Interview with Dr Thomas Bruhn, dr. in Physics and co-leader of the project A Mindset for the Anthropocene at the Institute of Advanced Sustainability Studies (IASS) in Potsdam, Germany, and speaker at the 4th SoH Forum in Reykjavik 2019.
It is clear that we cannot expect our system as a whole to change into a more sustainable mode if our consciousness and our way of living does not transform equally with it.
Q: What has inspired you to participate in the Spirit of Humanity Forum
A: My work is facilitating trans disciplinary processes for sustainability. I come from a more technical background but in that work I have come to realize how overwhelmed people are by the complexity of our challenges and how our human minds are optimized to have concrete problems that we can fix with simple solutions but now being exposed to the grand complex interwoven challenges it is also something that challenges our fundamental structures of the mind, our philosophical assumption about the world. So the interest in this topic has guided me for the last couple of years. How can I host spaces where people can actively reflect the state of their mind and their assumptions about the world. And here in the Spirit of Humanity Forum you are creating a space where people focus explicitly on the questions: “What is actually the state of the mind that connects humanity across the globe. What kind of consciousness allows us to act for the benefit of the world as a unity across all the diversity that manifests in different cultures, nations etc.
Q: Coming from the world of science, you hold a doctorate in Nanophysics working in the IASS – a world famous institute of advanced sustainability studies in Potsdam which is supported by the German government – how did it come about that you entered the field of research on mindfulness and sustainability in this institute?
A: I joined the institute not primarily because I am a Physicist. I feel with Physics I learned a certain way of structural thinking of identifying patterns. I joined the institute as a bridge builder and that is what the institute is mainly about. On one hand it is research based but it is designed as a platform where stakeholders from all parts of society can come together to explore certain topics of sustainability and develop solutions or responses to these challenges together. Bringing together the complimentary perspectives they have. And that is a tough process in reality. Academics usually develop their own solutions and communicate just this solution to others. In IASS it is about exploring the commonalities and the complementarities so it is a very different kind of process. My role is to design spaces that allow this integration of different form of knowledge whether it is academic knowledge experience knowledge or practical knowledge. So what this means in reality is that if you bring together people that are all experts in their field to explore one topic, like one of the challenging topics of the world, you need to facilitate a space where they learn to listen to each other before they define what needs to be done. We need to support people in listening to each other instead of talking at each other and try to convince each other how to save the world. Usually people know what they think needs to be done but if you have 20-40 people in the room who know what needs to be done you don’t get anywhere. And often we are dealing with very narcissistic personalities who are all cultivated in a system where they are the best and they are the most knowledgeable be in the academia or in business and it is not possible for all of them to work together if you can’t foster a different culture of listening, openness and engaging. And that has a lot to do with our mindsets – how we engage with each other, how open am I really to put my own conclusions into question when I engage with somebody in a very different context. Our institute is for example working on a project in the Himalayas, particulary in Katmandoo. There you have people from different cultural backgrounds and very different expertise from science, business and governance and they speak such different languages and it needs processes where people open up and explore the commonalities behind this differences. That has a lot to do with mindsets – not just thinking patterns but also equalities of relating to each other – how deeply can we really listen and how really can we deeply care about somebody that seems to have very different position or background. Those practical things can often be much more in the way than the actual knowledge. In my experience the knowledge is not the issue – there is so much of it but it doesn’t get integrated and often our mindsets and personalities stand in way for this integration.
Q: What you are explaining to me here is that to bring about changes we need to start work on ourselves, to start within, but how can we do that?
A: Obviously I do not have the final answer to this but to me both needs to go hand in hand. I don’t know if personal change will lead to systemic change – to me it is really interwoven. For me it is clear that we cannot expect our system as a whole to change into a more sustainable mode if our consciousness and our way of living does not transform equally with it. I cannot make people to be different – I cannot make the system to be different. The system is constituted out of many people, their lifestyles and their notion of a good life etc.
I realize how much I have benefitted from transforming my own inner state of mind and how many needs I could let go off and how this has influenced my notion of a good life and what kind of consumption patterns I have. So I think this needs to be an integrated part of all societal efforts of transformation. It is not either or, or one thing first and then another thing second but usually in the discourse that I am part of this intra subjective part is neglected. So, I want to foster that kind of recognition that it does influence the way people design politics from which mindsets we come. When you speak with people in the politic field I am surprised how many people say I cannot talk about this. But they admit when they come from a more compassionate state they deal very different with those issues of international politics. But if they talk about this openly they would jeopardize their legitimacy. People would say this is fluffy, personal or private maybe even esoteric.
Q: How can we build this bridge so this inner work and connecting with inner values becomes a natural part of finding solutions to the challenges of the world?
A: Yes that is the big question. I am trying to find my approach to it. In my practical work I have come to realize it doesn’t make sense to participate in any practice oriented process as long as the purpose is not clear. But often that is the case. People come together at the level of positions, as stakeholders, they represent a role but you can witness how interpersonal dynamics influence the whole path of a process. If you invite the personal motivation, ‘why are you engaged in this topic?’ you allow people to connect with their own ethical compass. Often we are talking about these topics as if they were something abstract and if there was an objective solution to them. To me they are always connected to our fundamental values so we cannot exclude those mental models from the discussion. So in our work we always start with reflection on why we are here, what are our deeper motivations or our ethical orientation that makes us work towards this topic to find out what are our common grounds. You cannot find common ground on level of positions but we as human beings we have shared values that we can explore if we engage in it. And the experience I’ve had over time is that connecting within changes the atmosphere in these kind of processes from fighting where everyone tries to get the biggest piece for themselves towards a feeling of shared purpose. Yes we are different with different interests but there is something we share as human beings ethically that is worth being a starting point.
