Intrinsic Participation and the Great Co-Creative Dance
We are caught in an ineescapable network
of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.
-- Martin Luther King
In 1986 I participated with 400 others in
the cross-country Great Peace March from
Los Angeles to Washington, DC. It is the
event which started me on my exploration of co-intelligence.
I want to tell you about the moment the peace march was born.
A man asked his seven-year-old niece
what she was going to be when she grew up. She replied, "I'm
not going to grow up. I'm going to die in a nuclear war."
The uncle, David Mixner, was so stricken
by her statement that he set aside a lucrative political PR business
to create the Great Peace March for Global Nuclear Disarmament,
which ultimately involved thousands of people for over a year.
And what was the impact of all that conversation?
What happened when the march was "over"?
No one will ever know the full story. But
I know a part of it. I wrote The
Tao of Democracy, for one thing, and most of the articles
on this website. But there were many other offspring of the Great
Peace March. There were several other books, as well. And hundreds
of lives were radically changed -- including mine, in many ways.
And several Russian-American peace marches were carried out, some
in the U.S., some in Russia. And the people who took the mobile
kitchen that fed the marchers not only served food at other peace
demonstrations for years afterwards, but also fed rescue workers
in the devastating 1989 earthquake where it had collapsed a section
of freeway in Oakland, California. And another marcher organized
a "March for a Livable World" across the U.S. and has
now built an ecocity with people she meet on her march. And the
list goes on. It could easily fill a book all by itself. All from
a small seven-year-old's response to her uncle.
David Mixner's niece, in her wildest dreams,
could not have imagined the impact her comment would have. She
was like the proverbial chaos-theory butterfly whose flappings
-- under the right conditions -- can trigger a hurricane. Her
destiny was perhaps a bit like Rodney King, a black man who was
beaten by police and the beating was videotaped, and that tape
was played over and over on prime time TV news. And when the police
who beat him were found innocent, Los Angeles exploded in riots.
Rodney King's experience became a symbol of black experience in
America. But he never dreamed he would have the impact he had,
especially when he was being beaten.
Likewise, little did David Mixner and his
niece and the hundreds of peace marchers realize the role they
would play in the advent of co-intelligence. And who can tell
what will happen next as the ripples of their influence spread.
A song written on the march proclaimed "echoes of our care
will last forever..." It has proven prophetic, so far.
Sometimes, when I imagine you reading these
pages, I get the vivid feeling that each of you has done something
which led to them being written. At the very least, most of you
have played some role in creating these exciting and terrifying
times that have impelled me into this work and given me so much
hope and such deep concern. We are all creating it all.
Our impact in the world unfolds, often without
us even knowing it is happening.
This insight can be overwhelming or wondrous,
depending on how you look at it. We are all playing roles in the
development of gravitational fields, children, economies, planetary
weather, the health of people in Tasmania in the year 2053. Every
single person in the world unknowingly conspires with every single
green plant to maintain the right mix of oxygen and carbon dioxide
in the atmosphere to sustain life. Every citizen who stays home
on election day participates -- along with every voter -- in electing
their President. Everyone who picks up trash on the street --
or leaves it lying there -- plays a role in determining whether
the next piece of trash falls on the street or not.
We are active participants in everything
that happens -- even when we think we're "doing nothing"
-- even when we're totally ignorant of what's going on. We are
never merely irrelevant observers, spectators or bystanders. We
are -- each of us, right now -- yes, right now, as I write this,
and as you read it -- actively participating in the unfolding
of the world into its future.
I think of this as "intrinsic participation."
We can't avoid participating.
But it's not just us. Everything and everyone
is co-creating everything and everyone else. Everything is bringing
the next moment into being. As David Spangler says, we live in
"a co-incarnational universe."
This, it turns out, has profound implications for who we are,
how we are in the world, and how the world is.
It is an assumption, a way of looking at the world.
Everything is co-creating everything else.
