Why do some people feel so drawn to systems thinking? You might consider that it is just another set of mental tools – one that is relevant to being more effective in an increasingly complex, interdependent world.

At another level, systems thinking can be viewed as a spiritual practice. It is spiritual because it helps us see that:

·       Everything is connected.

·       We have choices about furthering positive connections – or feeding dysfunctional ones.

·       We can cultivate strengths within ourselves that enable us to make wiser choices.

The practice involves seeing the connections, making positive choices, and cultivating personal strengths.

Seeing Connections

Many spiritual traditions are based on a belief that everything is connected. The three monotheistic Western religions stem from a belief that we all come from and hence are connected by the same life source. In Buddhism, Indra’s Net symbolizes a universe where infinitely repeated mutual relations exist among all its members. In Hinduism, the true reality is the inner spiritual principle Atman-Brahman which gives life and being to all things.

Our dis-ease comes from failing to recognize and cultivate our essential connectedness in constructive ways. The origin of the word “religion” is to “reconnect.” From this viewpoint, systems thinking can be viewed as the work of enabling people to uncover and make connections that serve the whole.

Making Positive Choices

Just because everything is connected does not mean that all connections are positive. We can be connected for better, as when my esteem of you enhances yours of me, or for worse, as when my disregard of you increases yours of me. In a different example, the market dynamics that fueled the housing boom also created the current recession.

Connecting for better means:

1.    Orienting your actions toward goals that serve the whole over time

2.    Optimizing relationships among the parts of the system instead of seeking to optimize any one part

3.    Clarifying and expanding the boundary of the system for which you feel responsible

Identifying goals, cultivating relationships, and defining system boundaries are all choices we make. One powerful example is the Cincinnati-based pediatric surgeon Victor Garcia, who chose to define the best job he could do as not only treating children in the hospital where he is head of trauma services, but also as addressing the dangerous and unhealthy conditions of the inner city where many of his patients live (follow his work here).

Cultivating Positive Strengths

In order to make choices that produce healthy connections, we need to develop certain qualities or character traits within ourselves. These include:

Respect – Assume that everyone is doing the best they can with what they know at the time.

Compassion – Recognize that at some level “they know not what they do” (New Testament).

Awareness – Know yourself, and see more of the whole that you are part of. In particular, understand how you might be unwittingly contributing to the very situation you want to change.

Vision – “Where there is no vision, the people perish” (Old Testament). Listen for what moves you and what is called for by the world around you. Work for what you deeply care about, remembering the words of Vaclev Havel that “hope … is the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.”

Courage – “Yield not to temptation” (New Testament). For some reason, systems are perverse. They tend to seduce people into doing the wrong thing for the right reasons. Cultivate the courage required to do in the short term what serves you and others in the long term – not just what is expedient in the moment. Go even further and ask, “What might I or we have to give up in order for the whole system to succeed?”

Patience and Persistence – Develop these qualities to stay the course in the face of uncertainty and time delay.

When viewed as a spiritual practice, applying systems thinking tools becomes a way for us to develop the capacities to see connections and make wise choices about creating constructive relationships. We not only become more skilled in applying the tools, but we also allow the tools to shape us as spiritual beings.

For more on the relationship between applying tools and growing personally, see for example David Peter Stroh’s article “The Systems Orientation: From Curiosity to Courage” and the recent book The Tools: Transform Your Problems into Courage, Confidence, and Creativity by Phil Stutz and Barry Michels.

Note: this blog was reprinted in Leverage Points by Pegasus Communications.