Episode #139 The Politics of Being: Wisdom and Science for the new world with Dr Thomas Legrand
‘What do we have except the possibility to walk a path with heart?‘
Dr Thomas Legrand has trained with shamans in Mexico and with Thich Nhat Hanh at Plum Village in France. His book, The Politics of Being, brings ancient wisdom and twenty first century science together to develop a compelling story of humanity’s future if we bring the best of ourselves to ourselves and each other in every moment.
Holding a Ph.D. in (Ecological) Economics and having studied international development, political science, and management, Thomas Legrand works in the field of sustainability for UN agencies, private companies, and NGOs. His focus is on forest conservation, climate change, sustainable finance, and organizational transformation.
His spiritual journey began at the age of 23 with an encounter with native spirituality in Mexico, before embracing the wisdom of a wide range of traditions and practices, including meditation, energetic healing and Tai-chi-chuan. He lives with his wife and their two young daughters near Plum Village, the monastery of Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh in the South West of France, his country.
His spiritual search, his thought as a social scientist and his professional experience have gradually converged on the importance of spiritual wisdom in humanity’s ongoing transition. Searching for a way to mainstream this understanding in the political and sustainability conversation, he has dedicated much of the last 10 years to researching and reflecting how we can radically rethink our model of development.
The result is his book, The Politics of Being: Wisdom and Science for a new Development Paradigm which synthesises so many of the foundations of Accidental Gods – the merging of a universal spirituality, grounded in connection with the web of life, and a political and social framework for a new way of organising ourselves and each other.
In this wide-ranging conversation, we discuss how Thomas first encountered shamanic spirituality and then explore the ideas that are the backbone of his book: how do we shape our new reality and, crucially, who is already doing so?
Manda: My guest this week is someone who has consciously brought together science and spirituality. Thomas Legrand is a French man who holds a PhD in ecological economics, has studied international development, political science and business management. Now he works in the field of sustainability for UN agencies and private companies and NGOs with a focus on forest conservation, climate change, sustainable finance and organisational transformation, all of which is really impressive. But more impressive still is the fact that he’s managed to weave all of that together with a background in which he had a shamanic training as a young man in his early twenties in Mexico. In the Huichol and then Toltec traditions. And he now lives near Plum Village, the Zen monastery, founded by Thich Naht Hanh in the southwest of France. And he’s brought it all together in a book called The Politics of Being; Wisdom and Science for a New Development Paradigm. And this book is one of those where I have highlights on pretty much every page because it brings together everything that Accidental Gods is striving to do.
Manda: That merging of genuine, profound, worldwide universal spirituality with the science and understanding of how human beings function alone and together, and how we can bring all of those into a coherent concept of the way forward that will see us through this gap in our existence, towards the evolution of the whole of society into a regenerative and flourishing and beautiful entity. So with all of that in mind, as I speak to the person who put it all down in writing with huge numbers of really interesting references, should you choose to read it and explore it. And just before we head in to the podcast, I do have to apologise for the sound on both sides. Caro has done her absolute best, but all technological wrangles are entirely down to me and I genuinely do not have any idea what the gremlins were doing. But clearly they were having a fun day. So with full apologies for the quality of the sound, people of the podcast, please welcome Thomas Legrand.
Manda: So, Thomas Legrand, author of The Politics of Being. Welcome to Accidental Gods. It seems a long time since we first set this up, but thank you for taking time out of Plum Village and your life there to come and talk to us.
Thomas: Thank you very much, Manda.
Manda: How are you this morning?
Thomas: Yeah. Very good. Indeed I’m just coming from from Plum Village for the podcast. We are on a retreat this week.
Manda: Thank you very much. So do you get up, as other Buddhist friends of mine at 4.30 in the morning and meditate for several hours before your day starts?
Thomas: Not really. Also, because I’m not so good, I have to say, in the morning. I have some children, I have two young children. So the last few years… I’ve done that in the past… But the last few years I’ve been a little bit deprived of sleep sometimes. So this morning I decided to go to meditate at 6.30, which was fine; because I’m on a retreat, so I took advantage of it.
Manda: Okay. And 6.30, still fairly early in the morning for those of us who really don’t do mornings. So your book, The Politics of Being, has really inspired everything that I’ve done recently, because it so completely encapsulates everything that Accidental Girls podcast is about, everything that our Thrutopia Masterclass is about, in terms of exploring not only the need for change, but the possibility of how we might get there. So, we don’t have ten episodes to go through it. And I’d like then to explore, if we can, a synthesis of what you said, but then to spend the bulk of our time exploring how we might get there. So how do you best encapsulate this book?
