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All behaviour is a form of communication

All behaviours are interrelated.

All behaviours point out to specific needs.

And underneath all behaviors are our essence, our life force.

I have been contemplating about these statements for some time now. In light of the raging violence, corruption, injustices, and ongoing divide happening all over the world, I cannot help but go back to these sentences to guide me.

What we see, hear, and feel are forms of expression.

What we see, hear, and feel are connected to the past, the present, and the future.

What we see, hear, and feel are needs seeking validation, witnessing, acknowledgment, and fulfillment.

What we see, hear, and feel are our life forces needing deeper reconnection, understanding, and expression.

Yet it can be challenging to peel through the layers that go below the waterline. It can be triggering, polarizing, confusing, and at times infuriating to even go the path of understanding what is not being said, or to make sense of what is acted on. This can even be more confronting when it’s related to behaviors that we deem as wrong or actions that we ourselves will not choose to be involved in.

When involved in such behaviors, there is a tendency for us to take stances on what is considered “right or wrong”. It is also the field where we draw lines on what we allow and what we can take in specially from people that we have intimate connections with.

It can also be confronting when people around us seem to react differently. When we experience pain and our suffering is not held or mirrored for us within our intimate relationships, or within our communities, there is a deep sense of grief, sadness, and frustration around unmet expectations. These expectations can stem from wanting to be cared for in specific ways. Ways that we probably would be doing for others and somewhat expecting to receive as well.

In can also be painful to have suffering be met with silence. When there is a perceived indifference to what one is going on, it creates a wall of judgments. “Why is the person not reaching out?” “Why am I not responded to?”, “Where is my support?”, “What happened to “being in community”?”

These are some of the questions that can linger when silence is filling up the air. Long after communication is re-established, these thoughts linger as resentments. They are stored in our bodies as “unsafe cues” for us to remember. These are incidents that stay in the recesses of our minds as “that one time, I needed the person and the person was not there” moments that form our judgments of whether that person is dependable or not.


When we are met with behaviors that seem challenging for us to understand, we fall prey to our patterns. Patterns that have kept us functioning. Patterns that have kept our ancestors surviving. We carry intergenerational patterns that help us in making sense of the world around us. These patterns might seem illogical, and fall from disconnecting, avoiding, confrontational, people-pleasing.

They may make us freeze and dissociate in ways that we feel stuck, or unmoving. Immobile, we space out, collapse, or numb ourselves.

These patterns may be patterns of flight where we are fidgety and restless. We feel the urge to remove ourselves from the source of pain and suffering. It keeps us “overly thinking”, “overly working”, “chronic worrying”, getting into obsessive patterns, and perfectionism.

We also tend to fawn, to people-please in ways where we overextend ourselves. We forget to hold our boundaries, and rely on codependency to get us through the rough times. This is also where our sense of self and our identity starts to erode. Where we see ourselves easily controlled, prioritizing others’ needs over our own.

There is also the fight response where we give in to anger, be hypercritical, use blame and deflection, be nonconformist and oppositional. In this state, we repte patterns of aggression, and rather than move away from what is threatening us, we dive straight into it with force and defiance.

But what if we can notice our patterns and understand them more?

What if we look at them with curiosity and peel through the layers of perceptions, expectations, and yearnings so we can really reconnect to the essence of who we are?

I know I I fall prey to my own expectations.

Expectations that I placed upon myself and these can come in the form of judgments like:

  • "I should be in this level by now..."

  • "I should be able to figure this out by now..."

  • "Why am I not able to do this or make this happen?"

When I sink into expectations that I have for myself, I try to tune in and listen, Where are these coming from?

And then I realise how much it is pointing me to my yearnings- my deepest needs like competence, growth, purpose, and surprisingly, consistency. When I get into these deeper level of yearnings, I learn to relax my nervous system and give myself space for exploration.

  • How can I give myself space?

  • What is more important and urgent to attend to now?

  • What is the one thing I can shift now?

  • What is most alive that needs caring?

