Action Research as Spiritual Practice Essay

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Action Research as Spiritual Practice

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Action Research as Spiritual Practice

Peter Reason

Prepared for the University of Surrey Learning Community Conference

May 4/5 2000

For me spiritual life is not an interest, it's a way of life, of being in the world, the
foundation of everything. bell hooks, (hooks, 1991:218)




One of the interesting debates within the family of methods which we call action
research—co-operative inquiry, participatory action research, action science, action
inquiry, appreciative inquiry—has concerned what we mean by validity. Positivist science
is (relatively) clear that validity is about epistemology, about truth in some sense, a
correspondence between theory and empirical evidence. However, in action research, as we
have explored these questions, we have realized that validity, or a better term may be
quality, is a rather different, and more multidimensional, notion.


There is clearly an epistemological dimension to quality in action research. Action
research is an approach to the generation of knowing which aims to bring ideas and
knowledge and action together, to produce practical knowing. There is a huge debate, to
which I have contributed, about the nature of such practical knowing, and the
epistemological changes that the action research perspective brings to the academy (Heron
& Reason, 1997).


Action research has over the years also addressed political questions. The argument from
the PAR community is that the processes of knowledge creation have been monopolized by
those who have power, and thus they create knowledge in the service of their own
interests. What is the point of findings that are ‘true' if they have been produced in
circumstances that disempower people, that distort social relations, and add to the
monopoly power of dominant groups? So validity or quality in action research is also about
political relations, it is fundamentally about democratizing ways of creating practical
knowing (Chambers, 1997; Fals Borda, 1995; Fals Borda & Rahman, 1991; Gaventa & Cornwall,
2001; Selener, 1997). And action research has also asked pragmatic questions concerning
whether the outcomes of action research projects are ‘useful' whether they work in
practice (Greenwood & Levin, 1998). And of course, part of the postmodernist contribution
has been to emphasize the links between power and knowledge (Foucault, 1975).


Today I want to explore another dimension of quality in action research: action research
aims, I think, to develop practical knowing in the service of worthwhile human purposes.
In the Introduction to the Handbook (Reason & Bradbury, 2001a) we placed a set of quotes
which showed that while action research practitioners suggest slightly different emphases
in their work—‘quest for life,' ‘make the world better,' ‘loving,'
‘freer'—there is broad agreement that the purpose of human inquiry is the flourishing
of life, the life of human persons, of human communities, and increasingly of the
more-than-human world of which we are a part. However, Hilary Bradbury and I were struck
we are struck that while all contributors are concerned to address questions they believe
to be a significant worth, few pay explicit attention to inquiring into what is worthy of
attention, how we chose what is worthwhile. We wondered if action researchers espouse high
values without having relevant disciplines to inquire into this process of valuing?


So today I want to play with the idea that we can see action research as spiritual
practice, for as Matthew Fox tells us, the questions we address in our practice tell us
what matters (Fox, 1991a). Now, when I speak of spiritual practice, I want to be taken as
speaking of an everyday spirituality. For just as it is widely argued that action research
is a way of life—for example in Judi Marshall's recent paper Living Life as Inquiry
(Marshall, 1999)—so to for the mystic and prophet spiritual practice is not esoteric and
otherworldly, but is similarly part of everyday life. Meister Eckhart said that ‘God is
at home, it is we who have gone out for a walk'—spiritual practice is about returning
home, coming back to now; Jesus said the Kingdom/Queendom of Heaven is among you; or as
the Buddhists say, Nirvana is here, we are all Buddhas, we have to learn to recognize this
truth! As John Heron put it ‘simple openness to everyday participative experience,
feeling that subject and object are in an inseparable seamless field of imaging and
resonance—a field with infinite horizons—is itself a spiritual experience' (Personal
communication, 1997).


I asked Wolf Storm (Storm, 1972, 1994) to tell me what he, as a Medicine Wheel teacher,
meant by prayer. I understood from his reply was to pray was to approach life as sacred,
to call to living things, to feel one's relation to them, from the four great directions,
as spirit, body, emotions, and mind. When the Lokota people end their prayers, they say,
‘All our relations': spirituality is about all our relations, as Thomas Aquinas, said,
spirit is the capacity to relate to the totality of things.


