Beyond the Enlightenment

Robert Gilman
Founder and President, The Context Institute
Robert Gilman
Founder and President, The Context Institute

What mindsets took hold in Western culture during the Age of Enlightenment? What are the their blind spots that inhibit our ability to address the greatest challenges of today?  How might we expand on what The Enlightenment had to offer?

Show Notes

Our guest for this episode is Robert Gilman, founder of the Context Institute. Robert is a pioneer in the sustainability movement and an elder in our midst. His career began with 30 years in astrophysics, so he is deeply versed in the mindsets of scientific thinking.

Robert is particularly interested culture and cultural change. He sees us in a moment of significant transition towards what he called the Planetary Era, where we live in harmony with our inner guidance, each other, and nature.

In this episode Jenny and Robert discuss:

  • Culture as a living, complex, adaptive system [3:18]
  • Major periods of distinct culture across the history of humanity [5:39]
  • The Age of Enlightenment and modern culture [10:05]
  • Describing the Age of Enlightenment [10:36]
  • The blind spots of the Age of Enlightenment [12:53]
  • The Age of Enlightenment and dominance [15:02]
  • Weakening of dominance hierarchies in modern culture [24:00]
  • Breaking out of the monopoly of language and linguistic thinking [28:00]
  • The Planetary Era [36:16]
  • Increasing self-awareness and self-compassion [37:45]
  • Moving beyond object perception and categorical thinking [38:01]
  • Understanding and integrating childhood trauma [39:05]
  • Polyvagal Theory [40:17]
  • Five optimal qualities to move towards [43:06]
  • Five pervasive childhood traumas and the unproductive patterns that result [44:49]


Robert Gilman (RG): We're at a place where the success of the Age of Enlightenment ideas has given birth to a culture that is beyond what the Age of Enlightenment can handle. And so, I see our challenge at this point in time to, in some ways, stand on the shoulders of the Age of Enlightenment. Not toss it aside. But also, really have a clear understanding of what its limitations are, what its blind spots are."

[00:00:33] Jenny Stefanotti (JS): That's Robert Gilman. He's the Founder and President of the Context Institute and a pioneer in the sustainability space. This is the Denizen Podcast. I'm your host and curator, Jenny Stefanotti. 

In this episode, we're discussing cultural change. In particular, we're looking at the Age of Enlightenment, the world views that it brought forth that continue to prevail today, how they fall short of what's needed to address the global challenges we face, and how we might move beyond it. 

Our guest for this episode is Robert Gilman. He's an elder in our midst. He's been working in the sustainability space since the 1970s. The first phase of his career was actually as an astrophysicist. He very much lived in the scientific worldview that arose from The Enlightenment. But after 30 years in the physics world, he realized that “The stars could wait but the planet couldn't” and he embarked in a new phase of his career in the then nascent field of sustainability. 

Robert founded the Context Institute in 1979. In 1983, he began publishing a journal called In Context, A Quarterly of Humane Sustainable Culture. That has given Robert exposure to a wide background in all aspects of sustainability development for decades. 

He also teaches a course at the Context Institute called Bright Future Now, which provides the framework, skills, and experience to foster systems change. The course integrates change at the personal and global level and is very much aligned with Denizen's work. They are actually a partner of ours. Robert has been at the forefront of this movement for nearly 50 years, it's a real honor to host him on this podcast. 

In this conversation, we discuss Robert's views on cultural change, the blind spots of The Enlightenment, how language shapes are our worldviews, and the need to move away from a monopoly on language and linguistic thinking to integrating linguistic thinking with visual and kinesthetic thinking, what Robert calls the Planetary Era, where we embody harmony within, with others and with nature versus where we are today and where we have been for the last 5,000 years, which is characterized by dominance over those three things. 

We discuss Robert's course, Bright Future Now, which addresses the deficiencies he outlines in Enlightenment culture and supports learning a new way of thinking and being. This includes self-awareness and self-compassion, thinking in systems, understanding the impact of pervasive childhood trauma, and connecting to our inner compass. 

There's a lot here that ties to and builds upon last week's episode on nonviolent communication, such as reconnecting to our bodies, fostering a field of human relationality where we feel safe, and building confidence in the guidance of one's inner compass. 

I hope you enjoy soaking up all the wisdom that Robert has to offer in this episode. 


[00:03:05] JS: What we're really going to get into today is exploring The Enlightenment, the limitations of it and what it would look like to move beyond it. Robert, welcome. It's so, so good to have you. 

