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Knowledge is power – and I’m not sharing it!

Knowledge is Power

“…I feel like education is a way of keeping knowledge from the students. That it’s used to teach them how to be powerless, how to lose their power.”

This past November, I was an organizer and presenter for the 2015 North American Systemic Constellations Conference. I focused my presentation on the Expanded Knowing Project – my topic: “Education, Justice and Social-Change: Investigating Complex Systems with Constellations.” (A video interview discussing my presentation is below – scroll down if you’d like to see it)


What I want to share here is an excerpt from the session:

The distortion of “Knowledge is Power.”

A comment about the workshop set-up. 

After a brief silent sitting, participants were asked the question, “What is the purpose of education?” and invited to let their body respond (if that’s a foreign concept, here’s a short primer on the felt-sense.) As facilitator, I started the constellation with three representatives: Student, Mother and Father. The “Student” was a high-school student representing herself (serendipity brought her to the group!); the “Mother” was the student’s mother representing herself; and the “Father” was a participant representative. The rest of the participants were asked to stand in the room according to their felt sense. Four people remained seated (two men and two women) but reported themselves as in the constellation. There were a total of 19 participants.

“Knowledge is power, and I’m not sharing it.”

Once the constellation exercise took shape, I asked the representatives to report, starting with those standing on the perimeter and spiraling into the center. The fifth representative, the rep for “father,” shared the following:

“Father”: I feel like I’m in the power position. That knowledge is power. I feel like I have a lot of power, I feel like education is a way of keeping knowledge from the students. That it’s used to teach them how to be powerless, how to lose their power. But I hold the knowledge and I’m not sharing it. I’m aware that so far going around the perimeter you have only spoken to men.  The men are at the perimeter and the women are at the center. But I feel very powerful, very knowledgeable.

Indeed, after his reporting, I saw that in fact, all of the men formed an outer ring. The first six people to report, circling from the outer perimeter in towards the middle, were all men; all of the rest of the people on the inside were women. The two other men in the group were seated outside the circle. Two women were also seated outside the circle.

Two of the women representatives also reported on this theme of power:

“Power”(female): I felt like I had to enter. I knew I had to be here, what I’m going to call center. Not so much as a person, but as a thing – I am looking from very very very high. I notice that my arm is very warm. Almost feel like there’s something here. It was interesting when you started talking about power, because I feel I have power, I have power here. I’m here – here is my space – I don’t feel like looking or connecting to anybody. I just have to be here and stand tall.

“Representative M”(female): In the beginning, I got that education was a dumbing down of people. I felt drawn to her heart (pointing to the mother). There’s no cognition to it, other than to be here. There’s a piece around how education separates family – a mother from her own wisdom, and what she knows is best for her family. And so I’m supporting them.

Later, the female representative who I’m calling “Power” said:

“Power” (female): No, I don’t feel like person. I don’t care about anything, I just care about her (pointing to “Student”). In the beginning, I cared not about the mother. In the beginning, I was just being here and not aware of anyone else. Then I made contact with her (“Student”), and she was the only one I was seeing.  Through her I could see to the mother. I don’t want to move out of here, this is my space, but I have to keep an eye on her wherever she goes.

This is just a tiny excerpt of a very rich session. Rather than analyze it, I have been sitting with the questions that it raised. Here are three that I’m thinking about:

  1. What is the role of testing – and the structure of the educational system in general – in reinforcing knowledge as power-over.
  2. How has the current system of education used in the “separation of a mother from her own wisdom” – and what is the role of the system of separating us all from our own wisdom?
  3. What is our relationship to our own power?

Here’s an interview I did with Constellations Facilitator Linda Comeau about my presentation at the 2015 North American Systemic Constellations Conference.

From Meaningless to Meaning-Full: How I Used Body-Centered Inquiry to Understand the Life of Sacagawea.

Sacagawea with her son Baptiste. Painting by Michael Haynes.

Sacagawea with her son Baptiste. Painting by Michael Haynes.

(Most scholars pronounce her name, given to her by the Hidatsa tribe, with a hard g: Sah-KAH-gah-WEE-ah)

A year ago, my young daughter and I signed up to see an all-Native production of Sacagawea, Bird Woman. Knowing little about her beyond a few basic facts and her image on the dollar coin, we decided to do a simple Body-Centered Inquiry in advance of the play.

I placed three pieces of paper on the floor, one to represent Lewis, one to represent Clark, and one to represent Sacagawea. We took turns standing on each of them, and reporting what we noticed.

