to be fixated on reductionist and mechanistic systems of thought. Take for instance how we structure our education systems. Knowledge is sliced into specific disciplines which an individual gain expertise in through their specialization.

However, the world is often messy, dynamic and in constant flux. Information can not fit into neat discrete boxes like we would like to imagine. Rather than focusing on the linkages and dependencies between the disciplines, educational institutions create specialists who don’t have the incentives to look beyond their narrow subject matter expertise.

The boundaries that we implement are of course important to organize society. They help us ensure that our institutions can work effectively and efficiently. Nonetheless, nothing exists in a vacuum and the borders we impose on reality aren’t as clear cut as they may seem on the surface. 

As systems thinker Donella H. Meadows mentions in her book Thinking in Systems: A Primer

There is no determinable boundary between the sea and the land, between sociology and anthropology, between an automobile’s exhaust and your nose. There are only boundaries of word, thought, perception and social agreement – artificial, mental-model boundaries.  

While these artificial containers provide us with stability and flexibility, a fixation on these mental constructs can blind us, making us naïve to the broader context and interdependencies of the situation. As the world continues to increase in complexity, our social systems and institutions need to be both adaptable and flexible to rapid change.

Thinking in systems forces us to examine things more methodically, and encourages us to avoid polarized ‘us against them ‘or ‘winner take all’ types of reasoning. We can see that problems don’t exist in isolation, and that quick fixes only lead to system instability or collapse in the future.  Moreover, this incentivizes us to think more deeply about issues to address root causes instead of symptoms.

Systems thinking compels us to ask the questions, why is it that the same type of economic, social or political crises happen again and again throughout history? What underlying behaviors and thinking is responsible for this type of ignorance?

 Our wellbeing is intrinsically linked not only to others but to the sustainability of the natural environment. Under this logic, we can see that relationships are the fundamental aspect of all life on earth. Everything which exists in this world is deeply integrated into a set of systems.

As social beings, we humans derive our identity through our interactions with families, friends, social groups, society at large and the natural environment. If we really appreciate and understand this concept, the narcissism and rampant individualism that drives our culture starts to fade. Egotism begins to seem illogical and contradictory as the ‘self’ is influenced and shaped by the quality of our connections with others.

Addressing the ideology of ‘short-termism’, greed and instant gratification which pervade our society and institutions is no easy feat. It all begins however with a shift in our thinking, an evolution of our values to understand how our lifestyles and choices are shaping the welfare others, as well as our future ancestors.

In a way we are the bridge between the past and the future. Our success is not entirely ours to boast. Each generation ‘stands on the shoulders of giants.’ As David Mitchell beautifully writes in his book Cloud Atlas,

Our lives are not our own. We are bound to others, past and present, and by each crime and every kindness, we birth our future.

To paraphrase Alan Watts, we are all just one wave in the midst of a boundless ocean.

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A Mindful Approach to Uncertainty: An Interview with Mindfulness Teacher Paula Vital

So much of our lives in spent trying to plan for the future and control the outcomes of events. We meticulously schedule our time expecting everything to unfold just as how we imagined.

Then 2020 came – the year of uncertainty. We realized that the world is indifferent to our preferences and desires. So how can we remain grounded and put things into perspective in this chaotic time?


I met Paula through the mindfulness program at my work, and reached out to her thoughts and insights on how mindfulness can help us deal with many of the challenges we face today.   

Paula Vital is an award-winning coach, speaker and writer dedicated to helping you move from striving to thriving by accessing the power of the present moment.  A lawyer by training and senior advisor in the Ontario Public Service, Paula is very familiar with the challenges of balancing a stressful work-life with time for family and self-care. 

Paula has been involved in health and wellness for over 20 years, and is a certified yoga teacher, Body Flow instructor, National Fitness instructor, and avid mindfulness practitioner and coach.

Paula has completed Levels I and II of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction training, has two yoga certifications (Classical Hatha and Vinyasa), attended numerous silent meditation retreats, and studied with world-renowned yoga and meditation teachers such as Sharon Salzberg, Phillip Moffitt, Stephen Cope and Michael Stone.  She is in the process of becoming an Internationally Certified Yoga Therapist (IAYT 2021).

Paula is committed to finding joy and balance in her own life and helping others to do the same.

You can learn more about her work through her free course of 3 Minute Meditations: 3 Minutes to Your Greatest Self on her website, www.livethepresent.ca.

  1. How did you first learn about and begin practicing meditation and other contemplative practices?

I was a lawyer on Bay Street and after having worked so hard to achieve that, I felt disappointed and let down by the experience. 

My whole life I had spent chasing after the next achievement, and eventually began to realize that no matter what I gained in the outside world – job success, travel, material goods, even relationships – there was nothing that was bringing me a true sense of contentment and satisfaction.