[00:03:18] RG: Thank you, Jenny. Let me start by saying that, back in the 80s when I was really focused on the journal In Context, A Quarterly of Humane Sustainable Culture, one of the things that we did was to really try to look around for where were the interesting sprouts of what might be emerging in terms of a viable future culture. 

In that process, it was a very strong sense that the issues we were facing as humanity, at their root, had to be looked at in the wholeness of culture. It wasn't just that there were economic issues. It wasn't just that there were environmental issues. One of the things that I like to somewhat provocatively say is that there are no environmental problems. There are only environmental symptoms of human problems. 

And when I say human problems, I don't mean just individual human problems. I mean cultural problems. And so, that got me very much on the track of trying to understand “Where are we in culture and how do we get here? What are the dynamics of it?” And that got me into cultural history. But not the story so much because I wanted to understand culture as a dynamic system. And more and more, I got to understand culture as a living system, as a complex adaptive system. 

And so, that's really shaped my sense of trying to identify patterns and how those patterns have shifted. And those of you who know about biological evolution may have come across the idea of punctuated equilibrium in evolution. The way in which, in complex adaptive systems and living systems, you sometimes get a fairly significant transition from one state to another state. But then you'll get into what winds up being a relatively stable state that continues for some period of time. 

And so, that's the kind of patterns that I wound up feeling were there in the human cultural record going back tens and tens, could be hundred thousand years. I want to be able to describe the pattern that is a pattern of stable cultural states and then transitions between them. 

And the first really long stable cultural pattern that we know of for humanity is nomadic hunting and gathering, which went on for as far back as you want to count humans. And certainly, seems to have been there up until about 13,000 years or so ago pretty universally around the planet. 

And that was a pattern that was characterized by the livelihood of hunting and gathering. The social organization was based around kinship. And the high-tech form of communication, if you will, was voice. And so, there are a lot of different specific qualities between various different hunting and gathering cultures, but they all share that. 

And then in the Middle East, around 13,000 years ago, somewhere in there began to get a shift, a transition began away from that, that had the beginnings of agriculture and the beginnings of settlement. And even though those things emerged slowly at first, there was a momentum to them that wound up carrying the patterns of culture off in a different direction. The shift began with what you can call a change in livelihood. And even that wasn't dramatic. It was just the gathering part sort of blended into more and more gardening, which blended into more and more agriculture. And the hunting part gradually diminished. That's how it started. And it wound up through that – because when you moved into settlements, you could provide food for more people per acre –  there were a variety of things that happened with settlements that allowed the population to grow. 

And as the population grew, you wound up changing the dynamics between people. You could no longer really know all of the other people in your town. Once you go past a few hundred people, you can't really know them in the way that you could in a smaller setting. And it begins to shift us into a more abstracted relationship to each other. And that opened the door to a much more hierarchical pattern in the society. 

And it wasn't until the end of that transition that people started doing more, first, accounting and then shifted into the development of writing. And so, about five thousand years ago, we got to the point where we have cities writing and the military bureaucracy. And that starts another long stable period that I like to describe as the Empire Era. Or more precisely we could describe it as the Agrarian Empire Era that shows up with another set of characteristics that are the same whether you're talking about Central America, or India, or China, or the Middle East. And that's that all the livelihood is agriculture. 90% of the population is involved in agriculture. The basis of social organization is violence and force, religiously-sanctioned hierarchy. And this is where we connect with Riane [Eisler]. And the high-tech form of communication is now writing. And it's an elite form. 

And that pattern persists for at least four thousand years until you get to the Renaissance. And then things start shifting again. Again, it starts slowly and it's not necessarily all that obvious. And I want to make sure that I say that just because it starts in Europe doesn't mean that this is necessarily Euro-centric. Europe was a place where it could start because Europe was a backwater. And so, it didn't have the defense mechanisms in place to prevent the outbreak of innovation. 

But once it got rolling, it wound up moving again away from those patterns. And what I feel looking at that whole sequence is that we are in this transition now that is as deep as the shift out of hunting and gathering, the Age of Enlightenment, which marked a big shift, in many ways, a really positive shift away from the patterns of the agrarian empires. But it didn't take us all the way. 

And at the moment, we're in a situation where you name the crisis and I will do my best to describe to you how the roots of that crisis go back into the blind spots in the Age of Enlightenment. And we're very much in an Age of Enlightenment culture. Modernist culture as an Age of Enlightenment culture began in the Western world. It spread around the globe in many, many ways. It's not the only culture out there by any means. But it is definitely the dominant culture at this point. 

