We are here to awaken from our illusion of separateness.--Thich Nhat Hanh
Once upon a time, a very wise woman said to me, "The primary goal of open systems is to understand. Closed systems, on the other hand, aim to protect." These words profoundly changed my life. As usual, I'm starting from the end of the story and need to back up.
For starters, what are open and closed systems? I like Ludwig von Bertalanffy's portrayal of an open system as a system that permits interactions between its internal parts and the surrounding environment. Ultimately, this exchange allows the system's components, and so the larger system itself, to be transformed. In contrast, closed systems establish and maintain isolation from their environments. Because "no material enters or leaves it," a closed system is easier to predict and control. Importantly, von Bertalanffy concludes, "Every living organism is essentially an open system. It maintains itself in a continuous inflow and outflow, a building up and breaking down of components." Every living organism is essentially an open system.
Perhaps you see where I'm going here. In my line of work, the distinction between open and closed systems seems to capture a lot of what is ailing clients and the spaces in which we live and work. Given that we human beings are open systems, things tend to go awry when we block interactions with each other and the environment, such as when we do not allow external resources to come to our aid or cut off our connection with others.
When I meet someone and discover how hard she works to keep most everything locked inside, or encounter a family system and learn of its many secrets, or inquire into organizational practices and find out that transparency is virtually non-existent and decision-making lies in the province of a select few, my closed system alert goes off. Usually a bit more digging reveals that these closed systems are trying very hard to protect themselves from perceived invaders, and fear is driving the show.
Unfortunately, the achieved safety of closed systems is more often than not a mirage, created from stories of enemies, scarcity, and powerlessness that may feel real but are not actually true. What is more, a natural effect of closing a system that aspires to be open is that it hardens into a fragile, shriveled cast of its original self and severs its connections with the surrounding environment, including the living beings residing there.
The words opening this entry changed my life because I had recently awakened to the idea that love is synonymous with understanding. When love is about listening with an awake heart and embodying the present moment, we can perceive others as they are, rather than as projections of who we want or think them to be. Such understanding is not possible when we seek to isolate ourselves or throw on layers of armor in the service of protection. To borrow from Thich Nhat Hanh, "When we are mindful, deeply in touch with the present moment, our understanding of what is going on deepens, and we begin to be filled with acceptance, joy, peace, and love."
Acceptance, joy, peace, and love. Most people I know want to experience more of these in their lives. I also imagine that most people do not associate these states of being with feeling under siege, diving behind a barrier for cover, or withdrawing into turtle-like shells. Softening and opening to what is actually happening are actions that keep us vital and able to sustain nurturing relationships, not only with others but also ourselves. They also are scary as hell if we have devoted a great deal of energy and time to thickening our shields and sharpening our weapons. So we often need to give ourselves permission to start slowly and keep practicing these courageous acts with patience and kindness. At least I did and still do.
Please do not mistake me as saying that all dangers are a figment of our imagination. Living in an unsafe environment for a prolonged period of time seriously undermines our systems' ability to function and thrive. Moreover, our fight, flight, and freeze responses to aversive environmental stimuli are natural and help us to survive when we are in actual danger.
What I am arguing is that we often could stand to pause when we feel fear or discomfort. If we realize we are confronting false alarms and external forces beyond our control, we could soothe the "inner iguana" living in the ancient part of our brain so that we could return to the present moment and reinhabit it, with awareness and kindness. As Rick Hanson wrote,
Keep helping your body feel less alarmed...continually softening and opening the body, breathing fully and letting go, sensing strength and resolve inside. Alarms may clang, but your awareness and intentions are much larger--like the sky dwarfing clouds. In effect, alarms and fears are held in a space of fearlessness. You see this zig-zaggy, up-and-down world clearly--and you are at peace with it. Try to return to this open-hearted fearlessness again and again throughout your day.
Softening and opening in the face of fear amount to honoring the open systems we are and strengthening them (contrary to the popular idea that softening means weakening). As we soften and open, we stay connected and interact with the world in ways that promote our growth and well-being. We also deepen our understanding of this world and those in it, thereby enlarging the pathway to acceptance, joy, peace, and love.
Charles Bukowski gets the final word with his poem "Bluebird":
there's a bluebird in my heart that wants to get out but I'm too tough for him, I say, stay in there, I'm not going to let anybody see you. there's a bluebird in my heart that wants to get out but I pour whiskey on him and inhale cigarette smoke and the whores and the bartenders and the grocery clerks never know that he's in there.
there's a bluebird in my heart that wants to get out but I'm too tough for him, I say, stay down, do you want to mess me up? you want to screw up the works? you want to blow my book sales in Europe? there's a bluebird in my heart that wants to get out but I'm too clever, I only let him out at night sometimes when everybody's asleep. I say, I know that you're there, so don't be sad. then I put him back, but he's singing a little in there, I haven't quite let him die and we sleep together like that with our secret pact and it's nice enough to make a man weep, but I don't weep, do you?