Luckily my sister meditated – and I thought that was so weird!  Why sit and do nothing when there is so much to DO!!!

But I ran out of options and got curious.  Together we did a course called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, based on the Jon Kabat-Zinn model.  During that course, I realized that there is value in just Being, and that I am more than my thoughts. 

This insight was revolutionary!  If I am more than my thoughts, and my thoughts are not always true or helpful, then who or what am I?

This was in 2006, and I have spent my life since that point exploring, and eventually teaching, that very question.  Once we can observe our thoughts without judgment, we realize our unlimited and interconnected nature, tapping into and endless wellspring of love, compassion and joy.

2. What changes have you noticed since you began practicing meditation?

My whole perspective on life is completely different!

I used to spend my days planning for the future and tackling my To-Do list, never feeling completely satisfied and always feeling rushed, and that I had not done enough.

Now, my only job is to reconnect with the present moment and the one that is observing the whole thing.  I then take one small action at a time and do it with complete love and surrender, to the best of my ability. 

Turns out that when we worry less about outcomes and relax our expectations about the future, a beautiful future unfolds effortlessly.

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3. The concept of ‘Acceptance’ or ‘Surrender’ is commonly discussed amongst spiritual practitioners such as Eckart Tolle. What does this idea mean to you?

We have no control over the outcomes of our actions.  We have full control over our intention and the actions that we take in the present moment.  Surrender is to let go of the fruits of your action, but completely devote yourself to bringing your full energy and heart to each and every moment.

Surrender also involves checking in at a deep level to see which is the correct action to take in each moment.  This requires practice and an increasingly deepening connection to the stillness or witness within. Your very own wisdom.

4. We are living in times of uncertainty amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. Many of us know family, friends and loved ones who have been impacted. Further, we don’t quite know when we will get ‘back to normal.’ What advice do you have to stay grounded during this time?

  • Have compassion for yourself.  This is a very difficult time!  Just getting up, getting dressed and getting through the day is an accomplishment.  Congratulate yourself for this.
  • Develop a very simple but nourishing self-care practice.  It could be a walk in nature, 5 minutes of deep breathing, a mindful cup of tea, or some gentle stretches… whatever makes you feel cared for.  Take care of yourself, and everything else will unfold.
  • Connect with another being in some way.  If you live alone, consider adopting a pet.  Human beings thrive on connection.  If you can’t see other people in person, find ways to connect online that are meaningful to you.  Write a letter.  Start a blog.  Whatever will get you in touch with the reality that we are never alone. Turn loneliness into solitude by recognizing your inherent interconnectedness with all beings.

5. Some have looked at this time as an opportunity critically look at how we were living prior to the pandemic and make broader societal changes. How can we create a more beautiful world after the pandemic? What changes do you hope to see?

There is always something to learn from difficult situations.  Here is what I have learned so far from Covid-19.

  • Working with uncertainty is a very helpful skill.  We can practice this in heaps right now.  We don’t know what tomorrow (or the next hour) will bring… how can we let go of the need to know and just enjoy what is already here?  My mother is dying, and each day that I am able to be with her I feel so blessed.  If we are breathing, there is more right with us than wrong with us.  Covid provides an opportunity to recognize this.
  • We go too fast.  In the pre-Covid days, we were all rushing here and there.  Rush rush rush. Never enough time.  For some of us, the cancellation of everything (and the realization that anything can be cancelled!) gave us a much needed breather and an opportunity to sloooooow down… slow is good.
  • Flexibility is the key to continuing to make a contribution.  I have needed to learn much more technology than I am comfortable with, and had to homeschool my kids while working during a large chunk of the pandemic.  I tend to enjoy plans, routines and structures, and while I still had these they often went out the window with crying and fighting children or zoom calls that dropped.  I learned to have a sense of humour and trust that things don’t need to be perfect.  I can adapt, we can work together, and somehow we will get through it all.  Working from home has been a huge gift to me as well!
  • Connections, connections, connections.  It is so easy to feel lonely and overwhelmed in this scary and unpredictable world.  But we are not alone!  We are all in this together, literally the whole world!!!  I have found ways to connect with teachers that I could only have dreamed of learning with as they now have offerings online, found a new yoga studio I never would have gone to as it is far away (but now virtual!), and cherished my friends and family and our loving connections, whether distanced or online.  Nothing is more important than our relationships, and Covid has taught us that.

Hopefully our post-Covid world will not forget these lessons of relaxing with uncertainty, slowing down, staying flexible, and connecting with others. And of course the environmental benefits!!!  May those continue!!!