If we accept this as a valid perspective,
then certain other things become true as well. I've listed some
of them below. The first we've already talked about. The others
are no less remarkable.
- We are inevitably participating
in everything -- and thus
we are never fully innocent nor uninvolved. Our task, therefore,
is not to "get off our duffs and start participating"
-- because we've already done that, simply by being born -- but
to become more conscious and intentional about the roles
we're playing -- to try to choose our present and future roles
more wisely. For example, when someone discovers how much chocolate
is made with child slave labor and tons of pesticides, they may
decide to switch to chocolate bought from organic cooperative
farms using fair-trade arrangements, even though it costs more
to buy that kind of chocolate. Now, I want to make it clear that
I don't think that choice makes them particularly pure. I don't
actually see purity as possible -- or relevant -- or even desirable.
What I do see as desirable and important is to make an ongoing
effort to be conscious and to choose. Sometimes we even transcend
choice by becoming so aware of the interconnectedness of life
that the sensible path simply becomes obvious, and we just do
it, even while recognizing its inherent limitations and moral
ambiguities. After all, our actions are only part of the picture...
- We are not the only participants -- and so we are never fully in control. Because of that, we are never fully guilty -- but
then, again, neither is anyone else. Everybody has more or less
influence, but no one's actually fully responsible. From this
perspective, blame, shame and regret start to look odd. Rather
than blaming ourselves or others, it begins to make more sense
to figure out who or what else is significantly involved here,
and try to work consciously and creatively with them -- and not
be too attached to what happens then, since nothing is fully
predictable or controllable. For example, I can't control what
you will do with what you read here. But I can do my best to
help you see what I'm seeing, and I can be open to what you might
have to say about that, and then be open to whatever might grow
in your life, or in mine, or in our shared life as a result of
that openness. Responsibility, it turns out, is more about responsiveness
than about whose fault it is or who's in charge.
- There is never only one single cause
for anything. Everything has
multiple causes, collective causes, contextual causes. The single,
linear causalities of the laboratory and the rational thought
experiment and the moral code -- as useful as these are for understanding
isolated relationships -- simply don't translate adequately into
the nuanced and multi-facetted complexity of real life. Once
we understand that everything is co-creating everything else,
we realize that the greatest power lies in influencing the things
that shape or mediate that co-creativity -- things like relationships,
systems, dialogue, story, vision, contexts, and habit patterns.
These things generate causal fields we can recognize, understand,
use and influence. Consider, for example, this causal field in
In a beautiful community
with walkable destinations and a non-toxic natural environment
with inviting places to hang out together creating and pursuing
common dreams, people find they don't need to invest so many
resources on disease and crime. Far less disease and crime happen.
There is just too much good, healthy life happening in their
- The world influences us as we influence
the world -- and vice versa. Mutuality is unavoidable, a fact of life. Even
competing teams and enemies co-create their mutual outcomes and
transform each other's lives. And there is no starting place
and no end; there are always prior influences and reverberating
ripple effects. And everyone changes everyone. We can use that
understanding to develop conscious, intentional mutuality. We
can use democracy to create social realities that influence us
all in positive ways. We can learn together and from each other.
We can cooperate for mutual benefit, even when we are competitors.
More often than not, I need your cooperation to pursue my self-interest,
and you need mine to pursue yours. There are very few pursuits
that are best pursued alone. Furthermore, I can use my awareness
of my mutuality with the world to open myself to learning about
the physical, biological, cultural, psychological, experiential,
and other influences that have shaped how I see and relate to
the world. People call this "making the unconscious conscious,"
"overcoming cultural bias," and "suspending our
assumptions." I can try to work with these things -- individually
and collectively -- to heal my own life and to help create more
life-affirming communities and cultures.