Thomas: Sure Manda. So my starting point, I mean, the main question, two questions this book is trying to answer. One is what is a wisdom based or, let’s say, spiritual approach to politics and development? And the second one, we’ll see it is really related; how we can tap into science to support our conscious collective evolution. So it’s a wisdom based, science informed approach to human development and my starting point, because I want to provide a framework that everybody can feel comfortable working with. So I did some research about what wisdom traditions, we could say, have said about sustainable development in big conference. And they use the same sentence that is in the Earth Charter. That’s a very important ethical declaration that was released in 2000. And it says this wonderful sentence. It says, When basic needs have been met, development is primarily about being more, rather than having more. So that was my starting point with The Politics of Being. What if we focus on being instead of having? So what does this mean? Why is it relevant now? And how we can conceive such politics? And what is a very concrete pathway based on real examples in our systems and public policies in many sectors.
Thomas: So that’s really the core of the book. So I define being by very simply, it’s becoming who we are, the best version of ourselves. And I believe this is also what spirituality is about. The science, heart, art and practice of personal transformation and fulfilment. And I’ve looked where are the seeds of this new development paradigm? And by the way, a new development paradigm come with a new story about who we are, about human and social potential. And we see also these story in different scientific, I would say, research area, which are linked to very practical social change, political change initiative. So these seeds have to be found, I believe, in systemic, complex and integral thinking. The fact that everything is interconnected and which, you know, highlights the importance of being for system change, I think those are really all mental models. And another seed is I’ve called it life, but we can see in regenerative movement like how we should harmonise ourselves as societies with how nature works. Another one is to be found in happiness. There’s a new science of happiness, and it’s becoming very influencing in many countries, on how to think about public policy. Bhutan has proposed it as a new development paradigm. Another seed is about love, compassion, empathy for, for example, use example of childhood for compassion.
Thomas: We’re supporting many local governments to become compassionate cities, for example. Peace. A culture of peace. That has been a UN resolution or culture of partnership. And mindfulness, which has been more and more entering into public policy. Also, there is this wonderful report, UK Mindful Nation, that outlines its potential in four important areas of society and that has been endorsed by many members of Parliament in the UK. So we see that these spiritual values are, you know, it can be more and more influential to shape a new culture. Behind I think all these values, there is, they’re fundamentally about being instead of having. And they indicate us the research, but also the practical initiatives, indicates how to cultivate these values socially. So many of them have policy recommendations for many sectors. And by bringing them together, we can have a full political agenda around this new vision for societies that would promote human flourishing. And I would say even collective flourishing, because being is not only for human beings, but for all beings on this earth.
Manda: Wonderful. That’s such an extraordinary manifesto for Accidental Gods and for the whole planet. So let’s dive a little bit backwards and down to your origins, because you’re living now at Plum Village, but you grew up in France, you spent time in Mexico, you spent time in various places around the world. How did you encounter spirituality in a way that made sense to you? I’m guessing you probably had a fairly agnostic upbringing? But you became intensely spiritual at a relatively young age. Can you tell us more about that?
Thomas: Yeah, indeed. I had a little bit of a Catholic upbringing, but not too strong. My mother also is Protestant and a type of Christian, and I was quite religious when I was a children. Recently I’ve been told that my grandmother who just passed away, once said ‘This child is very mystic’ when I was very young. Because she could see when I was entering a church or something that I was completely absorbed into that dimension. But yeah, no, it calmed down a little bit by teenager, which was a bit difficult for me, and it really came back very strongly during a student stay exchange in Mexico at the end of my studies where I had a very deep encounter with native spirituality, with some shamans, and I experienced a profound reconnection to Mother Earth and to myself. And I found that as a healing path and an empowering path to really transform myself. I remember one night during a ceremony with that shaman, when I first met him, I was able, for the first time, I would say, to see a very concrete, structured path. And something in me recognise that that was what I had always looked for and right away I decided to make that a priority in my life. And this led me then to work for the environment. I did later on ecological economics, on tropical forest conservation. And this led me, I would say, to adopt a path of service. So when I came back to France for to end my studies, I took extra courses to be able to have a major in international development rather than probably would be something like international trade or marketing. And I was not, you know, I was at that time I thought I wanted just to travel and I had not much expectation about what I can bring to the world, but really my spiritual awakening really connected directly to adopt a path of service and contribute positively to this transition we’re in.
Manda: And within that path of service, I’m curious about how your own spiritual evolution has taken you from that to Plum Village. And it seems to me reading the book that it wasn’t a direct linear path. And a lot of people who come to this and are beginning a spiritual awakening. I think they can become disheartened because the path ends up being a sine wave, a roller coaster. It’s not enlightenment and then everything is all baskets of roses and bundles of kittens. There can be moments of extreme doubt and disconnection and all of the things that we do know about intellectually. But it’s harder at a heart level. How did you make the discovery of Plum Village and everything around it and move to that rather than necessarily, say, going to live with the Huichol in Mexico? What was the pull towards that?