Things like the market economy, representative democracy, science-based around a sense of objectivity, the search for universals. So, Age of Enlightenment happens in the 1600, 1700s. You can think of it, the early parts of it are like Newton's laws and all of that. And then the later parts of it are the American Revolution and the French Revolution. 

1700s is really the major time that it's happening. And it's a time of great ferment, intellectual ferment. And it comes after all of the European religious wars. And before that, the Inquisition. There's a lot of trauma that Europe is trying to work its way out of. And that the trauma that they've experienced is part of – for me, part of why there was a great focus on reason, and objectivity and this desire to somehow find something that they could consider was solid ground that wouldn't be all ripped apart by the messiness of human passions. 

[00:11:50] JS: It's also called the age of reason, right? And the ways in which the primacy of our senses and reason to understand reality and through which human progress occurs. 

[00:12:02] RG: Right. And as I say, in many ways, it was a huge improvement over what had been there before. But it had its blind spots. It so often happens for us. And in many ways, as I was saying, the problems we face today are – how do I say it? We're at a place where the success of Age of Enlightenment ideas has given birth to a culture that is beyond what the Age of Enlightenment can handle. 

And so, I see our challenge at this point in time to, in some ways, stand on the shoulders of the Age of Enlightenment. Not toss it aside. But also, really have a clear understanding of what its limitations are, what its blind spots are. 

[00:12:53] JS: What were the blind spots of the enlightenment? 

[00:12:57] RG: Great. I mean, there are probably all sorts of them. But the ones that I'm finding myself really focused on. The first one is an almost adamant cluelessness about psychological dynamics. This comes up in the desire for objectivity, the focus on reason. The way in which, in economics, up until just the past few decades, the party line was that people made economic decisions as if they were calculators. Of course, the marketing folks knew that that was silly for a long, long time.

[00:13:34] JS: I find this so fascinating that all of that psychology of decision making was understood by marketers so long before it was understood by economists.

[00:13:43] RG: Right. 

[00:13:46] JS: Okay. Yeah, I mean the deficiencies. And we talked about this and read this in Doughnut economics. The deficiencies of the notion that we – the rational choice theory, which assumes that we can discern all possible outcomes and their probabilities and choose the best course of action based on that. When in reality, there are many, many, many different types of biases which lead us to behave very differently than rational choice theory would have us. 

[00:14:15] RG: Right. And we also can't have that perfect information. We just wind up even – if we're not consumed with the biases, we still have our huge limitations. That cluelessness is one of the big blind spots. Another blind spot has to do with looking at the world as a collection of objects and not having the capacity to see systems, to feel systems, to emote systems. I mean this is a place where the indigenous sense of all my relations. The indigenous sense of being connected, as I understand it, to the whole, is something that we lost. 

And when we lost it – I mean, in many ways we lost it back in the Agrarian Empire time because the whole dominance process winds up meaning that you have to separate yourself from those that you dominate. There had to be that sense of separation that came in. But the Age of Enlightenment doubled down on it. 

[00:15:20] JS: Can you speak more to that? Because we have talked about this. And I've heard you talk about this in some of your other conversations. But I'm just interested in double clicking on this question of the dominance that emerged in that era. Have you mentioned that the separateness was necessary to accept those institutional structures? I'm just curious to hear a bit more about that. 

[00:15:38] RG: Well, for me, in the Agrarian Empire times, there were a few things that meant that as a system it was vulnerable to people adopting a dominant strategy. One of the key things that opened up was once you had grain, you had a storable and stealable resource and a concentratable resource. And in order to have a power hierarchy, you have to be able to have control over a resource that you can either distribute or not distribute. 

It's not a question of whether it was nice or not nice. It was just that, from a systems point of view, the cultural system allowed dominance to emerge and didn't have the immune system to be able to undo it once it got going.

[00:16:30] JS: I think that's really interesting that the shift that allowed resource accumulation – resource accumulation is correlated and necessary for accumulation of power. But there is also a very important thing that you mentioned, which was about scale. And you mentioned the abstraction of our relationships to one another. It sounds like there is something both in terms of the proximity that one has to the other human and in our ability to – quite fascinating, a lot of this is what comes up in Adam Smith in his Theory of Moral Sentiments. He talks about the moral sentiment coming from your ability to sense and feel what another person would feel and the distance that you have from them. 

