6/16 – Inspiring Space, Place, and U.Lab: A personal reflection on The Presencing Institute’s Foundations Program in Cape Town, South Africa

Allison Stern

Allison Stern


Allison Stern

Travel offers many opportunities, among them the chance to broaden one’s mind. As a lived experience, travel also offers access to insight through other, more holistic ways of knowing. My recent excursion to Cape Town, South Africa was just that: an integrated foray into other ways of knowing via The Presencing Institute’s in person U.Lab and the majestic and complex place that is Cape Town, South Africa. The fullness of my experiences included physical, emotional, and spiritual dimensions, which were accessed through the lived body (corporeality), place and space (spatiality), relationships with others (relationality), and time (temporality) (Denzin and Lincoln, 2003).

Theory U and U.Lab

What brought me to Cape Town was the Presencing Institute’s Theory U Foundations Program. Having attended the online version of this work, known as U.Lab (co-sponsored by EdX, MIT, and the Presencing Institute), I was curious to compare the four day, live, in-person experience with the virtual one. Theory U is a social technology and change process designed to address suboptimal structural patterns that appear as ”disconnects” at the individual, institutional, and societal levels. Through a U shaped process, journeyers venture down the U as they let go of their past patterns of “downloading” and the negative internal voices that sometimes inhibit authentic connection with themselves and others. By suspending the voice of judgment, redirecting the voice of cynicism, and letting go of the voice of fear, individuals are encouraged to “see with fresh eyes” and “sense from the field.” The ride down the U allows space and time for individuals to open their “mind, heart, and will,” thereby enabling them to engage in a practice of “presencing” and “connecting to source.” The term “Presencing” is a portmanteau of ‘presence’ and ‘sensing’ − to “sense, tune in, and act from one’s highest future potential—the future that depends on us to bring it into being” (Scharmer, 2009, p. 8). As an action research method, Theory U offers practitioners access to different outcomes than they might otherwise get, without reflecting and presencing. This means the results at the end are qualitatively different, making Theory U a compelling model and practice. I attribute this difference to the underlying intention and transformative aspects of the U Process.

The bottom of the U is where many of us would happily spend more time- we might think of that place and space as akin to being in ‘flow’, the Taoist principle of Wu-Wei, the Sanskrit term “Sahaja”, We-Space, or what I refer to as “Inspiring Space.” Although each of these experiences has it’s own distinctions, they are all essential experiences of spiritual seekers, meditators, philosophers, artists, and journeyers of all kinds. The bottom of the U is a place and space of reflection, sensing, and heightened awareness that allows for emergence in the here and now.

At the U.Lab in Cape Town, participants had multiple opportunities to be in that kind of space. For me, those experiences left lingering impressions, which I can still recall and conjure up now, simply by slowing down, taking a breath, and noticing. Those memories are not only cognitive they are also embodied. The U.Lab experience is designed to engage the body, intuition, and whole being as sources of individual and collective insight.

Over the four days of the program, participants practiced deeper listening, empathic resonance, inquiry, mindfulness, generative dialogue, movement, and creative expression through a variety of processes designed to facilitate presencing and make visible “the emerging future.” In keeping with Heron and Reason’s (1997) ways of knowing, U.Lab incorporated experiential knowing, presentational knowing, propositional knowing, and practical knowing into the program design. Activities included individual, dyadic, and group reflections and dialogic exchanges, an empathy walk in nature, case study conversations, and embodied group movement. There was also an exercise that used simple objects to represent relational constellations of both a current situation, and then the future desired state. These kinds of practices are known to facilitate transformative experiences by expanding our perceptual capacities to include experiences of insight, synchronicity, and connection, thereby creating a coherent field of group collective synergy.

To further enhance and support the total experience, the venue for U.Lab was a pristine, peaceful, retreat-like setting where participants’ needs were well tended. The old-world home and mansion-like property gave me a window into South Africa’s history− and a contrast to the nearby townships and other dichotomies that coexist in and around Cape Town.

The larger context of Cape Town

In addition to my U.Lab experience, I also had the opportunity to travel around the region and explore the area, people, and history for a few days before and after the U.Lab Program. Although I had spent a little time learning about South Africa prior to my arrival, it is difficult to capture in words the qualities of experience that together, engaged all of my senses. From the visual beauty of the natural landscapes to the rhythms of local music and the taste of local foods, my brief time in South Africa left me with a strong desire to return for future exploration.

My experiences in Cape Town, both at U.Lab and in the surrounding environments, remain refreshingly vivid for me. I attribute this in part to the slowing down process that U.Lab encourages. Practicing a deeper kind of listening, once which allows space for and includes honoring all of the senses, seems to spill over into all other areas of life making it, as Parker Palmer (2004) suggests in A hidden wholeness, an “undivided life” that is a more holistic way to live and be. I imagine that I am not alone in my desire to experience individual and collective learning in places and spaces that promote heightened awareness through aesthetics and resonance. U.Lab in Cape Town offered that for me – a chance for an encounter with Otherness through a different culture and continent, and a refreshed sense of presence that allowed me to take it all in. A quote from Desmond Tutu (2005) captures the essence of my experience, with the term “Ubuntu”:

Ubuntu is the essence of being human. It speaks of the fact that my humanity is caught up and is inextricably bound up in yours. I am human because I belong. It speaks about wholeness, it speaks about compassion. A person with Ubuntu is welcoming, hospitable, warm and generous, willing to share. Such people are open and available to others, willing to be vulnerable, affirming of others, do not feel threatened that others are able and good, for they have a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that they belong in a greater whole (p. 25-26.)

Practices, spaces, and places that enable the experience of Inspiring Space help us access our authentic selves, giving way to creative emergence and our next best selves and co-creations. I am grateful for opportunities to encounter Otherness in its many forms, and for the aliveness and enhanced transformative learning that holistic experiences engender.


Denzin, N. K., & Lincoln, Y. S. (Eds.). (2003). The landscape of qualitative research: Theories and issues. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Heron, J., & Reason, P. (1997). A participatory inquiry paradigm. Qualitative Inquiry, 3(3), 274-294.

Palmer, P. (2004). A hidden wholeness: the journey toward an undivided life. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Scharmer, C. O. (2009). Theory U: Leading from the future as it emerges. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler.

Tutu, D. (2005). God Has a Dream: A Vision of Hope for Our Time. USA: Doubleday.

About the Author

Allison Stern is a coach and facilitator living in The Hague, Netherlands.  As a doctoral student at Saybrook University, she is researching the role of place and space in facilitating individual and collective transformative experiences.

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