Four Rooms of Change

(image via Damir Bosnjak)

(image via Damir Bosnjak)

Recently I returned from two weeks in Bosnia, working with a wonderful organization called Women for Women International (www.womenforwomen.org).

I spent most of my time in the capital city of Sarajevo, which travelers once described as one of the most beautiful cities in Eastern Europe. After five years of siege and war, this is no longer true. Imagine a city about the size of Pittsburgh, ringed with tanks and artillery guns, constantly bombarded and fired upon. During the siege, there was minimal electricity, limited water and food, no heat, and the constant threat of death. On the street, you could be killed instantly by a sniper. In your home, a shell might explode and take you without notice. The attackers, the Serbians, did not extend special dispensation to the sick, old, young, or infirm. Snipers fired at anything that moved, even shooting into hospital windows and local schools. Of the 20,000 people who died in Sarajevo during the siege, 12,000 were children.

This war of incredible brutality ended just eight years ago. Yet in Sarajevo, after this atrocity, we find an extraordinary lesson of hope as the people of Bosnia begin to resurrect their lives. From their experience, we can gain insight into one of the most essential skills of our time, what creativity expert Robert Fritz (http://www.robertfritz.com/) originally coined as holding creative tension.

Holding creative tension refers to the ability to stay with the discomfort of the moment—the tension—rather than moving into premature action, emotional withdrawal, or a state of paralysis born from fear. When we can stay in the moment of discomfort, it is often where deep change occurs.

Management theorist Peter Senge (http://www.petersenge.com/) says, “Creative tension comes from seeing clearly where we want to be, our ‘vision,’ and telling the truth about where we are, our ‘current reality.’ The gap between the two generates a natural tension.” Thus, creative tension is a stretching condition that has the possibility of producing enormous momentum leading to change.

The key to using this momentum for a positive outcome is discerning the difference between where you (your current state) and where you ultimately want to be (your vision). This tension, between current state and vision, offers the possibility to resolve itself by making decisions that move us closer to what we want. In fact, it is not what the vision is, but what the vision does that is important, because the gap between vision and current reality can be used to generate the energy needed for change. It is an opportunity.

The problem is we’re not designed to act this way. Think of most animals on this planet, scraping out a day-to-day existence, and doing everything they can to avoid becoming something else’s meal. When confronted with danger, animals typically respond in one of three ways: fight, flight, or freeze. It is the best way to deal with the unpredictable, a product of millions of years of successful evolution. This strategy worked well thousands of years ago for our ancestors but—sadly—is not very effective in today’s complex and less immediately dangerous times, even in post-conflict Bosnia. This is because the root of this strategy is fear, and people who live in fear have a hard time waiting. What is required instead is a shift in thinking and behavior, a radical change in the way we deal with fear; instead of running, we need to think about increasing our ability to hold the moment—the creative tension.

One helpful frame for understanding creative tension comes from the Swedish psychologist Claes Janssen (http://www.claesjanssen.com/), who has created a model of change called “The Four Room Apartment.”

In this model, the process of transformation has four stages or “rooms.” The first room, “Contentment,” represents the status quo, normality—the place of on-going comfort. The present situation feels satisfying as it is, and in it, we experience a general sense of relaxation and effortless self-control. The room of contentment is like riding a bike on a flat, well-paved road—smooth and easy. In this room, our focus is based in the here and now with no need for self-reflection or significant change.

However, it is not in the nature of life to remain static. As Robert Fritz says, “When the situations you are in want to fall apart, no amount of trying to hold them together will work. Matters will get worse and worse. The more you try to hold on, the greater the force pulling it all apart.”

Often our first response when things start to fall apart is an intuitive one: we feel something is wrong, which produces discontentment, and our typical response is to think that everything will soon be okay—that is, back to “normal.” Welcome to the next room of the apartment, “Denial.”