Thomas: I think when I look back to that, I feel really I’ve been guided and even if it was not an easy path and sometimes it was difficult for me to leave Mexico. And one of the reasons was also the girlfriend I was with had some health issues. And so it was not always fully clear. But yeah, looking back, I feel in my past I would say in, in Mexico was the Toltec teachings. So the the path of the spiritual warrior. So there was a lot of willpower that at that time was really important for me, to put in motion this process of transformation. But at the same time, I could feel I was really pushing into what I imagine was the right way. And somehow my life told me sometimes, I had some difficulties not to hit walls, but then I was able to recognise that, you know, when I was letting go, things were really finding their ways. So somehow my PhD brought me to Costa Rica to study tropical forest conservation. And there I rented a room to a Costa Rican woman who later on, very quickly became my best friend and later on my wife. And the first day we met, she told me, oh, okay, you’re you’re from France. There is a place I’d like to know in France.It’s called Plum Village.
Thomas: And I didn’t know that place at that time, though I was French. And and a couple of years later, when we became partners, we went for a retreat in Plum Village and a couple of weeks before, I wrote in my diary, I feel there is something calling us there. And indeed I remember when I was driving from Paris to Plum Village, I could feel that. And we arrived, I think probably a Friday. And on Sunday morning there was the gathering of the three hamlets in one place, and there was for the first time I saw Thich Naht Hanh in Plum Village. And starting with this wonderful chant about Avalokiteshvara, the Buddha of compassion. And it was a very special and very powerful moment. And I could feel wow, in a very remote countryside of France, I would say, well something is happening in that place. And I think that was the first time where we feel, oh, okay, maybe we could be part of it, maybe we could live here. And then we came back two months after and then the vision was, it’s here and it’s now. And then we moved back. We moved to settle in Plum Village four months later, basically.
Manda: And how long ago was that?
Thomas: That was seven years ago.
Manda: Right. And now it’s your home, clearly. And in those seven years you’ve written the book, The Politics of Being. Which seems to me quite carefully structured. You’ve obviously thought about it a lot. It starts off with the idea of what being is and then moves more and more deeply into how our culture isn’t being and how it could begin to be. Quite early on, you have a quote from Yuval Noah Harari, who is positing that we are the last of the generations of humanity as we know humanity, and that something new is going to evolve if we survive what’s coming ahead. And he says, Is there anything more dangerous than dissatisfied and irresponsible gods who don’t know what they want? This leads Harari to suggest that we should invest the same amount of effort and money into advancing human consciousness as we do into improving artificial intelligence. And we’re recording this on the day after the BBC reported that a robot at a chess game in Russia had broken a child’s finger because the child was about to make a move that might have beaten the robot. And this week, Google sacked the second of its AI gurus who said that their AI is now sentient. So we have put a lot of money and a lot of time into advancing technology and not so much into advancing human consciousness. But you’re living at Plum Village, which is one of the centres of advancing human consciousness, and you are quite deeply involved in a number of international bodies that explore the possibility of where humanity could be going. And I’m wondering, are you seeing people engaging with the mindset that Harari is asking for? That we do begin to invest serious amounts of money into helping people to become people who want to be, rather than people who want to acquire stuff.
Thomas: I think this idea that we need an evolution of mindset or we need a cultural evolution, I think this idea is getting traction very quickly at the moment. It was mentioned for the first time in the IPCC report on climate change this year, talking about inner transition. And I think it’s already some time that it has been a little bit the elephant in the room; that something we know in principle could make a difference or is one of the factors, but we just don’t know how to work on it, I would say. And so we are more comfortable about working with a solution that we are familiar with. Even if they can’t bring the solution. But for us, I think, you know, we are societies that are still very ignorant and blind to the inner dimensions. And one of the most surprised, you know, when I did all this research for this book during ten years, I realised to see how strong was the case and I was just surprised about why we are not, you know, taking that so much into account in our societies. And I think one of the answer is that it’s just so foreign to our software and maybe we are collectively also a little bit scared, probably, to to look inside and start to work on these on these dimensions. So yeah, I see it moving very quickly. I would say there is consciousness as a means to an end.
Thomas: So for let’s say for the environmental ecological transition, for example, that this initiative, the inner development goals, which basically say, you know, to achieve the sustainable development goals, we need these transformative qualities and skills to make that happen. My approach goes even one step forward; is that being is not only a means to an end, it’s the end in itself. And that’s something we need to cultivate in everything we do in every sector of societies so that we, all societies, deals with certain problems, issues they need to resolve. And what I’m proposing is to deal with them in a way that bring out the best in humans, rather than what is at the moment. And I build on that on the work of Elinor Ostrom, who has been the first woman to receive the Nobel Prize in economics, and she said the main lesson she learned over 50 years of research was that our institutions are based on the assumption that we are more economic use, selfish, just preoccupied by your own material self interest. And these institutions then enact the assumptions they are based upon. So we design institutions around competition, scarcity, etc. Economic interest, etc. And then and she said we should, on the contrary, design institutions that bring out the best in humans. And these have been teachings of Aristotle, very similar to Confucius, etc.. So it’s all about, you know, how can societies and the states help us cultivate the virtues?