He talked about the vividness with which that person's situation was described to you. But that distance and separation in time, in space by virtue of scale I think interestingly gives rise to this separation. And it raises a very interesting question, which I presume will get to in the conversation of how do you close that gap at scale?

[00:17:37] RG: Yeah. And I think it really does tie back to this whole business of being able to feel systems. The more that you can walk out into a natural setting, and feel yourself immersed in all of that system and expand your awareness so that you feel yourself standing on the earth. I think our consciousness can hold all that. But it needs to begin with something that is really experienced and felt.

There was another aspect of this that I want to touch on, that in the Age of Enlightenment, there was this fascination with finding universal truth. Timeless, context-free universal truth, which for those of us in this culture sounds kind of nice. You know," Hey, why not?" And Newton seemed to have demonstrated the power of being able to discover these seemingly simple laws that nevertheless govern the whole universe. How wonderful? 

But when you do that, you throw away context and you throw away an awareness of relationships. And both of those are absolutely important for being able to perceive and understand systems. When we doubled down on the search for these universal timeless truths, we lost something really important. 

Okay. So, let me move on to a third thing that feels to me like a real blind spot. Or maybe not so much blind spot but something that's a limitation in the Age of Enlightenment. And I want to say this in a way in which, "Geez! They did the best they could at that time. But we need to do better." And that is that they wanted to temper the rule of men, the rule of by force, the rule of the strongest. 

And so, in what they did with representative democracy. And also, even earlier, what was done with a shift of power away from simply the militarily strongest to property rights. And property rights being something that could be spread around a little more. That was kind of the first shift. 

And then further along with and after the Age of Enlightenment, there's a shift to also trying to – well, certainly in the Age of Enlightenment, there's the desire to have simply human rights independent of property rights. And then there comes meritocracy and the sense that we're still going to have a hierarchy, but we'll have a nicer way to organize the hierarchy. 

We may organize the hierarchy on the basis of property rights. Or we may organize the hierarchy on the basis of some kind of meritocracy, but it's still a hierarchy. Because that's the way that people understood.  “How are you going to organize society other than a hierarchy?” people would ask. 

And so, what I would say is that we're at a time when it becomes increasingly apparent that while hierarchical trees are part of the way that society organizes itself, equally important and increasingly important are webs of relationships, networks of one sort or another. 

And in the agrarian empires, where people were tied to the land, it was really difficult for somebody to get up and move because it would have been – You know, where do you go? You'd be going to another place where people wouldn't know your language and they probably wouldn't accept you. People were very tied to the land. It was easy to hold them in your hierarchical structure. 

As the last few centuries have emerged, the hierarchies have gotten leakier. And in the last few decades, they've gotten increasingly more rapidly leaky. And it's really hard to maintain a dominance hierarchy when the hierarchy is leaky. I'm not necessarily seeing that hierarchy goes away. Hierarchy is there in nature in various ways. But it can go – but it doesn't need to be a dominance hierarchy. It can be an operational hierarchy. But it needs to understand its dance together with webs and all the patterns of networks. 

With a bunch of this, the shift isn't so much from one thing to another. It's a matter of breaking out of the monopolies that have dominated the culture. One of those monopolies is the monopoly that language and linguistic thinking has on us and that has not given appropriate space for visual thinking, spatial thinking, and kinesthetic thinking, somatic awareness, all these things which shouldn't come in to replace language-based thinking, but need to be there as equal partners. What needs to be broken is the monopoly. 

And in the same way, the idea isn't to throw categorical thinking completely away because it has its usefulness. But it's the monopoly of categorical thinking, which needs to be replaced with something that is more system aware. And the monopoly of object perception needs to be replaced with a sense of system perception. 

There are a variety of different ways. And part of that, to tie back to what I was saying before, is that instead of having the monopoly, that the way you organize social units is through hierarchies, is to understand that, yeah, there are some places where a certain amount of operational hierarchy might be useful. But to also recognize explicitly and enthusiastically the role that webs and networks can play. 

Those three things. The adamant cluelessness about psychological dynamics. The focus on objectivity, categorical thinking, object perception, all of those things in the second one. And the third one being the halfway house in terms of moving somewhat out of the dominance hierarchy of the agrarian empires, but only part way. And we still have the further piece to go. 

[00:24:00] JS: I'm curious to talk a little bit more about the leakiness of the hierarchies. Because we also talked about the ways in which resource accumulation and power accumulation gave rise to hierarchical structures. And if we look at the current institutional structures, or economic ones in particular, they're leading to an ever-increasing right concentration of wealth and power in a few, which really is feeling like it reached absurd heights in the US.