In denial, we believe that everything will be fine if we just stay the course, keeping our focus on what has worked in the past. It’s a period of pseudo-adjustment with attention placed on defending old patterns or the status quo. The problem is, as historian Arnold Toynbee said, “Nothing fails like success.” If we rise to a certain level of response to meet the problem, we may succeed; however, since one situation is rarely identical to another, the old solution—or success—will probably not apply. Moreover, if the problem intensifies, and we employ the same level of solution that we used in the past, we are doomed to fail. When this happens, we run headlong into the cold wall of failure via the status quo, and find the third room of the apartment, “Confusion.”

In confusion, we feel helpless and out of sync. Nothing makes sense, no strategy seems to work, and no clear passage is apparent. Often we move into polarized thinking, making black and white decisions as a way to relieve feelings of confusion or lowered self-esteem. Confusion is also uncomfortable and tense, and unfortunately, no previous strategies will work. Here, in this discomfort, is where our “fight-flight-freeze” biology kicks in; we will do anything to relieve our fear and anxiety.

At this point, when every cell in our body is screaming for action, what we need is patience. This is particularly true for westerners, who have been trained to move when stressed. Hans Selye, the father of stress research, says, “Action relieves anxiety.” The problem is if we move too quickly, we often go right back into the room of denial, and reinvent the now-unsuccessful status quo. Instead, the key is to hang in with the tension, and focus on maintaining respectful attention while resisting preliminary conclusions. This is the moment for holding creative tension. For it is in the room of confusion that we generate the energy to transform to a new way and not just reinvent the old. If we can’t maintain the position of creative tension, then often we simply re-tread the existing solution; it might look slightly different in style, but it will rarely be so in substance. Re-treading is never real change, and so ultimately proves unsuccessful. This play-it-safe response is only a knee-jerk back to the familiar and known born from our inability to pause in discomfort and confusion.

One way to think about this is that the room of confusion is an important ally. Confusion is like a pressure cooker, building with each minute a type of energy needed for true change. This energetic fuel—and remember, it is rarely comfortable or pleasant—allows us to move into the fourth and final room, “Renewal” and transformation.

Often, we shy away from this process because there is a natural anxiety that arises as the creative tension takes form. This is where “holding” is important. As more than one therapist has noted, “Any task worth doing creates anxiety. The question is how that anxiety is channeled.” To get to this room requires more than patience, however. We can increase our tolerance for creative tension by remembering a few specific skills.

The first skill is the most obvious—deep trust. It is like sailing to an unknown shore through dark, obstacle-laden waters. During a tough journey our brain often screams for a return to the shore we know so well. In order, to keep moving, however, we need to trust that if we do keep moving, we will safely get to the other side. We need to hold the creative tension and believe a positive outcome is possible. Doing so means that we have at some level received a promise of possibility, that something else—something larger—is there in the future. We can wait because we trust in something we are moving toward—a promise. As Dutch theologian Henri Nouwen said, Waiting is “never a movement from something to nothing. It is always a movement from something to something more.”

The problem is, as noted anthropologist Angeles Arrien (http://www.angelesarrien.com/) advises, “The opposite of trust is control. Where we do not trust a situation, an individual, or our own abilities is where we will inevitably respond by trying to control it.” To avoid moving into a full-blown control pattern, especially when all our fight-flight-freeze responses are screaming, requires a deep sense of trust and ultimately faith—often in something larger than ourselves. We must believe that we and/or the problem will emerge to a new understanding and breakthrough if we just keep working the issue, holding steady in the discomfort of the moment, and trusting our own innate capacity for successful transition.

This is not easy. To trust that something will emerge, to give up control to a larger possibility or guidance is a very radical stance toward life. To believe that something larger is possible, far above our own images, hopes and fantasies, is a challenging way of thinking. If we cannot, however, manage our fears during this time then we will inevitably be a victim of our control patterns and return to the near, familiar, and ultimately unsatisfying shore.

