Being AS nature: Being Leaders in Developmental Friendship

Alex Stubbings writes…”This year marks the eighth iteration of the AR+ coLAB  Leadership as Developmental Friendship. And my first. So without knowing all the rich stratigraphy under our collective feet, (what rich artefacts might be buried there?), I embarked with more experienced explorers in launching this cycle of inquiry. The bedrock of the inquiry at least remains the same: how to be the transformation we need for a world in the midst of catastrophic eco-social crisis? This year builds upon the last with its attention to power and identity, adding another layer, this time turning the locus of attention to being AS nature. Not ‘in’ – which maintains the sense of detachment – but AS, truly acknowledging we are one and the same.

What practices and forms of inquiry can we engage in to explore this territory when we are sat, mostly indoors, mediating encounter through technology? Fortunately this group is well versed in creative online inquiry – eco-relational meditation, constellations – finding ways to transcend distance, so we could start from firm ground.

In the introductory session in April, we set up the exploratory mode of inquiry with a brief contemplation of how we define ourselves, how we think about the boundaries of ‘me’, ‘us’, ‘them’, by bringing to awareness ourselves as complex multi-organisms with billions of microbes in the guts, bacteria on the skin and in our noses, with organisms in our hair and eyelashes, viruses in our lungs and blood. To notice how as we go about our daily lives with an individuated sense of ‘me-ness’, we forget that we are each an ambulatory ecosystem. Perhaps it was the slightly self-conscious, slightly flippant way I offered the contemplation, but the sense-making that followed quickly converged on the gut, digestion and what we eat. It seemed to reveal a slight discomposure. How comfortable are we talking about our bodies in this way? Are these topics for polite conversation? And what, now I think about, prevented me from asking this at the time? (Where was my bravery in the ‘brave protainer’?)

The session finished with setting up our individual inquiry process to take place ahead of the next meeting. Not the usual ‘flipped classroom’ method but necessary to stay safe and inclusive with some members joining late at night. The invitation was to find a ‘sit spot’, a safe space in a natural setting – park, woodland, field – where one could sit quietly for at least half an hour at a time to ‘be as nature’.

The invitation went on: ‘you are encouraged to enter this space with some sense of the sacred, whatever that means to you, arriving with patient, unobtrusive awareness. Then sit in stillness and allow for whatever may emerge. Notice what comes up, what resonates, what meaning you make of it… if you’re inclined, perform a small ritual or invocation as a way to consciously connect with the local place and beings’.

We referenced David Abram (1996), “reminding us that language isn’t a uniquely human or even just a mental phenomenon but a fully embodied sensuous experience, a form of carnal reciprocity between expressive bodies. As you enter into your own space, consider how you bring all of your senses into reciprocal relationship and attunement to all that is present.” Some reading too was provided, specifically Freya Mathews’ On Desiring Nature (2010) for her encouragement to explore how we can ‘intermesh’ our interests and desires with those of nature, to seek our own good in ways that serve others’ goods, to engage poetics as a way of expanding meaning making through encounter with other non-human sentience.

The following session in May held the space for reflecting on our discoveries in our sit spots. Some had a single spot they returned to multiple times, others a large ‘spot’ in which they moved about from day to day. Some were in fields, others woods, some on their terraces. To evoke the sense of ourselves as fleshy, meaty, bodyselves participant in a landscape, we took a creative approach to sharing: taking turns to imaginatively adopt other beings’ perspectives and to talk about the sit spot from them – trees, thrushes, fungi, grasses. By shifting our point of consciousness out of the human, to look back at our human selves sitting from the vantage point of a non-human other, is, it seems, to instantly expand our circle of empathy. Group members commented on how quickly and easily they were able to speak from these other perspectives, with a familiarity and certainty that surprised them, not unlike the experience of taking up representations in constellations.

Whilst it was introduced as ‘imaginal’ work (as a way to sound less esoteric and accessible?), some commented that no imagination was required. If anything, the sensation seemed to be more of a letting go and allowing, making space for other ‘voices to speak’. The irony of the limits of language to express this was noted, of course, as the sensual carnal languages that Abram reminds us of become lost in the translation to human tongues, a coarse approximation that only hint at the subtly of meaning conveyed and the multiplicity of colour and tonal variation we have attuned to when we allow solipsistic self-meanings to expand through communicative, reciprocal interaction with our non-human neighbours into mutuality and perhaps shared desire.

This expanded awareness feels like a muscle to keep exercising, a conscious intention to hold rather than a permanent way of being, at least as yet. It seems too that a wider lexicon, a new language (or a resurrected ancient or indigenous one?) is needed to truly be able to describe experience in ways that enable each of us, even with a shared ‘human tongue’ to grasp what we each are trying to convey. It leaves me wondering how the trees do it.


Abram, David (1996) Spell of the Sensuous. Penguin Random House.

Mathews, Freya (2010) On Desiring Nature, in Indian Journal of Ecocriticism, 3, August 2010


Dr. Alexandra Stubbings rummages, pokes and dances where human-made systems meet natural ones. She’s a systems change consultant and coach who has built her practice around a long-term inquiry question: how do you ‘decarbonise’ culture? I was so grateful to discover Action Research twenty years ago, because the questions I was asking didn’t have ready answers. They still don’t. And how much more exhilarating, enlivening is that? More here.

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