So, as I'm seeing this greater accumulation of power, which ostensibly reinforces hierarchical structures, you're also mentioning a leakiness. And I just love to hear a little bit more about, where is that leaking is coming from? And it sounds like you feel like that's inexorable and something that will lead to the decline in these hierarchical structures. I'd just like to understand that a little bit better. 

[00:24:53] RG: My sense is I don't want to say that anything is absolutely inexorable. But I think that there's a very powerful dynamic that means that the more you have horizontal communication and the more that people have some level of choice as to where they live and how they work, then it becomes harder to keep them in particular dominance pyramids. 

If people have cross-communication, peer-to-peer communication, then you don't control the communication environment in the hierarchy the way that you used to be able to. And that becomes increasingly problematic if you're trying to maintain all that stuff. And in the same way, if you can't hold on to your good people in a business, because they will go elsewhere. 

People at the more creative levels in the work world, many of them are well enough compensated that they're not there for their starvation wages. And in fact, it wouldn't work to have them as creative people as they were. And they will make choices that are not based simply on the basis of how much you can pay them. 

[00:26:13] JS: I think it's also really interesting to think about this in the context of blockchain, cryptocurrencies, and decentralized governance, and decentralized finance and technical infrastructure that allows the complete disintermediation of the companies that have served to. And the institutions, not just the tech companies, but the financial institutions and all of these intermediaries in the market where there has been a tremendous concentration of power where you have radically changed incentives and market dynamics that lead to, I think, less hierarchical structures actually having a competitive advantage, which I think would be quite fascinating to witness. 

[00:26:52] RG: Yes, I think that, increasingly, that's going to be the case. And one of the things that I see happening in cultural change is that you have the momentum from the past that means that you have these – whatever it is, the big institutions of one sort or another that have gotten themselves established and protect themselves by having resources that they can use to weather particular storms. 

But the context around them can change in a way that is no longer supportive of what it was that created them in the first place. They become really vulnerable to disruptive innovations of one sort or another. At the moment, we may look and say, "Oh, my God! It's hopeless. The billionaires are going to just be billionaires." Et cetera, et cetera. But there is a growing pressure in the culture to do something different. 

[00:27:45] JS: That is most certainly true. 

[00:27:49] RG: Right. And so, when we reach that tipping point, I don't know. But those are the sorts of things that I have my antenna out for because they're usually the indicators of what's coming. 

[00:28:00] JS: I want to talk a little bit more about breaking out of those monopolies that you talked about. Language and linguistic thinking. I think this is quite fascinating, too. I remember just thinking about the ways in which the languages that we speak shape our worldviews. I'm really interested in this – you talked about moving away from the monopoly of language and linguistic thinking into something that integrates and is equal partners with visual and kinesthetic thinking. Can you talk a little bit more – even just help us understand what visual thinking is, and what kinesthetic thinking is and what an integration of those three things would look like?

[00:28:36] RG: Right. Language depends upon making abstractions and then tokenizing those abstractions into words and being able to combine them together. In that process, it's a relatively low-resolution way of being able to encode our experience. And yet we wind up thinking that it is the world. And if we only figure out how to get the right words together, we will have solved the problem. Not necessarily so, because the world is more complex. 

Our visual capability is able to handle a lot more complexity than the language based can. It also is able to simultaneously hold not only the object. When you – either looking at a natural scene or looking at a diagram or anything that enables you to be able to have a visual experience that in some ways does get you closer to the experience itself and allows you to deal with things that – how do I say it? There are some problems that you try to deal with in language that are just incredibly complex. And it takes page after page after page to describe things. And by the time you've gotten down to the 13th paragraph, you can't remember what was happening in the fifth paragraph. Et cetera. Et cetera. 

Put that all in a diagram, especially if you do a – there are various ways that you can build and develop a diagram. And all of a sudden it becomes a lot more simple. And insights emerge in ways that they just couldn't if you were depending only on language. 

And then the kinesthetic part, there's a knowing in the body that I think is really important for us to be able to tap into. And indeed, my sense is that the gateway to intuition is actually through the body. Being able to develop a kind of somatic awareness. But also, I just want to put it this way, a loving relationship between the mind and the body. 

Here, I like to contrast the Age of Enlightenment with moving into the age of embodiment in the sense of not only physical body, but moving into the actual practice. Because culture is all about what people actually do. Not just the ideas of it. 