I didn’t notice much when standing with either Lewis or Clark, but when I stood with Sacagawea, I felt a heaviness in my chest. It felt like deep grief.

Using this body information, it became the lens through which we began our research: Why would Sacagawea feel grief?

In most accounts, her story begins with the first and probably greatest source of her grief: her kidnapping away from her people, the Lemhi Shoshone people, by the rival Hidatsa tribe at the age of 12. As was custom, she was adopted into the tribe, and raised with the Hidatsa. Five years later, after circumstances led to meeting and guiding the Lewis and Clarke Expedition west, their journey led them to her people, where she had an emotional reunion before continuing on with the expedition.

There is much more to learn about Sacagawea and the Lewis and Clark expedition. If you are curious, I invite you to google Sacagawea and read through what is known about her with this inquiry about her grief. You will find a more textured reading of the facts of her life.

But putting aside her story for now, I want to focus on the Body-Centered Inquiry process itself.

Why Body-Centered Inquiry is a better way to gain knowledge.

I placed three pieces of paper on the floor, one to represent Lewis, one to represent Clark, and one to represent Sacagawea. We took turns standing on each of them, and reporting what we noticed.

When I stood with Sacagawea, I felt a heaviness in my chest. It felt like deep grief.

Reading through the process we used for learning about Sacagawea highlights what I consider to be the three most significant features of the process:

  1. It’s easy and accessible: Body-Centered Inquiry requires only openness and curiosity.
  2. It sparks new insights and a fresh perspective with a practice that is fun and engaging.
  3. It reveals motivations, interactions and relationships.

This last one is really the treasure of Body-Centered Inquiry. Motivation cannot be determined simply by the actions themselves. Body-Centered Inquiry gives us direct insight into the possible driving forces behind interactions.

As a systems thinker, this knowledge is our Holy Grail. One cannot think in systems without having an understanding of how one part of a system is affecting another part. Typically, we use higher order analysis to elucidate these relationships, but with Body-Centered Inquiry, we can generate much of this information through direct experience. I will discuss this further in future examples, but I hope I am starting to convey just how valuable this process is.

SO, how does one engage Body-Centered Inquiry?

Body-Centered Inquiry is akin to brainstorming, but one in which your brain gets to relax while your bodymind comes online.

1. Start with a question.

In our case, it was a simple question: what should I know about the relationship between Sacagawea, Lewis and Clark?  Having a clear question helps you identify the parts of the system you will set-up. 


Lewis, Clark and Sacagawea – represented as pieces of paper in a system.

2. Constellate (set-up) the system.

Since we were working with just three figures, I used three pieces of paper placed in a triangle on the floor to represent each person. Sometimes, the system is more complicated, and the spatial location of where you place the parts of the system forms a constellation that provides additional information.

3. Step into your inquiry.

Step onto the paper and…notice what you notice! My instruction is usually, “trusting your body, what do you notice?” Remember, this is body-centered inquiry, so we are paying attention to the body’s felt sense. This is often experienced as a combination of physical-emotional sensations. Some people also get movement, images, sounds or words. If you are working with others, take notes about your experience to share later with the group.

A note about this step: it is both the easiest and the hardest part of the process. It’s easy because our bodies are designed to sense information. To the body, this is its normal, moment-to-moment activity.  The challenge in this process comes from our brains. They have been taught that they are the source and the command control of all information. The more you practice, the more your brain will learn trust your bodymind. SO: reassure your brain that you have not lost your mind and then – play!

4. Follow up on the information you receive.

When we engage in Body-Centered Inquiry, we have a specific purpose in mind. In our case, my daughter and I wanted to learn more about Sacagawea, so we used our insight to guide our internet research.  Others may have more of a problem-solving inquiry – a scientific hypothesis they’re working on, for example, or a conflict they’re trying to resolve. In each of these cases, after we harvest our insights, we are asking: how can I apply this information to address my question? Usually this means additional research, an experiment, interviews or other ways to follow up with the information you received.

Another way to follow up is to move from inquiry into the creative process. Use the information you receive as the seed for drawing or poetry or dance or music. I would argue that Body-Centered Inquiry is an aspect of the creative process, so it very naturally lends itself to the arts.

If this is the first time you are engaging in Body-Centered Inquiry, here’s my advice:

Start simple. Approach the process with curiosity. Trust what arises. 

OK: That’s enough to get you started. I hope you will experiment with the Body-Centered Inquiry process. And if you do, share your insights or questions in the comments below. 

Are you a New York City educator?

