I am sharing excerpts from an interview with Mia Herndon for The Emergent Strategy Podcast that she hosts with Sage Crump and adrienne maree brown. We shared a heart-opening conversation in which we discussed emergent strategy, communal practice, adaptivity, and interconnectivity as a means of transformation.
I hope you’ll listen.
Here’s an adapted version of the interview.
Mia Herndon: In many ways, we’re opening a portal in our conversation, and this conversation in many ways is some reflection on spaces that we’ve been in together through Emergent Strategy. I’ll talk about those in a bit, but I wanted to know if there’s a particular way that you like to open space in conversation that you would be willing to share with me and the listeners today?
Mallika Dutt: I’d love to. I can guide us in a two-minute coming together with ourselves, each other and with the Earth as a way of getting grounded with this whole exploration of emergence at Emergent Strategy.
I invite you to settle into your chair. Let your feet touch the ground. Uncross your ankles. Let your hands rest loosely on your thighs. Your palms can be up or down, it doesn’t matter. Bring your attention to your breath. Notice the way in which your whole body shifts and dances with each inhalation and exhalation. With your inhalation, let your belly expand, fill and grow. With the exhale release calmness and feel all of us also breathing the same air, all of us connected to our life force energy around the country, around the world. As we breathe this life force energy into ourselves, I invite you to bring your attention to our tree friends who give us the oxygen and share their incredible synthesis of air and light and chlorophyll. Just gather up all of that, yummy, yummy life force energy. With your hands, bring it to your belly and feel that deep connection to your seat of power.
Now slowly, move your hands up from your belly to your solar plexus, to your heart and extend that same energy back into the circle, to the world from this place of interconnectedness and connection with your next inhale and exhale. Come back to wherever you are, whatever you are doing and allow yourself to feel held by the circle.
Mia Herndon: One of the opportunities that we had to deepen our interconnection or the space for us to connect through the immersion in New York City that happened in May 2019. Today we wanted an opportunity to hear about how that’s moving in your life, how the impressions or the resonances of that time have continued to have a thread in your work in life. I want to let folks know what immersion is. An immersion is a locally based community experience of practicing Emergent Strategy together over three or four days and we were here and you were – you had the grace and the fortitude to not only be present, but to step into a facilitator role in that space. I don’t even know if you were fully prepared, but you did it with grace. Your presence of spirit felt really important in that space and made way for so much to be possible and that was my experience of it. I want to hear your experience of the immersion and if you have any lasting impressions or impacts from that time together.
Mallika Dutt: I have many feelings around that question. Mia, that immersion was like walking through a portal for me as well. It really was pretty significant. I remember walking into the space and right around the entrance of the space, there was an ancestor who was present. A lot of times when I feel ancestors, I’m in places where I don’t vocalize these things because you don’t know if people are going to look at you and think you’re completely nuts. I was kind of going, hey, well, hello. And then adrienne said, oh, there’s an ancestor here, and I thought, phew, okay. The ancestor was very connected to a particular part of the space and it was the part of the space that the group that I was facilitating, the element of Emergent Strategy that I was facilitating was sitting in. I was facilitating, of course, interdependence and decentralization, because I’m obsessed with interconnectedness these days. I was delighted that that’s what I got to facilitate. There we were in this circle. I think I can’t remember there were, like, 10 of us, 12 of us, and that’s what we do.
During an immersion, we take all of the different elements of emergent strategy, and break into smaller groups to really take a deep dive into that particular element. The small group then creates an offering for the whole circle which is like a journey. Each group takes the whole circle through a journey of fractals or intentional adaptation or decentralization and interdependence and the other elements of emergent strategy.
Each group goes off and co-creates a journey. We argue and dance and laugh and cry and imagine together and design an offering for the whole circle. After we have gone through the offerings of each group, we come back together to integrate, learn and share as a circle. Each group then also has an opportunity to integrate and share what happened for them during the offering.
I’m laying out the overall structure and process of an immersion into emergent strategy because what I am sharing was deeply influenced by what happened with our group working on interdependence.
We gathered as a small group and I received facilitation instructions that morning. Talk about emergent strategy and being adaptive and iterative! I said to myself to surrender to the flow.
