Presence in Complexity through a Baby’s Cry
I had the pleasure, honor and intensity of being with my daughter and son-in-law last week with their newborn baby. It was a time of extreme emotions for me – deep joy and relief that this miraculous little being made the transition into this world safely. Feeling the baby’s wide-open heart and sensing her preciousness and innocence. Frustrated by my own habits of pushing myself and working hard in the midst of meeting the baby’s objective needs while attending to my daughter’s condition of physical pain from the delivery, overwhelm, and post-partum hormones. Talk about adapting to a new set of conditions!
I also noticed how these new set of conditions looked a lot like what I have learned about the domain of Complexity through Doug Silsbee’s new book, Presence-Based Leadership. There was plenty of evidence for this, as we all were living together in a small townhouse with a newborn. The situation become a rapidly changing landscape of what was once a fairly predictable and reliably consistent reality. This sense of unpredictability and ambiguity, including not being able to track cause and effect logically, is a hallmark of the domain of Complexity.  
As first-time parents, these young adults have a lot going for them. Both of them are home for the next 8 weeks and my son-in-law is a full partner in parenting. He is eager and willing to share in all baby care. And they’ve prepared amazingly well. They have bought or received all the latest baby care gadgets and equipment, relying on the advice of their friends who are recent parents. They have researched a wealth of information from the internet on infant care and read several latest best practices books. They have available and generous support from their local care providers. And yet…
Diving into the Great Unknown — Context, Identity, and Soma
This new context presented challenges that were beyond anything that preparation alone could provide. I could see influences from the three distinctions from Presence-Based Leadership’s Nine Panes Model of Context, Identity and Soma at play on many levels during my week-long visit. These distinctions are a useful way to tease apart any Complex situation into a simpler view of three levels of nested systems. These systems are always interacting and influencing each other yet can be seen as distinct systems. Context is the level of system that is most familiar; the view of the external situation. Identity is who we take ourselves to be and is the interface between these other two (external and internal) systems. Soma is our internal psychobiology and felt-sense that is organized around our very survival, including protecting and defending our Identity.
For example, baby Sophia’s behavior is visibly driven by her instincts and the need to survive (Soma). It’s surprising to me to see she is constantly focused on rooting around with her mouth for milk, doesn’t like to be in a wet diaper, or just wants to be cuddled. She had no problem letting those around her know she has a need by crying, and the challenge was trying to figure out exactly what she was asking for!
I could feel the escalating pressures mounting during my stay of many unknown and unpredictable elements of this new context. Around Soma and Identity, I watched the potential entanglements of my daughter’s physical and emotional states (and need for rest) intersecting with my own identity of “I’m an experienced mother here, I know how to do this.” These mixed in with my own past memories of feeling helpless, unprepared emotionally, and deeply frightened about my ability to actually do what was necessary to take care of a new baby, back in the day. And noticing my dawning awareness that my old knowledge was inadequate in this current time period (Context), as infant practices have shifted quite dramatically from when my own daughter was a new born. For example, now babies sleep on their back; in my day, they slept on their stomach! I think I know what to do now…and suddenly that goes against current practice, of which my daughter gently reminds me, which forces me to be open to receiving new information for each arising situation and flexible enough to change my tried and true strategies.
Taking a Look in the Mirror around Identity
Not to mention my own new Identity and status as a first-time grandmother – what do I want to be called? How often can I realistically travel back to another state, two plane rides away, to see this baby again given my already busy travel and teaching schedule (not soon enough!)? How can I be a true support to my daughter who feels deeply stressed and to her husband who will be her main support in this new adventure of parenting?
And my daughter’s own Identity shifts were in the field as well. Like who is she now as a new mom? What happened to the life she used to know and resonate with? How will this baby care taking thing look when it’s time to go back to work? And her growing awareness that her familiar strategies of making lists, taking time out to read a favorite book, or watching a sitcom on Netflix was no longer available in the realm of 24/7 demands of a newborn. How could she cope without those well-worn stress relievers?
The Importance of Being Present
What did I learn about living in these domains of Soma and Identity, while gaining new perspectives in the face of these complex conditions and new Context?
This is where my practice and embodiment of being present was extremely helpful and available, when I remembered them! As I said, some of my old patterns of over-working showed up, and my concurrent tendency to ignore my own physical signals to take a break every once in a while. When I became aware of the tightness in my body (Soma), and my habit of pushing myself to do just one more thing (Identity)– run to the store for another dinner item, put laundry in the washer, rub my daughter’s feet to calm her, I was able to take a pause, breathe, and ask what did I actually need right then or soon?
The good news is that, in those moments, I was able to be present with all that was occurring in the environment of three other people and also myself. Every day I actually took time to put on my walking shoes and walk outside for 30 minutes or sit outside in the sun and mediate in nature. Being present to my own needs was crucial self-care and impacted my own ability to be present with those I love, in this challenging environment.
Useful Complexity Practices
Remembering and applying some of the complexity adapted practices from Presence-Based Leadership also offered me some welcome perspectives while I was in the fray of this very busy and demanding time with this new family. The principles of Connection, Fluidity and Stability shed additional light onto this rapidly changing terrain. These principles offer useful perspectives, mindsets and behaviors which support our ability to navigate complexity skillfully.
For example, as I was able to stay Fluid with managing my own self-expectations with the objective needs of others, I was able to make choices that served the whole. And I could provide the needed Stability of taking over baby care when the parents experienced a difficult night and needed to sleep a few hours. Or I could be available when my daughter needed a compassionate ear to listen to all that was going on for her. These moments of deepened my sense of real Connection with my daughter. I also noticed the sense of Connection that I felt around all of us being in this situation together as a team, doing the best we could. We were all Fluid around adjusting, moment by moment, to this new life entering into the family system.
Of course, this type of Complexity experience that emerges from changing external conditions applies to all kinds of other situations, not just a newborn in the house! For example, upon entering into our Presence-Based Coaching training program, students can feel stressed and uncertain as they begin to see the limitations of their old strategies and identities. Students are trying to adapt to new structures of the coaching conversation, learning to be present and embody presence while managing new coaching tools and moves that can seem foreign at first.
These new complex conditions also apply to leadership as well, where a leader might find herself overwhelmed by taking on more responsibly or managing a new global team that is squabbling or in dealing with radically shifting market conditions or budget cuts or hiring freezes.
Questions to Generate Awareness and Perspectives
I’ll leave it to you, from my descriptions above, to make your own extrapolations to what variations of complexity might be happening in your world these days. Here are some questions to get you thinking and perhaps generate some new awareness or perspectives…
- How do you recognize you are in the domain of complexity?
- How are the levels of systems of Context, Identity, and Soma influencing your current challenge?
- How do you wake up when your habits put you on automatic pilot, like working or pushing harder (or collapsing) as a strategy?
- What’s one way you might experiment with the principles of Connection, Stability or Fluidity in your particular situation?
 For more on Complexity as a domain, see this post and Presence-Based Leadership by Doug Silsbee  For more information on Complexity in general check out David Snowden and Cultivating Leadership