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Cultivating Relational Intelligence

By Nina Simons

Co-Executive Director, Bioneers/Collective Hertiage Institute

EarthLight Magazine #53, Spring 2005

I want to speak with you this morning
about what lies at the heart of many of the toughest issues that we face, both as a culture and as a species. As crucial as they are to illuminate a future landscape of hope, innovative environmental solutions and strategic social models alone won’t be enough to alter our collective course. What’s ultimately required is a change of heart, a shift in how we relate to each other and to the whole of the living Earth. The root source of our gravest challenges--both socially and environmentally--is a crisis of relationship.

The tear in our relational fabric is apparent in every area of our lives. The evidence surrounds us--from the corporate invasion of our schools to the profusion of divorce and domestic violence; from toxic factory farming to the loss of civil liberties; and from deforestation and global warming to people making war on each other all over the world.

We’ve got a lot to learn about how to be in relationship in a way that is not only enduring, but can help us to heal our personal and societal wounds. And, "in times of drastic change," the social philosopher Eric Hoffer said: "it is the learners who inherit the future. The learned usually find themselves equipped to live in a world that no longer exists."

How, then, can we enhance and accelerate our learning about conscious kinship?


First, it might help to stop idolizing rational intelligence to the exclusion of our other capacities. As Candace Pert says: "we have bodies for other reasons than to transport our heads around." A wealth of additional information might be available to us, if we also valued the abundant physical, emotional, and intuitive cues we receive.

Western culture has long overemphasized the importance of mental intelligence, or IQ. For most of us, this means that reorienting our selves toward a broader focus that integrates emotional or relational intelligence means swimming against the tide.

For many centuries throughout our history, the value of feeling and relationship has been vastly underrated, derided, or even scorned. Most often it’s been relegated to the disrespected world of ‘intuition’ or sentimentality, and left to the women and children.

Our other ways of knowing, through our hearts, hands, and spirits, have become weakened from disuse, as we’ve become distracted by an emphasis on getting more stuff. In the Cherokee language, there’s no word for the love of an inanimate thing--love is only possible between two sentient beings. Anyone who loves a thing is considered insane.

And, both personally and politically, we’ve paid a very high price for the commodification of nearly everything in our culture, for, as Jeremy Rifkin says, valuing "belongings more than belonging."

Fortunately, there are some encouraging signs of change, on a societal level. The European Union is an inspiring example of healing relationships on an immense scale between peoples who not so long ago fought the bloodiest wars in the history of our planet. Over the past few decades, Europeans have created a truly transnational vision and are beginning to adopt a new global consciousness.

Currently with 25 member nations, with a population 50% larger than the U.S. on a land mass only half its size, the E.U. is now the world’s largest economy, with far less wealth inequality between rich and poor than we have in the U.S. In terms of their quality of life, they have more physicians per capita; longer average life-spans; lower crime; far fewer prisoners and less violence than we do.

Citizens of the E.U. tend to think of themselves as working to live, whereas in the U.S., they say, we live to work. Their annual vacation time is more than double what ours is here.

Jeremy Rifkin, in his new book The European Dream, notes that the two cultures have now developed diametrically opposed ideas about freedom and security. For Americans, freedom is associated with autonomy and independence. For many young Europeans, however, he says, "freedom is now found in embeddedness, in having access to many interdependent relationships. The more communities one has access to, they believe, the more options one has for a full and meaningful life."

A more relational orientation is peeking over the horizon, in a wide range of domains and disciplines. Increasingly, research is revealing the value of whole body learning, proving that our entire neural networks and our emotions are profoundly involved in all thought and in how we relate to the world and create meaning. Increasingly, our sciences are evolving less linear, more holistic models of how things work.

New communications disciplines can offer a helpful framework through which to revisit our relational musculature. The emerging field of nonviolent communication, for example, suggests that, in situations of conflict, we track the emotions that lay beneath the content of the words.

By responding receptively to the emotional message--and not the verbal one--embattled moments can become swiftly and enduringly defused, creating a real opening for people to question their previous positions.

Promising relational social technologies are emerging in many fields. Thanks in large part to Candace Pert’s work on the "molecules of emotion," the study of emotional intelligence, or EQ, is expanding rapidly. People who have a higher "eq" tend to have happier, more productive and fulfilling lives. EQ is defined as "the ability to perceive emotions, to access and generate emotions to assist thought, to understand emotions, and to reflectively regulate emotions so as to promote emotional and intellectual growth." Cultivating our capacity to step outside of our emotional reactions, noting them more dispassionately, might offer the time and space needed to assess a number of possible responses to select the one that’s most relationally attuned.

With a history of relations that have reinforced hierarchy, domination, and disrespect as the norm, we have a lot of unlearning to do. To alter our orientation to one of partnership and reciprocity will require real commitment, practice and patience. But I believe that our biological orientation toward relationship, and what biologist E.O. Wilson calls biophilia--that innate affinity that life has for life--strengthens our likelihood of success.

As human beings, we’re built for relationship. Our young remain dependent far longer than most other creatures, and our neural systems and limbic brains are hard-wired for empathy, compassion, and connection. Furthermore, as naturalist Janine Benyus has noted, we’re a highly adaptable species, and truly excel as mimics.

Fortunately, we have an abundance of relational intelligence to learn from, if only we can humbly accept its tutelage. The natural world is resplendent with symbiotic long-term reciprocal relationship, between blossom and pollinator, moisture and mycelium, plants and herbivores. In nature, noone lives in isolation, and the sense of balanced interdependence is palpable in any thriving ecosystem. We can opt to be mentored by its mastery, if we can quiet ourselves long enough to hear, smell, feel, and learn from it. I believe our survival, as well as our joy, may depend on our making this shift, bringing a practice of relational learning to the center of our attention.

As the renowned biologist Humberto Maturana once said: "Love, allowing the other to be a legitimate other, is the only emotion that expands intelligence."

And, since this is Sunday morning, this is my prayer for us in this pivotal time:

"May we all attend to reuniting our heads, hearts and hands, taking some time to be receptive, suspend judgment, and wait patiently for the information that arrives, unbidden.

"May we practice being still and really listening--to our selves, to each other, and to the gentle whispers of the living intelligences of the natural world.

To navigate the wild changes ahead, decrease the violence of this tumultuous time, and shift our civilization’s direction, we will need to invest the same authority and value in our relational intelligence and learning as we’ve previously given to our intellectual development.

If we can do that, we will build a contagious energy that will ultimately lead to real healing and restoration--the restoration of our wholeness, as a global community--of our deep and fundamental interdependence with each other, other species, and the whole interwoven web of creation.

As the Lakota people say, in ending every prayer: O Mitakuye Oyasin--to all our relations.

Ah-men, ah-women, and aho.

Nina Simons is co-executive director, with her husband Kenny Ausubel, of Bioneers/Collective Heritage Institute. Bioneers promotes practical environmental solutions and innovative social strategies to restore the Earth and our communities. See for more information on this year’s conference in October.

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