All living organisms and all living systems rest. From the smallest single cell organism to vast aspen groves connected via intricate networks of roots, life must pause, be still, relax, hibernate, lose its leaves. Stillness is a state of being which allows organisms to later thrive. If perennial plants did not shrivel up and lose their leaves in the winter, they couldn’t reserve their vitality to come back in the spring. If we did not go to sleep every night, we would not have the energy to do all that we need to do during the day. There is a Chinese saying: “the circle of wholeness is made up of action and stillness.” We all need to rest from time to time.
But when do we allow our organizations–particularly nonprofits and social change initiatives–to slow down, be quiet, reflect and receive? Lately, it feels like many of us are always acting and moving, making more and more lists, doing and doing and doing, rushing around and then feeling exhausted. Not only does it seem like this organism called the NGO doesn’t know how to take a break, but as nonprofit employees, we are often challenged to find spaciousness and stillness within our daily work. We’re also doing all of this with fewer financial resources, reduced staff and less time. Maybe this is another reason that the organizational structure of most nonprofits no longer supports their work; the NGO organism has never learned how to rest well.
When people ask me what The Berkana Institute is, I often respond by saying that it is an experiment in applying what we learn from living systems to human organizations. I am quite certain that throughout the course of Berkana’s 20-year history there have been some intentional and unintentional quiet periods. But for at least the past seven years we’ve been pretty active: growing, changing and experimenting with communities of practice and self-organizing. Yet we have never consciously entered into a state of rest.
Today, it feels like the time for that experiment has come.
We plan to enter into this period of stillness consciously, with intention. We imagine Berkana, with all of its rich history and learning value, to be like a garden at the beginning of the winter. The last harvest has been reaped and the first frost is on its way. We’ve learned from our gardens that when we bed them down deliberately at the end of the growing season, they return more vibrant and productive than the year before. We prune or cover the plants in a certain way so that they can weather the cold, still season. Our intention now is to bed down Berkana well for a period of rest and retreat. We know that there are certain things that must be tended to in this process.
The board and staff at Berkana have been working to answer the question: what do we need to do now in order to bed down this organization for the winter well? There are three things that we have identified that we want to preserve through this period of quiet. We will preserve our 501(c)3 tax status; maintain a minimal online presence via our website and social media, featuring a repository of articles, newsletters and other resources that our community can still access; and honor the deep relationships with our web of partners and collaborators around the world. While we may not be actively participating in these partnerships during this time, we will communicate clearly that we are still here, simply resting, while the work in the web continues. We will listen into our community periodically to find out whether or not it is time to begin coming out of our hibernation.
These minimal actions are like the root system of our plant. We will regenerate our energy by doing as little as possible during this time. Yet we will still be very much alive in this still state. Simply resting.
This year we celebrate Berkana’s 20th anniversary. Much has changed over time and we have grown, adapted and reshaped ourselves along the way. We live in a very different world than we did in 1992. Since then Berkana has been on the leading edge of conversations about leadership, living systems and learning. We know our current structure and ways of working are no longer what is called for in our world. This phase of stillness is a way of preparing the ground for the organization to return wiser, more grounded, vibrant and alive in the future.
In the coming weeks we will share more about what exactly bedding down means for The Berkana Institute and for you, our community. Stay tuned for information via our website, e-newsletter and email messages.