Pattern Understanding

Understanding Patterns part 4

Practical Abundance with storytelling and spirals

In part 1 and part 2 of this series I explained the importance of understanding patterns in permaculture specifically, holistic thinking in general, and explored the potential for pattern design in social permaculture. Part 3 looked a little deeper at what using patterns in social permaculture might look like on both a personal and community level. In this and the next part, taking all of this theory together, I will offer some more practical techniques for using patterns in social permaculture in your daily life.

The power of storytelling

One of the most common patterns we use in our lives is that of making stories. Whether it is an explanation of why things are like they are, a means of identifying ourselves or others, or simply linking cause and effect in a narrative way, stories make up a huge part of our lives. Many traditional societies recognise the importance of storytelling and have specific stories for different occasions or situations (see for example 3, 4). In much of modern society, the stories we are telling ourselves can often be unconscious, which can lead to many social problems. An interesting comment about this comes from Mark Lakeman, founder of the City Repair Project (5) in Portland, Oregon;

““An indigenous man once said to me, he said,

‘Ha! You think that we are the ones that’ve been hurt, you’ve taken our land and we’ve been devastated‘ and he’s like ‘Yeah it’s true we have a lot of problems but at least we know who we are, and you do not know your own story.’
He said,
‘You don’t know what brought you to this place you’re at right now, you don’t know what it is you’re looking for, you say you wanna help the world but you don’t even know your own story within the continuum of all of these challenges…‘
He said, ‘So until you know where you’ve come from, the story of yourself in relation to your family, you don’t know what you’re capable of or even what your challenge is.’” (6)

Lakeman, M, 2007. ‘City Repair – Permaculture for Urban Spaces’. Peak Moment TV, 2007. 

An important point to gather from this is, I think, that in much of modern industrialised society, the stories which we share as a culture do not connect us to our natural environment or to our ancestors, and in this way we can be seen as having become somewhat ‘lost’. Luckily, we are all very powerful storytellers; perhaps even more powerful than any traditional ‘shaman’, and so we are very capable of using our language to regain this connection. For more on this see my article here (7).


Practical communication techniques with the spiral

Practical communication techniques with the spiral
Biel Morro

One way to utilise language for holistic communication is within our own internal storytelling. In part 3, we looked at Looby Macnamara’s concept of “spirals of erosion” which can be re-designed in order to create “spirals of abundance” (8). Mental spirals can be difficult to recognise, since if you are in one you may not be in the best frame of mind for self-reflection. In this sense, the recognition itself can be a very helpful first step in beginning to change a mental spiral from erosive to abundant. But, once you have recognised it, how can you practically affect this change? Macnamara recommends finding “points of intervention” in the spiral within which you can take small actions, each of which “deflects one of the stages of the spiral of erosion or provides us with a link to the spiral of abundance” (8).

Let’s take the interpersonal spiral of erosion as an example. Can you think of a situation, either now or in the past, where you feel at conflict with one or more people and where every communication with them brings negative emotions? Perhaps you try to communicate, but each time either one of you offers a new communication, it simply triggers more negative emotions? In the case of this spiral, the “point of intervention” would have to come from within yourself, as you cannot change the other person(s). The first action which Macnamara recommends is to actively engage your holistic thinking and “see the bigger picture” (8). This is a standard therapy technique, which is used for example in Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) (see for example 9), which Macnamara is also trained in (8).

An example could be that you are talking with your friends about a project you are working on together and you make a suggestion. Your friend does not listen to the suggestion and keeps talking about their idea instead. To look at this subjectively, you may think your friend is being rude, which may elicit feelings of anger, sadness or annoyance. Stepping back and looking at the bigger picture, you could start to recognise that perhaps there was more to the situation than you originally thought; perhaps your friend is dealing with insecurities about the idea in question, or feels attached to their idea and is scared to open up to new suggestions. In recognising such possibilities you could begin to connect to more empathy and so change how you feel about the situation.