And this is where flow begins to find its way back to me. This is also how I navigate expectations I have from others. I use these patterns to help navigate what is below the surface and to really explore the depths of where my expectations are coming from.


How might we re-pattern ourselves?

What if rather than freeze, fawn, fight, or flight we choose to FLOCK?

I am just beginning to read the work of Liesel Ebersöhn on “Building Generative Theory: The Relationship Resource Resilience Model” and so far from what I read, I am instantly fascinated and grateful.

“ I propose that when individuals use relationships as a way to access and mobilise resources, an enabling ecology is configured to foster positive adjustment. Applying a collectivist, transactional-ecological view of resilience I propose Relationship-Resourced Resilience (RRR) as a generative theory to explain how resilience occurs as collective, rather than individual and subjective processes.” - Liesel Ebersöhn

When I read this, I immediately think of flock responses as the use of solidarity, allyship, connection, and community to resource ourselves and to create positive experiences. It is through kinship and collectivism where we are able to find support, share resources, generate thrivability.

This is also where I feel passionate about feeling “resourced” amidst challenges and how post traumatic growth is possible. The prevalence of trauma in our society is so high (Did you know that 3/4 of adults over age 65 have been exposed to at least one traumatic event during their lifetime, and depending on the definition of traumatic event, the figure may be even higher (Mills, 2011)?) yet amidst the prevalence of trauma, 30-70% of individuals who experience trauma also report positive change and growth.

What conditions make this possible?

Adverse Childhood Experiences, Community Experiences, Climate Experiences and Atrocious Cultural and Historical Experiences

In the field of trauma work, ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences) and the other realms like Adverse Climate Experiences, Adverse Community Experiences, and Atrocious Cultural and Historical Experiences all come into play when it comes to trauma and where care and support is obviously lacking if not absent.

Pair of Positive Childhood and Community Experiences

Yet, we also now have studies on positive childhood and community experiences, where the presence of supporting and caring adults provide the evidence for HOPE (Health Outcomes of Positive Experiences).

Positive experiences and supportive relationships provide the buffering that allows children to withstand,or recover, from adverse experiences. Nurturing care and attention in infancy profoundly influence brain development and form the foundation of human development. Four broad categories of positive childhood experiences that encourage health, functioning, and quality of life outcomes have been identified: nurturing and supportive relationships; safe, stable, protective, and equitable environments in which to develop, play, and learn; constructive social engagement and connectedness; and social and emotional competencies. When children are nurtured and free from harm, they are able to gain mastery across domains that establish the basis for future learning. - Balancing Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) With HOPE


Flocking as a response is not something new.

We see flocking within what German forester Peter Wohlleben has noted as the “woodwideweb”. It is “through the mycelium, incredibly tiny “threads” of the greater fungal organism that wrap around or bore into tree roots, that trees communicate.”

Through the mycorrhizal network, which connects individual plants together to transfer water, nitrogen, carbon and other minerals”, mother trees (hub trees with the most fungal connections) detect the health of neighboring trees and those that are ill send distress signals. The mycorrhizal network plays a distribution role to keep the mycelium-connected trees alive and healthy and the fungi’s supply of carbon consistent.

Resource sharing networks are also found in other species like ant colonies. Social insects have elaborate systems of care like communication systems for foraging. Ants have been found to share information to direct nest mates to rewarding foraging sites. What is fascinating is not only do they secrete different types of pheromones to indicate their status, but they also practice “tandem running” where a successful forager leads a “recruit”. The recruit or recruits follow the leader using trail pheromones or physical contact. Similarly, honeybees use the “waggle dance to recruit additional foragers to direct them to food”. They also have a different vibratory signal which recruits foragers but does not lead them to food.