Within a half an hour of starting our group discussion,, we had a chair for the ancestor in the circle. Throughout our entire process, we had what looked like an empty chair. Sometimes people would come by and say, oh, can we take that chair? And we would say, no, there’s someone sitting in that chair, even if you can’t see them. I share this because there is a way in Emergent Strategy, in the way in which we practice, the way adrienne has brought these different pieces together, there’s a real honoring of mind, body, heart and spirit. Spirit is present and everyone is present with spirit. There’s nothing odd or strange about having things emerge and allowing several factors over which we have no control to play into the creation. We went into this process together with spirit.
We created the most, I think, stunning offering on interdependence. We actually created a “physical” portal, and we had people walk through it by leaving something that they needed to release behind and embracing something that they wanted to invite into their life as they stepped through.
I was excited because I got to play the role of the anointer, the receiver of the people when they walked through the portal. The parts of me that are medicine woman, juju, magic were so happy! After people walked through the portal, we invited them to draw on a shared piece of paper, their vision and images of what we wanted to create in the world. This became another shared journey of co-creation. After we were done, one of the people in our group grabbed adrienne and we did a collective dance through on the vision we had co-created.
It was one of those things where we were as a group, coming together, where there’s structure, and then here is where we have no idea what’s going to happen. As a facilitator, that can be quite stressful. Let me just say that a big learning in emergent strategy is to learn there’s a part of yourself that you’re kind of responsible for having some guardrails around what’s happening, at the same time as you’re allowing emergence and an iterative adaptive process to emerge. All of that coming together was just – it was quite remarkable. The depth to which we in our circle were able to connect with one another led to us creating a WhatsApp group for the interdependence crew.
We connect with each other regularly. We have stayed in interdependence. Some of us have run into each other or met each other at different points but we have stayed together from that time. It is such a sweet and intimate and loving group. It happened because of the way in which that immersion emerged. It happened because of the ways in which spirit brought us together, sat with us. We were able to be in relationship with one another and the whole container, the whole experience of that immersion. When I say to you, it was a portal and it was life changing for me, I don’t even just mean it notionally. It has remained a live connection in my life.
Mia Herndon: That is amazing. I love hearing every bit of that. I love remembering and recalling the experience of moving through the portal that you all created, the feeling of real transformation that was happening, the levels of creativity and surrender and levity and joy. And just having you recall that I feel so deeply connected to that moment and so love how you all are still connected to each other to this time more than a year later.
Mallika Dutt: Mia, I mean I remember you. You channeled some ancestors with some fierce love. Oh, my goddess. I was just like on the floor, kneeling, bowing to what was happening and coming through with you. And you know, your persona most of the time is so quiet and so gentle and so sweet. I felt Oya in the room. Fierce, fierce, it felt very fierce feminine energy. But at this point, what’s feminine, what’s masculine, all is so mixed up, I don’t know. You should tell me, share with me what that was like for you.
Mia Herndon: Yeah. It’s funny, because I do walk through the world in many ways, relatively quiet and or observing and working to just be of light and with people, but not always like inserting. And at that moment, we were closing out the immersion. The offering was to say a few words to say what it meant to us. I kept feeling the answer – she was moving within me too. It kept feeling really clear that I could say some words. But those words wouldn’t actually express the depth of what I was feeling and what needed expressing and also that there was a way in which movement could allow for another level of integration, digestion, and metabolizing of the experience. There was still something in me that — not in me, that in the space needed to be able to move and to continue to be made way for and ushered through and out. I don’t know that I had the words for any of that. I just allowed myself to be a vessel for what needed to move through. And it definitely felt actually like all the energies. It felt masculine and feminine at the same time, it felt like different iterations of spirit moving through.
I felt very connected to all these different elements of wind and water, in particular, of trees and rootedness, of sand and impermeability, just all so much felt present and available. And also there were people who had carried so much, there’s also rage and grief that needed space to be held and either — and tamped down or fire lit or destroyed and shifted. Yeah, I wish I could say that I knew how. I love dancing, and I have been in the practice of dancing throughout my life and particularly in African traditions. For me, it wasn’t about performance and it wasn’t about a particular technique. It was just to let what comes through that needs to be here. Hopefully this is a medicine that in the sharing can do what it needs to do for everyone who’s here that my words couldn’t.