One of the people in the course had this wonderful description that, in the Age of Enlightenment, the insight was the solution. And I would say the insight is only a beginning part of the solution. Because how do you actually then move it into practice? 

[00:31:33] JS: I mean I feel like this is a great – we could double click on the categorical thinking and object perception. But I feel like this is actually a great segue into the work that you're doing with the course. And I love how it integrates inner work with systems thinking skills to give people that personal foundation to go be a part of the bright future now. 

And I'm curious to hear more about how the course is really integrating. I feel like a lot of it is just helping us build up our kinesthetic capacity, and awareness and competence. And teaching us how to integrate that with language. Because I feel like the visual part we're more familiar with. I'm actually a very visual thinker myself. I mean, I'm comfortable with whiteboards and Post-it notes, right? But the kinesthetic part I think is less familiar. And that's often frankly frequently discounted because of the primacy of reason that we're inhabiting as a consequence of the enlightenment we're talking about. 

I'm curious, and to hear more about the work that you're doing, and the course, and just teaching us how to build that kinesthetic capacity, and have confidence and integrate it with these other ways of knowing. 

[00:32:48] RG: Great. Happy to do that. And I want to start by just noticing that I'm a somewhat older generation than you are. Your familiarity, your comfort with visual thinking is a wonderful example. And I'm sure that many of the people who are listening can relate to this, is a wonderful example of the way in which our culture has already moved away from its heavy dependence on language. And it's going to move even further away from that. That one is in the pipeline. It's happening. We can move it along faster and we can celebrate it. But I have very little doubt that that one's on its way. But go back a hundred years and look at the books, try to find an illustration. And so different. Such a different culture. Just even 50 years ago than what we have today. 

[00:33:42] JS: It's quite fascinating. Kate Raworth actually talks about this in Doughnut economics. In one of the first chapters. She talks about how important visuals are. In fact, this is part of the reason why the doughnut itself is so central to it. She talks about the images of the economy as a machine, a very simple machine, where you looked at the flows and how that didn't include what happens in the household and it didn't include what happened outside of it. But she had some very interesting things also to say about the brain and the ways in which there's just so much sophistication within the visual cortex and the complexity that we can grok instantly when we bypass the language centers of the brain and the need for new diagrams. And that's where again where the doughnut comes from. There's a great chapter in that book that reminded me of. 

[00:34:29] RG: Great. The course. The course really springs out of my being part of and in some cases and other cases seeing, being an observer for. What has happened in many, many well-intentioned groups basically? And that sent me on a journey to kind of distill what felt like some of the missing pieces that meant that people with really good intentions kept stumbling. 

And I like to say that, in the course, we focus on the simple but the archetypal skills that reflect those trying to deal with the blind spots in Age of Enlightenment culture. Let me just describe what we do in the first – I'll do – I'll just quickly go through where we focus. Each week has kind of a theme. And each week combines conceptual material and experiential material. And people going through the course are embedded in a relational environment. Every person going through the course has a graduate from a previous course who walks with them down the path. And there are other kinds of relational things that we do as well. 

And we keep it down to twenty one people in a cohort to make sure that we keep it at a human scale. This is not at all an industrial process. It's very individualized. The first week focuses on self-awareness and self-compassion. And in that process, we help people discover more about their own inner complexity and work on finding more capacity for harmony within their inner complexity. And that ties into – I haven't mentioned yet but I should – that one of the key descriptors of what we are working towards is to embody the harmony within the harmony with others and the harmony with nature. Do that all simultaneously. My favorite way of describing the Planetary Era is a time when the people and the institutions all embody the harmony within, the harmony with others and the harmony of the nature.

[00:36:42] JS: Actually, we didn't get a clean description of the Planetary Era. Would that be it? 

[00:36:47] RG: Yeah, that's my best way of – and the other part to say is that we aren't there. We don't know yet. There are all kinds of things that will be filled in that process. What would those institutions look like? Et cetera. Et cetera. But we've already shifted out of the livelihood being primarily agriculture. We shifted out of the high-tech form of communication being literacy. But we're still mucking around with the dominant stuff. And the shift is from enforcing the three dominations; the domination over self, the domination over others and the domination over nature, which has been going on now for at least five thousand years, to embody the three harmonies. Harmony within, harmony with others and harmony with nature. It's that shift that is the shift that still needs to happen before we really can get into the planetary era. 

[00:37:41] JS: And I love that, of course, it starts with the self. 