Q: What you are sharing here is how to bring in harmony to these processes where you have people working together with different positions and different interests – to connect within to our deep values. That brings us to the theme of the 4th Forum – Discovering Harmony in a world of difference – and discovering harmony with nature – and you have said we cannot talk about discovering harmony with nature because we are nature.
A: That issue that we are nature is important to me. I am still amazed how our culture could allow this dichotomy to emerge the last couple of hundred years. This idea that here is the human world and then the non-human world. So we talk about nature as if it out there.
It is very clear to me that we are nature. So harmony with nature cannot start from this dichotomy and exploring how I can relate to something outside. For me this is in profound conflict with harmony because harmony is the experience of a quality of relationality that I experience and live in my practices. Harmony is in my understanding how my own relationality is resonating with fundamental patterns or principles of living systems. My impression is that we have cultivated so many patterns that are based on the idea of dichotomy, of distance that we don’t perceive that harmony anymore. We do not know what is the quality of our relationality. It is also how I relate to myself or when I communicate through an email I am relating to the world. We must explore what are the patterns that shape those relationships all the time in every moment.
My understanding is that relationship culture that I experience in our society is on one hand based on this distance and on the other hand on functionality. There is a big discourse in Germany at the moment about how sociology has only been based on which functions we have in society. In economy you get a utility function as your behaviour is described following utilities. But we all know that most of human life is taking place not only because of functionality but as an expression of being. When we sit in nature watching the sunset and the beauty of the world there is no function in it, nothing is instrumental about it. We are just being. But this focus on functionality has shaped how we create our society, how we build our political structures. We only measure functionality and incentivize it with money and through that we foster exploitation.
I would say that I’ve experienced it myself. If I see my value only because of my function or my performance I exploit myself. I don’t respect my intrinsic value, my being. And harmony has so much to do with this resonance, when I am in my own intrinsic being and I relate to the world in its intrinsic being. Functions are of course a part of this all, but I feel I am a part of a society that has lost all its appreciation for that dimensions of relationships.
So back to harmony with nature – that is for me how I respect all ways of how I as a human being am related with this world in a way that feels coherent and integrated and not deny fifty percent of who I am – my qualities and being.
Q: Do you do any practice to sustain your inner world?
A: Yes and no. In a way, there are so many practices that I find valuable and I have come into contact with all sorts of different approaches since I was fifteen, but they never really became part of my everyday life. Over the past couple of years
It’s become more of a routine for me to practice Mindfulness and Compassion Meditation but not as a real, strong practice like other people, for example. You could say it’s a daily, or every moment practice for me just to stay conscious of – ‘Am I really being the being that I want to be? How purposeful am I being? How present am I?’
I don’t want to push that into a corner of meditation and then go back to my work. It’s when I write an email, I sometimes notice that I’ve written thirty emails in a row and I’m not writing as compassionately as I did in the beginning; you know, sensitising myself for the quality I bring to those relationships and to those encounters. In a way, sometimes that might be playing the piano, sometimes it is hiking, or it is sitting in a meadow and looking at a lake. So I don’t have a fixed routine, and at the same time I feel I’m drawing on different experiences from people I’ve connected with and who’ve shared their practice with me, and it’s influencing the way I try to be present as much as I can be.
Q: I know it’s a big question but, from your own perspective, what do you feel you can contribute going forward? And how do you sustain yourself through all of this?
A: I would say that 10 years ago my mind was very much on the big, abstract topics like climate change and what kind of technologies can we invent to mitigate climate change, global warming, Co2 emissions, and so forth. I still see a lot of value in these developments but I realised that, for me, this world that I experience is a manifestation of a certain culture and this culture is a manifestation of a certain self-understanding of the human being- how we define what it means to be human, and how that drives us to consume our surroundings, and even ourselves and other humans to sustain our own aliveness; which is a paradox in itself!
In the book, Ishmael by Daniel Quinn, there is a quote. He says, “You are captives of a civilizational system that more or less compels you to go on destroying the world in order to live”. This is a very profound reflection for me, to say – What does that mean for us? How do we define life if it is at the expense of everything around us, and even at the expense of ourselves?
Somehow in the last ten years, I’ve gone through a certain shift in what I see as the next steps, or what my contribution could be, because I see a different paradigm or a different culture emerging. Everywhere I go, there are young people particularly, and so many others who feel that this life, or this dominant culture, doesn’t provide meaningful life to humans and to others. They are just like small islands that practice a different mode of living, and sometimes I feel like I wish I could live that kind of life that I experience in these islands, but I cannot. Maybe I am just too much a child of this civilisation that is not in profound harmony, but I see the beauty and potential of this kind of life. What my contribution is, is to connect these many islands because they usually feel very isolated and even suppressed. In my role, I enjoy connecting these marginalised change-agents, to give them a certain visibility to show there is a potential for a different type of human life emerging while the old one is reaching its limits. That’s the role in which I see myself.
You know, when I was fifteen, there was a game that was played – if you were a tool, what type of tool would you be? Somehow, I remember back then I said ‘a watering can’. That’s still how I feel, it’s funny, twenty years later (laughs). I want to be a watering can for these plans that I see growing as seeds in the middle of a lot of concrete environment. I feel like I’m standing in the middle sometimes, just keeping a crack open so that something can grow, but I also feel my own limitations because I’m embodying so much of the old paradigm. That’s also a challenge for me to let go of all that from which I have grown up. Does that make sense (laughs)? It’s weird. Every time I speak about it, I realise it’s quite a tension that I’m sitting in but somehow, I feel that tension is exactly my role. It’s the right thing for me to be in.
The article is a collaboration with Heartfulness Magazine