After I published my blog post on the Yin and Yang of Organisations, I received an email from Clint, who wrote:

“I’m sure you know that the line between is called a chiasm; It is both a barrier and a unifying force to hold the two as one. I see humans, and all sentient creatures in the chiasm, and indeed every atom and cell.”

Well, actually, I’d never heard of the chiasm, so I confessed as much, and asked for more detail. Clint replied:

“The visual is two elements, that are oppositely charged, coming into vicinity of each other and moving to unite. As they are each discrete, they are not allowed to become one. Essentially, they bounce off each other, then come back together and begin to spin around each other, faster and faster until they are about to implode when, in a flash of creative light, the chiasm comes into being, simultaneously holding the two elements apart and uniting them as one new entity.”

So this sent me off down a rabbit hole of chiasm-curiosity. I felt there was something profound here, tickling at my consciousness – maybe something to do with my affinity for the in-between places, the realms where worlds collide, or what Paul Wallace calls Both and yet Neither (aka BayN).

I don’t claim to have thought this all the way through yet – but here are some initial thoughts.

Chiasm in itself is a fascinating word. According to Wikipedia, in anatomy a chiasm is the spot where two structures cross, the best-known being the optic chiasm, the place in the brain where the optic nerves intersect. The X-shape of the crossover inspired the etymology of the word, from the Greek letter X, pronounced Chi.

In genetics, the chiasmata is a crossover point “where homologous chromosomes exchange genes, allowing genetic information from both the paternal and maternal chromatids to be exchanged, and a recombination of paternal and maternal genes can be passed down to the progeny”. According to Varsity Tutors:

“The result is a hybrid chromosome with a unique pattern of genetic material. Gametes gain the ability to be genetically different from their neighbouring gametes after crossing over occurs. This allows for genetic diversity, which will help cells participate in survival of the fittest and evolution.”

The way I interpret this (or possibly misinterpret it) in the present context, is that this exchange increases genetic diversity and improves the resilience of the species.

In rhetoric, chiasmus is a device where words or phrases are balanced with similar, though not identical, meanings in an A-B-B-A pattern (which has now given me a Dancing Queen earworm). An example would be:

“By day the frolic, and the dance by night.”

— Samuel Johnson, The Vanity of Human Wishes (1794)

… where day is juxtaposed with night, and “the frolic” with “the dance”.

So the general concept underlying chiasm, chiasmata, and chiasmus is the crossover, the fertile void in the space between, the third element that is neither one thing nor the other, the creative space where all the cool stuff happens. (See my blog post about edges).

By coincidence (or is it?), and despite the Greek origin mentioned above, Chi (or Qi) in Chinese philosophy is the force that makes up and binds together all things in the universe. It is, paradoxically, both everything and nothing.

So far, so abstract. What is the practical point of all this metaphysical meta-twaddle?

I’m still working it out, but this is what it feels like to me. In these present times, we are in the Chiasm. Sometimes it might feel more like the Chasm, like we’re falling into a deep dark hole of environmental degradation and the disintegration of old structures… but there is an I hiding importantly in the middle (without veering off into cheesy platitudes, like “There is no ‘I’ in TEAM!!”).

In a sense, the present moment is always the chiasm, the place where we are no longer in the past, and not yet in the future, the place of unfolding. This has always been true, and yet it feels more true in 2021 than at any other time I’ve known. It really feels like we are on the cusp of new ways, not just of doing things, but even of perceiving reality itself. Crossovers are already happening, turning our perceptions upside down and inside out.

Here are some examples.

1.     Mind Emerges from Matter, or Matter Emerges from Mind?

In relation to the hard problem of consciousness (the question of what gives me a sense of my me-ness), scientists have been asking how matter gives rise to mind. Now it seems that maybe mind gives rise to matter. Crossover.

2.     Individuals Connect, or Connection Individuates?

Our Western culture has been dominated by the philosophy that we are all individuals (cue Life of Brian flashback – still my favourite comedy line ever), living in a harsh world where we have to compete for scarce resources. Greed is good, and lunch is for wimps. But maybe a different reality is possible, in which we recognise that we are all interconnected and interdependent, and until we are all thriving, nobody is thriving (very much the ethos behind the SEEDS currency).