In Sarajevo, the five daily calls to God from the mosques continued every day, regardless of the war surrounding the city. This was a daily signal to its citizenry never to give up hope, to keep faith in a greater good as the highest possibility. One old woman told me, “Every time I heard the call, it reminded me to keep going. Allah and my resourcefulness would get me through. If I trusted God I would get to the other side of this war.”

For most Bosnians I met, talking about the war was part of the healing process. Moreover, everywhere in Sarajevo, Bosnians are connected deeply to a tactile sense of memory and place. The war was not something one saw on television, but actually felt in every building riddled with bullet holes, and every sidewalk rough with shell marks. “This corner is where my cousin was killed by a sniper.” “This house is where my uncle was beaten to death.” “This park is where a shell exploded and maimed my friend.” The stories never end. Yet woven through their harrowing experiences, we find the second skill to holding creative tension—the vision of a compelling future.

“We have a saying in Sarajevo,” Seida Saric, director of Bosnia’s Women for Women International, told me. “Every person has a shell with their name on it. When the shells start to fall, you start to run. But you don’t know if you are running away from your shell—or toward it.”

This was living in creative tension at its worst. The Bosnians I met managed this daily crisis by holding to a larger view of life following the war. They prayed daily for the end of the conflict, and in their mind’s eye held the vision of a Bosnia free and in peace. This overarching picture helped many Bosnians struggle through some very difficult periods, and to let go of much of their national anger. It was not the current reality that provided them with hope, but the shared vision of future possibility. They didn’t just live in the present, but in the hopeful potential of the future.

The Bosnians’ focus on the future helped transform feelings of bitterness and hate. Hard as it is to fathom, there was very little sense of revenge among the Bosnians I met. Instead, I experienced a deep sadness, and a real desire to move on and transform to a renewed, peaceful country. There is much we can learn in the West about our attachments to vengeful feelings and polarized thinking. The Bosnian approach, instead, is to create an image worth moving toward, and to use that image as a shield against fear and retribution—a beacon of hope even in the most difficult of times.

The third skill is to move into curiosity rather than judgment. This is called “equanimity.” Patrick O’Neil (http://www.extraordinaryconversations.com/), a noted conflict and management expert, defines equanimity as “the ability to meet a disturbance that comes our way without creating another disturbance.” It’s the skill of being present and non-reactive to any issue that we encounter. Equanimity is created through inquisitiveness and the willingness to look again with fresh eyes. Rather than becoming reactive and fight-flight-freeze based, move instead into high curiosity and slow down. Ask useful questions: “What else can I discover about this issue I have not yet seen?” and “What have I overlooked or not yet considered that is possible?” Equanimity allows us to experience creative tension as a kind of research project, patiently waiting until the right solution comes along and an opening is created. Arrien teaches the phrase, “Isn’t that interesting?” as a way of moving into equanimity and observation rather than premature reaction. It is a useful reminder when in the midst of what she calls, “the formidable middle.”

In Sarajevo, there’s a street that residents called Sniper Ally. Tall buildings surround this fifteen-foot wide street, which also offers a direct line of sight into the hills beyond the city. During the war, because of the way this street is situated, snipers could sit in those hills and shoot at anyone crossing it. Sadly, because it was on a major thoroughfare, it could not be avoided by most people living in the area. The only sensible way to cross it was quickly, but the only way to live with it on a daily basis (when sudden death was possible in every crossing) was to stay in equanimity. Seida Saric told me, “You can’t freeze. You can’t live in fear. You just take a breath and walk. You do the best you can, but after that, you don’t worry about the snipers or you go crazy.”

Equanimity allows us to both allow things to go their own way, and at the same time continue toward a larger vision of what we want. On the one hand, we don’t try to hold on or control things; on the other, we set up a clear focus on structural tension and the appropriate actions to support our vision. Paradoxically, we are not controlling and controlling at the same time. Another way to describe it is that we are in control without the need to be controlling, creating change not by being rigid about outcome, nor by just sitting there hoping the results will show up.

