Life will take care of a lot if we let it. We partner with it — first by cultivating a relationship with it, then learning how to work with it.
Co-Founder of Springhouse
Life itself moves toward health, restoration, and thriving.
I recently had surgery on my neck for skin cancer that wasn’t terribly serious. The wound was much bigger than I expected; larger and more inflamed than the cancer itself. As I was leaving the doctor’s office, I was given instructions on how to best take care of the wound and scar so that it would heal well. Several weeks after the surgery, the wound has healed, and the scar is much smaller than it once was. With each day that passes, I watch my skin regenerate.
I have been hearing the word “regenerative” a lot lately when it comes to design processes and as it relates to education. There are many groups, collectives, and books that explore what it means to be regenerative in the ways we learn. (The Springhouse Board of Trustees chair wrote one of them.) Because “regenerative” is such a well-used word these days, it is important to revisit what it means in ways that are grounded, meaningful, and accessible.
The body and how it heals will forever amaze me. When we create the best conditions for life to do what it naturally does, not only is healing possible, but thriving is as well. Regeneration means to make anew. When I partner with this regenerative quality of life by surrendering to it, something new happens; not only in my life but also in the ways that we design education and culture.
Surrendering to Life
We cannot just make regeneration happen. It is simply how life functions — in cycles that include birth, sustaining life, and death.
Though we don’t make regeneration happen, we can take care of and support the process in ways that allow us to thrive. We can put ourselves in a place that welcomes regeneration by aligning with life: taking good care of ourselves, each other, and this planet. This is a tall order in a dominant culture that is mostly doing the opposite.
I love how the story of Cinderella going to the ball illustrates the kind of surrender of will needed to partner with life and its creative power. After receiving an invite to the royal ball, Cinderella’s stepmother says she can attend with the rest of the family, so long as she finishes a nearly impossible list of chores. She also must find a dress.
Luckily, Cinderella’s friends — the local birds and mice — step in to assist and present her with a beautiful gown. Out of jealousy, Cinderella’s stepsisters destroy the dress right as the ball is about to begin. Enter the fairy godmother, arriving to do what seems impossible. She was there to make things new. Cinderella prepared herself for this encounter by tilling the ground to not only receive such a gift but also to trust it and work with it.
When we create the best conditions for life to do what it naturally does, not only is healing possible, but thriving is as well. Regeneration means to make anew.
Co-Founder of Springhouse
As we hear in the story, Cinderella had been showing up to the beauty of life for some time. She could speak with animals and was deeply connected to the Earth. Even when circumstances were grim, or maybe even especially, Cinderella turned to her connection to something larger than herself — the regenerative powers of the Earth. She was ready and prepared to see the fairy godmother when she appeared, and she was humble enough to be guided by her.
If we think simply willing things to change can save us from our problems, we will remain in the mess we are in — not just in education, but in the many failing cultural systems we know aren’t working. If you have ever paddled a river and tried to control it, rather than partnering with it, you know the need for surrender. Aligning with life is a natural act and we, for better or for worse, have a choice as to whether or not we will step into that alignment.
Life will take care of a lot if we let it. We partner with it, like Cinderella, first by cultivating a relationship with it, then learning how to work with it. There is no greater teacher than the Earth when it comes to learning about the dangers of relying solely on the human will.
I have long been enamored with Mount Saint Helens, even traveling there as a teen and gathering a little of the dust from its eruption in an old prescription bottle to take home with me. After its eruption in 1980, the force of life restored the surrounding area of Mount Saint Helens (even though humans with good intentions thwarted her efforts in some ways), and it is now more biodiverse than it was before the eruption. Whether her stepmother liked it or not, Cinderella allowed something new to happen when she went to the royal ball. That’s how powerful life is — it can outsmart the destructive forces of this world, and not only restore a devastated landscape but make it thrive.
