Changing Patterns

Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.”
~ Leo Tolstoy

Last time in “A Case for Permaculture: patterns of erosion and regenerative patterns” I posted about the two main patterns we can find in life and left it with a question: how do we break/change patterns?

First we need to acknowledge that our whole life is made of patterns and systems: we learn what we know about the world by processing new schemes (or patterns) and we do this through observing and imitating others (parents, teachers, figures of authority, idols, etc)…some patterns are reinforced because they make us feel good, some because they leave some kind of benefit to us, even when they may be corrosive in nature.

We need patterns: our brains are wired to learn through them or translate anything we see into a pattern: We are made of patterns!

While we create patterns to serve a goal, sometimes we stay with the pattern even when it may have outgrown the goal and may no longer be needed (example: we do things automatically without questioning why or looking for ways to improve them…)

“Observation & interaction”:

Breaking/changing patterns starts, as all in Permaculture, with deep observation and interaction with the subject: landscape, “problem”, behaviour, relationship, etc.

We ask ourselves: what is going on here? What are the elements, the functions, how do they “speak” to each other” what type of relationships are happening and what impact does that have over the system?

Many activists and community leaders are sometimes “doers”: I have seen groups taking a piece of abandoned land, cleaning it and building garden plots in a day. The problem with this is that lack of observation can result in the creation of a problem bigger than the one we wanted to solve in the first place: creating an edible garden in a day is a wonderful thing and leaves a great feeling to all those who participated. But if we didn’t observe and interact enough, we may have overseen that the water causes floods, that we planted the tomatoes in the shade, that the plots are too low and old or disable people can’t use them, that the paths are too narrow for wheelchairs to ride or that there is no spot for people to sit and relax!

Other consequences of not observing and interacting enough may even be more dangerous: like creating hope in villages and then leaving them without proper training, imposing cookie-cutter, one size fits all “solutions” or creating more dependence by enabling people instead of empowering them (international “aid” without proper skills training and exploration of local assets)

“Head, Heart and Hands”:

Patterns may start by an action, a feeling or a thought; therefore, they can also be stopped or changed by thinking, feeling and/or acting (changing behaviours)

What this means is that you may have to start by either:

  • Adopting a new behaviour
  • Adopting a new thought that (at the beginning, as all new things) will feel strange and artificial until it becomes “the” new pattern
  • Adopting new ways to feel and see, to embrace the new pattern: sometimes this requires forcing yourself to see the world through other lenses, throwing yourself into situations and places you would never thought possible, challenging your beliefs and stories, etc

Patterns are usually reinforced the same way: they are kept by a combination of action/behaviour, feeling/connection and reasoning/cognitive, so it is important to address patterns from all these three perspectives.

Side Note: one of the biggest challenges we face (if not the biggest of them all) is climate change. Many study the scientific facts and reproduce them to create awareness…(head) , some turn to panic , pain or feeling extremely overwhelmed (heart) but few truly do something to reduce the impacts and build resilience (hands)

“In the problem lays the solution”:

Mainstream thinking focus on symptoms and tries to “fix” them: you get a massage for your back pain, instead of looking into what is causing the back pain in the first place.

Permaculture forces us to look into the problem’s causes and implications and be creative at sorting out how to address it: and usually the answer is in the problem itself: your back pain may be caused by stress in your work, being seated all day, feeling the “burden” of debt or other problem, etc. No matter how many massages or pills you take, the actual cause of the problem will stay.

Unfortunately, industrial society is full of examples of “attack the symptoms and fix them” instead of long-term, beyond-sustainability and ethical thinking: we ‘fix” illnesses and chronic health issues with “treatment” and “surgery” and many other reductionist and aggressive interventions: we even look into the causes by causing pain and discomfort to the patient instead of looking deeper (multi-dimensionally) and finding (through conversation and the study of patterns) what the person may have.

A wonderful example of this has been done by a group of really committed neighbours at Newton neighbourhood (The Grove) where months ago a lady was attacked and murdered and where many drug dealers spend their time…it is also a place close to where I work and take my bus home.

The “mainstream” way would have been cutting the trees, adding police and (for the neighbours and commuters) stay away as much as possible from that place…what they did was the opposite: they regained the ownership of the place: they decorated the trees, added chairs and a colourful piano and celebrate life and community every week with different shows…the “problem” of crime is a complex one, but one of its components is that we are too busy to share in community and too lazy and irresponsible to create safe spaces for ourselves, we retreat in our houses and cars and abandon places and those who don’t have a safe home or a car to retreat to…crime, as bullying, requires at least two actors and a scene. Hijack the scene and one of the actors and make it a beautiful community show instead of one of fear, rejection and neglect.

“Least change for the greatest effect”

Patterns of erosion/depletion/apathy as well as patterns of abundance/achievement, etc have all (as any pattern) a blind or weak point: an area you can utilize to leverage the change (like an Achilles’ heel).

