The system is the Tao

When I first read Getting to Maybe, I was struck by the similarity between what was being said about complexity theory and social innovation and what I understand to be the fundamentals of Taoism, a philosophical tradition I have been exposed to in my study of Eastern religions and Tai Chi. As I turned each page of the book I wondered if I would find an explicit mention of the Tao. I did not. I do not know if the authors did not see the connection between the idea of using complexity science to guide social action and the ideas of Taoism or if they chose not to mention the link in order to avoid being labelled flaky.

In my view it is vitally important to connect social innovation to the idea of the Tao. If we fail to do so, we run the risk of getting trapped in the hubris that can result from unexamined assumptions about the primacy of human agency.

One of the fundamental tenets of Judeo-Christian religious traditions is that God gave man dominion over nature. Many people, including me, are coming to the conclusion that this belief in the God-given right of humankind to dominate and control the natural world is the root cause of many of the critical problems facing the world, especially environmental pollution and its consequences, including climate change and species loss.

Hhock morning 1Not everyone believes that humans have the right to dominate nature. For example, some pantheistic religions, indigenous cultures, and philosophical traditions like Taoism believe that humankind’s role is to cooperate with and serve the natural world not to expect the natural world to serve humankind. Such traditions believe that humankind’s responsibility is to learn and respect the ways of nature, in order to live in harmony with its laws. These traditions would not agree that humanity’s task is to discover nature’s secrets in order to exploit them for the benefit of humans regardless of the impacts on other parts of the natural world. They would certainly not agree that the task is to exploit the natural world for the benefit of only some humans and not others.

Taoism is hard to explain in a few words. In fact, one of its most famous sayings is “the Tao that can be spoken is not the eternal Tao.” So I will not attempt a full explication of the philosophy. What is most relevant to this discussion is the idea that in order for action to be “right” it must be action that moves in harmony with the Tao. The Tao can be described as “the way things are” or the natural order of the cosmos or the inherent lawfulness of life.

The social innovation discourse says that change agents need to be aware of how systems operate and how the agents’ actions will fit within or disrupt relevant systems. The explicit introduction of the Tao into the discourse means that “the system” innovators need to be aware of is not just the organizational or local social context the innovator is working within or the societal institutions that surround the innovation. The “system” becomes the entire cosmos.

This raises a challenging question: How can a social innovator “read” the entire cosmos? It is hard enough to try to understand all the forces at work in a complex bureaucracy like UBC or a complex social ecosystem like the Downtown Eastside. How might it be possible to intentionally move in harmony with the currents of life itself?

It certainly is not possible to understand such forces through rational thought alone. Elsewhere I talk about a model of learning that emphasizes the importance of experience and intuition in developing a mastery of certain skills. I believe this model of learning applies to the development of the ability to lead and foster change. Being a master of social innovation requires an integration of several types of knowledge and skills: rational analysis and rule-following; knowledge about contextual influences that can only be gained through experience; and an intuitive ability to recognize patterns, make connections, and take action.

But something else needs to be added to this conception if the goal is not to effect change based on human intentions alone but to further change in accordance with the demands of the Tao. That something else is, I believe, an awareness that the social innovator is not separate from the Tao. The system is not out there. And the goal is not to understand the system via the rational mind or any of its instruments (like social science research methods). The goal is to know it from the inside.

Explicitly trying to consider whether and how particular actions are in harmony with the Tao changes how you approach social innovation. If the innovator starts with the idea first, that there is a natural order (which includes chaos) that is more fundamental than any human intentions and that is not knowable through reason alone and second, that any human actions must be in harmony with that order, the dynamic of social innovation changes dramatically. Instead of the question being, “What can I do to change this system so it operates according to my vision for a better world,” the question becomes, “What does the underlying system that is the root of everything want me to do in order to sustain or restore its well-being?” Or put more simply, instead of asking, “How can I make the world a better place,” we could ask, “How can the world teach me to be a more skillful human?” The second question assumes that the role of humans is to cooperate with the natural world in the project of its own unfolding rather than to dominate the natural world in the interests of human growth, especially economic growth.

