The name Centre-Edge comes from a Sanskrit word ‘Mandala’ which literally just means ‘Centre and Boundary’ – so that is where we start. Centre-Edge is quite closely related to Western ideas of systems thinking that you find in various disciplines, both scientific and social. It is similar, but not quite the same. In some ways you could say that Centre Edge represents an Eastern way, or perhaps an East-West way, of understanding systems. It is very much a holistic way of looking at systems, because in this approach you look at everything as systems or what we are calling, ‘Centre Edge spheres’. So a room, or a physical object could be a system; a social group or a family could be a system; and also when you get into it a bit further – an emotion or even a single moment of consciousness could be a system.
Centre-Edge work can help to connect all these different things or levels. For example, we could ask, ‘how does my mindset change the situation or the group?’ or ‘how does my organisation influence my own values and behaviour?’ With these questions we are not just seeing mindsets, groups and organisations as systems, but also finding ways to relate each level to the next.
Centre Edge work becomes very much about connecting inner states of mind and inner awareness with a deepening understanding of what we think of as ‘external’ situations. And as we begin to apply Centre Edge principles it is also about then asking, ‘how does this understanding then help me to act wisely or take leadership in the situation that I am part of?’
My first connection with this work:
I have been a Buddhist practitioner in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition since the mid 1990s. I’ve also worked in organisation psychology and organisation development since around the same time. In terms of the Buddhist side the idea of Mandala was originally taught to me by my teacher Rigdzin Shikpo.
Mandala is a really central, critical idea or set of understandings that underlie, certainly my own teacher would suggest, all of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist thought and practice.
The problem is that much of it is already implied or assumed as part of the cultural world view that someone born into Indian or Tibetan culture would naturally understand, in terms of a narrative about how the world works, how things are organised and how one thing is in relation to another. So in a way, Mandala is in itself a neutral description. It isn’t necessarily about good and bad, it isn’t just about enlightenment, it’s really a way of understanding the underlying dynamics, relationships or patterns that are in absolutely everything.
It’s also not just a Buddhist concept. Similar ideas appear in Hinduism, Native American traditions, actually across all cultures. Often people will apply those ideas predominantly within spiritual practice. In Buddhism for example people would use them mainly to support meditation and spiritual practice. But because Mandala is a universal concept you can also apply these ideas politically and socially – actually to anything at all. That universal aspect is what we begin to work with and apply in Centre Edge work.
Traditional connection of Mandala to meditation practice:
Within Buddhist practice, Mandala traditionally relates to meditation. For example, when you are using the breath in meditation, the breath is going in and out – from inside you, the very centre of you if you like, out into the world and then back again with a new in breath. So even in apparently basic meditation like this, you can notice a fundamental movement from centre, and out to and beyond a boundary, and then back in again. (Of course this movement is going on with our breath even when we are not meditating. We just tend not to notice that it is happening!)
Then later on when people do more detailed, or some might say more advanced, meditations – (you may have seen pictures of these sorts of Mandalas in books or paintings, with elaborate, colourful, geometric structures with Buddhas in the centre) you have exactly the same idea – a set of relationships and patterns that are fundamentally no different from when you breath in and out with awareness, but look very different on the surface
My teacher is English and is very unusual in that he was trained by some of the greatest Tibetan masters of the last century. He was fully trained in the authentic tradition, and the teachings he received were extremely unusual for a Westerner to receive. He was authorised by his teachers to pass on the essence of the Tibetan tradition in a way that was accessible to Westerners educated in an entirely different worldview.
As he started teaching and trying to pass on what he knew, he realised that when Western Buddhists are introduced to these more complex, detailed geometric forms and told to meditate on them, they often tend to take it the wrong way – even when they have been meditating for many years. He found that people were getting overly focused on the details – the specific colours, shapes, positions – and didn’t relate so easily to the underlying meaning of what these details were actually about, the underlying or deeper patterns, beyond the outer form.
He felt that people were getting confused and lost in the detail. So he decided to abstract what he called the Nine Principles of Mandala. Originally then, this came to me from him, to help me and my fellow meditation students relate to the traditional practices more skilfully. The point is that these are all principles that in his view, and in his teachers’ view, if you had been born into a traditional Indian or Tibetan culture, would be part of what you had already absorbed about how the world works, as part of your socialisation. I believe Mandala was never explicitly taught in this way traditionally, but he started to teach it to us through these Nine Principles.
A set of universal principles about how everything works!
Personally I just found it amazing – absolutely extraordinary. And for a long time my own professional interests have been around social, organisational and political change, questions like: ‘How do human systems change?’ ‘How do people change?’ ‘How do we develop personally and transform society?’ That is my professional work as well as my personal passion. So it was quite natural for me, when I received these teachings, which can easily be applied to social and organisation settings as well as to deeply personal questions (and importantly to the connections between them) to explore how to apply this in my work.
Over time I’ve started to bring this work together with certain other practices, tools and insights that I’ve got from my education and consulting work. But very much the essence of Centre Edge is and always will be what comes to me through my teacher within the Buddhist tradition.
How we apply it in workshops and organisation settings is completely secular however. So although I am using those ideas with deep appreciation and respect toward my own training and tradition, it is very important to say that the underlying principles in Centre Edge work are themselves neutral. It is not a religious idea at all. It is more a set of observations that underlie how everything in the universe is structured and relates. You can find similar concepts in Celtic pre-Christian ideas, labyrinths, the medicine wheels of the Native American Indians. It is the same sort of structure underlying it all.