Thomas: So different answers. So I propose in this book to change our institutions. So, you know, otherwise everything that we see in society has some causes now. So just to understand where those is coming from. Right now our political systems in the West in particular can be democratic, but it’s a certain form of democracy. Yeah, more or less, I would say. But it’s an adversarial or competitive democracy and we are really held hostage, I would say, from political parties that are competing for power. And this situation does not allow for us to have the kind of political conversations and choices that we need to deal with complex challenges, very complex, that we are working with. So there is a general right now, democracy is in crisis. And people it seems like in these difficult times, people may be receptive to the appeal of some strong autocratic leaders. But when you look at the studies of what people really want, what are their values, they are very democratic. That’s what people want. They want to participate in the decision making, in shaping where society is coming from. So we need to change our institutions in a way that brings us closer towards a truly deliberative democracy, with more direct democracy, also with a balance between direct democracy and the work of parliaments.
Thomas: I propose also in my book a wisdom council and recognise in the Constitution the general direction that we are aiming for and make this wisdom Council responsible to ensuring, through debate, through studies and through asking our governments what they are doing to bring us in that direction. And this chapter in my book on governance is very interesting because it it exemplifies, well, my methodology of bringing science and wisdom together. So there I build on the work of the the Baha’i faith. So that was Baha’u’llah was the prophet of the Baha’i faith in the 19th century. And he had these very interesting teachings about what he called progressive revelation. That basically, in every time and space, different prophets come to support humanity’s evolution. And they realise that every time the main hindrance for the next revelation was clergy. So he made his religion without clergy and paid a lot of attention to the administration, to the governance of his religion. And he said this would be a template to be evolved through experience, but a template that humanity may choose freely to adopt for its own governance. And funnily enough, it’s very close to what recent political scientists have proposed in terms of an ideal governance system. So they are bringing in the work of one of the most famous think tanks on governance.
Thomas: And they ask some of the best Asian scientists, political scientists, on their own to reflect on what these ideal governance systems would be. And they ask also Western scientists and both groups find a very a middle way between both systems, basically. And that’s what Berggren and Gardels say in their book called Intelligent Governance. It’s very similar to the work of to the Baha’i template. And it’s a very nonpartisan politics where politics is built from the bottom up, through election at the local level and from representative that then elect the next level. So it’s a mix of, let’s say what they call a democratic system when people vote and decide and the government is accountable to them and what they call meritocratic system in China, which is like, let’s say, the principle of who knows better decide. And they find a combination. They bring also a collective decision making at the higher level, a kind of council. So they are very similar traits with the Baha’i model. So I think that gives us a clear, I mean to me it’s very convincing, that this is a way forward and it’s also fostering what I call deliberative, direct democracy, etc.. So it’s can be very much adequate for all times.
Manda: Can we talk a little bit about the potential for digital democracy? Because we know from Audrey Tang in Taiwan that digital democracy is possible. Tang was one of the students that took part in the student revolution. I didn’t even know it had it happened, but there you go. Took Ethernet cable in, made sure that the whole revolution was thereby accessible to everybody in the country, and was then invited to be the Minister for Digital Access or something. Digital Minister. And is now using various forms of quite clever, non divisive web access as a way of bringing people together. Can you talk to that a little bit?
Thomas: Sure. So Taiwan digital democracy is a good example of deliberative democracy, and it’s also a good example about what I mean about institutions that cultivate the best in humans. Because they use technology and they they use a digital platform for citizens to be informed and have a say and deliberate about some important political issues. And then, what’s very interesting, is that platform instead of priming those that are the most what we could say violent or that took the harsher position, instead they are priming those that are trying to build consensus. So it’s the opposite of what we know in the social media world, which I believe is as a very important responsibility about the level of polarisation we are experiencing in society, because through algorithm they prime those that are more violent, those that are to the most extreme point of view. And they also close people in, by giving people only what they are most likely to click on. They are imprisoning people in their own belief, in their own worldview. And we end up with often two different kind of competing worldviews that no longer live in the same reality somehow, because they don’t access the same information. So the Taiwan experience with the digital democracy, I think, brings a lot of hope of what can be possible to have much more constructive debate, and prime these virtues of civic discussion, respect, trying to find consensus. So that’s really cultivating the best in humans, while often social media actually cultivates the worst. That’s a very good example.
Manda: So how do we get to this in the West? Because at the moment we’re at a state where predatory capitalism is working as intended. The huge Internet companies who basically have a monopoly on what we see are all locked in to the vulture capitalists who require their return on investment. So Facebook can’t just continue to make a profit each year. It has to continue to make more of a profit each year. It has to grow exponentially. And the way it seems to do that, as far as we can tell, is by accessing new markets, often in the global south and by creating outrage and if the whistleblower was correct, by influencing democratic processes. So we need that to stop. We are in that state, as we said, where we have prehistoric mindsets, medieval institutions in the technology of gods, and that technology is destroying us. So what do we do?
