Berkana Blog

Berkana Steps into a Bold Experiment in Living Systems

by Margaret Wheatley on March 13, 2012

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.

We are not sure yet what form Berkana will take, nor what need it might serve. But during this time we will listen in, clear space for emergence and allow for what wants to come forth next.

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.

Comments (22)

  1. Bradleywendy on March 13, 2012 at 7:28 pm

    Good luck, Berkana! Brilliant move…. I wish every organization could follow in your footsteps and give themselves even a couple months to slow down and regroup.

    I know this is impossible… well, maybe it isn’t.

    We’ll be watching and sending good wishes to you as we try to slow down our own organizations… if not to the point of hibernation, at least to a point where the muse has a chance of emerging to straighten out our priority lists!

    • Aerin M. Dunford on March 15, 2012 at 4:34 pm

      Thank you so much for these words of support. We truly believe that this is a bold and courageous step that we (as a community an organization) as well as others can learn from as we move through these uncertain times of ours.

      Deepest gratitude…

      • Jeffrey Cufaude on March 17, 2012 at 2:14 am

        Perhaps when you awaken you can help create a world in which your move does not have to be viewed as bold and courageous, but as normal and required. That truly would be a generous gift.

        • Aerin M. Dunford on March 19, 2012 at 3:59 pm

          Oh Jeffrey, that would be so wonderful. This decision (that feels like exactly what we need) has been quite a journey for me personally.. There has been a lot of questioning if this is simply a denial of death. I truly believe if it were a death that we would be able to just say that. But it is challenging to confront our own discomfort with uncertainty and lack of trust as human beings. I wonder: why is it that we are so afraid of this stillness?

  2. Frank on March 16, 2012 at 7:05 pm

    Your notice of ‘deep sleep’ arrived in my e-mail as a very first acquaintanceship with Berkana. Your website shows a number of interesting projects and I should have known earlier about your existence…. Happy reflection time.
    Frank C Buddingh’

    • Aerin M. Dunford on March 19, 2012 at 4:30 pm

      Oh, that’s unfortunate (and somewhat awkward) Frank. Well, everything for a reason I suppose. We’ll look forward to connecting with you when we wake up! – Aerin

  3. Kim Robey on March 16, 2012 at 7:17 pm

    This is a lovely meditation on the value of rest and rebirth. I see many parallels to my own work here. As an activist at heart, I am acutely aware that reflection and self examination go hand in hand with activism and that one without the other is impossible to sustain. We all need time to listen to what the spirit is saying and not just go through the motions. SO I commend you all for recognizing the signs and be willing to practice the art of deep reflection. Kim Robey, Exec Director, AWE

  4. Wendymac55 on March 16, 2012 at 10:30 pm

    This is exactly the kind of courageous choice I respect Berkana for taking. It shows integrity and deep, deep trust. What a joy it is to trust that the spirit will indeep prosper the resting time, and that whatever comes, whatever may be, will be in the spirit. Peace, blessings, Wendy MacLean

  5. Melissa on March 28, 2012 at 8:18 pm

    Thank you.

    Thank you for providing a model, a tangible entity providing a platform for connection with the intangibles necessary for growth and health and life.

    Blessings on this new adventure!

  6. RTEmmer on March 29, 2012 at 3:28 pm

    Blessings, Berkana! There are many of us ‘out here’ affected within your ripples and are more than curious about your bedding down and reflective process as an organization. Your work and way of being is an inspiration to our own evolution – as individuals and as organizational leaders. Rest well, Sleeping Beauty, and know there are some of us that will slip in to check your slowed, steadied pulse and respiration rate awaiting the Berkana Printemp!

    • Aerin on April 2, 2012 at 8:45 pm

      Thank you so much! I will be working on a forthcoming blog with our friends at Organization Unbound about the experiment. I’ll post the link here when it is released. Now … off to sleep!

  7. Cutchicago on March 30, 2012 at 3:50 pm

    Thank you Berkana your wisdom is something I will be emulating both personally and for our organization the Center for Urban Transformation. We have feeling this energy for awhile but until now weren’t able to process or articulate what we needed and wanted to do. Now this Dharma teaching arrives and we will follow your lead (leadership is a continuous phenomenon). We have some projects we are committed to for the next few months that we will complete and we will take the opportunity to “bed down” and renew and emerge for a new season of work and engagement. Again thank you for sharing your wisdom!

    • Aerin on April 2, 2012 at 8:47 pm

      Wow! We’re pleased to hear that you felt this synergy. As we go through this period of quietness (and perhaps in the reemergence) we look forward to learning from you and others from your experiment. Peace…
      – Aerin

  8. Mira Furth on April 5, 2012 at 3:02 pm

    Wow. I am finally reading your note while taking a rest myself! You are modeling ‘being with what is’ beautifully. taking a deep breath and asking the question what is called for now in myself, in my world. what needs attending to NOW. we have to be quiet (really really hard for an extravert like me) to hear answers through all our senses. I can only imagine the process that lead up to your decision and truly honor your clarity of message. Sending love to you and rest of the magnificent Berkana team.

  9. Ana on May 14, 2012 at 4:22 pm

    How time flies! A rich, slow, thank you for modelling such healthy behavior. Breathe deeply and enjoy the space you are creating and so richly deserve. Blessings on you all.
    Ana Hernandez

  10. leela on June 2, 2012 at 2:46 am

    wise, wise, wise
    stay true

  11. Jacinthe Bergevin on July 18, 2012 at 12:48 pm

    Wow … this is so inspiring! I am definitely staying connected to the energy you are bringing to this world through your “stillness”. Thank you. Merci du fond du coeur.

    Jacinthe Bergevin (Montréal, Canada)

  12. Lisa A. Ellis on August 22, 2012 at 2:15 pm

    Thankful for all Berkana has shared with me and continuing to try to integrate it’s work into my own. Thank you for taking the bold and intentional break of comtemplation and stillness. More people and organizations need to do the same.

  13. Hope on February 15, 2013 at 4:37 am

    We are feeling you, remembering the life and perspective changing experiences, and are sure we will all continue to grow together and in the world! Thank you, Berkana!

  14. DLaframboise on July 28, 2013 at 2:50 pm

    Very honest and brave and timely for me as I struggle to redefine a charity I co-founded 13 years ago. Rest and stillness has never been seen as the path to NFP growth and expansion, but it is so so needed as you so wisely put, for regeneration. Thank you for stating this so poetically and organically.

    D Laframboise

  15. Benita on November 9, 2013 at 11:49 am

    These beautifully crafted words live on, thank you Aerin. Benita Treanor Oasis school of human relations