Transformative Learning in Nature Realising Regenerative Leadership: Why connecting with nature is essential on this transformative learning journey. By Ruth Förster. Tuning our animal senses to the sensible terrain: blending our skin with the rain-rippled surface of rivers, mingling our ears with the thunder and the thrumming of frogs, and our eyes with the molten gray sky. Feeling the polyrhythmic pulse of this place—this huge windswept body of water and stone. This vexed being in whose flesh we’re entangled. Becoming earth. Becoming animal. Becoming, in this manner, fully human. David Abram in "Becoming Animal. An Earthly Cosmology.", 2010, p. 3 Do you remember spending entire days outdoors in nature as a child? I used to forget time, sitting underneath a huge willow-tree, lying in the tall grass and watching the clouds go by, adorning myself with garlands of flowers, building small structures out of branches – calling nature my home. I felt happy, was creative and inspired. For me, these were the experiences of being fully present in the moment, in bodily connection with my environment, with the resources available to me. I recall these experiences vividly. These childhood qualities of being present, feeling connected with ourselves, others and nature (1) are what we need to reclaim and (re-)cultivate as individuals and collectives to face two existential and interrelated crises: our crossing of planetary boundaries (2), and our loss of connectedness to ourselves, others, and nature. We need to pause. Reconnect. Rejoice. Reroute. Realise and assume regenerative leadership. For many of us, this requires transformative learning (Förster et al. 2019, Mezirow 2012). Transformative learning allows us to question and change our often implicit, relatively stable and most guarded assumptions, beliefs, values or so-called meaning perspectives. These glasses - so to say - profoundly influence our feeling, thinking, acting - our sensemaking and whole being in the world. They give us orientation, and at the same time, may also partly cause the crises we experience. Transformative learning is not a comfortable and joyful process which we seek naturally. It is often initiated by experiences of incoherence, disorientation, or even crisis, and can cause stress. On the one hand, our orientation is destabilised when former meaning perspectives are called into question, we find they no longer function, and new ones have yet to be established. On the other hand, our overstepping of planetary boundaries and the climate crisis itself are threatening for most of us and can trigger severe stress (Singer-Brodowski et al. 2022). When we are stressed, our nervous system activates our automated and rapid defence patterns, impeding our creativity and critical thinking resources (3). If we want to make a difference, we need to have access to the full plethora of our resources such as creativity, and different ways of knowing. For this to succeed, however, we need to feel “safe enough” (4), and not remain permanently in defence mode (Singer-Brodowski et al. 2022). An essential resource for “feeling safe enough” is for us humans to feel connected to others, that is, to be part of a community. Furthermore, connecting with nature while embarking on a transformative learning journey is essential to developing and cultivating regenerative leadership in different ways: Pausing and connecting through our senses Immersing ourselves into nature enables us to slow down and calm down. Pausing. Listening to the rhythm of the wind, following the rhythm of the sun opens up space to connect to our own rhythms, such as our breathing. Once we touch and smell the bark of a tree, we enter into contact with nature. All of this can help our nervous system to slow down automated defence patterns (e.g. Antonelli et al. 2022, Haluza et al. 2014). It can help us to open up to the situation as it is, and to access resources such as creativity, compassion and love. At the same time we use our senses consciously, helping us to connect with ourselves, providing feelings of being grounded, safe enough and present. Experiencing ourselves as part of something greater Nature is the place where humans co-evolved with other beings over thousands of years – being interrelated and interdependent. It has been our learning grounds where we have faced dangers and challenges, all the while adapting to survive. In the words of Depth Ecologist David Abram (5): (...) “we are utterly immersed in, and dependent upon, the world that we mistakenly try to study, manipulate, and manage from outside”. And we connect via our senses (Abram, 2010). This is hands-on, experiential systems theory and allows us to be part of a greater system, interdependent, not alone and taking care of each other (6). Resonance and Synchronicities: our encounter with nature Nature is a potent space for resonance for what is. This means, when we are in nature our own meaning perspective and questions are mirrored back to us. John Muir, one of the initiators of US National Parks put it like this (7): ”I only went out for a walk, and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.