If we see action research as spiritual practice, we may thereby discover ways in which we
can inquire together into worthwhile purposes. We may also come to understand action
research in a deeper and more profound manner.


Spirituality is a life-filled path, a spirit-filled way of living… A path is not goal
oriented. A path is the way itself, and every moment on it is a holy moment; a sacred
seeing goes on there (Fox, 1991a:11-12, original emphasis)


I have argued before that one of the great tasks of action research is to heal the splits
that characterize western experience [Reason, 1994 #30;(Reason & Bradbury, 2001a)]. One of
the great splits, which can be seen as taking place just 400 years ago with the burning of
Giordano Bruno (de Quincey, 1999b), has been between inquiry and religion: science got to
study ‘things material' and religion ‘things spiritual', splitting up the world into
different packages which is the root, I would argue, of our current predicament. Maybe
this consideration of action research as spiritual practice will contribute to healing of
that rift and allow spirit into our science and inquiry into our spiritual practice!




The Four Paths of Creation Spirituality

In this paper I draw heavily on the teachings of Matthew Fox on creation
spirituality—for it was listening to him in Bath earlier this year that the original
ideas for this talk came to me. Most of us brought up within a Christian tradition (and
for those of us who would not see ourselves as Christian, let us not forget how much
Christian teaching has influenced our world, the practice of capitalism and thus of the
context of our lives, as Weber and Tawney pointed out long ago) were brought up broadly
within the fall/redemption tradition, which starts with original sin and identifies a
threefold path to salvation—purgation, illumination and union. We have to radically
clean up our sin, see the light, and then we will have union with a transcendent divinity.
Fox says


It is a dualistic model and a patriarchal one; it begins its theology with sin and
original sin, and it generally ends with redemption. Fall/redemption spirituality does not
teach believers about the New Creation or creativity, about justice making and social
transformation, or about Eros, play, pleasure, and the God of Delight. It fails to teach
love of the earth or care for the cosmos, and it is so frightened of passion that it fails
to listen to the impassioned please of the anawim, the little ones, of human history (Fox,
1983b:11)


The creation spirituality traditions start with original blessing of life, rather than the
original sin of fall/redemption (and Fox argues that creation spirituality is a much older
tradition, reaching back through the history of the Judaism and Christianity to the wisdom
books of the Old Testament , and reaching through Christian and Jewish mystics, the
ecstatic Sufis of Islam, romantic poets, to contemporary deep ecologists…). And in
contrast to the three paths of fall/redemption, Matthew Fox identifies four paths of
creation spirituality


The Four Paths of creation spirituality tell us what matters. We are told in Path One that
awe and delight matter; in Path Two that darkness, suffering and letting go matter; in
Path Three that creativity and imagination matter; and in Path Four that justice and
celebration, which add up to compassion, matter. (Fox, 1991a:12)


So what then of sin, indeed of original sin?

The creation-centred tradition, while it does not begin with original sin but with
original blessing, does indeed have an understanding of original sin or the sin behind
sin. From Meister Eckhart to Mary Daly, the sin behind all sin is seen as dualism.
Separation. Subject/object relationships. Fractures and fissure in our relationships. Take
any sin: war, burglary, rape, thievery. Every such action is treating another as an object
outside oneself. This is dualism. This is the sin behind sin. (1991:49)


Fox points out that this understanding of sin is found in Eastern spiritualities as well,
in the idea of separateness. I don't want to take the comparison too far, but there are
clearly parallels here with the positivist worldview and the methodologies of scientism.
The Western enterprise since Descartes has been based on dualism. Indeed, it is
interesting to note Brian Goodwin describes Dawkins' theory of the Selfish Gene (Goodwin,
1994) as paralleling the Fall/Redemption myth. So we can see that from this perspective we
urgently need a form of inquiry which doesn't rely on the separateness and divisiveness of
dualism, on the separation of subject and object in the western scientific view.