From Story to Practice in Education
We must learn how to partner with life to create conditions for both the individual and collective to reach our highest potential. We were born to thrive. One of my most treasured teachers, Meg Wheatley writes, “When we deny life’s need to create, life pushes back. We label it resistance and invent strategies to overcome it. But we would do far better if we changed the story… We need to work with these insistent creative forces or they will be provoked to work against us.”
We can partner with life and design education in ways that bring us more fully alive. Education is how we create culture. It is where we pass down to our youth ways of being and knowledge that we value. We can do this in partnership with this life force and create the conditions for us all, and this planet, to thrive.
We don’t manage or facilitate regeneration. It happens. We can either respect it and take care of it to see what might be possible, or not. At Springhouse, we are choosing to design our entire culture around life and its regenerative qualities.
Springhouse, founded in 2013 in Floyd County, VA, envisions a regenerative culture where all people are connected to the vitality within themselves, their community, and the Earth. We work towards this vision by creating and sharing a model of regenerative culture through vitality-centered education that equips people to more courageously respond to the world’s emerging needs.
Regenerative culture is practiced through five Sourced Design principles:
- Taking care of vulnerability.
- Cultivating personhood.
- Building beloved community.
- Learning from the wisdom of the Earth.
- Loving and serving others.
Vitality-centered education is the pathway to create and share regenerative, life-giving culture. Regeneration is at the core of Springhouse, from our generative economic model that is not tuition-based to our accredited Day School for 7th-12th graders and our 2-year certificate program in Regenerative Cultural Design and Practice for adults. Through the Sourced Design Network, we share this life-giving design with those interested in fostering vitality in their lives and communities. We have reached nearly 100 people in more than ten countries in the past two years.
Sourced Design includes five life-giving practices. At Springhouse, these practices are shared through vitality-centered education. The Sourced Design Lab offers a first step for anyone interested in practicing these principles, and our Two-Year Certificate program in Regenerative Cultural Design and Practice invites participants to build their skills and capacity to do so even further.
These five life-giving principles, when practiced by an individual and community, take care of and foster the gift of this life. They emerged after a year-long intentional exploration of the question “What makes Springhouse remarkable?”; from my doctoral work where the individual meets cultural design; and from the eight-year ongoing experiment of Springhouse. In the following, I want to share more about what is meant by each of the five principles and how our programs cultivate space to explore and discover how they can be practiced.
Take care of vulnerability
Many of us have learned that vulnerability is not safe. Vulnerability, therefore, is often a landscape that we avoid. Dr. Brené Brown, who became well known through her TED talk on vulnerability, has shed new light on how Western cultures navigate emotional vulnerability. Brown writes, “The perception that vulnerability is weakness is the most widely accepted myth about vulnerability and the most dangerous.”
Because of this collective misunderstanding, not only do we not know the profoundly transformative power of vulnerability, but we do not have many guides to lead us safely into the territory of vulnerability. Whether we know it or not, we seek to be vulnerable because we seek to be fully alive.
Cultivating vitality in one’s life and community means learning how to be present and alive to oneself and the world. It also means caring for the vulnerability of others, especially those who are marginalized in our society. Vulnerability, opening to what is real within and around us, is the ground by which we build regenerative culture.
Stepping into a vulnerable territory is uncomfortable and new ground for many of us. This design requires us to regularly navigate ambiguity and to surrender to something greater than our own will. This is life-giving when practiced in places where vulnerability is valued and taken care of.
There are many ways to cultivate personhood or get to know oneself. In this design, we focus on three facets of this principle: Reclaiming a Relationship with Our Bodies, The Sacred Self, and Self Study and Exploration.
As human beings, we are given the gift of self-reflection. Through this gift, we are able to experience the depths of what it means to be human. Self-reflection is a choice. In order to learn from the interior life, we must choose to pay attention to it. To traverse this inner territory takes great courage and discipline, and a willingness to embrace the unknown.
Finding ground in our bodies and cultivating connection to the sacred, supports us in living more fully and courageously into who we are. Developing a stronger relationship with ourselves builds a stronger relationship with the world. When we have a sense of place in the body, we are better able to traverse the inner landscape, which can lead to a greater sense of belonging and safety.