Thomas: So indeed, as you mentioned, you know, it’s all systemic. And sometimes when I’m being asked about, you know, how difficult it is to change the economy, for example, I’m reminded that the economy, you know, it’s systemic. So maybe economy is the most difficult system to change. But if we change our education system, if we change how we raise kids, if we change even maybe our health systems, if we change our justice system, and then maybe at some point be able to change our governance system, then maybe it becomes much, much easier to change this economic system, for example. My hope is that there are many seeds, as I was saying, of this new development paradigm. So I think our role is to be able to recognise them for what they are and water them, promote them. And the good news is that not only they make sense from this larger vision of a new development paradigm focussed on being, but they often make sense in their own realms, in their own sectors. So experts in the field of education or health or justice or governance, they are reaching the same conclusions about the way forward. And indeed, some of the societies that function best maybe at the moment, are the ones that may have developed to a greater extent some of the recommendation that I propose in this book. So, for example, experts working on what is the future of education, tend to recognise, you know, you were mentioning artificial intelligence etc.. Of course, this redefines completely the purpose of of education. It redefines what can be or value added as humans. And as we are now, as knowledge is so fast changing and is now fully accessible online and we now have robots to deal with a lot of these tasks; these experts reached a conclusion that indeed the most important skills will be personal skills, life skills.
Thomas: And I would say it’s what I mean about being. So it will be our ability to to collaborate. It will be our ability to care for the common good. If we have this if we are able to have this vision and and be able to deal with complexity, etc., etc.. And these all relates to being. And I could develop the same analysis in the health sector for example, where because of the great burden right now is about civilizational disease, right, that are linked to our lifestyle; and because the cost of health is increasing very quickly with an ageing population, this should lead policy to focus much more on lifestyles. And behind healthy lifestyles basically are healthy minds and hearts. So it’s a lot about mental health, then. And so, you know, dealing with how we can take care of our health, we’ll have to recognise that it has a lot to do with how we can bring about individuals that are healthier within themselves so that they can adopt a healthy lifestyle and they can take care of their health. And I could go on with other sectors like that. So that’s, to me, the hope.
Manda: Let’s stay in the world of policy for a bit, because one of the things that’s very striking in your book is, I guess it’s a very obvious link, between mental health and mental well-being. Along the generations if parents have good, resilient, strong mental health, then their kids are going to more likely be resilient, have good mental health. I did see something the other day asking Why are we trying to make our children more resilient, instead of trying to create a system that is less traumatic? Which is, I think, a useful question. But in general policy terms, if we look around the world, where do you see the nations that are putting health and mental and emotional wellbeing at the top of their list in a way that works?
Thomas: Yes. So New Zealand is very interesting at the moment. So the president of New Zealand has proclaimed the ambition of the country to be the best country in the world for a child to grow in. They have taken this wellbeing lens to public policy so they have a wellbeing budget and they have paid attention to some key issues such as mental health for example. Sociologists have shown that the first important thing is to feel safe and that there is different types of safety. One can be a psychological and it has a lot to do with early childhood. And there for example, it’s striking to realise that in Sweden, for example, parents have 18 months to share between the two parents of time where they will receive a very high portion of their usual salary to stay at home. In the US there is no such parental leave as a federal policy. So you can tell how much difference it can make to how children grow and even what kind of values they will develop and what kind of contribution they will offer to society. Psychology is not well; that secure attachment that first developed with our parents is a basis for human flourishing and for also how we contribute positively to society. And I’m insisting on this also on the second point, because that means it makes sense for societies to invest in that part because they’ll get a return of investments, because people will contribute positively to societies. And we can see, you know, in terms of mental health and also in terms of values when you look where the American society is going and where the Nordic society is, you can really see this kind of difference in terms of values and mental health and etc.. So that’s the first safety: Psychological safety.
Thomas: There is also very important, which is some material safety also. So that we have or everybody should have his/her basic needs fulfilled. So it becomes easier then naturally to focus on being and self expression. I think one important public policy recommendation in that perspective is a minimum guaranteed income. So that has been coming more and more strongly in different societies. And, you know, in some of the most, let’s say, social democratic model like in Nordic countries, etc., there is more this kind of social safety nets, right? So people in general don’t feel so threatened. And, you know, like in this survival mode that is very linked to this ‘having’ mode and that activate mindsets that are really not positive for societies. So that’s a very important point. We need to to share more. We need more equality. And there is very strong, I would say, research that show how inequality is really toxic for society. So there is this graph in the book, you know, from The Spirit Level, a very good book that has shown, you know, a strong correlation between many social ills and the level of economic inequality in which countries they focus on. But it’s true also in probably all kinds of countries.
Manda: Thank you. Yes, it is really striking how the Nordic countries have managed to hold on to a degree of democratic socialism in the face of American hegemony, which has been trying to destroy it everywhere else. Which is fascinating. But I noticed in your book the most striking graph, the one which does plot inequality along the x axis and health and well-being on the Y axis. And the one, the real striking outlier is Japan. It has the least inequality and the best health outcomes, or the least mental and emotional and physical health problems. And I don’t know if it’s statistically significant, but it does seem to me really quite strikingly different. And I wonder if you know what it is about Japanese society or culture or structure or policy that makes it so radically different?
