The name Centre-Edge comes from a Sanskrit word ‘Mandala’ which literally just means ‘Centre’ and ‘Boundary’. Centre-Edge is quite closely related to Western ideas of systems thinking found in various disciplines, both scientific and social. In some ways Centre Edge represents an Eastern way, or perhaps an East-West way, of understanding and experiencing systems. It is very much a holistic way of looking at systems, because in this approach we look at, and also experience, everything as a system, a ‘Centre Edge system’. For example a room, or a physical object could be a system; a social group or a family could be a system; and also when we go a bit further – an emotion or even a single moment of consciousness can be a system described by the same Centre Edge principles.
Centre-Edge helps 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 becomes very much about connecting inner states of mind and awareness with a deepening understanding of what we think of as ‘external’ situations. As we begin to apply Centre Edge principles we also then ask, ‘how does this understanding then help me to act wisely or take leadership in the situation that I am part of?’
Origins of Centre Edge:
I’ve 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 teachings on Mandala were introduced to me by my Buddhist teacher Rigdzin Shikpo. Mandala is really central, critical set of understandings that implicitly underlie all of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist thought and practice.
The Mandala principles are strongly implied within the cultural world view that someone born into Indian or Tibetan culture would naturally understand. They would grow up with an implicit narrative about how the world works, how things are organised and how one thing relates to another. Mandala is in itself a neutral description. It isn’t necessarily about good and bad, it isn’t just about enlightenment or the spiritual path. The principles are really a way of understanding the underlying dynamics, relationships or patterns that are in absolutely everything.
It’s also not just a Buddhist concept. Related ideas appear in Hinduism, Native American traditions and possibly 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, or to arts and design, or to family life – actually to anything at all in our inner or outer world. That universal aspect is what we learn to work with and apply in Centre Edge work.
How this work connects to meditation practice:
Within Buddhist practice, Mandala traditionally related to the practice of meditation and mind training. 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, out into the world and then back again with a new in breath. So even in apparently basic meditation like this, we 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, or see it in this way.)
Then later on when people do more detailed, some might say more advanced, meditations you find exactly the same idea. You may have seen pictures of these sorts of Mandalas in books or paintings, with elaborate, colourful, geometric structures with Buddhas in the centre. There is 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, Rigdzin Shikpo, is English and is very unusual in that he was trained by some of the great Tibetan masters of the last century. He was fully trained in the authentic yogic traditions, 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’d discovered, he realised that when Western Buddhists are introduced to these more complex, detailed geometric forms and told to meditate on them, they often 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 deeper patterns and relationships, beyond the outer form. He felt that people were getting confused and lost in the detail. So he decided to delineate what he called the Nine Principles of Mandala.
Originally then, these teachings were to help his meditation students relate to the traditional practices more skilfully. The point is that these are all principles that 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 have always found these teachings amazing and extraordinary. 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 transform society in a positive direction?’ 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 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 acknowledgement and deep 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. In some ways we could even say this is more like an Eastern or inner science – based on observation and experience. 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 and beginning to understand that universality gives us greater potential for creating positive and skilful action in the world.