Mallika Dutt: Well, sister, it was powerful, powerful medicine, so beautiful. Thank you for that.
Mia Herndon: Well, thank you for being a part. I don’t think that any of it would have been possible had we not all been there together and made that way because I don’t generally dance in public like that. I know that you work with such different bodies of people, such different expressions of how people use their minds and bodies and show up in the world. I’m interested in how you are able to have that centrality of spirit, transparency and effectiveness with the various people that you are in relationship with to do your work.
Mallika Dutt: Thank you for that question, because it’s been a journey. It’s been a real journey, and I feel like I’m still in the process of integration and synthesis. I’ll share a little bit about how I opened my mind to spirit in the first place. I’ve been in the social justice world for more than three decades from a predominantly human rights lens. I’ve worked in the United States and in India, predominantly. I am from India. I have worked in partnership with folks from around the world in different contexts and alliances and movements and addressed a range of issues from gender-based violence to racial justice, immigrant rights, the rights of sexual minorities, LGBTQIA+ rights and more.. When you say human rights, then you’re talking about all human rights, social and economic rights and political rights, cultural rights. I’ve engaged in a number of strategies — from grassroots organizing to global public policy and everything in between. I have a legal background and have been very deeply engaged in culture change, storytelling, and narrative strategy. And as a feminist and as a human rights advocate, completely disconnected from spirit because of all of the wounding around religion in the context of patriarchy, colonialism, and everything else..
I’m a Hindu. I’m raised Hindu, and I cut myself off from that religious tradition when I was very young. In Hinduism, you’ve got a caste system, an incredibly exploitative, violent religious culture, like many, many other religions. Even though in the US, there’s all of this Om and Shanti and Tantra and yoga and meditation and all of the rest of it, I was for many years confused by it all. I would look at folks who were practicing all of that here, mostly white folks in my early years here and feel, “I don’t know what you guys are talking about.” That’s not what my religion feels like at all. Why don’t you go to India and experience the patriarchy of it? But then I thought, fine, people believe their stuff, do their stuff. I have a political analysis. It’s part of my culture. But it wasn’t part of my religious practice, right? As a result, I never really understood the distinction between spirit and religion. I didn’t have any vocabulary for that. I didn’t have any words for that. I didn’t know how to make that distinction out of my experience. And then 11 years ago, I got divorced.
My ex-husband became involved with the woman who used to clean our home. They got married a couple of years later. Lots of lies, lots of betrayals, a typical story like that. I actually didn’t know that they were involved with each other until after the divorce because he didn’t tell me through the whole process of separation what was going on. And as these things can sometimes do, that just destroyed me. It not only undermined my trust and faith in relationships, but it really destroyed my faith in myself. How could I be with somebody for so many years and not know? We were married for almost 20 years and they were in a relationship for many years. To not know, be so checked out, so focused on my social justice work and my organizing and being this big human rights advocate out there and being completely disconnected from myself and my relationship, right?
At that time, friends supported me. I started seeing a therapist. I was seeing a psychoanalyst, and every time I was with my analyst, it became a verbal mental jujitsu. I’m a lawyer. I’m an advocate. I know how to talk, right? I can analyze things in down circles around people. And I know a lot of us (in the social justice space) have that superpower.
But it wasn’t helping me heal from the incredible pain and shame that I was in. Then a friend of mine took me to see a shaman, a Peruvian shaman. I knew nothing about shamanism or that lineage. I was introduced to the world of plant medicine for the first time, and that I think for me, was one of — not I think, that was my portal to spirit because the plants spoke to me and opened avenues of knowing and feeling and seeing that my social justice world and all of the other worlds that I inhabited had completely shut down. Worlds that I could not walk through just using my head. I needed to use other parts of my being to open the door to spirit. It was – it was a long journey. It wasn’t like I was then in the world of plant medicine all the time. It was that one experience. But that changed everything for me.
I ended up deciding to go and study shamanism. I went to Chile. I went and studied with an organization called the Four Wins. I got my certification in energy medicine. I went to Brazil, and I studied Candomblé and I learned all about the Orixás.