Personhood becomes a gift to the world when we get to know ourselves more deeply and when we are given opportunities to express ourselves fully and courageously. When we take the journey into our own unique singularity, we find greater unity with the world around us. When we make the choice to turn inward, we begin to awaken to the world around us in new ways. It is from this embodied and awakened place that reverence and care for all life is possible.
Build beloved community
This principle recognizes that while we honor individuality by cultivating personhood, we also value the collective. When connection to one’s individual life and to the community are fostered, creativity emerges that is not simply a sum of the parts. Something new is born when each individual is committed to their own development within the life-giving structure of the community.
The beloved community supports each person to become more fully who they are. This strengthens the collective and its connection to place. When sustainable values are at the center of the community design, cultural practices emerge in the community that strengthen and solidify the life-giving values within each person, the community itself, and in connection to place.
We focus on four aspects of building beloved community in this design and they include: Navigating difficulty, Reclaiming projections, Holding rites of passage to celebrate individual growth within the community, and Cultivating life-giving cultural ways.
Community reminds us that we are not alone and is a crucible for healing and healthy development to occur. It is the ground from which vitality emerges and nourishes both the community itself and the larger culture it is embedded within. Beloved community requires rigorous practices that tend to relationships — both within the individual and between community members, particularly fostering the skills needed to navigate difficulty.
Respect the wisdom of the Earth
Albert Einstein wrote, “Problems cannot be solved at the same level of awareness that created them.” In this design, we turn to the ancient wisdom of the Earth to inform the design work for how humans live and learn together. There is a lot out there about applying living systems principles to human design, particularly in agriculture (permaculture), organizational development, and architecture. The research is scant — and practice even more so — in educational design.
This design focuses on four main living systems principles and the practice of Earth connection. We do not apply these living systems principles to a context, as much as watch them emerge when we put vitality at the center of design. Those principles include wholeness, self-regulation, emergence and creativity, and context. We also foster connection to the Earth in vitality-centered design and deeply respect its wisdom.
Love and serve others
We create vitality-centered learning communities to more courageously respond to the world’s emerging needs. We align with life so that we can fill up to spill out. The world needs more love and life. We generate this vitality within ourselves and our communities to give it away. We know that in the giving away we also receive.
In this design, we focus on two aspects of loving and serving others. These include Orienting around center and Following the call to serve.
When we do our own work to know ourselves and our communities more deeply, we begin to experience connection so deep that these words from Aboriginal activist Lilla Watson become a lived experience:
If you’ve come to help me, you’re wasting your time,
but if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine,
then let us work together.
We are here to be of service, not by changing the world, but by embodying what we hope for, one day at a time.
As I have engaged in this work of regenerative cultural design and practice, I have always been grounded in wisdom traditions. In my twenties, I studied the mystics from the East and from the West. In my thirties and forties, I studied yogic philosophy in a small community in the Colorado Rockies, Christian scripture with the sisters at the Benedictine monastery, and a little bit of Kabbalah and the Hebrew language with a college professor from Colorado College.
Later, I studied the path of the sacred warrior in the Shambhala tradition and reconnected with my Irish lineage through Celtic mythology. All of these paths reminded me that deep intimacy with life or union (which is what yoga means) and grace cannot be manufactured. You cannot practice union, conjure up grace, or make regeneration happen. Though we can’t practice these things, we can practice principles that take care of and invite a deeper relationship with this life.
The late Irish poet John O’Donohue writes, “The question holds the lantern.” May your questions, more than your answers, light your way to a deeper understanding of regeneration when it comes to your own life and to cultural and educational design. The way that life renews us, and this Earth, deserves our reverence. It is in the spirit of devotion to life that I offer this article.
If you would like to learn more about Springhouse visit springhouse.org. To learn more about the five practices in Sourced Design, visit sourceddesign.org.