“ Nature as space for resonance shows us more clearly what is at stake. We may experience synchronicities (8) – for example, encounters with animals or plants, which reflect our state of being, our questions. This paves the way for new insights and ways of sensemaking. Learning Edge: Challenging our meaning perspectives Retreating in nature has been practised by humans for thousands of years as part of intentionally accessing different and new ways of knowing. When we retreat into nature without our everyday distractions and equipped only with the essentials, our meaning perspectives can be challenged. Being out there, present in the moment, we leave our comfort zone and meet our learning edge. To return and be able to share our experiences and encounters with others in community provides us with new insights (9). Regenerative leadership is an approach to leadership, which is nourished by a deep connection to self, others and nature and serves the well-being of the entire ecosystem including our organisation, team and ourselves. Connecting to nature, and experiencing ourselves being a part of nature, is essential if we are to reroute our thinking and actions and realise leadership for the future - regenerative leadership. Notes: (1) Note that the separation of humans from nature is a social construct, which cannot be found in all languages. For an interesting analysis on the concept/ word of “nature” in some of the Indo-European languages see e.g. Ducarme et al. (2020) (2) See Rockström et al. (2009 and following landmark publications until 2022) (3) In defence mode - mainly “fight, flight, freeze” - , we are unable to learn or to think critically and withdraw from positive social contact, nor do we have access to our creativity resources as needed for transformative learning. This access is impeded because it would be too time- and energy-consuming in an emergency (e.g. Porges, 2017). (4) According to Singer-Brodowski et al. (2022) in challenging situations or crises no space can be considered completely safe. They suggest speaking of “safe enough spaces” which allow transformative learning while facing uncertainty and not knowing. (5) See Abram, David (2005) (6) I follow the understanding from “Wildethics” (https://wildethics.org/why-ethics/) (...)”Every aspect of the sensuous surroundings can be experienced as an active, animate power, able to sense the beings around it and to influence them in turn. When we speak of earthly nature in this manner, not as a collection of passive and determinate objects but as a community of living subjects, then we straightaway begin to feel ourselves as members of this community, and to wonder about the quality of our relations with the other beings in our neighbourhood.” (7) See Marsh Wolfe, Linnie (ed.) (1938) (8) See https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/synchronicity (9) I draw on formats of rites of passage, particularly taught by the School of Lost Borders: https://schooloflostborders.org/journal_school/wilderness-rites-of-passage-by-john-davis/ (viewed, 25th of May, 2022). A warm thank you goes to Dr. Rachel Brooks, Dr. Anaïs Sägesser and Manuel Heer Dawson for their careful review of this blog post. References Abram, David (2010). Becoming Animal. An Earthly Cosmology. New York: Vintage Books. Abram, David (2005). Depth Ecology - an essay. From: The Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature, Taylor and Kaplan, ed., published by Continuum, 2005 (https://wildethics.org/essay/depth-ecology/, viewed 25th of May 2022). Antonelli, M., Barbieri, G., and Donelli, D. (2022). Defining a new perspective in Environmental Health: the healing environment. International Journal of Biometeorology. 10.1007/s00484-022-02251-z. Ducarme, F. and Couvet, D. (2020). What does ‘nature’ mean?. Palgrave Commun 6, 14 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1057/s41599-020-0390-y Förster, R., Zimmermann, A. B., and Mader, C. (2019). Transformative teaching in higher education for sustainable development: facing the challenges. GAIA - Ecol. Perspect. Sci. Soc. 28, 324–326. doi: 10.14512/gaia.28.3.18. Haluza, D., Schönbauer, R., and Cervinka R. (2014). Green Perspectives for Public Health: A Narrative Review on the Physiological Effects of Experiencing Outdoor Nature, Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2014 May; 11(5): 5445–5461. doi: 10.3390/ijerph110505445. Marsh Wolfe, Linnie (ed.) (1938). John of the Mountains: The Unpublished Journals of John Muir, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1938, republished 1979, page 439. Mezirow, J. (2012). “Learning to think like an adult: core concepts of transformation theory,” in The Handbook of Transformative Learning: Theory, Research, and Practice, eds E. W. Taylor and P. Cranton (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass), 73–95. Porges, S. W. (2017). The Pocket Guide to the Polyvagal Theory: The Transformative Power of Feeling Safe. New York, NY: WW Norton & Co. Rockström, J. et al. (2009). Planetary boundaries: exploring the safe operating space for humanity. Ecology and Society 14(2): 32. [online] URL: http://www.ecologyandsociety.org/vol14/iss2/art32/ , this landmark publication was followed by more. For details see here https://www.stockholmresilience.org/research/planetary-boundaries.html, viewed 25th May 2022) Singer-Brodowski, M., Förster, R., Eschenbacher, S., Biberhofer, P., and Getzin, S. (2022). Facing Crises of Unsustainability: Creating and Holding Safe Enough Spaces for Transformative Learning in Higher Education for Sustainable Development. In Frontiers in Education (p. 81). Frontiers. Courses in regenerative leadership There are a number of interesting and exciting courses on regenerative leadership. Most of them are offered online with the exception of our own course, which takes place in July 2023 in the Swiss mountains. As nature and community play such a central part in our understanding of regenerative leadership, we believe that for the transformative learning aspect, it is key to actually be in nature, in a group, in a safe enough space. Here's the link to our programme.