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From Issue Ten, May 2011 « Previous Article Next Article »

Whole-Systems Transformation from the Inside Out

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Ed. Note: In the following dialogue, excerpted and edited from the Institute of Noetic Sciences’ recent teleseminar series, “Shifting Paradigms,” IONS Director of Media, Membership, and Marketing Angela Murphy talks with Monica Sharma, former physician and United Nations program director and now international leadership development consultant. In 2009, Sharma received "The Spirit of the United Nations Award,” given to those whose work expresses the core principles, spirit, and vision on which the United Nations was founded.

Murphy: How did you come to do this work of transforming communities and their cultures?

Sharma: I trained as a physician, and while I did work in a hospital in the early years, I also worked with communities on large-scale problems, such as tuberculosis in India. I realized while doing this work that medicine is a key factor in improving health, but it is not the only factor. How families care for one another and how we organize ourselves have a great affect on people’s health. Our capacity to access our inner spirit and wisdom, so that we can manifest the power of who we are, is also critical. So, very early on, no matter what research I did or what large-scale project I led, I understood that it was vital for every team member, whether at a national or a grassroots level, to connect deeply to who they are, the power they possess, and to what they stand for. Then they must be able to access that source, that knowing, when they need to act.

I believe it's local action connected to global issues that makes a difference. With the connectivity we have in today's world, with the globalization of the planet, whatever we do in one part of the world – whether in the United States or in India, for example – affects every other part of the world. We live in an interdependent world. Every action we take has consequences – those known to us and those unknown to us, those that we intend and those that we do not intend. In this era, we are all global players, and every one of our actions matters.

The biggest impact we can have – that is, the most sustainable impact we can have – goes beyond financial sustainability, technological sustainability, or even ecological sustainability. The most sustainable impact comes from our deriving meaning and then connecting that meaning to our purpose, to what we stand for, and to the contributions we make.

I designed some of the methods we use in our whole systems transformation work, but many of them are built on the enormous wisdom that different people worldwide contribute. We can begin to solve problems at a superficial level – such as providing a band-aid for someone who is bleeding or providing food for someone who is hungry – but we have another choice: We could solve a problem by critically looking into what is causing that problem and then shifting something around that cause. For example, if I'm bleeding, there's something happening in my body. Is there something I need to do about my body? Or when someone is hungry in a world that actually has plenty, is there something in the system of how we produce and distribute food, healthy food, that prevents this person from accessing that food? What is that system? How can it be changed?

So we have a choice: either we work on the problem or we work on the problem and its system. Now we also have a third option: either we work on the problem and its system by perceiving patterns with our brilliant intellect, or we stand in the power of “I am” – the power, the consciousness, that is unique to each of us. We can connect our actions to that deep source. We all have the ability to connect to this inner strength, no matter how poor or rich we are, and we can use that capacity for strategic change, to solve problems.

Murphy: Hearing that is so empowering in a day and age when it's so easy to feel disempowered. Would you share some examples of how people have connected to that internal power to solve problems?

Sharma: In addressing HIV-AIDS, I have worked in places such as South Africa, Ethiopia, India, and the United States, where it has been increasingly prevalent. We know, of course, that HIV-AIDS is about a virus. But the problem is really not about a virus. It's about the way we make love, the shame we feel, how we look at people who have HIV-AIDS and the way we stigmatize them. And so, for example, when I entered Ethiopia, I asked the people, What would you like to see changed? I asked this question of men and women, and of the government and its citizens. I heard from some, “Well, you know, we really have several issues. One of them is the way women are treated. This is not how it should be.” And others said, “The money that is available doesn't reach the levels where it needs to be used.” Still others reported, “The NGOs compete. They are not able to collaborate for change.” And then a whole group of people said, “There's so much shame around HIV. We are afraid to go for testing because we feel stigmatized.”

