06/29 – The Desire for Mutual Recognition: Social Movements and the Dissolution of the False Self

Barbara Nussbaum

Barbara Nussbaum

Barbara Nussbaum

This book has already been singled out by its academic publisher, Routledge, nominating it for the best nonfiction book in 2018. But for me the compelling reason for a broader audience to read it, is the artful way it embodies its own timely message for humanity. Peter Gabel makes a compelling case for movements which catalyse whole system transformation and uses various lenses through which we humans perceive, think, feel and learn to claim our own agency in this change, individually and collectively. At once poetic and rigorous, this book engages the mind, heart and soul to liberate and re-create the experience of wholeness – an integrated and fully present authentic self. This is at the heart of his framework. The medium in this case, Gabel’s artful language, is the message, to borrow from Marshal McLuhan[1]. Perhaps because I too use an art form to coax out self-awareness and whole-hearted engagement in teams, Peter’s mastery of these effects impressed me. In my case, the art form that helps teams access latent dimensions of purpose, creativity and authentic connection is music. This book brilliantly applies his art form, language and vision to the context of the bigger game: the transformation of entire societies.

When I first came across Peter Gabel’s chapter Imagine Law, 20 years ago, his writing melted my heart. Marian Williamson had invited visionary thinkers to re-imagine what America could become, sector by sector for her book Imagine: What America Could Be in the 21st Century (2000)[2]. Gabel was the person she chose to re-imagine law, as a humanising and transformative force in society.  That chapter affirmed my personal vision of who we could become as a caring, loving humanity. The Desire for Mutual Recognition gives us a restorative vision to reclaim wholeness of who we could become.

Gabel’s lenses are at times movingly transcendent and other times fully grounded in a rich transdisciplinary narrative: drawing from psychology, social psychology, sociology, philosophy, politics, spirituality, law and musicology. His writing moves from the one who diagnoses our individual and shared pathologies, to the visionary seer who offers systemic remedies. One of Ken Wilber’s great contributions was in discerning the analytical distinctions between the subjective individual interior, the collective interior (relationships) and the individual exterior (behaviour) and objective collective exterior (systems)[3]. While Gabel does not position himself as an integral thinker, he has a knack for taking the reader with him through his understanding of the individual interior and individual exterior and throughout the book he makes explicit the conscious and unconscious fears and potentialities that lie in the collective interior and exterior. For example, at the personal level, he offers insights into the nuanced conflicted inner dialogue within each human being and then envisages how each of us could become more real. He articulates the need for safe social spaces for small groups in neighbourhood communities or in labour unions and then on a larger canvas, paints a picture of how the desire for mutual recognition could be one of the golden sparks igniting social movements and changing the entire system. That is, if only we were open to yearning for, acknowledging and expressing our desire for mutual recognition. Gabel, like McIntosh, underscores the idea that regarding the evolution of culture and consciousness, whether in organisations or societies, we are talking about development that is for the most part invisible. Outward manifestations of consciousness can be visible in behaviour or artefacts or buildings, but what integral philosophy helps us see is that “a big part of that which is actually evolving is internal[4].”

Gabel’s book may well offer a new impulse and evolutionary direction in integral approaches, even though his own philosophy is not explicitly stated as integral. This book is written from his unique being, where passion meets vision and well-argued reason. Gabel articulates the possibility that if we liberated ourselves from a false, separated self, we could “become connected in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied together in a simple garment of destiny[5]” whose ground is love itself.

Gabel’s genius lies in his capacity to take readers into the possibility of realising the need for connectedness at all levels: intrapersonal, interpersonal, family, organisational and societal. His ability to take willing readers into this intimate engagement is the very aspect of his work that is so compelling. He illuminates the consequences of individual alienation writ large – and describes the impact of that alienation in the collective. He is acutely aware of the psychological, social and political factors which shape our pathologies.

This book invites the reader to examine the false self and to heal the fears lurking in the dark and frozen places within each of our hearts- where we are afraid of expressing the vulnerability or fear of rejection that expressing the real self may evoke. At the same time, his political activism invites readers to stretch their vision to the wider society and own the distortions which may keep hearts numb to the enormity of the political, social and environmental challenges that face our cities, our countries and our world in the 21st Century.