Then I ended up in the Amazon jungle. I shouldn’t say I ended up, the journey took me to these places. If I was to try and explain to you how these things happen, I actually don’t know. I ended up in the jungle in the Amazon on an Ayahuasca journey. With that experience with the medicine with grandmother, my whole life changed. She brought me into connection with the earth, with all of the other beings on this planet, starting with the jungle in a way that was life changing. It shifted my relationship to myself and to people and to earth, the planet in such a complete way. I didn’t really understand how pivotal that moment was until later, because you’re still trying to digest.
I was still running this organization Breakthrough that I had created. Breakthrough is now 160 people, we were getting lots of awards because we were so fancy-dancy out there in the world doing our thing. The medicine showed me that many of the ways in which I did social justice work in the world actually upheld all of the systems of oppression that I was trying to dismantle. That insight, that visceral experience of seeing that in the jungle destroyed me because everything that I had done and stood for and my whole identity was constructed around that social justice persona in the world.
Mia Herndon: I am with this response. This is everything. Please, please, please continue. I am here with you. I am thanking you for your vulnerability, for your journey, for these insights, for the way the medicine has worked through you, for the way the spirit has moved you. Please do not stop.
Mallika Dutt: Thank you. Just sharing that makes me want to cry because it’s been quite a journey. I didn’t expect to end up in tears. I came back from the jungle, from Brazil, discovering all of these different worlds and then began to revisit my own ancestry from a different place. So many of the Orixás were like Hindu gods and goddesses with different names, I mean their stories, their archetypal energies. By this point, because I had studied shamanism and gone through the experiences that I had with plant medicine, I began to understand that the origins of many of our faith traditions actually came from the elements, actually came from earth, water, air, and fire. And in the Hindu tradition, space or ether which is the fifth element. And that actually every single thing, including us and our bodies are made of those elements. If I could allow myself to receive the core teachings and just open to how spirit wanted me to understand these things, or how these things were going to move through me, I could start to be less hostile to Hinduism or Christianity or Islam or all of the religions that I had just been like, okay, patriarchal, colonial, hierarchical like everybody go away. It created a different dynamic of relationship with teachings, with wisdom teachings from different parts of the world.
I think the biggest thing that spirit has taught me is how to hold paradox, is how to hold complexity, is how to hold this and that and understand everything, all the multitudes between this and that. In the social justice world because we are so hurt ourselves by the systems that we’re trying to dismantle, we often end up in this or that. We end up in polarities and can be very entrenched in polarities that can be extremely hurtful and harmful. Learning to make some of those distinctions between when it has to be a yes or a no versus when a complexity or a paradox has to be held has been my biggest teaching from spirit.
A couple of years after the Amazon journey, I left the organization I used to run. The transition took a while because I was the founder, so it was a process of making sure that the transition was done well with respect, the handing over and all of that.
During that time, spirit said, your work is interconnectedness, you know rupture well. You know everything about separation, you know everything about alienation, because you have lived in the world of discrimination and violence and all of the ways in which we rupture as humans with each other, ourselves and with the planet. What you don’t know is the world of connection. Your journey is to learn interconnectedness.
I’m saying this much more coherently now. At the time, it was just leave. I went into a sabbatical for three years, completely burned out. I couldn’t move. I would have lunch with a friend and then I would have to go home and sleep for four hours because I was so fucking burnt out, excuse my language.
I’ve been studying Zen Buddhism. I studied with a Zen teacher. I have a sitting practice so I would sit and all this stuff would come through around interconnectedness. Spirit would say – that’s what you’re supposed to remember. And I would think – what the fuck does that mean? I have no idea.
Then in year two of my sabbatical, I wasn’t doing anything else. I went to Detroit for my experience of one of the first immersions that adrienne did. And even though it was like one of those things, where again, I was asking spirit Why are you sending me to Detroit? I know I sound like I have no agency, but for a couple of years I found myself just kind of being pushed to do things that made absolutely no sense to me. But I would go ahead and do that. I had never met adrienne. I had read Emergent Strategy, and it was sounding very much like the journey that I was on but I hadn’t really interacted with it. The Detroit meeting was amazing at some levels and really challenging at other levels. I came back again, completely exhausted because I still wasn’t really ready to engage with the world.
Then adrienne invited me to facilitate, to be one of the facilitators for the New York immersion. I just feel like this is how spirit moves in my world now. Sometimes I’m open and I listen. Sometimes I’m like, I don’t understand what you mean, and I can’t do it right now. Sometimes I’m like, hell no, because I’m not ready.