The Four Paths

The Via Positiva reminds us that we begin in original blessing rather than original sin,
in the ‘awe, wonder and mystery of nature and of all beings, each of whom is a "word of
God"' (1991:18) The Via Positiva tells us to ‘fall in love at least three times a day'
(1991:19)—in love with the cosmos, in love with a wildflower, in love with a symphony,
in love with another person. The Via Positiva tells us that awe, wonder, and falling in
love matter. Blessing is about abundance, about joy, about passion; about being part of
the earth, part of the cosmos; about beauty and harmony and balance. Meretta Hart, who has
just completed our MSc in Responsibility and Business Practice chose as the core aspect of
her life inquiry how to ‘be a blessing' in the world.


The Via Negativa reminds us that darkness and nothingness, silence and emptying, letting
go and letting be, pain and suffering, also constitute a real part of our spiritual
journey. The Via Negativa instructs us ‘Thou shalt dare the dark' (1991:19)


In the pathway that is the Via Negativa, we enter the shadow, the hidden or covered-up
parts of ourselves and our society. In doing so, we confront the cover-up that often
accompanies evil in self and society. ‘It is part of an unjust society to cover up the
pain of its victims' notes theologian Dorothy Solee. This commandment requires that
spiritual voyagers not only let go of cover-up and denial, but that they actually enter
into the darkness that pain is all about. Since both despair and apathy arise from the
cover-up of anger, this journey of letting go is also one of going deeper that the
despair, apathy, bitterness, and cynicism that can create such resentment in our souls and
society. (Fox, 1991b:20)


The Via Negativa is what mystics describe as the ‘dark night of the soul'. The creation
spirituality path reclaims mysticism, telling us we are actually all mystics, able to
‘undergo deep darkness'


It is when the heart is broken that compassion can begin to flow through it. (Fox, 1991a:20)

Paths One and Two lead to Path Three, the Via Creativa, which is about our generativity,
our imagination, our ability to co-create:


We trust our images enough to birth them and ride them into existence.

The basic spiritual discipline in the creation tradition is decidedly not asceticism, but
is the development of the aesthetic. Beauty, and our role in co-creating it, lie at the
heart of the spiritual journey. In Path Three we learn what Eckhart meant when he said
‘we are heirs of the fearful creative power of God.' Creativity is not about painting a
picture or producing an object; it is about wrestling with the demons and angels in the
depths of our psyches and daring to name them, to put them where they can breath and have
space and we can look at them. This process of listening to our images and birthing them
allows us to embrace our enemies'—that is, the shadow side of ourselves—as well as to
embrace our biggest visions and dreams (Fox, 1991a:18-21)


But creativity is not enough, for we are also called to the relief of suffering to
combating injustice, to the struggle for balance in society and history. We are called to
work together in community with others who are also struggling for justice. This is the
Via Transformativa.


The creation spirituality journey culminates in compassion—the combination of justice
making and celebration. Justice and joy equally make up the experience that compassion is
about. The capacity to experience our interconnectedness concerns both the joy and the
sorrow that we undergo with others... Compassion is about the actions that flow from us as
a result of our interdependence (1991:22)


Fox uses the term ‘prophecy' here: we are all prophets (just as we are all mystics), and
the prophet is one who interferes:


To be compassionate is also to be prophetic... The prophet interferes with the injustice,
the unnecessary pain, that rains on the earth and its creatures when humans neglect
justice and compassion. That prophetic call to interfere with injustice resides in all of
us. (1991:23)


These four paths of creation spirituality can be seen as a journey from the joy of
original blessing, through the darkness of pain and suffering into creativity and on to
working for justice in the world. In this sense, each path negates, grows out of, and
builds on the previous. The four paths can also be seen as a spiral or sacred hoop in that