Gabel’s “healing balm” the capacity to be authentically present to the other – is not an entirely unique suggestion, as similar concepts are slowly moving closer to the mainstream.  Other visionaries write about it, each naming a different part of a similar evolutionary impulse  – Otto Scharmer[6], Chris Laszlo[7],to name a few; and luminaries such as Daniel Siegel[8] in the mindfulness movement,  Rinaldo  Brutoco[9] and Elsie Maio[10] in conscious business, Lynne McTaggart[11], a scientist, and Thomas Huebl, Terry Patten and Craig Hamilton who are all contemporary spiritual teachers.

For Gabel, the capacity for authentic mutual recognition is something available to each of us in every encounter – whether we are experiencing the micro moments of day to day interactions or noticing our responses to historic events in society, whether it is the long lasting impact of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King on the civil rights movement; or what Gabel regards as the shorter term impact of Obama’s election in evoking the future communal  possibility on the collective “we”. Whether one is responding to others in the bank, supermarket or classroom or watching a television news feed about the latest tsunami, or shooting, or political disaster, we have the choice to offer heartfelt engagement with the issues that pass through our individual radar screens. Or to contract into a diminished engagement or numb dis-engagement.

Looking through my own biased lenses, Gabel’s writing captures the power and beauty of Ubuntu,[12] a Nguni term in South Africa which calls for communally expressed humanity. This is African humanism at its best. Ubuntu calls for taking the time and giving attention and acknowledging that each person is human. In Zulu – the greeting Sawubona, literally means, I see you. For Orland Bishop[13], Sawubona means “we see you.” “Seeing is a dialogue, it establishes each person as a witness able to affirm and empower every other person to investigate our mutual potential”[14].  For Bishop, we awake to the possibility of building relationships to reinforce each person’s value in life. “How can I be in order for you to be free? Freedom must be a mutual gift from one to the other- a freedom to be present with[15].”

Gabel gifts us with a variety of lenses: each refracting light to inspire us to see beyond the contractions of our humanity; beyond those small dark places hiding within each of us, individually and collectively. And despite his sober naming of our dysfunctionalities, he remains an optimistic visionary, reminding us of what an engaged connected society could look and feel like. At the same time, he is not afraid to call out with profound analytical clarity how we defend against the possibility of true mutuality writ large.

Taking his reader on a journey of hope and despair he always returns to a vision of hope A visionary thought leader, Gabel also manages to creatively bring his readers back to earth – illustrating his points poetically with characters we know from the movies, moments in history, watershed legal cases we recognise and lyrics to songs. He also offers sobering facts about environmental change. His own academic training, sporting a double doctorate in law and psychology, builds a powerful kaleidoscope, that unfolds his intellectual rigour with his passion for change. He highlights real examples of where the values of our society really lie – whether he is citing a legal case as a collective marker of a shift in our own moral stance, or quoting John Lennon’s song, Imagine.

He consistently gives the reader entry points to connect to his arguments so that his very clear vison of an illuminated world of authentic connections, or a world stuck in a chronic fear of the other constrains our evolution as a species. Here is example of how Gabel illustrates the evolutionary emergence of mutual recognition. In describing the emergence of the women’s movement, he names what he calls “the epistemological breakthrough” that finally took place.

I am quoting Gabel here at length for a taste of the power of his insights. He describes the plight of women, naming the idea that

for centuries men controlled the airwaves in a way that denied the truth of women’s experience of the men themselves.……The actual experience of women as social beings excluded from and demeaned by this format was that males were merely engaged in an authoritative performance but they could not become conscious of the validity of that experience, of the truth of their implicit knowledge, until the women’s movement itself allowed women to “arise” into mutual recognition and through that new ground of being confirm in one another, the insight that they had necessarily held in silence, up to that time. Men who dominated public space were pontificating, bossy, hyper-rationalistic, and violent, inhabiting false selves puffed up to protect their own vulnerability……. to humiliation that would result from being seen…… Only the upward force of the women’s movement itself as an upsurge of collective social being could elevate women’s awareness to allow them to emerge from their own false selves as passive complements of the male authoritarian false self… and to make their previously repressed understanding known. It is the truth of emergent moral knowledge of this kind that the supports the truth of Martin Luther King Jr’s claim, that “the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice. The truth eventually and through the multiple twists and turns of denial, co-optation and every other effort of the false-self system to suppress that truth, sets us free.”[16]

True to the spirit of the title, Gabel invites us, if we choose, to bring to light the spiritual nature of “both the prior suffocation of women and the empowered liberation of women from that milieu of forced passivity, deference to bossiness”. Both patterns are deeply embedded in the behaviour of women and men. He relies on his own experience of social movements to grasp the social-spiritual historical emergence of the women’s movement as a “transcendent manifestation becoming conscious of itself.” In doing so, he reaches out to readers to claim their own spiritual being and presence.