I call spirit, whatever spirit needs to be called for the different audiences that I work with. I’m not vested in the words. I’m vested in the energy of the thing, if that makes any sense. So to come back to your original question, which I digressed from, how do I navigate the different worlds that I facilitate in. It’s a lot of different worlds and it’s fantastic, but it’s because I really just am learning to be present with what needs to come through in that moment. All the principles of Emergent Strategy like stay focused on small is all. Let it be iterative, adapt, pivot in a second, if you have to. You’ve got the basic scaffolding, right. I have the elements. The elements are always the scaffolding. They are our scaffolding. And if I can just trust them, rest into that, then what has to emerge, emerges.
Mia Herndon: Okay, thank you for that, I have literal chills, literal chills. I so deeply believe that that is true. That when you trust in the scaffolding, when you trust in what is and what needs to be will. I want to also honor, wow, wow, wow, what it takes to surrender to that truth and all the things that we go through that you have just shared that you went through to get to that point. I was reflecting earlier about how in a lot of spaces, I just kind of played the background a little bit, and it’s like someone who’s been an Executive Director of an organization, I move through those places. It does do a number on you. It can do a number. And so it takes something to be able to fully enter again and say yes. And I think absolutely only with the scaffolding of spirit and the elements and those truths, can we fully do that. I just want to appreciate the journey. As you’ve shared, both in your own journey and with Emergent Strategy, we do talk about building a world that we’re in right relationship with each other, with the planet, the spirit that we’re interdependent with, that is the work.
As you share this thread of connection or interconnection as a pathway to transformation. I’m wondering how we build enough trust to be on that path of transformation with each other. Like, in some ways, it sounds like your path of transformation and trust was just absolute surrender. We often come to that from a place of there is nothing else I can do. That has been true for me. It sounds like it’s been true for you. And then I’m also thinking about the ones who are coming after us, hoping that they don’t have to go through the same level of whatever we went through to make it possible, right? No, like please. And also there are many of us who believe there are small ways to make the great transformation possible. So maybe we can’t avoid it. But either way, I think I’d like to know, what do you feel like it takes to build a strong enough connection to trust, to be on that path of transformation with each other?
Mallika Dutt: One of the things that I realized in this journey that I shared with you was that my internal wiring had created a polarity between safety and belonging. That meant that I never felt safe with anybody. There was a longing to be in connection and to belong to people but that sense of safety was so deeply compromised by my childhood, what happened in my familial context, and then what happened in the societal context to kind of reinforce those kinds of things. I grew up in a home where there was violence, where I was the tough little girl. I shut down all of the sweet, tender, nice little parts of me. I became this really tough little advocate. By the time I was 18, I knew that I needed to get the hell out of my house. I needed to get the hell out of the country, because otherwise, I was actually going to die, right. It felt like if I stay home, I will die. The idea of home, which is belonging, became fraught with danger. Safety needed separation. And I share that because I think that if we are to build trust, there is an essential step towards self-healing that you just can’t bypass. The ability to show up and actually be witness to anybody else in whatever context it is, requires you to have some part of you be present for you.
For many of us who have grown up with racism, sexism, lack of class privilege, (I don’t need to go through the litany of horrors that we, as humans have created on this planet) it’s very hard because all of our survival instincts have kicked into protecting us. When we start using those survival instincts to protect everybody else as well from that place, then what I realized was that 30 years of continuing to work on violence and discrimination only kept traumatizing my body more and more and more and more. By the end of it, it wasn’t just my childhood trauma that I was dealing with. It was the trauma of thousands and thousands and thousands and thousands of people that I had either intimately and directly worked with or were part of the communities that I had chosen to be a part of. Trust is one of those things that it’s almost like a little bit of a dance. And that first dance has to be with one step. And there’s a difference between trust and — I want to say there’s a difference between trust and stupidity.
We all have to find this place where we can all trust one another and then have the very clear boundaries that we need to be in a place of safety and protection. In order for us to have any discernment to have a sense of where and how these boundaries need to be constructed, we need to start with ourselves, because if we don’t know how to do that here, then it’s really difficult to do it with anybody else. For me, the path to building trust with other humans came through spirit. It took me — my journey had to go through really coming into relationship with entrusting the elements and the earth and making friends with trees to get my nervous system to calm down enough to begin the work of even trusting myself or other human beings. That was just my path, right. I think we all have different paths to this.