Thomas: So I think Japan is a very disciplined society, where people respect a lot of social norms and that has been conducive to very low level of crimes and many social ills and probably a great level of social cohesion. I would say maybe the down, darker part of this model maybe is that it’s very collectivist. So it has a strong burden on some individuals who feel they can’t really express themselves. So that’s why Japan does not rank so high in terms of happiness ranking, while the condition in their society look really great, I would say. But I would add, you know, on something on the international happiness ranking is that they are often based on what we call subjective well-being. So we ask people how satisfied they are with their lives, how happy they are with their lives, etc.. And because of this, you know, ‘having’ paradigm we are in, probably people in the richest countries need to feel more satisfied because, you know, we believe we are at the top, let’s say. But if you look through other indicators, for example, which are more not declarative, no sorry, still declarative, but it’s not about an idea. It’s about they are asking people, you know, what are the the emotions that they have been feeling that day, etc.. And the one who ranked first was Paraguay in the in the last Gallup report.
Thomas: So there is probably an overemphasis when because of this methodology tends probably to put a richer country higher in that rankings. While, you know, a lot of us when we are travelling, we can see in, let’s say economically poor countries, we see a lot, sometimes much more than in Western countries, a lot of positive emotions, joy, etc.. So also we have to be aware about these kind of mythological aspects and yeah, not be stuck. Behind, you know, these methodology, there are also mental models that frame the way we perceive our lives. In the book, I propose myself to look more at indicators for human flourishing, which have a lot to do about mental health. So it’s not so much asking people if they feel happy, it is just to look at more concrete things, to see if they are truly healthy individuals that function well in societies, etc.. And I think this is a more pragmatic approach. And, you know, you could say, how do you say.. Someone like a maniac can tell you he’s the most happy person in the world, you know, in some cases, no. But if you look at it more objectively, as it is a psychological state. You will realise that it is indeed not so healthy and probably not so truly happy.
Manda: Hmm. Thank you. That’s really interesting. I love the Paraguay example. And the sense that if we could get past our Western obsession with having stuff and crawling up the ladders and being seen to be somewhere higher up the ladder than other people, then we would all be a lot happier. That much is obvious. And I wonder how we get there. Because I would fight a bit shy of a Japanese model of cohesion, if only because in my youth as an Aikido practitioner, I didn’t ever go to Japan. But the women who went had an extremely bad time. Japan was not kind to women at all, and particularly not to white Western women. And that’s one example and it may not be universal. But I get quite worried when we start to look at uniformity and cohesion as if they were the same thing. And I’m remembering always The Dawn of Everything Davids Graeber and Wengrow. And the extent to which in our relatively recent past, people, whether they were white colonialists or indigenous, were always wanting to go back to the tribes. If the white people got them, whether they were white people who had been assimilated into the tribes or tribe people who had been kidnapped and taken away, their aim was to get back. Because in the tribes there was the sense of freedom and the lack of fear. And that they had a social cohesion that wasn’t domineering and I assume wasn’t taking one particular class of society and crushing it. How do we get to a level of integration where people feel freedom and lack of fear without feeling as if they’re being pushed into smaller and smaller spaces and forced to behave as the majority defines, do you think?
Thomas: As I said, one of the values that I think should be at the centre of a politics of being is to my chapter on peace and moving from a culture of domination to a culture of partnership. And I drew on that, for that, on the work of Riane Eisler, for example. And they say that cultures of partnership are indeed in all systems in these societies. So economic systems are more unequal. Justice systems tend to punish more people. Women and children learn very early that they need to obey or they are being punished. What I was saying about, you know, family and secure attachment, etc., I think is very important to develop this kind of culture of partnership. The other entry point to me are gender policies because, you know, if women have more power in governments, in companies, we will see a rise of these feminine values of care, empathy and even that are linked to sustainability. You know, it has been shown that women in decision of power tend to take decisions that are more sustainable for the for the planet. So to me, these are important aspects of how to build more partnership cultures. We have talked about economic equality and how we can go in that direction. I mentioned also justice systems or going towards more restorative justice systems. And each you know, each of these pieces bring us closer to this more partnership culture than the culture of domination that are prevalent in some societies right now.
Manda: Thank you. So I was very struck in the book by the section on business and companies because it seems to me that businesses are far more flexible than political structures. That if enough businesses change the focus of the way that they work, then that can significantly influence society. And there was a beautiful story about the company in France that had 500 workers and completely changed its ethos and thereby changed the whole of its way of working. Can you tell us a little bit about that, please?