[00:37:45] RG: Yes. But it doesn't stop there is the other piece. It builds on that. We start with self-awareness and self-compassion. Because anytime you enter into a change process, you're going to bump up against things where you better have some self-compassion. 

The second week is we call objects, categories, territories and maps. And territories and maps are our way of going beyond object perception and categorical thinking where we perceive things not as objects but as territories. And part of the notion of a territory is that you recognize it's more or less its boundary but you know you don't know everything that you could know about it. You're humble about it. You recognize the mystery that's there in that territory. But you don't throw up your hands and say, "Since I can't know everything, I know nothing." You are able to know certain things that you put into maps. But you're conscious that they're maps and you're conscious that every map is partial, selective and provisional. So, you're humble. It's a humble epistemology if you will. 

[00:38:49] JS: No. I love that. And that comes up in Donella Meadows’ work. And it came up in the book Braiding Sweetgrass as well. And her criticism of the scientific world view is that it lacked humility. 

[00:39:00] RG: Right. Yeah. Well, I think it's pretty crucial. That's the second week. And then the third week is what we call child development and adult character. And we use something that was actually started back with Wilhelm Reich in the 1930s. A tradition that has grown. That most recently, probably the most visible piece around this has been The 5 Personality Patterns. But we don't – By Stephen Kessler I think it is. But what we do is not simply Stephen Kessler, it's out of that whole tradition. And one of the key things that we do is, in looking at the way in which developmental trauma leads to our defense patterns, we look at it not as something that is categorizing you but as something that is attached to various different sub-personalities. Because we take the position that you are always more than any one of your sub-personalities or any set of your sub-personalities. And it's in that area that we get into the whole notion of being able to function in your optimal zone. And the way that when you are able to function in your optimal zone, and your optimal zone is what naturally emerges when you feel truly safe. 

One of the people that I think has done fabulous work is Stephen Porges, who figured out that the autonomic nervous system is not as simple as just sympathetic and parasympathetic. But there are actually two almost distinct branches to what was considered the parasympathetic nervous system. There's the upper, the ventral part of the parasympathetic nervous system and then the lower part. And it's only in mammals. And I think that the upper part is there. And it's the part that is oriented towards connection. 

It winds up meaning that the old idea that we just vacillate between arousal or parasympathetic shutdown is now replaced by a two-dimensional sense that there's – yes, there's still that axis. But there's a vertical axis that's basically about safety. And part of the beauty of all this is that there are a thousand different wonderful traditions about how to get into a good space in one way or another. 

But this cuts through all of that to really get down to the neuroscience of what it is that you need to be able to be in a space where you are as creative and compassionate, calm, clear-headed, confident, all of those wonderful things. And you can do that when you feel deeply safe. And your internal hardware grows out of hundreds of millions of years of evolution that was focused on immediate physical safety. 

We humans have unintentionally reprocessed that so that we now get triggered by our imaginations. But we don't need to be. We can learn how to – it's almost like a martial art. We can learn how to experience a core inner sense of safety in situations where we don't need – it's not like a car crash or something like that where we don't need the particular rush that all that sympathetic action would provide. And so, we can bring a lot more creativity to things that are real problems that need our best capacities but don't need us to be freaked out. 

[00:42:39] JS: I find this so fascinating. Yeah, a lot of it is – well, the inner work is having an awareness of when these micro traumas are happening and we are getting triggered in our day-to-day. Go ahead.

[00:42:51] RG: Yeah. And a sense of not only recognition, but also a sense of what do you do about it? What are you headed towards? Because you don't want to be focused only on the trauma side. 

[00:43:06] JS: Yeah.

[00:43:06] RG: I feel like there's a wonderfully simple set of qualities with what we work with that we're moving towards, if you will. And let me just describe them. Five different places to get to. One is that you can feel comfortable and safe in your body. And the second is that you feel enough and you feel you have enough and with that you know how to nourish and to be nourished. That's the second one. 

The third one is that you're confident in your own creative capacity. And the fourth one is that you appropriately trust others in life. And the fifth one is that you're confident in your own inner direction. And most people can find some situations in which they feel those things. The challenge is how do you bring those qualities into more and more challenging situations? 

[00:44:02] JS: I'm really interested in the – again, you talk about self-awareness and self-compassion. And I think having that in those moments when you're triggered and you start to move into a less optimal zone. I'm really curious about this question about the inner direction because I feel like we've just been so deeply wired to certain notions of what we should be or what success looks like. And there's all this internalized in the ways in which we internalize systemic oppression and continue to propagate that in our behaviors. Does your work turn inwards to help break those things down to reveal something, again, to the point of the three harmonies? The harmony with the self? 

