“We are all now, more or less, epistemological pilgrims.” Paul Helm

I spent a few days in Chilliwack, then nearly two weeks in Kelowna — a nice change of pace and of scenery, and time with family and friends. I’ve learned not to take more than a couple of books along – that is the most I am likely to read, and I always have KINDLE on my laptop anyway. So I did manage to have a better look at Mulholland’s little classic, “Invitation to a Journey.” There are useful resources there that I plan to use in NZ this summer.

Then this past week I joined an in-progress MDiv class in Altanta. Many years since I’ve been to Georgia – but now I have made a virtual appearance to talk about the relationship of “place” and mission. A good and interesting conversation, one that left me thinking again about learning and change.

As soon as one is dealing in the real world with people in process, one discovers that there is a world of difference between learning and change. The first may be mostly a cognitive process, the latter, because it requires disturbing a system that is in some kind of balance, is much more than cognitive. In fact, it is frequently deeply emotional and disturbing. All this leads people in noetic and learning sciences to talk about orders of change.

First order change is simple. I change my clothes or my car. Done.

There is an age when one teaches what one knows.
But there follows another when one teaches what one does not know…
It comes, maybe now, the age of another experience:
that of unlearning..
Roland Barthes

Second order change impacts my life and relationships. I move to a new town. I marry or divorce. Or I attempt to change a fixed habit. This level of change involves the way I know myself, and so it touches on epistemological change. For example, shedding an addiction requires an admission of powerlessness. That requires me to see a different kind of person in the mirror. I know myself in a new way.

The third order of change is complex, because it requires another kind of epistemological shift. It requires that I admit my powerlessness, and it requires that I surrender to something outside myself. This is a deeply holistic process and that’s why it is so profound and enduring. This level of change involves paradox. And it’s this level of change that occurs when people encounter a new paradigm.

When people encounter a new paradigm, the first response is confusion. How can this be? It requires a re-ordering of my world. It is a little like stepping out the door of your home and discovering that you are 100 feet off the ground. It’s frightening. The inner response is generated from the limbic system – “fight or flight.” Knowing that this is what occurs gives the leader an edge. If you see surprise, confusion, and angry faces, you are moving in the right direction. Unless people get in touch with something more than their heads in this process, there won’t be any deep understanding or any real change.

This is why the leadership literature — the useful stuff — deals with managing conflict. You have to disturb the system, rock the boat. People get used to boats being safe and dry places. Now you are drilling hole in the bottom. It creates anxiety!

This shouldn’t be a big surprise. We see all the possible response in the gospels. The Pharisees are often furious. Others are puzzled. Nicodemus queries Jesus about being born again – everyone knows its impossible! But notice how Jesus leads others into the new world. He does it indirectly, with parables and metaphors. He tells the truth slant, as Dickinson’s bit of poetry reminds us. He is going for the right brain. The left brain is a dead end in this process. We get stuck in analysis. We take things apart, when truth is whole and aimed at the whole person. Poetry is useful because, as David Whyte puts it, “poetry is the language against which we have no defenses.” And we are well defended, so we’ll need some help. We’ll need to engage paradox, and the left brain, oriented to control, firmly rejects all paradox.

So why not use images and poetry. We are going where we haven’t been before. The transition to a new world requires not just new tools and new ideas, but a new language. Rubem Alves reminds us, “poetry is the language of what it is not possible to say.” And there is a lot to say, and a lot to leave behind. A big part of the challenge is that deep learning requires unlearning, we have to let go before we can let come. This is the surrender aspect, but it includes the epistemological challenge. When we embrace a new paradigm we don’t only feel like we are entering new territory, we feel we are leaving something of our self behind. Self and the world are always in collusion. When they are not, bad things happen. But entering a new world means leaving an old world behind. There’s grief work here, and it’s always personal.

For all we know about change, there is a lot of mystery in the process. One would expect artistic types to be better at this than technicians, yet it’s not always the case. No one knows how this wind blows. But at least we know that deep change is possible. If it were not, literally ‘who could be saved?’