This are also called “point of intervention”: they are easier to find in nature when you are trying to design a sustainable edible garden, but they may be more difficult to spot in human behaviours…however, no matter what type of pattern you are trying to change, use observation and interaction to look for this sweet spot and then use it to intervene…

Sometimes the changes needed to break a really erosive pattern are huge (such as the switching from fossil fuels to alternatives and reducing consumption quick and en masse), but sometimes they are small and produce big differences, such as cutting sugar consumption one spoon at a time…


Guild, in Permaculture, are combinations of plants or elements in a landscape that support each other through different functions and through succession planning: it is not how many elements the system has, but how well combined and how many relationships those elements have among them.

You can use this to change a pattern by proactively and responsibly build guilds around your life and in your community: guilds of people and institutions, guilds of systems and elements that support you and each other so the pattern-changing is not all on yourself.

Note: In Permaculture, a guild is a grouping a plants, animals, insects, and other natural components that also work together to help ensure their survival. This may also include other energies and influences, together; they form an “ecosystem” or just a “system”. In a Permaculture design, we proactively select these elements to make sure we have: food for us (fruits, vegetables, staples, legumes & nuts, fats, and even animals); food for the soil (examples: nitrogen fixers such as legumes, or kitchen and garden scraps through composting, mulching plants); diggers/miners or dynamic accumulators (plants that get deep into the soil and bring back nutrients/minerals or break up the soil so water and air can enter and other plants grow; ground covers (protect the soil from erosion and other non desirable plants –“weeds”); climbers (who maximize the food production), protectors (elements who protect the system from attacks, erosion, etc, they may be animals, other plants/trees, rocks, human-made structures, etc) and so on…there are multiple books and websites explaining how to create a food forest, a guild, etc.

“Limiting factor”

In every system and process change there are helping and limiting factors: factors may be elements of the system or external to it, may be people, money, time or any other resources that either help or hinder the change and evolution and functioning of the system

These limiting factors may be visible and open or invisible: again, only through careful observation and interaction you will see who or what they are.

What are the limiting factors in your life?

In your community?

What are they limiting and why?

What are the strategies you could apply now?

What are the strategies you could apply in the future?

What is stopping you?

Feed what you want to grow”
This is a no brainer, but we usually ignore it: if you don’t want “weeds” in your garden, plant more of the plants you do want and mulch the rest. If you leave open spaces you will have weeds (by the way, weeds are pioneer plants who are very adapted and resilient, and many are edible)…if every time you have an argument with somebody you keep arguing back, or if you knowingly trigger situations, don’t complain if the argument grows and you develop a frustrating relationship.

If we want abundance, we need to create and feed it, same with peace, love, friendship, health and so on…

“Start small and slow”

It is easier to change a habit if we create a new one in parallel that slowly replaces the old one, than trying to stop the “bad” one in one shot. This may not be applicable to all situations (there are times in life when we need to intervene big and quick), but it helps when we want to break old, useless or dangerous patterns, or when we want to design systems and don’t have a lot of time, money or energy…it also allow us to test the new pattern or system and make changes if needed before is too late

“Do what you can with what you know and what you have”

Most of us are full of “ifs” and “whens”: “if I had time…”, “if I were younger, stronger, fitter, more skilled…” or “when I win the lottery”, “when I retire” and so on…

These ifs and whens may never come, and we would postpone our lives and projects until they are no longer achievable…

In Permaculture, we work with what’s available: the fewer things we bring from outside the system, the more resilient the system will be. Systems that constantly need to be fed with external inputs become dependent and weak (think industrial agriculture, think suburban life, think food grown outside your town, think income coming only from your employer…)

If a balcony (or a window pane) is all you have, start growing herbs there…you may never be able to grow fruit trees, but you would be surprised of how much you can grow in containers once you decie to start!

Dreaming and longing are great as inspiration for doing, but they may become dangerous and steal your life away: they may stop you from doing and enjoying what you have and what you are, for dreaming and longing for what you don’t have and are not…


Finally, if you truly want to break old and erosive patterns in your life and in society, you may want to expose yourself to situations that keep you thirsty, open and creative. This is accomplished by:

  • Challenging your fears, one by one by actively looking for situations where you will need to face them
  • Talking to people you don’t know or who seem different from you
  • Attending events, courses, etc that allow you to be exposed to new ideas, skills and ways to see the world
  • Reading, and once in a while challenging yourself to read something different from what you would choose
  • Travelling to different locations and spending a few hours or a few days in a different place, if possible, with different music, food and people
  • Accepting challenges that force you to get out of your comfort zone and think creatively
  • Giving yourself a few minutes a day or a few hours a week to be alone and just think/feel
  • Looking at the world and its inhabitants with the eyes of a six year old you
  • Allowing you to feel the pain for the world as well as the gratefulness for its beauty and bounty
  • Embracing life and all it brings
  • Practicing accepting that you may be wrong or right, but that there are more than one way to see, feel and act


Everything you’ve learned in school as “obvious” becomes less and less obvious as you begin to study the universe. For example, there are no solids in the universe. There’s not even a suggestion of a solid. There are no absolute continuums. There are no surfaces. There are no straight lines.”
~ R. Buckminster Fuller





One Comment on “Changing Patterns

  1. Pingback: Living in Truth ~ Part Two | Mainstream Permaculture

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