... the Via Positiva and the Via Creativa are related in a special way because they are
both about awe and wonder, delight and beauty... and the Via Negativa and the Via
Transformativa are also related in a special way because we cannot enter compassion if we
have not entered the darkness of suffering and pain... Path Four in many respects is a
response to the suffering of the world and of the self that we undergo in Path Two. But by
the time we arrive at Path Four we are more fully equipped—thanks to the awakened
imagination and creativity of Path Three—to respond to the suffering not just with anger
but with creative, effective works that truly heal. (1991:25)




The Four Paths as Action Research

I make the assumption here that most of you are familiar with the orientations of
experiential and participative research. Hilary Bradbury and I wrote


There is no ‘short answer' to the question ‘What is action research?' But let us say
as a working definition… that action research is a participatory, democratic process
concerned with developing practical knowing in the pursuit of worthwhile human purposes,
grounded in a participatory worldview... It seeks to bring together action and reflection,
theory and practice, in participation with others, in the pursuit of practical solutions
to issues of pressing concern to people, and more generally the flourishing of individual
persons and their communities. (Reason & Bradbury, 2001a)


Further, drawing on work I have done with Judi Marshall and Bill Torbert, we identify
three broad strategies of research/practice:


First-person action research/practice skills and methods address the ability of the
researcher to foster an inquiring approach to his or her own life, to act awarely and
choicefully, and to assess effects in the outside world while acting. First person
research practice brings inquiry into more and more of our moments of action—not as
outside researchers but in the whole range of everyday activities.

Second-person action research/practice addresses our ability to inquire face-to-face with
others into issues of mutual concern—for example in the service of improving our
personal and professional practice both individually and separately. Second person inquiry
starts with interpersonal dialogue and includes the development of communities of inquiry
and learning organizations.

Third-person research/practice aims to extend these relatively small scale projects so
that ‘rather than being defined exclusively as ‘scientific happenings' they (are) also
defined as "political events"'(Toulmin & Gustavsen, 1996). Third person strategies aim to
create a wider community of inquiry involving persons who, because they cannot be known to
each other face-to-face (say, in a large, geographically dispersed corporation), have an
impersonal quality. Writing and other reporting of the process and outcomes of inquiries
can also be an important form of third person inquiry.(Reason & Bradbury, 2001b; Reason &
Torbert, 2001)



Action Research and the Via Positiva

Positivist research starts in skepticism, in doubt. It mistrusts the pragmatics of
everyday human knowledge-making and places trust instead in timeless, universal, usually
mathematical truths. According to Stephen Toulmin (Toulmin, 1990) this philosophical
perspective arose out of the particular political circumstances of the ‘Enlightenment'
period, in particular the devastation caused by the 30 years war and the religious dogmas
which had caused so much misery:


… the Cartesian program for philosophy swept aside the ‘reasonable' uncertainties and
hesitations of 16th-century skeptics, in favor of new, mathematical kinds of ‘rational'
certainty and proof… [F]or the time being, that change of attitude—the devaluation of
the oral, the particular, the local, the timely, and the practical—appeared a small
price to pay for a formally ‘rational' theory grounded on abstract, universal, timeless
concepts… Soon enough, the flight from the particular, concrete, transitory, and
practical aspects of human experience became a feature of cultural life in general.
(Toulmin, 1990:75-76)


In contrast, action research strategies start with acknowledgement and celebration of the
human capacity for self-direction and meaning making in everyday life. As Budd Hall points
out (Hall, 2001), action research, in the sense of people and communities using their
inventiveness to address problems of everyday life, is as old as humanity and probably
older. As Orlando Fals Borda writes


The general concept of authentic participation… is rooted in cultural traditions of the
common people and their real history… which are resplendent with feelings and attitudes
of an altruistic, cooperative and communal nature and which are genuinely democratic
[Fals-Borda, 1991 #23:5]


Similarly in co-operative inquiry we start from the view that:

a person is a fundamental spiritual entity, a distinct presence in the world, who has the
potential to be the cause of his or her own actions. To actualize this capacity and become
fully a person is an achievement of education and self-development. It involves learning
to integrate individualizing characteristics with a deeper communion with others and the
world. (Heron, 1992:Chapter 2; Reason & Heron, 1995:123)


Action research leads us to an exuberant possibility of knowledge making: not to a search
for one truth, but for multiple expressions of our understanding, expression and creative
action. If human inquiry is not exciting, life enhancing, even pleasurable, then what is
it worth?