- Given all this mutuality, co-creativity
and uncertainty, it behooves us to be humble and open to each
other and life -- because things
are complex. There is so much we don't know and can't
know. Perhaps we should be more curious than judgmental, more
observant than pushy, more patient than frustrated. There's a
lot going on. Most of it we'll never know. We need each other
-- all our different viewpoints and intelligences and sources
of information -- to paint as big a picture as we can manage
-- and even that will be only a small piece of what's real. In
our efforts to be as big and nuanced as the complexities we face,
our mutual inadequacies can become a resource, a way to connect
with each other, as we seek to be, see and act with that greater
wholeness which is accessible only through each other. This is
why I think it unwise for us to seek perfect wisdom as individuals,
but rather to seek to be with each other in ways that help us
see beyond our diverse blindspots into greater wisdom, simply
because our differences are able to paint a reality that's bigger,
fuller and more life-like than any one of us alone could possibly
Co-intelligence challenges us -- and empowers
us -- to play our roles more consciously, more collaboratively,
more congruently with the needs and resources of the whole systems
in which we live -- our relationships, our communities, our bioregion,
our world. "Being more conscious" involves becoming
more aware of the roles that we and others play, more aware of
the dynamics involved in our lives and of possible consequences
of what we do or participate in, and making choices (or letting
our actions arise spontaneously) from the center of our aware
being, without shrinking from the fullness of reality, the complexity
and ambiguity of real life as we have to live it.
Our ability to play our role consciously
depends, of course, on our ability to know the effects of our
actions. But in practice it isn't always easy to track what our
impact really is. Most of the impact we have on the world is not
individual and direct, but happens as a result of the larger systems
we are part of. I am speaking of those impacts we have by reason
of our individual, everyday participation in systems of industry
and commerce, consumption, transportation, media, governance,
and so on. I'm speaking of the impact I have by buying chocolate,
passing on information, doing what I'm told, driving a particular
car. Now that the impact of these vast collective systems we're
part of is so complex and far-reaching, we can no longer track
all the influences we have on the world around us. Our individual
role is camouflaged in the vast, diffuse field of systemic impacts.
Some of it may be buried in the future, some deep in our cells,
some in the atmosphere or in distant lands -- all impacts we can't
individually, directly perceive -- and it's all mixed in with
everyone else's. The systemic nature of our influence makes responsibility
fuzzy, obscuring the moral nature of our everyday actions and
making it hard to be sure when we're acting ethically as individuals.
However, we can together create the
collective capacity to collectively perceive, evaluate
and modify out collective impacts. That's what "quality
of life statistics" and "citizen
deliberative councils" do. They aren't about individual
behavior and change. They're about collective, social behavior
and collective, social change. They're about all of us, and how
the systems we live in cause us to have positive or negative impacts
on the world simply by living our lives. If we have ways to track
our collective impact, to reflect on that together, and to act
together on what we learn, we can together create or modify the
systems that shape our lives, so that the way we live naturally
has a more positive impact when it's all added together.
So a big part of co-intelligent agency,
co-intelligent participation, and co-intelligent
morality is shifting our attention from our individual actions
and impacts to the impacts of the collective systems we're part
of -- and doing something to improve those systems.
Perhaps our biggest impact is the role we
individually and collectively play in co-creating our culture's
collective intelligence and its capacity to bring forth and use
real wisdom. If, for example, we could co-create the sort of holistic
politics and culture of dialogue described in "Co-Intelligent
Political and Democratic Theory ," we would be able to
alleviate poverty, itself, not just the suffering of individual
poor people. We would envision and create communities that are
delightful for us all to live in, not just fret about whether
we're individually being good neighbors. We would have more environmentally
and socially benign production and distribution systems, so we
wouldn't each have so much garbage and recycling to handle, nor
have to wonder whether our daily consumption is damaging some
natural or human community hundreds or thousands of miles away.
Understanding that we are intrinsically
participating in a fundamentally co-creative world can lead us
to design together cultures and systems that will empower us to
co-create our lives more consciously and weave us into
the healthy co-creative energies of our world.