As author and educator Michael Nagler puts it:

“Within the emerging new story . . . just about every social change that thoughtful people have long been yearning for—including the change to a sustainable planet—becomes more thinkable, and doable… Take, for example, the acute inequality that has polarized our society. What drives it is greed… Is not greed, in turn, a function of the belief that we are primarily physical entities in competition with others? . . . But what is behind greed itself? It could not exist without the idea that a human being is material and separate from others, including the environment we live in… In contrast to the old story—which held that the universe is primarily made of matter, has no discernable purpose, and scarcity, competition, and violence are inevitable—the new story sees the universe as primarily consciousness and the human being as body, mind, and spirit, able to locate and carry out their life’s purpose in a meaningful—indeed, fundamentally benevolent—universe.”

3.     We Build on the Past, or we Magnetise from the Future?

The most present and immediate example of this for me right now is in relation to Samara, the new Decentralised Holonic Organisation (DHO) we are creating within SEEDS, to evangelise for a new economic philosophy, and facilitate the adoption of the SEEDS currency by the people and communities who can most benefit from it.

Samara has attracted an amazing bunch of smart, heartfelt people who sincerely want to help create a better future – and, as with any group, we are in some sense a microcosm of what is going on in the world at large. I see the push and pull between these two dynamics: do we design our new organisation based on what has worked in the past? Or do we, to use Otto Scharmer’s phrase, lead from the emerging future?

To say a little more about what that second option looks like: imagine that you’re on a boat on the ocean, and it’s dark and foggy, so you can’t see too far ahead. You’re trying to make landfall on a small island. Your GPS isn’t working, so you need to get a visual. Suddenly, you see a light, flashing intermittently. You realise it is a light at the entrance to the harbour. Now you know what you’re aiming for, and you allow it to draw you forwards towards your destination. Occasionally the fog thickens, or a high wave rises, and you lose sight of the light for a while, but you keep heading in the right general direction, and soon enough it comes back into view.

To me, it feels like we need to combine both the backward-looking and future-facing approaches, but the emphasis has to be on the future vision. If we build Samara on the foundations of the past, we will only end up replicating strategies that are past their use-by date. The old structures were failing, and if we keep doing what we’ve always done, we’ll keep getting what we’ve always got. Sure, we can adopt some best practices from the past for the day-to-day basics, but our intended destination has to be informed from the future.

It takes a huge leap of faith to operate this way, and can often feel like we’re building castles in the air, with no solid footing… but such is the journey of the pioneer.

Fancy Words… But How?

How do we do this? How do we think thoughts we’ve never thought, and aspire to do things we’ve never done?

Here’s my hunch. I’m sensing a shift from the individual to the collective. In truth, nobody ever operated as an individual. The myth of the lone wolf is mostly that – a myth. Jobs had Wozniak. Einstein had Grossman and Besso. Lennon had McCartney (or was it vice versa?). The creativity arose in the space in between, in the relationship, in the chiasm. Together, the partnerships became greater than the sum of their parts. What they achieved was the result of Both, and yet Neither.

I’ve written a lot about yin and yang, and the need for balance between the two. But maybe “balance” is too mundane, setting the bar too low. The real magic, I am coming to believe, lies in the chiasm, the border between, where the two polarities are held in a juxtaposition of attraction and repulsion.

If two bar magnets are placed with their axis parallel to each other and their opposite poles facing each other, then there is one neutral point on the perpendicular bisector of the axis equidistant from the two magnets.

If one magnet is the past, and one is the future; one is the yang, and one is the yin; one is the material, and one is the metaphysical, what would it be like if we designed from the neutral point?

X marks the spot.

(I hope that made some sense. If not, ask me questions, and I will try to clarify. If it did, let me know!)

Further Reading:

I found these notes from Paul Wallace really interesting. Also the image of the Möbius Strip – maybe something more to explore there the next time I feel like diving down a metaphysical rabbit hole?

The French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty wrote about the chiasm. It didn’t particularly float my boat, but you might enjoy it – a good commentary here, also mentioning the Möbius Strip.

I have been fortunate enough to spend some time recently with Anneloes Smitsman, who I met through our shared participation in the SEEDS community, and our conversations and her writings have been tremendously influential on my thinking. You can read her PhD dissertation online: Into the Heart of Systems Change, and find out more about how her principles are being applied in SEEDS in the video of the SEEDS Sixth Constitutional Assembly.

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