Once we know what the people want to change, we start the program by having people connect with who they are – not what problem they want to solve, but who they are. There are many generative leadership programs worldwide, and what I find unique about them is that they don't stop at discovering who we are as deep and profound human beings but go from there to identify the patterns that lead to the problems. What patterns in a society cause women or those living with HIV to be stigmatized? What patterns in the administration create obstacles to the funds flowing? What are the patterns that cause NGOs not to collaborate? We work with these issues in a systematic way, and we start at the root – that is, when people say they stand for freedom or for compassion, then what's missing in this picture that doesn't allow action that reflects that stand. This is where breakthrough initiatives emerge, and those innovations are powerful. They are based on people's compassion and courage, such as men organizing themselves to deal with violence against women or something like the Red Poppy Campaign that moved people in the Ukraine to care for the dying. We’ve documented hundreds of initiatives like this.

So to summarize this process, we ask people about the results they want, and we address these by working with them to source their own power and generate breakthrough initiatives themselves. They provide the platforms and learn what to change and how to lead differently. And they lead not as “stars of the show” but as midwives caring for another’s baby, another's idea, bringing it to life. These leaders are not egoically attached. Everyone who engages is on their own journey. I find this to be very meaningful.

Murphy: I understand that when you begin working with a country, you initially have high-level meetings with government leaders to discuss the theory of change and its benefits. Then the next step is a process of enrollment with those leaders in which you interview them individually to determine what they prefer.

Sharma: It's not exactly like that. We don’t explain anything because this work is not about explanation but about a deep knowing, a noetic knowing that human beings are powerful in a wonderful way. Then we can address these problems differently. We do meet with government officials to agree upon the results they want to have and that their citizens want to have. Then we have an enrollment session with about two hundred people – stakeholders – in a room. This is a daylong experience of working in a nonlinear way, and we include people who are affected by the problem. If it's an issue related to women, we will have women in the room. If it's an issue related to prison reform, we will have ex-prisoners in the room. If it's an issue related to HIV-AIDS, we have people living with HIV or AIDS. We also have people from business and from the media in the room. I believe media is a very important mechanism for transforming the conversation a society has on a topic. Instead of just reporting, how can media generate conversations that engage readers differently or have television programs that show these issues differently?

Next is a three-part program of face-to-face seminars where participants do four things. Number one, they learn to practice their insights. For example, what does it mean to be courageous, to act in spite of fear? Courage is not the absence of fear, right? It is the ability to act in spite of fear. When did they do that? When did the participants stand up for what they knew was so and needed to be done? When could they look at the commitments behind the complaints? When could they listen deeply or speak with inspiration? We look at participants’ capacity for growth.

We also look at their architectural skills, which is to say that what we design is what we get. If we design a project to solve a problem on a superficial level, that's what it will do. But if we design a project in a way that solves problems by shifting a deeper pattern – and its source is our wisdom – then that's what the design will do. So we learn how to design. For example, say we have all the materials to build a home: the bricks, the mortar, the windows, and the doors. It’s the plan that will determine what kind of house gets built. If we only design a kitchen, we'll have only kitchens in that place. To build our architectural skills, we need to design for the change we want.

We also build skills to transform the inevitable breakdowns that occur into breakthroughs. People must learn to deal with their problems as a space for creating new possibilities. And finally, we work with people not only on how they can lead for change but also on how they can support others to lead for change.

This is how the process unfolds. It's a new narrative.

Murphy: What happens if you go into a group or an organization where the lower-level people see that change needs to happen but the people in leadership positions don’t want change or transformation?

Sharma: In large institutions, bureaucracies, and NGOs, it's never the entire organization that's ready for change; it's always some group, some unit, and so we work there. That unit then becomes something of an icon for what can happen in the rest of the organization. I've also seen organizations in which the leader wants change but the rest of the organization isn’t ready. We build a process that depends on the request and the commitment, and let it unfold accordingly.

Murphy: In the past few months, the entire world has been witnessing the transformation or attempts at transformation in countries throughout the Middle East. Given your experience over the years with people from many different cultures and countries, would you share your insights on that situation?

Sharma: We do quite a bit of work in the Middle East. Let me begin with what's common among human beings around the world today, and then I’ll talk of the new opportunities we have.

Throughout the world, in every country and in every community, there are people who are willing to risk – sometimes their work, sometimes their lives – to benefit everyone. These people exist everywhere, in every society.

There is also pain in every society. There is pain in India, where I was born, and there's pain in the United States. So how do we deal with those aspects of every culture and every country that aren’t working? And people in every country recognize what's not working. If you speak to the people in India, they'll tell you what's working and what's not working. This is so in America, too. There is a power in people recognizing that some things work and others don't.