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6.  Lastly, any final thoughts, books, articles etc. you would like to share?

Self-Compassion – Kristin Neff

When Things Fall Apart – Pema Chodron

Full Catastrophe Living – Jon Kabat-Zinn

We have no control over the outcomes of our actions.  We have full control over our intention and the actions that we take in the present moment.  Surrender is to let go of the fruits of your action, but completely devote yourself to bringing your full energy and heart to each and every moment.

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The Great Illusion of Separation

In modern industrialized societies it is easy to forget about our inherent connection to the natural world. Our finite attention is drawn towards our devices as media companies compete for our screen time. The online world has become ever more pervasive in our daily life as we have come to focus more and more on the images on our online profiles than the direct experience to the world around us.

 Further, the dense cities, crammed highways and large skyscrapers separate us from the awe-inspiring beauty of nature.  

Since the Age of the Enlightenment, humanity became convinced the it was the masters and conquerors of nature.  Nature wasn’t something that ought to be venerated, but rather used as a resource for our personal gain. We learned that we can use our brilliant technologies to increase our influence and control over the planet.

Separation

The writer and activist Charles Eisenstein notes that our view towards the natural world, and to others around us is influenced by ‘The Story of Separation.’ In modern societies, we don’t view ourselves as beings immersed in a multitude of interdependent complex systems. We see ourselves rather as separate individuals absorbed in a game in which we are competing for finite resources.

Economics theory tells us that we are rational utility maximizers who each seek to increase our material possessions in the search for everlasting happiness. The creed of individualism convinces us that we ought to adopt a competitive mindset in our personal and professional lives. We hear the echo’s of the mantra ‘Greed is Good’ – what is more for you is less for me.  

The more power we influence over natural process the more powerless we become before it. In a matter of months, we can cut down a rain forest that took ten thousand years to grow, but we are helpless in repulsing the dessert that takes its place.

James P Carse – Finite and Infinite Games
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Interbeing and Connection

What this modern narrative misses however is the complexity, connectedness and interdependence of the world.  This is something that is deeply ingrained in the worldview of some Indigenous cultures and religions such as Buddhism.

Indigenous peoples have a reciprocal and spiritual relationship to the earth. They understand that the health of the planet is directly correlated to our wellbeing. This attitude towards the world enables them to practice humility, reverence and reciprocity for all living things. Resources are used in a way which respects the natural environment consumed as something that is sacred. Likewise, there is an awareness of the necessity and responsibility towards future generations.

Similarly, the tradition of Buddhism recognizes the interconnectedness of all existence, rejecting the notion of an independent self. That is to say that the world is fundamentally molded and shaped by a myriad of relationships and connections.  

The Buddhist monk Thích Nhất Hạnh talks talks about this idea in his term ‘interbeing’. We are immersed in the systems and networks, and shaped by the qualities and characteristics inherited from our ancient ancestors.   

Our body is a community, and the trillions of non-human cells in our body are even more numerous than the human cells. Without them, we could not be here in this moment. Without them, we wouldn’t be able to think, to feel, or to speak….. The whole planet is one giant, living, breathing cell, with all its working parts linked in symbiosis.

Thích Nhất Hạnh

A helpful example to expand on Thích Nhất Hạnh’s idea can be seen in the important role bees play in maintaining our ecosystem. These little creatures pollinate approximately 70% of our crop species which feed about 90% of the world. What this implies is that their decline will have a domino affect in impacting food for the animal species who rely on those plants, and eventually inhibiting our own food supply.

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If we understand this idea on a personal level we begin to realize that our wellbeing is directly linked to the quality of relationships that we have with not only other humans, but other living beings as well as nature itself.

Our egos can begin to breakdown at the realization that the world we inhabit is composed of sophisticated systems and networks relying on the functioning of each organism and unit to function properly in harmony.

 A Shift in Values  

With the number of issues that we face in the 21st century, it feels like we are drifting further and further towards this ‘winner take all’ and ‘us against them mentality’.

However, we are in an era when our economic, political and social systems are becoming more interconnected .This becomes increasingly obvious to us in a global recession, war or in time of pandemic. 

So the key question I think that must be addressed in the 21st century is:

How can we shift from zero-sum (winner/loser) to positive-sum (winner/winner) relationships and build systems that encourage co-operation rather than fuel division?  [1]

Of course, this seems like a daunting question, but the answer begins with a shift in values from selfishness and greed to co-operation, from individual identify to empathy and community.

The responsibility falls on each and every one of us.

What kind of world do we want to create?

Source

[1] Of note, this question comes the writer/researcher/activist  Daniel Schmachtenberger who explores existential risk and the future of civilization in his research.  More information on his ideas can be found on his website: http://civilizationemerging.com/


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