The foundation of systemic phenomenological work


9 June 2022| Personal

Chaos: awkward or helpful?

A while ago, I was asked if I would host a workshop at the Inspiration Days of Voetstappen in het Veld (Footsteps in the Field), where I was given several themes to choose from.

One theme that stood out for me was Chaos. I have a thing for chaos, and I decided to set up an experiment for these inspiration days.

The preparation, like the workshop itself, took on a special form.

And now I’m faced with the difficult task of writing a structured blog about my systemic chaos experiment. Now, you may wonder why it should be structured. The simple answer is, it’s easier for the reader, it gives a certain predictability and as such removes barriers. Head-body-tail. It provides convenience and comfort. Order provides a sense of security.

But what if we broke down the concept of what a good blog is first? Without head-body-tail, or fancy sentences, or catchy beginning and satisfying conclusion? Would you still be there as a reader?

Can you stay in the space that that creates? As we move from left to right and back again, without direction, can you surrender to what is presenting itself within you?

Let’s give it a try.

I started with four words. (source: Simon Robinson)




CONTROL                                           CHAOS





The author places them side by side, I placed them as I am doing here. With a connecting line, but no indication of direction.

In the area between Chaos and Order is (as Simon Robinson calls it): ‘Chaorder’, or the chaordic field. Chaos itself is pure life energy, which can still go in any direction. In fact, it is a bundle of possibilities. Order is a structure which can give us safety, among other things. Right in between is the area of chaorder. It is the birthplace of creativity, of innovation, of emergence, of wonder. The chaordic field.

An interesting premise.

It sounds like the golden egg for a system that is stuck. For example, for an individual, but also for teams, organizations, or for large, complex subjects such as the housing market, youth care or education. The only question that then remains is: How should you use it? Can you use it? Can you summon chaos? Or a bit of chaos? Or do you have to go past destruction first? Or a bit of destruction?

A participant was sitting in the corner of the room. Her input was about overvaluing innovation and creation. “It always has to produce something better, something more beautiful or at least something. In the West, it is mainly about moving forward, toward light and life. In the East, death, destruction is much more embedded in life. Death is part of life.”

This led me to the thought that within organizations, we have an innovation department, but not a destruction department. Incidentally, destruction has different qualities than disruption. Disruption is about interrupting something, unsettling something. Disrupting what exists, where elements are lost and possibly some of the elements that endure may rearrange themselves, with some new ones added.

Destruction is about destroying cells, breaking them down. In such a way that they cannot return to their former form. It is the compost in which seeds can germinate again.

I wonder what such a department of destruction might look like. What would they be doing? What type of people would be hired for those tasks? What place would they have in the organization? The department of “Destination Reached,” to help whatever is done and finished in the organization be terminated. A department. A vision. To shut things down. With certain rules.

In addition to the creation spiral, a termination spiral.

Destroying something can, for example, be helpful in a double bind. If something is so terribly stuck in an organization or a larger system, that whatever decision you make, it immediately gets stuck again somewhere else; in those cases, tearing it down may be the only way out. Completely destroying something, so that nothing of what was there before or how it should be is left, nothing superfluous, nothing at all, so that new life can emerge. Possibly, this would cause chaos, then chaorder and then this would naturally move back toward order and control.

Or, as we do now, is changing within the margins also possible? Can we still seek out chaorder, generate it, use it and make it work for us?

The room was silent. Quite often and for quite a long time. We had been going for a while. “I had expected that we would be listening to loud music during this experiment,” one participant started. “That there would be a lot of noise and commotion around me, but it’s actually very quiet and everyone hears each other out. And yet there is chaos.”

Across the room, a man responded. “I find this very hard. Inwardly, things are going in all directions, and I even get a little panicky at times.” He fell silent again and exhaled. “But I’m back.”

Having or creating chaos demands that you continue to participate. A conscious and active decision: I participate. Including everything that this means. Through the silence, through the noise, through the perceived comfort and discomfort. ‘I’m here’ is the only support a supervisor can give in such a situation.

Some of the chairs were spread out across the room. Other chairs were set up in a straight line. The deviation from the “normal” already gives the brain a jolt. “Huh, this picture doesn’t match what I know,” a woman muttered as she entered. Where to sit? If I go sit on a chair in the line, it might be a bit right. But then, those other chairs are still standing there, disorderly. But if I sit on one of those chairs, I’m looking at the wall. That doesn’t feel nice at all. But if Maaike doesn’t go and stand in that open space, then maybe it won’t matter.

It’s going too far to start a neurological treatise here, but our brains also have a thing for chaos. Or rather, they may hate chaos. In order to survive, our brains are constantly scanning, to see if things are safe. An image or situation that does not match with previous experiences can be an trigger to activate a new strategy, in order to still be able to continue functioning (smoothly) in an unsafe situation.

This then fairly quickly creates a new status quo. No one moved, no one started singing or dancing. The subject was allowed to move from left to right, internally it was also allowed to go up and down, but no one touched the circumstances. Until I remarked that nothing had changed there. A slight shift took place.

How long can chaos last? How long can you stay in it together?

How do you know you are (still) there?

As the workshop facilitator, I often had to sit on my hands. Wait and let the chaos do its work. It was so tempting to give direction, or come up with an exercise that would restore some form of structure. When the time was nearly up, that feeling of unease increased further. Inside of me, but also inside the participants. Not a final conclusion, not a wrap-up, but an open end.

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