Action research also leads us, I believe, to a participatory worldview, toward a
conception of the cosmos as intelligent, self-ordering and self transcending cosmos, of
which one dimension is the life forms and ecology of planet earth.


… our world does not consist of separate things but of relationships which we co-author.
We participate in our world, so that the ‘reality' we experience is a co-creation that
involves the primal givenness of the cosmos and human feeling and construing. The
participative metaphor is particularly apt for action research, because as we participate
in creating our world we are already embodied and breathing beings who are necessarily
acting—and this draws us to consider how to judge the quality of our acting. (Reason &
Bradbury, 2001a)


Just as creation spirituality points to a wider cosmology, so too action research points
toward a cosmology in which matter is not ‘dead' as in the Cartesian worldview, but
inherently sentient: ‘no matter without mind, no mind without matter' (attrib Goethe).
Thus action research fits within what can be called a ‘pan-psychic' or
‘panexperiential' philosophy (de Quincey, 1999a, 1999b; Griffin, 1998; see also Table 1
for a summary)


Fox also points out that a theology of blessing is ‘about a different kind of power'
(1991:53). It is about power with and for people rather than power of control or power
over. His view is that the doctrine of original sin (which as above I have linked strongly
to a dualist worldview and thus to modernist science) has held such a sway in western
cultures because it has supported those who hold power


… an exaggerated doctrine of original sin, one that is employed as the starting point
for spirituality, plays kindly into the hands of the empire-builders, slave masters, and
patriarchal society in general. It divides and thereby conquers, pitting one's thoughts
against one's feelings, one's body against one's spirit, one's political vocation against
one's personal needs, people against earth, animals and nature in general. By doing this
it convolutes people, so confuses and pre-occupies them, that deeper questions of
community, justice and celebration never come to the fore. Blessing is politically
dangerous.... (1991:54)


The Enlightenment tradition makes almost no link between knowledge and power: except for
Bacon's assertion that knowledge is power, the political consequences of knowledge making
were subsumed under the epistemological. It is significant the Kuhn's book on the
structure of scientific revolutions (Kuhn, 1962), which was so influential in introducing
the notion of paradigm to our thinking about science, made no connection between knowledge
and power. It has been one of the important contributions of the postmodern movement to
make this link, to show us ‘the interested nature of knowledge-making' that inquiry is a
‘political process rather than merely a neutral, truth seeking operation' (Calas &
Smircich, 1999:651-2; see also Foucault, 1975; Gaventa & Cornwall, 2001; Lukes, 1974). So
to start our inquiry with an assertion of the knowledge-making capacity of ordinary people
is to reforge the link between democracy and epistemology (Park, 1999, 2001).


First- Second- and Third-person research/practice and the Via Positiva

In first person research/practice we begin with our celebration of the self directing,
self generating, self knowing and self transcending capabilities of the individual person
as inquirer; we see inquiry not as a specialized professional realm, but as learning
through risk taking in living. In second person research/practice, we conceive of the
human community and organization not mechanistically, not in terms of control and command,
but as a ‘community of inquiry within a community of practice'. And we glimpse the
possibility of third person research practice as engaging with yet wider communities of
regions, nations, the human community of the planet.


A particular form of action research which is strongly based in the Via Positiva is appreciative inquiry....