This approach allows the holding of creative tension to be an active rather than passive experience. Most of us think that waiting is a passive state, born from hopelessness or inaction, but those who hold creative tension in equanimity do so very actively. They know that in this holding process something new is being born from that which they hold in curiosity. That’s the secret—the secret of knowing that there is a transformation already occurring, that it has already begun. This requires being fully present to the moment, in the knowledge that something is happening right where you are and you want to be present to it. Someone who holds creative tension with equanimity is present to the moment and believes this moment is the moment. Thus, holding creative tension is not a passive activity; it involves nurturing the present situation for the potential of what might be possible.

A fourth skill is to rely on our own deep resource of inner and outer beauty. One Bosnian woman, a world-class skier and grandmaster chess champion (she once played Bobby Fischer to a draw), told me that the way the women fought the war “was to dress up and put on make-up! . . . They had guns,” she told me, “but we had lipstick.” Even in the most horrific circumstances—while underpowered and overwhelmed—the women of Bosnia remembered their inner desire to rise above circumstance with beauty and imagination. This was a powerful ally for survival and later for societal change.

Today in the marketplaces of Sarajevo, for instance, you can find many vendors selling lamps, chess sets, and even candelabras made from shell casings—a testament to the Bosnian skill of taking the worst symbols of war and transforming them, with both intention and skill, into objects of beauty.

We can always rely on beauty and creativity to help us in the room of confusion where tension abounds. One key is to not to be reactive, but to look for new possibilities by showing and being our very best. If we can stay flexible to the alternatives, then openings to transformation usually present themselves. This is true, even in the worst of times. However, this also requires that we do our very best to stay in our full sufficiency. In the middle of chaos, the question ultimately becomes, “What is my core belief about myself? What will I stick to, no matter what?”

This is a very powerful place from which to hold creative tension. From the American Native tradition comes a story about Wilma Mankiller, a great contemporary native leader and former chief of the Cherokee Nation, who wore a choker around her neck with the heads of two wolves facing each other. A reporter once asked Mankiller what the two wolves stood for. “This one,” she said, pointing to one face, “represents the voice of good that is inside of me. And this one,” she said, pointing to the other, “represents the voice of evil. They are always in an internal battle.”

“Which one is winning?” asked the reporter.

“The one I feed the most.”

Arrien teaches us to ask the question every day, “Is my self-sufficiency stronger than my fear and self-doubt?” If we cannot answer “yes” to this most fundamental query, then the ability to find creative solutions and beauty is always compromised by our inner fears and outer circumstance. When this occurs, our flexibility disappears and is replaced by rigidity, timidity, and a tendency to revert to old, familiar, and inevitably unsuccessful strategies.

Finally, the Bosnian response to hardship was often a remarkable one—celebration. During the siege, some of the most popular places in Sarajevo were the local bars and dance halls where great nightly gatherings would occur. When I was in Bosnia, I heard this more than once: “We hated the war—but truthfully we miss the parties.” While the bombs were falling, and people were dying, Bosnians responded with an amazing capacity for festivity. They danced, sang, and held to each other as the last, great fortress against despair, choosing joy and celebration as the best defense of their beloved country.

In the middle of creative tension, remember to appreciate and cherish that which you do have, to soften your heart and stay grateful for that which is still possible. As an old Bosnian man told me outside a mosque, “If I can still breathe, then I can still hope.” To remember the wonderfully humorous statement, “If you didn't get all the things you wanted, you can still be grateful for all the things you didn't want that you didn't get.” This attitude will take you far.

It is almost inconceivable for most Westerners: we would risk our lives to attend a party? That we would run a gauntlet of shells and sniper fire to have a drink with some friends and listen to music? But in this craziness, and the inherent gratitude of life, sits the greatest sanity of the Bosnian people.