Thomas: Sure. Indeed. That is true, that if you want to to bring more decentralised model, etc., I agree with that. It’s may not be that easy in the political systems, but it’s very much easier probably in organisations and companies. So in that case it’s really about self management, which is one of the three aspects that Frederic Laloux emphasised about. What are these companies that embody, let’s say, the next stage of of consciousness, as you would put it? And it’s all about self management. And instead of having very hierarchical organisation, they are very decentralised organised in small self managed teams and they take all the decisions, including even investments by themselves according to certain rules. Like, before taking such decision, you need to talk to whoever will be impacted or whoever has a stake in that. But otherwise people at the lowest level have all the power to engage companies money. And in the end, many of these companies have been very, very successful. Buurtzorg is another example in the Netherlands of independent nurse and they have been so successful and in a couple of years they had 60% of the market there. So what is interesting and it goes back to our point on Ostrum, etc., and the CEO and the owner of this company in France that you mentioned, say very explicitly that they rely on alternative assumptions about human nature. So even he said, because he said before we had these assumptions that people were selfish, people were lazy, so that we needed to control them to work.
Thomas: People were not reliable and we need to lock down machines because otherwise they would probably steal them, etc., etc. And that kind of vision creates a need for a lot of control, a lot of hierarchies, and at the end a lot of inefficiency and a lot of costs for to manage all of that and basically say we are relying on a completely different assumptions. I would say a different story, which is what I call after Eisenstein, the story of inter-being, where people if they have meaningful work to do, they are intrinsically motivated to do it well because it’s a way for them to become more fulfilled. And then they tend to work well and we can rely on them. So that’s really, you know, it really shows clearly how these kind of assumptions over human nature enact, you know. Because there have been people researching that for already a couple of decades. And Laloux explains, for example, someone from the MIT, I can’t remember his name, a professor, and he developed that theory, theory X and theory Y. So, you know, there is two kind of story: either you trust or you distrust. And basically he asks what is true human nature? And they say, well, basically it can go either way. If you start by trusting people, they will respond with responsibility. If you design systems that are based on distrust and control, they will try to cheat.
Thomas: They will play the same game that you have that you have structured. So and I see that in many other sectors, you know, you look at a justice system. There was a beautiful documentary. I have watched for these when I was writing that that chapter. And it’s really incredible to see how different it is of prisons in a Nordic country. I think it was Norway and in the US and in one, you know, in Norway, people are kind of living together in a nice house. People are really considered as, you know, human being. And that just made a mistake and we need to help them because probably they are suffering and we just need to help them to come back on the track. And they offer them to, one was recording a music album, so they have a studio in the place and they play ping pong with the guards etc.. And while, you know, in the US it’s very violent and they tend to assume that people are bad and we need to treat them very harsh and indeed they make them worse basically. And then, when they can at some point go out of jail, they are not able to reintegrate themselves in societies because it has been just so inhumane where they have lived in. So it’s all about, you know, the assumption,their frame or systems which then frame individuals.
Manda: Yes, I love the bit in the book where speaking of work and of the different ethos that can be brought, you quoted part of the new ethos in the more enlightened companies, which is: People are systemically considered to be good, which is to say reliable, self-motivated, trustworthy and intelligent. There is no performance without happiness. And to be happy, we need to be motivated. To be motivated we need to be responsible. To be responsible we must understand why and for whom we work and be free to decide how. Value is created on the shop floor. Shop floor operators craft the products. The CEO and staff at best serve to support them. At worst, are costly distractions. That’s so obvious and yet so not the way that business works around the world, where the CEO and the management are seen to be the single most important thing in the company. And the people who actually make the stuff are broadly irrelevant. And wouldn’t it be amazing if Amazon decided not to treat all of its workers as if they were lazy and venal and prone to skiving and had to be watched every moment of every day, and instead gave them that sense of agency.
Manda: Anyway, we’re heading towards the end of our time together, so I want to dip now, towards the end of the book where you have your ten core messages for the politics of being, and we don’t have time to go through all ten of them. But I want to have a look at number nine, which says: Each nation needs to reconnect to its own soul and wisdom to develop its version of a politics of being that can support its development and help it bring its unique contribution to the world. Unity in diversity is the key to harmonious coexistence of nations in a globalised world. And wouldn’t it be amazing if everybody believed that? So I wonder, are you seeing any nations across the world where this is the foundation of how they’re behaving and how their policies are shaped? And if not, do you see any that are heading that way? Or how could we begin to nudge all of the nations of the world in that direction?
Thomas: So first, the good news is that at least in constitutions, you know, unity in diversity is in the constitution of different countries, including Indonesia, for example, or the European Union. I think it’s it’s one of the main texts of the European Union. And so this is a fundamental principle of life and which is recognised in many countries. The thing is that the paradigm of economic growth has made us compete with one another on the same quantitative metrics. So it has not allowed to for each nation to develop its own vision of what is a good life and what does that mean to be fulfilled. And we see that in many traditional wisdoms. That indeed are very supportive of the kind of story on which a politics of being is based, or I call it the story of inter-being where we can all flourish together. Like our well being depends on one another. It depends to how we can connect the relationship with ourselves, but our relationship also with one another, with the Earth. And all these traditional wisdom have emphasised, virtually all have emphasised our relationship to the collective and our responsibility towards that collective. So I think it’s time for all these nations to reconnect with their own wisdom and also with their history, because there’s been a lot of disruption through colonisation, wars, etc.. I mean, we are not really conscious about where we are and where we are going because everything is going so fast. So we need really to do that work of looking back and being able to feel what has been going on and how conscious have we been walking the kind of development paths that we are working now? And regarding your question about where I see that happening, well, it’s very interesting to see in some countries, particularly in the south and often not rather poor countries. How that part where there is this reconnection and we can see it in political systems and development agenda.