In their original formulation of appreciative inquiry, Cooperrider and Srivastva (1987)
argue that action research, especially in the guise of organizational development, has
largely failed as an instrument… social-organizational transformation… because of its
romance with critique at the expense of appreciation. To the extent that action research
maintains a problem-oriented view of the world it diminishes the capacity of researchers
and practitioners to produce innovative theory capable of inspiring the imagination,
commitment, and passionate dialogue required for the consensual re-ordering of social
conduct. If we devote our attention to what is wrong with organizations and communities,
we lose the ability to see and understand what gives life to organizations and to discover
ways to sustain and enhance that life-giving potential. (Ludema, Cooperrider, & Barrett,
2001)


In the terms I am using here, we make a mistake if our inquiry starts with the Via
Negativa—and the appreciative inquiry folk outline among the consequences of doing so
the limiting of conversation, the maintenance of hierarchy, the silencing of minorities
and the general enfeeblement of community and organizational processes


More than a method or technique, the appreciative mode of inquiry… engenders a reverence
for life that draws the researcher to inquire beyond superficial appearances to deeper
levels of the life-generating essentials and potentials of social existence. That is, the
action-researcher is drawn to affirm, and thereby illuminate, the factors and forces
involved in organizing that serve to nourish the human spirit (Cooperrider & Srivastva,
1987:131)


Appreciative inquiry distinguishes itself… by its deliberately affirmative assumptions
about people, organizations, and relationships. It focuses on asking the unconditional
positive question to ignite transformative dialogue and action within human systems…
[A]ppreciative inquiry is… an intentional posture of continuous discovery, search, and
inquiry into conceptions of life, joy, beauty, excellence, innovation, and freedom.
(Ludema et al., 2001)


Selecting a positive topic to explore is an essential starting point. Appreciative inquiry
is based on the premise that organizations move in the direction of what they study. For
example, when groups study human problems and conflicts, they often find that both the
number and severity of these problems grow. In the same manner, when groups study high
human ideals and achievements, such as peak experiences, best practices, and noble
accomplishments, these phenomena, too, tend to flourish. In this sense, topic choice is a
fateful act. (Ludema et al., 2001)


Appreciative inquiry teaches much about the power of the unconditional positive question,
about searching for what gives life and creativity to situations rather than for problems
to overcome. However, it is difficult not to conclude that in its emphasis on the positive
appreciative inquiry is in danger of ignoring the shadow.


When the Via Negativa is ignored, the prophetic voice is invariably silenced. Life becomes
superficial, easily manipulated, and ultimately… boring… For while the Via Positiva
teaches us the cosmic breadth of living, of our blessed bodiliness, the Via Negativa opens
us to our divine depths. (1991:130)


While the Fox's warning may be a little extreme given the huge positive impact
appreciative inquiry can have, nevertheless it speaks for me to the unease I feel about
its relentless positiveness. The question we must ask is whether, in resisting the
‘critical question', the problem-orientation of much action research, it avoids the
depths of the human soul to which the Via Negative points us.


... if we fail to let pain be pain... then pain will haunt us in nightmarish ways (1991:142)

To this requires courage, a willingness to embrace pain to enter it, befriend it. So we
can turn to the explore the Via Negativa as a dimension of action research.


Action Research and the Via Negativa

The Via Negativa asks us to dare the dark, to acknowledge, enter into and stay with
oppression, pain, silence. So does much action research. When Hilary Traylen did her
co-operative inquiry with health visitors, they found that what they most needed to look
at were the hidden agendas:


How much do we discuss with our clients, particularly highly sensitive issues such as
child abuse, incest, drug and alcohol abuse and poor relationships?… we all recognized
that some of the visits were superficial, not tackling the fundamental concerns we held
about some families. (Traylen, 1988:)


For Hilary and her co-researchers this was a frightening, as well as an exciting exploration.

The women's movement, the second wave of feminism, as been an originating force in the
development of action research (Maguire, 2001); much early feminism was based in the
methodology of consciousness raising, which we can see as a form of political co-operative
inquiry. Consciousness raising invited women to celebrate their strengths: it also
supported them in an exploration of their silencing, the grief and rage consequent of
living in a patriarchal society.