As an NYC-DOE vendor, the Expanded Knowing Project can bring the Body-Centered Inquiry process into your classroom! To set up a training, contact Alison: (845) 863-3318;

The promise – and problem – of systems thinking.

spiderwebjpgAs a former biology teacher, I understand that life is an “interconnected web.” Why, I taught my students about the food chain and the water cycle and the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide.

Of course, I understood even at the time that these were simplistic and incomplete models. What I didn’t recognize was that I was trying to teach complexity with the wrong tool. The primary tool we use as educators is analysis (read more in my previous post “Is our educational system teaching us to objectify the world“). But, like a beam of light in a darkened room, analysis can only reveal a few isolated elements at a time, while failing to show us the big picture.

Like a beam of light in a darkened room, analysis can only reveal a few isolated elements at a time, while failing to show us the big picture.

glacial retreat

The vanishing of the Muir Glacier, Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska.

The need to understand the big picture of systems dynamics is great. Healthy systems can be made unhealthy, and problems made worse, when we blindly intervene in a system without understanding the greater impact. Numerous examples of unintended consequences describe this. Arguably, every problem we face is an example of a system out of balance.

Effective solutions can only be found by understanding and responding to the dynamics of the system. Systems thinking becomes essential if we are to create a healthy, sustainable world (Meadows, 2002; Ackoff, 2004; Senge, 2014).

Systems thinking refers to the habits, tools and concepts used to understand the interdependent structures of dynamic systems (The Waters Foundation)

Systems thinking focuses on relationships and interactions between components of a system. To expand on the apples and oranges example of my previous post, systems thinking takes what we learn through analysis and zooms us out into the bigger picture. Depending on the focus of our inquiry, we move from the apple to the tree, the climate, the weather conditions, the soil, the water, pests and pesticides, farmers and consumers, human health and environmental health. The dynamic system becomes immediately apparent, and the tools and concepts of systems thinking reveal the “apple” as the product of a complex set of relationships. We come to recognize how changing those relationships will change the apple.


A Causal Loop Diagram – one of the tools of systems thinking.

It’s easy to see the appeal of systems thinking. But, despite decades of attempts to bring it into the mainstream, it faces challenges in implementation. I believe this is in part because the “habits, tools and concepts” are themselves abstracted from direct experience. The causal loop diagram, shown above, is an example of one of the tools. They are an ANALYTICAL approach to a RELATIONAL question.

Producing such a diagram is an important skill, and such models are very rich. However, they are not easy to understand and I believe they are blocking the adoption of teaching systems thinking.

Another Way: Systems Thinking Through Direct Experience.

While we might intuitively recognize the value of systems thinking, learning systems thinking is NOT intuitive. In fact, the process is still, well, analytical. It involves breaking the system down into smaller parts and putting it back together like a giant jigsaw puzzle. Alternatively, it involves reducing the systems to less complex models that can be more easily understood.

Is there a way to directly experience a system, in the same way we can directly experience the taste of an apple? The answer is yes, and the clue lies in the “relationships and interactions” that define systems thinking.

Look for more in my next post Systems Thinking and the Felt Sense. (Update: in writing the Systems Thinking and the Felt Sense, it transformed into this post about Sacagawea.)

Is our educational system teaching us to objectify the world?

Conventional thinking is analytical. It focuses on characterizing, categorizing and differentiating individuals and groups.
apples-to-oranges It is an efficient way to got a lot of information about many things, and it is the mainstay of western education.

Analytical thinking is at its best when accompanied by direct experience. We integrate the knowledge we gain into our being. We observe the colors of the apple, feel the smoothness of the skin and its weight in our hand. We breathe in its fragrance and taste the fruit. When we then add information about its genus and species, and a description of how it compares to an orange, the information is anchored by our experience.

When analysis is not anchored in direct experience, we are unable to make meaning from the bits of information floating around our brains. Knowing becomes equated with labeling: we can list all we “know” about an apple or an orange, and get a good grade on the test, but never see the tree or taste the fruit.

Further, in this way of knowing, all that we seek to know becomes an object for us to define. Without realizing it, this “subject-object” emphasis becomes not just a means for understanding the world, but the lens through which we view it.


As this infogram from the Presencing Institute shows, conventional analytical thinking can reinforce the objectification of the world around us. At the extreme, we can become so conditioned into analytical thinking that we fail to recognize that it is only one way of knowing, while discounting other sources of information and knowledge.

In contrast, systems thinking focuses on relationships and interactions between components of a system.

I will write more about systems thinking in my next post – but for now, I ask you to consider: What would the world be like if our immediate way of relating to it was by focusing on relationships and interactions, instead of categorizing and differentiating?