A new consideration is that we are connected today in a way that we've never been before. That connection does a few things. While it allows us to relate in much bigger spheres, it also allows us to see disparity in a way we've never seen. Once upon a time, we read stories about kings and queens and those who had and those who didn't. Today you can see the disparities on television. Studies done in the United States have shown that it's not poverty that leads to violence but the lack of distribution of justice, of resources and wealth – that lead to violence. This was noted in the film The End of Poverty?. I think what is happening now worldwide is that people understand what's going on. That's what happened in the Middle East and is likely to happen in every country where there is great disparity.

There is also something about the human being of today. We live in an era in which we have created new norms for civilization. Democracy matters, the people's voice matters, individual rights matter. We've been working on this for some time, and suddenly people are demanding what they feel are their rights.

Murphy: Would you share some success stories about individuals who see the need for a larger transformation and take it upon themselves to do something?

Sharma: I can give you example after example, but let me say this more generally: I believe we can make a difference in four ways.

First, we can work on ourselves to know at the core who we are. We can witness, name, and let go of some of the baggage we inevitably carry. There is the aspect of making personal growth a part of our life – literally making it a lifestyle and bringing our growth to all our relationships.

There is another aspect to this dimension of the inner life, and that is understanding the consequences of every one of our actions. This is especially important in today’s world. Whether that consequence affects another human being or the planet’s health, we need to be conscious of them. There is a lot of literature today, beautiful writing, on how individuals can make a huge difference once we understand the patterns that disempower or empower us, individually and planetarily. For example, let's look at the issue of food. Food is a necessity in everyone's life, and yet food is an industry that has been organized in a way that does not make it easy for everyone on the planet to have enough to eat. What happens in a world where an African farmer grows cotton at 40 cents a bushel and a farmer from the developed world grows it at 70 cents a bushel, but because of a subsidy, the African farmer can’t sell his crop? No matter how much charity we provide, that farmer is not going to be able to feed his or her family. Or what do we do about the common spaces that we own – the water, the sky, the earth and its resources? Our worldview and the way we shape the worldview of our children have a huge impact. I’m thinking about that gorgeous film Amazing Grace, which captured one chapter in the larger story about bringing slave trade to an end. That film shows how each person, one at a time, can act in a way that makes a difference in society.

So it’s important to make personal growth a part of our lifestyle, and it’s important to act with an awareness of our interdependencies. The third dimension in making a difference as an individual is to be aware of what we buy and how we use what we buy, to be aware of our Mother Earth's resources. I think this is vital. And the fourth dimension is to recognize that we are global citizens of one planet who have an influence locally. How can we influence local organizations to address the global challenges of today? What are we willing to change, what are we willing to give up, and what are we willing to take on?

It is our work to transform the world from the inside out, and it's amazing how deep the desire to create change is.

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  • dowsergirl May 05, 2011

    Thank you Dr. Sharma,
    Your attitude and work are inspiring. I am endeavoring to take this same message to people who are ill, to help them feel more empowered.
    Many blessings to you and the lives of people you reach.

  • Sunshadow May 26, 2011

    This sounds really good, and much of it I have heard before, in other places. This way of thinking is what motivated me to return to gradutate school for training in social work administration.

    But I failed to accomplish what I hoped to accomplish in my little corner of the world, for two main reasons that I can see: 1) per Dr. Sharma, "First, we can work on ourselves to know at the core who we are. We can witness, name, and let go of some of the baggage we inevitably carry. There is the aspect of making personal growth a part of our life – literally making it a lifestyle and bringing our growth to all our relationships.' The administration officials whom I wrongly assumed wanted change for the better for our clients were ultimately making choices to maintain the status quo...which benefitted them when they were not willing to grow, and 2) my inability to successfully lead the way for them in change. I have heard from the grapevine that the institution I worked at for 10 years has finally started doing exactly what I suggested for them 5 years ago...and it's working, they tell me. I'm glad for the agency, if that's true...better late than never.'s *so hard* to work for change in a system where the currently powerful think they already have all of the answers, and are threatened by someone younger coming in with fresh new ideas. It whipped me; I finally left, after 10 years of very little progress.

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