A certain mindset

I agree with the authors of Getting to Maybe that doing social innovation requires a certain mindset. And I think the social innovation field would benefit from a more radical discussion about what this mindset (or mindsets) really looks like and more importantly, how it/they can be cultivated. I agree that social innovators need to embrace diversity, paradox, and uncertainty. Based on my experience, I believe that, in order for that embrace to be wide and deep enough, social innovators need to draw on mental faculties that reach beyond reason. The nature of paradox is that it cannot be resolved by reasoning. The nature of deep uncertainty is that you cannot think your way out of it (or into it). Embracing diversity entails respect for non-rational ways of knowing, e.g., knowing through the body or the emotions or intuition.

This idea that reason has limits and should be complemented by non-rational faculties is heresy in some quarters, including most academic disciplines. The western Enlightenment project is rooted in the belief that reason and its handmaiden, science, are the ultimate arbiters of reality, of truth. But I do not think you can either fruitfully or ethically apply the lessons from complexity science to the realm of social change without explicitly acknowledging that instinct, emotion, intuition, and other forms of non-rational knowing are legitimate sources of data that provide legitimate impulses to action (including non-action). Western ideas about the Enlightenment need to be married to Eastern ideas about enlightenment.

Changing your mind

I know from long and painful experience that trying to create and sustain such a marriage is extremely difficult. It is not enough to just change the content in your mind. The way your mind works also needs to change. I engage regularly in practices whose purpose is to train the mind/body system to be more open, focused, and responsive. I have meditated almost every day since 1975. Since 1985  I have attended countless residential silent meditation retreats of varying duration, from a few days to three months. I have been practicing Tai Chi since 1985. I see myself as being aligned more with Eastern philosophies and world views than the mainstream Western, Judeo-Christian, positivist ideas I grew up with.

Buddha 2But the foundational values and ways of thinking that drive the dominant culture I’m embedded in continue to influence the workings of my mind. I live with subterranean tensions as well as outright conflicts between the mainstream and marginal cultural models that populate my mind. As the Director of the Learning Exchange, there were moments when I was obsessed by the need to find THE answer to the problem of social marginalization, to DO something to alleviate the suffering I witnessed that I was so averse to. This was a reflection of the positivist, materialist, mainstream cultural models that sometimes drive me. There were other moments when I was in a more Buddhist mode and felt complete equanimity about the way things are and compassion for everyone who was trying so hard to live a decent life and I had absolutely no need to “make things better.”

I know it is asking a lot to suggest that social innovators follow imperatives coming from forces that are ineffable. I know it is a stretch to honour ways of knowing that few of us are trained or rewarded to develop. I know that trying to figure out how to be in harmony with the Tao while operationalizing an institutional vision can be a challenge. Trying to distinguish between the hegemonic force of the status quo (one version of “the way things are”) and the counter-hegemonic currents of “the way things really are” can be crazy-making. But I believe this challenge is inherent in the adoption of complex adaptive living systems as teachers and guides.

I know that trying to retrain your own mind is perhaps the hardest thing a human can do. But I know it can be done. I have had the experience of being still and focused enough to look inside and discover a doorway to the knowledge that everything is connected and “my” mind/body system is not separate from “the Tao.”

Diverse traditions, approaches, and techniques are available to facilitate the journey to the awareness of the fundamental unity of life. Different approaches work for different people depending on their starting points and propensities. I do not want to proselytize for any particular path to this kind of knowing. But I am asserting that, in order for social innovation to avoid the hubris that comes from the perspective that humans are the centre of the universe and have a right to be its master, some kind of “spiritual” orientation is required and diligent practice is vital.

For more on social innovation generally, see The Learning Exchange as social innovation.


Westley, Frances, Zimmerman, Brenda, and Quinn Patton, Michael (2006) Getting to Maybe: How the World is Changed. Random House Canada