I highly recommend developing a friendship with a tree as a path to trust. I think it is life changing to do that with not just one tree, with several trees. If you allow yourself to go and embrace a tree and allow your body to be flushed against its trunk and just drop into the energy of this being, you get a map to what it means to be rooted deep, deep, deep, deep down into the earth and then emerge into the world with this solidity, with this majesty. Then still be curious enough to expand and explore with the branches and the leaves what it means to be solid, and also to understand the cycles of life, to know how to sway while having rootedness.
I don’t think any human could have taught me that. I could not have received that from another human because my trust ability was so broken, it was so un-patterned in my body. Once I had an imprint from a tree, I had a map. I had a little bit of a map to start to follow in my own body and then to begin to explore with other people. I’ve never really explained this this way before, Mia, so I’m feeling like you just opened up a whole new insight for me on my journey.
Then slowly, the world of generative somatics emerged and working with somatic therapy has been a multifaceted journey for me. I got my yoga teacher training in the Bahamas at the Sivananda Ashram. When I arrived there, I discovered all these Israeli swamis. There I was, learning about my lineage, all of these gods and goddesses and Sanskrit mantras with a bunch of Israeli people in saffron and yellow robes teaching me this stuff. It was like being in sort of a Hindu Disneyland or something, it was crazy. But then I realized that I actually would not have been able to do that in India, that my mistrust of Indian men was so deep that I actually could not have gone to an ashram in India and studied the things that I did in the Bahamas.
Part of my mind was muttering and chattering about cultural appropriation and asking what the fuck is this and what is going on and why are Israelis in the Bahamas teaching me about yoga and meditation and so serious about all the Hindu rituals. On that campus of 400 people, I think there were three Indians. Everybody else was from another part of the world. I’m sharing this as an example because I could just stay in this part of, oh, my god, look at what I did is cultural appropriation. But I’m also really grateful because I was able to receive a set of teachings and some knowledge about my lineage through this bizarre intermediary way because I couldn’t trust myself to be in India to do that. Now I can.
To come back to an earlier point that we were talking about, which is, I think spirit is really teaching me about complexity, that you can find a place to trust and protect yourself. You can be in a central place around safety and still tentatively look for the ways for belonging. If I am tasked to stand in the paradigm of interconnectedness, I bet I’ll bloody trust something because otherwise spirit will just give me a big fat fail.
Mia Herndon: Oh, I think you are absolutely winning – whatever it means to be shining and listening and being on purpose and aligned. Oh, thank you so much for sharing your journey, for your insights. I’m so thankful that you are open enough to even share that awakening through the tree that my whole soma just shifted in that exploration as a tree hugger, like bona fide tree hugger. I love that. And there is something deep about what you said – I mean there’s so much deep about what you have said. I’m stuck on one element, which is that without having gone through that journey with spirit and healing for yourself, that trust wasn’t really possible. It makes me wonder then how much we currently understand about trust is actually transactional, right? It’s just a way of getting a thing done rather than what it takes to build and or reified by power structure rather than what it means to be in a calling together and what that does then, what that can make possible for how we move and build and relate. So I’m in that.
Mallika Dutt: Yeah, that’s really powerful. You’re absolutely right. I hadn’t thought about it like that. But you’re right. I mean even when we say move with the speed of trust, which is so true and so important, it’s still an element of what you just said around transaction in there, right, and rightly so. We’re all walking through the woundedness and the trauma that so many of us — well, actually, I’ve come to realize that every single person on this planet is traumatized, wherever you are in the hierarchies. We have just created systems that don’t work very well for the vast majority of us, certainly not for the planet, right. When I think about it that way, I think, okay, there’s the trust around the people that one is going to engage with and then there’s this larger question of what are the energetics or what are the places where there can be enough connection for something to move, right? It doesn’t have to be all connections at all levels, but enough for something, some possibility to emerge. And that’s another really important part of emergent strategy for me, which is how do we create possibilities? We’re so used to shutting things down, right. Having a different relationship to trust with ourselves allows different possibilities to emerge. All of this is emergent, Mia.