ESSAYS, ARTICLES, REVIEWS AND DISCUSSION GROUPS
Cultivating Relational Intelligence
By Nina Simons
Co-Executive Director, Bioneers/Collective
EarthLight Magazine #53, Spring 2005
I want to speak with you this morning about
what lies at the heart of many of the toughest issues that we face, both as a
culture and as a species. As crucial as they are to illuminate a future
landscape of hope, innovative environmental solutions and strategic social
models alone won’t be enough to alter our collective course. What’s ultimately
required is a change of heart, a shift in how we relate to each other and to the
whole of the living Earth. The root source of our gravest challenges--both
socially and environmentally--is a crisis of relationship.
The tear in our
relational fabric is apparent in every area of our lives. The evidence surrounds
us--from the corporate invasion of our schools to the profusion of divorce and
domestic violence; from toxic factory farming to the loss of civil liberties;
and from deforestation and global warming to people making war on each other all
over the world.
We’ve got a lot
to learn about how to be in relationship in a way that is not only enduring, but
can help us to heal our personal and societal wounds. And, "in times of drastic
change," the social philosopher Eric Hoffer said: "it is the learners who
inherit the future. The learned usually find themselves equipped to live in a
world that no longer exists."
How, then, can
we enhance and accelerate our learning about conscious kinship?
First, it might
help to stop idolizing rational intelligence to the exclusion of our other
capacities. As Candace Pert says: "we have bodies for other reasons than to
transport our heads around." A wealth of additional information might be
available to us, if we also valued the abundant physical, emotional, and
intuitive cues we receive.
has long overemphasized the importance of mental intelligence, or IQ. For most
of us, this means that reorienting our selves toward a broader focus that
integrates emotional or relational intelligence means swimming against the
centuries throughout our history, the value of feeling and relationship has been
vastly underrated, derided, or even scorned. Most often it’s been relegated to
the disrespected world of ‘intuition’ or sentimentality, and left to the women
Our other ways
of knowing, through our hearts, hands, and spirits, have become weakened from
disuse, as we’ve become distracted by an emphasis on getting more stuff. In the
Cherokee language, there’s no word for the love of an inanimate thing--love is
only possible between two sentient beings. Anyone who loves a thing is
personally and politically, we’ve paid a very high price for the commodification
of nearly everything in our culture, for, as Jeremy Rifkin says, valuing
"belongings more than belonging."
there are some encouraging signs of change, on a societal level. The European
Union is an inspiring example of healing relationships on an immense scale
between peoples who not so long ago fought the bloodiest wars in the history of
our planet. Over the past few decades, Europeans have created a truly
transnational vision and are beginning to adopt a new global consciousness.
25 member nations, with a population 50% larger than the U.S. on a land mass
only half its size, the E.U. is now the world’s largest economy, with far less
wealth inequality between rich and poor than we have in the U.S. In terms of
their quality of life, they have more physicians per capita; longer average
life-spans; lower crime; far fewer prisoners and less violence than we do.
Citizens of the
E.U. tend to think of themselves as working to live, whereas in the U.S., they
say, we live to work. Their annual vacation time is more than double what ours
in his new book The European Dream, notes that the two cultures have now
developed diametrically opposed ideas about freedom and security. For Americans,
freedom is associated with autonomy and independence. For many young Europeans,
however, he says, "freedom is now found in embeddedness, in having access to
many interdependent relationships. The more communities one has access to, they
believe, the more options one has for a full and meaningful life."
relational orientation is peeking over the horizon, in a wide range of domains
and disciplines. Increasingly, research is revealing the value of whole body
learning, proving that our entire neural networks and our emotions are
profoundly involved in all thought and in how we relate to the world and create
meaning. Increasingly, our sciences are evolving less linear, more holistic
models of how things work.
communications disciplines can offer a helpful framework through which to
revisit our relational musculature. The emerging field of nonviolent
communication, for example, suggests that, in situations of conflict, we track
the emotions that lay beneath the content of the words.
receptively to the emotional message--and not the verbal one--embattled moments
can become swiftly and enduringly defused, creating a real opening for people to
question their previous positions.
relational social technologies are emerging in many fields. Thanks in large part
to Candace Pert’s work on the "molecules of emotion," the study of emotional
intelligence, or EQ, is expanding rapidly. People who have a higher "eq" tend to
have happier, more productive and fulfilling lives. EQ is defined as "the
ability to perceive emotions, to access and generate emotions to assist thought,
to understand emotions, and to reflectively regulate emotions so as to promote
emotional and intellectual growth." Cultivating our capacity to step outside of
our emotional reactions, noting them more dispassionately, might offer the time
and space needed to assess a number of possible responses to select the one
that’s most relationally attuned.
With a history
of relations that have reinforced hierarchy, domination, and disrespect as the
norm, we have a lot of unlearning to do. To alter our orientation to one of
partnership and reciprocity will require real commitment, practice and patience.
But I believe that our biological orientation toward relationship, and what
biologist E.O. Wilson calls biophilia--that innate affinity that life has for
life--strengthens our likelihood of success.
As human beings,
we’re built for relationship. Our young remain dependent far longer than most
other creatures, and our neural systems and limbic brains are hard-wired for
empathy, compassion, and connection. Furthermore, as naturalist Janine Benyus
has noted, we’re a highly adaptable species, and truly excel as mimics.
have an abundance of relational intelligence to learn from, if only we can
humbly accept its tutelage. The natural world is resplendent with symbiotic
long-term reciprocal relationship, between blossom and pollinator, moisture and
mycelium, plants and herbivores. In nature, noone lives in isolation, and the
sense of balanced interdependence is palpable in any thriving ecosystem. We can
opt to be mentored by its mastery, if we can quiet ourselves long enough to
hear, smell, feel, and learn from it. I believe our survival, as well as our
joy, may depend on our making this shift, bringing a practice of relational
learning to the center of our attention.
As the renowned
biologist Humberto Maturana once said: "Love, allowing the other to be a
legitimate other, is the only emotion that expands intelligence."
And, since this
is Sunday morning, this is my prayer for us in this pivotal time:
"May we all
attend to reuniting our heads, hearts and hands, taking some time to be
receptive, suspend judgment, and wait patiently for the information that
"May we practice
being still and really listening--to our selves, to each other, and to the
gentle whispers of the living intelligences of the natural world.
To navigate the
wild changes ahead, decrease the violence of this tumultuous time, and shift our
civilization’s direction, we will need to invest the same authority and value in
our relational intelligence and learning as we’ve previously given to our
If we can do
that, we will build a contagious energy that will ultimately lead to real
healing and restoration--the restoration of our wholeness, as a global
community--of our deep and fundamental interdependence with each other, other
species, and the whole interwoven web of creation.
As the Lakota
people say, in ending every prayer: O Mitakuye Oyasin--to all our relations.
ah-women, and aho.
Nina Simons is
co-executive director, with her husband Kenny Ausubel, of Bioneers/Collective
Heritage Institute. Bioneers promotes practical environmental solutions and
innovative social strategies to restore the Earth and our communities. See
www.bioneeers.org for more information on this year’s conference in October.
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