Thomas: For example, we talked about Bhutan and Gross National Happiness. So obviously that has been a major alternative. And it’s link to Bhutan culture and wisdom, in particular the Buddhist philosophy which sets very clearly, you know, the end of suffering or our happiness as the main goal. I see that also in South America, in the buen vivir, so living well philosophy which has been even enacted in the Constitution in some countries. Which is based on indigenous Andean Cosmos visions and they emphasise both, you know, emphasise the same story that say clearly happiness primarily comes from our right relationship with one another and with nature. So that is something very fundamental in many traditional wisdom. And so when they come to, you know, power and shaping political systems, of course, these philosophies sometimes, as we see, for example, in Bolivia or even in Ecuador, they often change into something indeed that is much closer to the paradigm of having an economic growth and extractivism that they were supposed to change. But they are there and they are shaping new political agendas. I would say the same, they are less example of the Ubuntu philosophy in South Africa shaping very different development agenda. But I would not be surprised that it will be seen more and more relevant for societies and should be more and more at the heart of social change and political change initiatives, I believe.
Manda: Thank you. Yes. So much in there to digest. And we really are out of time now. Thank you for this and for your book. It really is an inspiring mind opening read and I thoroughly recommend that everybody reads it. Other than picking it up and reading it, is there anything that you could say to the people listening that they could bring into their own lives now as something that they can do to begin to effect change and move us in the direction of a universal politics of being?
Thomas: Well, I would say, because politics and development paths are embedded in larger cultural paradigm. The story of inter being I was referring to. So I think, you know, operating from this paradigm of being or Inter-being in our daily life, can support this evolution. So really we feel like often when we are in interaction with some people and we are talking, or assumptions, we talked about assumptions of our human nature about even about progress, about success, etc.. I think if they can pay attention to what kind of stories they are strengthening through their behaviours and words I think would be very important. So they can choose more consciously to strengthen the story of inter-being. About, you know, success is not about having more, but it’s more about expressing all gifts for the common good and those that don’t get it are rather unhealthy, I would say individuals. Because healthy individuals tend to naturally do that and we need to recognise that. That it’s not a success and it’s often very rather a sign of being quite unhealthy, unsafe, etc to accumulate too much goods.
Thomas: But rather that own well-being comes from the quality of relationship we have with ourselves, with one another, and with nature. So yeah, and I would say from there, just know that this can be relevant, for we can really, truly reorient our societies, even if we are quite intoxicated with this overall overarching paradigm of having, you know, we can redesign the societies in a way that is completely different where we are organised to foster being instead of having. So and there are, as I show in the book, a lot of practical ways to do that, public policies that are being tested and successful and if we can bring them together in a coherent new vision for societies, we can really make the shift of consciousness that is the cultural evolution that we need right now. So they can read the book, so they can have more information and they can pass on that message and embody this new paradigm in their daily lives.
Manda: There we go. We can find inter-being and embody it in our daily lives. Sounds wonderful. And we can endeavour to do it. Thomas Legrand it has been an absolute pleasure to spend this hour with you. Thank you so much for taking time out of your retreat and coming on to the Accidental Gods podcast. I really look forward to whatever else you bring out into the world. And in the meantime, I hope your retreat goes well and peacefully. Thank you.
Thomas: Thank you very much, Manda. It’s a pleasure to have shared this space with you.
Manda: And that’s it for another episode. Huge thanks to Thomas for the depth of his wisdom, for the breadth of his experience, and for his capacity to bring it all together with such humanity and compassion. The recent years at Plum Village and all of his shamanic and spiritual training before that really show through, I think, in the compassion of his thinking and of his presence. That sense of clarity and calm that seems to come from a life in which mindfulness is an integral part. I genuinely recommend his book. It’s a really straightforward read, although it brings in so many complex, fundamental issues of our time. It’s one of those that you could give to your friends and family and work colleagues who are on the edge of understanding this and want something that brings it all together. So head off and find it, find the website, explore everything about it, and then, as he said, live the world of inter-being. Changing our energy in the world is the one thing that all of us can do here and now. And the more I do this work, the more I explore the dreaming, the more I explore what it is to connect to the web of life, the more I am convinced that it’s the beingness that matters. It’s who we are, every bit as much as what we do that counts. So head off and be. Your work for this week and forever. And we will be back next week with another conversation.
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