Inner development for me, is about shifting our consciousness, expanding our awareness and our ability to sense, empowering us to see differently and be differently, so we can act differently. I see inner development as an important key for human flourishing. It is my intention to create a series of posts where I share contemplations about inner development for change. My thinking on this topic is influenced by different knowledges including; neuroscience and Polyvagal Theory, embodiment practices, TheoryU, Regenerative Development, living systems, indigenous knowledges and earth based spirituality.
In this first post I reflect on the prevalence of trauma in society and share how I came to see that inner development is an important key for human flourishing. I hope you join me on this reflective journey.
….My journey to the inside
Over the past 15 years I have worked on big, hairy, complex projects with governments and non-profits as a Social Designer practising human-centred design and co-design. In the past I viewed design as THE magic elixir for change, and in 2013 I established a community of practice, Social Design Sydney, as a forum to explore design for social outcomes. In my working life I relied on design approaches to work on complex projects within child protection, disability and homelessness. Whilst providing useful approaches, I did not feel design was enough. This led me to study other change related practices including Systems thinking, Futures thinking, Appreciative Inquiry, TheoryU, Awareness Based Systems change, Living systems and more recently Regenerative Development, to extend my practice and empower me to help create sustainable change.
In 2019, when the Covid pandemic first began, I completed a Certificate in Trauma Informed practice. This training was aimed at service providers and I completed it holding the question; how might I be more trauma informed in my design and social innovation practice? As I often worked in trauma related contexts such as mental health, child protection, and homelessness I felt it important to become better equiped to work with people who have experienced trauma so that I did not do harm. I have since developed a course on Trauma Informed Design Research and have been delivering the training to design practitioners globally.
….Trauma is familiar to many
The subject of trauma is something I have been learning about for some time. It is also something I know about in my own body. My grandparents were Holocaust survivors and intergenerational trauma is something I know from my lineage. At age 4, I was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes. For various reasons, I had a complex upbringing. Something that I have come to appreciate is that trauma is common, and that it affects people’s ability to think, relate and be in the world. There is discussion about capital ’T’ trauma and little ‘t’ trauma. Capital ‘T’ trauma is trauma caused by a big event for example natural disasters, diseases, physical, sexual harm, or witnessing death. Little ’t’ trauma arises from highly distressing events that affect people on a personal level but don’t fall into the big ‘T’ category. Examples include non-life-threatening injuries, emotional abuse, death of a pet, bullying or harassment, and loss of significant relationships.
Trauma is also commonly transferred intergenerationaly, from one generation to the next. Whether this happens through epigenetic inheritance and/or through behavioural adaptations that then affect how a parent acts with their children is unknown. But what we do know is that trauma is passed down from one generation to the next. Collective trauma refers to psychological reactions to a traumatic event that affects an entire society. It relates to a collective memory of an awful event that happened to a group of people, for example floods, fires and war. In recent years across the globe, there have been many large scale events that have had devastating impacts on people’s lives causing collective trauma. No matter how the trauma occurs, whether it is intergenerational or caused by a major or more minor event, trauma affects our nervous systems in the same way despite its origin.
….Trauma and the nervous system
Trauma influences how we feel, think and act, as well as our ability to respond in the moment. Our nervous system has an optimal zone of arousal, this is when we feel calm and connected to ourselves and those around us. Dan Siegel (1999) calls this our window of tolerance (explained well in this video). We all have a window of tolerance. If something happens that is too stressful for our nervous system to cope with, we move out of our optimal zone into either (1) hypoarousal leading to physiological symptoms such as feeling tired, collapsed and shut down, or (2) hyperarousal leading to physiological symptoms such as feeling agitated, hot, rapid heart beat or shallow breathing (see the image below). When dysregulated, the blood and glucose in the brain flows away from the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain responsible for creativity and higher order thinking, and moves to the base of the brain, mobilising the person for flight or fight. If we haven’t slept well or have had a tricky day at home or work, our window of tolerance can narrow and we can more easily move into dysregulation. People who have experienced trauma tend to have a more narrow window of tolerance and can become dysregulated more easily than people who have not experienced trauma. The good news is that through inner development we can all work towards widening our window of tolerance.
….Why inner development is important
Big societal challenges such as climate events, the Covid pandemic and its difficult economic, health and social impacts are widespread. We will continue to live with impacts from these types of events. I sense a growing anxiety in myself and in those around me relating to the climate, and the recent pandemic has illuminated many gaps in services and infrastructure that we all rely on for our wellbeing. I see a big need for greater resilience to meet the increasing challenges humans face as a species. The impacts of trauma, i.e. intergenerational, big ‘T’, little ‘t’ and collective trauma, are probably more widespread than we realise, impacting our ability to think creatively and our ability to flourish as a species.
Inner development practices can help us build resilience, help us relate better with each other and to the increasing complexities of life, empowering us to be more creative and resourceful so we can meet the challenges on our horizon. I am not alone in this thinking. In 2020, the inner development goals were officially founded by the Ekskäret Foundation. The Inner Development Goals are a blueprint of the capabilities, qualities and skills that are required to achieve the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). To meet the SDGs, people require inner development to embody the qualities and aptitudes required to steward in the changes required to sustain life on our planet.
Inner development is important for societal change. As someone who has always been interested in social change, I have been turning my attention and pivoting my practice to focus on the inside. In 2021, I began my training as a coach, studying embodied transformation, neuroscience, process oriented coaching and facilitation. Currently, I am training in organisational constellations. I believe there are many forms of knowing and of late, I have focused on expanding mine beyond cognitive dominance. Personally, I have been working with somatic and embodied practices such as qigong as a way to tap into the wisdom of my body and my intuition.
In 2021, I participated in a TheoryU journey working with an indigenous elder investigating climate change and indigenous youth suicide. Last September, our group spent some time in the Kimberley’s learning to listen on country. We have been focused on developing our Awareness Based Systems Change capacity. Awareness Based Systems Change is described by Otto Scharmer in the following quote; “You cannot understand a system unless you change it. You cannot change a system unless you transform consciousness. You cannot transform consciousness unless you can make a system see and sense itself.” Personally, to get to the shifts in being, thinking and acting we need as a species, inner development is key. I now see my work in social and systems change as the work of shifting consciousness.
….Next post in the series
My next post will be about the Nervous System and Human Flourishing. I will introduce polyvagal theory and explain how the nervous system, body and brain are linked, and how our nervous systems influence how we feel, think and act in the world. We will consider the value of befriending our nervous system and how you can use self awareness and embodied practices to build greater choice in each moment. Greater choice means responding to life, not reacting to situations. Increased self awareness supports actions towards human flourishing, both individually and collectively.
….Interested in learning more?
I am also working on an online training series – Inner Development for Change where we will explore these types of topics together. If this is something you are interested in you can express your interest here.
Also, if you would like to chat about the possibility of receiving some coaching from me, learn more about my coaching offering.