Non-violent communication interventions

Non Voilent communication
Photograph by Pexels (Pixabay)

In the case of an interpersonal “spiral of erosion”, taking a step back and viewing the situation holistically could help to connect to more empathy for the other person or people involved, and so encourage more open and compassionate communication. Another possible action which could be an “intervention” comes from Non-Violent Communication. This technique, pioneered by Marshall Rosenberg, recommends four stages of communication (10):

  1. First, communicate exactly what you observed happened – this ties into the first principle of permaculture, ‘Observe and Interact’ – and involves looking at the situation holistically and with-holding judgment as much as you can. “You were rude to me”, for example, communicates a perceived idea, not a behaviour. “You didn’t listen to me and turned away from me” would be a more observational description.
  2. Assess what emotions are present inside you in response to the situation. Try to communicate only your own specific emotions; for example, “I feel like you didn’t respect me” is not as specific or personal as “I felt disrespected”, or even, “I felt lonely because I perceived you didn’t respect me”.
  3. Assess what needs you have which are not being met in the situation.
  4. Formulate a request to the other person about how you would like them to meet those needs. Again, this is more effective if it is specific. (10)


Getting natural

Getting Natural
Photograph by Devanath (Pixabay)

Some of these practical techniques may seem very simple; indeed, many readers are probably already familiar with at least the basics of NVC, since it often makes up a small but important part of Permaculture Design Courses. Even if you have not heard of it before, you can probably see that these are relatively simple techniques which anyone could put into practice. The key is to actually get into the habit of using these techniques in a natural way, which can be difficult, especially when it comes to intense emotional situations such as those generated by conflict. This is easiest with an “empathic holding environment” (11) or supportive community; but to begin, all you really need is yourself.



1. Ashwanden, C, 2019. ‘Understanding Patterns part 1: Exploring the skill of pattern understanding in permaculture’. Permaculture News, 25/9/19. – retrieved 7/1019
2. Ashwanden, C, 2019. ‘Understanding Patterns part 2: Patterns in Social Permaculture’. Permaculture News, 2/10/19. – retrieved 7/1019
3. Campbell, J, 1949. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Vintage: New York City, USA.
4. Jung, C. G., & Franz, M.-L. V, 1964. Man and His Symbols. Doubleday: Garden City, N.Y, USA.
5. City Repair Project, 2017. ‘Mission’. – retrieved 7/1019
6. Lakeman, M, 2007. ‘City Repair – Permaculture for Urban Spaces’. Peak Moment TV, 2007. Available on Films for Action here: – retrieved 7/1019
7. Ashwanden, C, 2017. ‘A New Way to Say…: How Stories Affect our Minds, Culture and Relationships’. Abundance Garden, 21/2/17. – retrieved 7/1019
8. Macnamara, L, 2013. People and Permaculture: Caring and Designing for Ourselves, Each Other and the Planet. Permanent Publications: East Meon, UK.
9. Reed, C, 2014. ‘Big-Picture Thinking with NLP’. Five Changes, 13/1/14. – retrieved 7/1019
10. Firman, J; Gila, A, 2002. Psychosynthesis: A Psychology of the Spirit. SUNY Press: New York City, USA.

Charlotte Ashwanden

Charlotte Ashwanden (nee Haworth). Born in London, I am very interested in peace and community and have a degree in Peace Studies. I got my Permaculture Design Certificate in 2011, from Treeyo at Permaship in Bulgaria, and my Permaculture Teaching Certificate in 2018 at Aranya in India. For me, permaculture is about so much more than garden design; I am mainly interested in applying ‘human permaculture’ as a complement to peace practices. In particular, I like to look at how human permaculture can be applied through psychology, communication and education techniques. In 2015 I got married in a pagan ceremony in a field to David Ashwanden and changed my surname to Ashwanden. With my husband, I’ve travelled a lot in Europe and Asia and encountered many permaculture and community projects. I have lived in various situations, from squatted land to intentional communities, as well as more ‘normal’ places, in the UK, Spain, Italy, Thailand and Vietnam. A professional dancer, I do fire and hula dance and sometimes run dance meditation workshops. Currently, I live in the Andalucian mountains.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to top button