The celebrated book Women's Ways of Knowing (Belenky, Clinchy, Goldberger, & Tarule, 1986)
identifies how many women have experienced silence as a fundamental quality of many
women's knowing: ‘the absence of voice in these women is so salient' that silence is
‘an important anchoring point in our epistemological scheme'(Belenky et al., 1986:24). I
am often impressed with how women graduate students, on reading this book, speak of the
strength it gives them in recognising that their silencing is shared by many others. As
Ann Martin has it


For me, the connection between feminism and action research begins with the concept of
voice as I found it in the work of Belenky, Clinchy, Goldberg, and Tarule (1986) and the
essays of Andre Lorde… Many of us (women) have lived the transition from silence to
voice and experienced the power gained in that transition…it's only a small step from
the experience of finding one's own voice to realizing that this finding of voice, this
learning that one does know, applies to everyone. (quoted in Maguire, 2001)


Maguire writes, ‘Feminist grounded action research works to uncover and disrupt
silencing mechanisms, subtle and overt, in knowledge creation and organizational change
efforts' (2001). And the best features of the emerging men's movement similarly is
concerned both the with gifts of being a man and the pain, both caused and experienced,
with which masculinity has become associated (Keen, 1992).


In our early practice of co-operative inquiry, John Heron and I realized that the process
of inquiry itself is often a distressing one. We realized that when co-researchers engage
in fundamental re-visioning of their life practices this necessarily stirs up emotional
disturbances; and that these would often restimulate archaic patterns of fear, rage, and
grief originating often in infancy. And we realized also that the very process of inquiry,
of taking back the capacity of create one's own knowledge, would in itself stir up similar
emotions, given the repressive and damaging educational experiences that we all endure in
this culture. When we worked with the holistic medicine inquiry group back in the early
1980s our experience reinforced this insight, as GPs discovered, for example, their
anxious and angry ambivalence toward the profession, to its scientific base and to the
educational practices which had initiated them into their profession. (Heron & Reason,
1985; Reason, 1988). And currently Kate McArdle, a graduate student at Bath studying the
experience of young women managers, is finding she has to work with her own disturbance as
she realizes the distorted patterns of sexuality which occur in organizations.


It is also evident that human association itself carries its shadow: the excitement and
energy and creativity of a democratic inquiry group can degenerate into competitive
cliques and scapegoating of individuals, into ‘love-puddles' in which no critical
thought is allowed, into communities that engage in messianic dreaming with no
reality-based action (Bion, 1959; Randall & Southgate, 1980). Just because we aim to work
collaboratively doesn't shield us from this shadow; just because we are working with the
silenced voices of women, persons of colour, nurses etc., doesn't guarantee sweetness and
light. We need to be prepared to enter the dark side of human association and work with
what is there.


And of course this is also a way to creativity: the edge of chaos is a creative place, if
also a dangerous place, for groups to work, as John Heron and I intuited a while ago and
Brian Goodwin and I have explored using complexity theory more recently (Reason & Goodwin,
1999; Reason & Heron, 1986)


The Via Negativa has interesting lessons also in view of the research community's current
fascination with language. ‘The linguistic and cognitive turn has swept the social
sciences and humanities since the 1960's and brought to mainstream scholarship the Kantian
differentiation between the world itself… and the phenomena, or our interpreted
experience of the world... In scholarly circles it is difficult to suggest that the world
exists outside our construction of it' (Reason & Bradbury, 2001a). As Van Maanan put it:


Language is auditioning for an a priori role in the social and material world. Moreover,
it is a role that carries constitutional force, bringing facts into consciousness and
therefore being. No longer then is something like an organization or, for that matter, an
atom or quark thought to come first while our understandings, models or representations of
an organization, atom or quark come second. Rather, our representations may well come
first, allowing us to see selectively what we have described (Van Maanen, 1995:134)


But Fox has a warning about this fixation on language and indeed on other forms of
representation, and indeed invites us to heed the fundamental silence which is prior to
all expression


In addition to meditating on our very real relationship to darkness and to its
ever-present companion, mystery, we also need to let go of all meditations, all images,
all likenesses, all projections, all naming, all contact with isness. The need for silence
that Zen speaks of, that wisdom literature celebrates, that Eckhart praises, and that
Merton calls for is not just oral silence. Silence means the letting go of all
images—whether oral ones or auditory ones or visual ones or inner ones or cognitive ones
or imaginative ones. Whether of time or of space, of inner or of outer. It is a radical
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