[00:44:49] RG: Right. And it focuses on fairly generic childhood experiences that pretty much everybody has. And as someone who is – I'm a parent. At this point, I'm a grandparent as well as a parent. But it's almost impossible as a parent not to wind up doing certain things that your child might find, in the moment, traumatizing. The issue is not so much “How do we totally eliminate that?”  But “How do we learn how to heal from all of that as things go along?” 

The first trauma is the trauma of incarnating. The trauma of embodiment. And if you come into a space that doesn't feel safe, you may not really fully embody. And there are lots of people for whom that is an important experience. And you wind up with a pattern that we call a leaving pattern. The way that you make yourself feel safe is that you leave. And if you can't leave physically, you leave psychologically. You dissociate in one way or another.

And then the next, this is sort of developmental stages. The next stage has to do with – it's archetypically nursing. It's being able to take in nourishment. And if you, as an infant, wind up being in a situation where you are hungry but nobody comes to feed you, it's pretty stressful. And you wind up fixating on the caregiver. You fixate on the source of your nourishment. And you don't really develop the capacity to broadly nourish yourself. And you don't feel like you're enough. You don't feel like you're getting enough. And this is something that continues on into our adult lives in all kinds of different ways. 

And then the third one is where the child is getting to the point where I want to do it myself. And so, you run into the terrible twos and all of these issues about struggles over the child. Beginning to step into their agency but not necessarily having the capacity to always do it safely. And so, how does the parent support them in that? 

And often, there are parents who just overwhelm the child and basically suppress them. This happens all the time in all kinds of different situations, but especially in authoritarian families where the child is really just suppressed. And so, they never get to learn the skills and the experience of their own creative capacity. We call that the enduring defense pattern. The previous one with the nourishment was the pulling defense pattern. 

And then the fourth stage is where you are stepping out into life but in a way in which you need to be able to have others around you that you can have some trust in. And if that doesn't happen, if you don't get some kind of supportive environment to trust, then you decide, "Hell, I just have to do it all myself. I'm all alone. The others don't care about me. And I'm not going to care about them." And you separate off into what we call the controlling defense pattern. This is classic in the Agrarian Empire, focused around the controlling defense pattern and all the ways in which the subsequent child raising. This is Rianne's stuff, which the subsequent child raising patterns simply replicated again and again. 

And then the fifth pattern is where the challenge is to be able to really tune into your own inner direction. But if you're in an environment where the people around you are very clear on what is right, and what is wrong and you get a really definite external pattern, then you don't tune in in quite the same way. You rely on those externals and develop what we call the performing defense pattern. 

By being able to see all of those first in yourself and develop compassion for the way that you are in yourself and then being able to see them in others. And with all of those, there are relatively simple healing strategies that come. And I won't necessarily go into all that at this point. But there are relatively simple things that we can do to work on healing them. 

Back to when you get triggered, if you're able to have the awareness to say, "Oh, I'm triggered," and step back a little bit, step into a witness place to see that. Do what you can to settle your physiology and your nervous system down. But stay sufficiently attuned to whatever it was that triggered you so that you can grasp it and work with it and see, “What is it inside me? What's the hook inside me? And how can I apply one of these healing strategies to that?” Then every time you get triggered, you're able to do a de-traumatizing cycle because you're able to grasp that particular land mine and do something healing with it. 

[00:50:04] JS: This is so fascinating. This reminds me of a conversation that I had a couple of weeks ago about parenting and how important it is as a cornerstone of civilization and how crazy it is that we don't value it more highly. And obviously, this is central in Rianne's work as well where she's really focused on helping people understand how to be authoritative versus authoritarian parents. But yeah, it's so fascinating just how so much of these things that happen in these formative years just reverberate out so profoundly in society. 

Robert, I'm really, really looking forward to exploring how we can weave together the work that we're doing with what you're doing at the Context Institute moving forward.

[00:50:47] RG: Sounds good to me. And thank you so much. Thank you, Jenny. I'm sure this is not at all surprising, but your quick perception and you're quite welcome. 

[00:51:00] JS: Thank you. 

[00:51:01] RG: Thank you, indeed. And thank you, gratitude, everyone who has been here and your willingness to engage in this kind of conversation.

[00:51:09] JS: Absolutely. Thank you so much. 


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