What I value deeply about Peter Gabel’s work is that he offers his words and his wisdom, as a great act of love. We can choose the profound awareness he offers and experience the liberation we might feel in reclaiming our authentic selves. His writing, as I see it, is a living, loving act of mutual recognition. His book offers us individually, a cosmic hug, accompanied by the mind of a giant and the eyes of a giant. Professor Cornell West of Harvard University[17]refers to Gabel as one of the grand prophetic voices in our day”.

My biggest fear is that the liberation he offers may be understood by too few and too late. He asks his readers to discover an “interhuman” truth, that involves a conscious choice to acknowledge vulnerability and feel the “desire for mutual recognition”. What gives me hope is that Gabel’s voice, joins other voices emerging from complementary fields; neuroscience; the mindfulness movement; the integral movement and field of organisational development mentioned earlier.

An increasing number of theorists highlight the possibility that, despite the very sobering and dark forces in our world, there is hope. New knowledge and movements are arising which speak to the necessity of building a flourishing world strengthened by communally expressed humanity. What was missing for me in Gabel’s book, is any mention of the Conscious Business Movement, which has been organising to mitigate the effects of the traditional business mindset.  The Conscious Business Declaration mirrors, much of Gabel’s vision “we are One with humanity, and all of life. Business and all institutions of the human community are integral parts of a single reality – interrelated, interconnected and interdependent.”[18]

My lens on this is: it is not only conscious business which, in my view, has an important role in evolving humanity. Finding Us in Music is also an example of a flourishing practice which amplifies the lived experience of our interconnectedness. That aside, Gabel’s book in my view is an essential read for a broader audience. In conclusion, I close with the words of Roger McGuinn, of the Byrd’s, in the song 5D quoted by Gabel: “and I opened my heart to the whole universe. And I found it was loving.”[19]


[1] Marshall McLuhan: The Medium is the Message (1967, Bantam Books)

[2] Williamson, M; (2000, Rodale Books)

[3] Wilber, K. (2000). A brief theory of everything. Boston, MA: Shambala Press.

[4] McIntosh, S. (2007) Integral Consciousness and the future of evolution: How the integral worldview is transforming politics, culture and spirituality. St Paul, MN: Paragon House.

[5] Martin Luther King

[6] Scharmer, O: Theory U, refers to presencing and co-presencing

[7] László, C: Flourishing Enterprise (2016) speaks about the need for lifegiving flourishing social processes

[8] Siegel, D describes the shift from me to MWe

[9] Rinaldo Brutoco is the founder of the World Business Academy and a champion of the conscious business movement

[10]  Maio, E; speaks about the shift towards “system identity”

[11] McTaggart, L: The Bond (2012) describes the psychobiology of the bonds between human beings and offers a blueprint for living a more connected life, based on the findings of the new science.

[12]  Nussbaum, B. (2003a). African culture and Ubuntu: Reflections of a South African in America. World Business Academy: Perspectives, 17(1), 1-12. doi: 10.1162/152417303322004175

[13] Orland Bishop is the founder and Director of Shade Tree Multicultural Foundation in Los Angeles, where he has pioneered approaches to urban truces and mentoring at-risk youth that combine new ideas with traditional ways of knowledge.

[14]  This link is the source of Orland Bishop’s words

[15]  This link is the source of Orland Bishop’s words

[16] Gabel, P: (2018) p164 and 165

[17]  Cornell West is a Professor of Public Philosophy at Harvard

[18] See

[19]  Gabel, P (2018) p203

About the Author

Barbara Nussbaum is a Penguin author, currently based in South Africa. She is a trailblazer
and visionary having pioneered Finding Us in Music ™, a methodology which is a practical
application of the embodiment of the lived experience of mutual recognition in groups.
Barbara has been identified as one of the top 50 cutting edge thinkers in the world in the field of personal and organisational transformation. Her most recent work is a chapter in Handbook on Personal and Organizational Transformation (Springer 2018) Editor: Neal J

Finding US in Music™ A Method for Deeper Group Engagement That Integrates MUSIC with Ubuntu, Contemplation and Reflection.;

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