One of my favourite quotes is from Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa‘s posthumously published novel: The Leopard. The story is about a artistocratic family and their fall from the ranks in society. In the book there is a marvellous quote that reflects the most fundamental challenges of system dynamics:”If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.”
At its core, the message is that we cannot avoid change by standing still, rather only through change can we hope to achieve consistency. And that, is unlikely. We lose our position unless we move along with everyone else, even if in the process of moving it appears as if we are standing still. (Just think of cars on a highway. Two cars driving side-by-side at the same relative speed will look to each other as if they are not moving much at all, when in reality they may be cruising at a very high rate of speed).
We are rarely aware of the speed at which we are traveling, that is the rate of change that is taking place around us and within us. The human body renews itself many times over throughout the lifespan. Our cells are brand new, yet our looks appear at first to be quite similar from day to day. That is, until someone uncovers a picture of us as a child, a youth, a twenty-, thirty-, any-something that is far enough removed from our current state that we realize the profound change that has taken place.
Systems are enormously difficult to change for that very reason. There is not only constant movement, but lots of it and the impact of each component on everything else is different, dynamic and inconsistent. I am currently helping graduate students in public health learn about systems and, while the teaching is fun and the students are interested, the challenge to communicate the language of systems in a manner that is easy to understand is difficult. Indeed, there is little reason why teaching complexity science should be simple given that one of the principles of systems science is that complex problems require complex solutions.
But thankfully one of the other features of complex systems is the presence of paradox. And one of the tools I’ve found works wonderfully is mindfulness-based reflection. Mindfulness is the process of ‘standing still’ by calming the mind and attending the signals around us without trying to influence them. Remarkably, by keeping still and just paying attention to what is around you without ascribing feelings, thoughts, or attitudes towards something we can learn a great deal about what is going on around us. This is a strategy that has been highly effective as a technique in addressing complex health conditions like chronic pain and addictions and training those who work in areas like this.
The question I have is this: How do we get our social institutions and communities to do the equivalent of paying attention to its breath and relaxing its mind to see the systems that they are a part of in order to initiate healthy change?
That is the challenge I am putting to my students and myself and to you too, dear reader.