I also loved learning about the complex movement emperor penguins do to huddle for warmth. The center of a penguin huddle, a form of social thermoregulation, can reach temperatures of up to 37° Celsius (98.6° Fahrenheit). It's so warm that the center penguins keep moving through the huddle so that they don't overheat, while penguins on the outside move inward to get warm. Huddling is particularly important, as the penguins don't eat for up to 115 days and need to conserve as much energy as possible. It might be complex (the entire pattern and movement that they make in a swarm is serious math in action!) yet, it shows how they can navigate this complexity together even if there are hundreds or even thousands of them!

As I reflect on these examples and I can imagine there will be more, flocking as a mechanism to share resources within our field of relationships is our natural state of being.

We are born collective beings.

Our brains even have “mirror neurons” that provide emotional and cognitive awareness. Mirror neurons are a type of brain cell that respond equally when we perform an action and when we witness someone else perform the same action. These help us not only imitate and understand behaviors, they are also vital in identifying intention, providing empathy, and making connections.

"It seems we're wired to see other people as similar to us, rather than different. At the root, as humans we identify the person we're facing as someone like ourselves." - neuroscientist Vittorio Gallese, MD, PhD


1. Noticing and aligning- when birds flock, each member will continually compare its own velocity with that of its immediate neighbours and make adjustments to its own velocity based on the average of all neighbours.

How is this with us humans?

How do we notice where our neighbours are and align to match or respond to their needs?

We humans have the natural ability to tune into the “sense of the group”. In Filipino psychology, we use the term pakikiramdam, as a means to deeply tune in with others. This deep interpersonal connection allows us to act in solidarity with others and see them as part of your shared humanity (pakikipagkapwa).

2. Providing safety, security, and support- Flocking is the sharing of resources to provide safety, security, and support. Zebras are great example of how they provide safety for each other. As soon as danger is detected, what zebras do is they herd together. This results in a large blob of patterns with the stripes blend and overlap making it difficult to identify a single zebra hence succeed in confusing the predators.

As humans we also flock to support one another. We saw flocking firsthand when Covid-19 erupted. Coordinated resource allocation, clear communication, strong government response systems and coordination of community engagement were factors indicated as to why covid-19 efforts in East Asian countries were seen as efficient and promoted well-being to their people at a time of a global pandemic. These sharing of resources are also noticeable within countries like South Africa, where flocking took in the form of civic-led movements.

"The challenges are chronic — they persist over time. And the challenges are cumulative — there are problems with regard to health, and education, and welfare, and economically, and with regard to natural resources. Sometimes it appears as if there is no light at the end of the tunnel. Yet, as robust as the challenges are, so forceful is the presence of flocking.

This may be because flocking has both cultural and structural roots. The cultural origins of flocking lie in the ubuntu way of life. Flocking is a behaviour manifestation of ubuntu beliefs and practices. Flocking shows the very best of a ubuntu-kinship: the communality of being in need and providing help as a given in life.

Southern African people who use flocking as a default way to counter ongoing and severe problems buy into ubuntu principles such as communality, collaboration, collective need and gain, reciprocity, spiritual connectedness to a world of people, nature, and reverence for elders and spiritual dimensions signifying religion and ancestors.

Ubuntu and flocking, as a resilience-enabling collective response, hold interdependence and associated agency in the highest regard — rather than chronic dependence and passivity. The reciprocity of being connected to a collective is a core prerequisite of flocking. In the same way, ubuntu mechanisms of consultation, consensus and accountability are essential in management processes that have to sustain over time." - Liesel Ebersöhn from Flocking Together: An Indigenous Psychology Theory of Resilience in Southern Africa

3. Lastly, we flock so we can promote cohesion.

Empirical data from multiple starling flocks show that the flock interaction networks with six or seven neighbours that optimise the trade-off between group cohesion and individual effort.

starlings in murmuration

Photo by Sean Foster on Unsplash

“Starlings’ murmuration consists of a flock moving in sync with one another, engaging in clear, consistent communication and exhibiting collective leadership and deep, deep trust. Every individual bird focuses attention on their seven closest neighbors and thus manage a larger flock cohesiveness and synchronicity (and times upwards of over a million birds).” – Sierra Pickett

When I think of the cohesion displayed in such a synchronous act, I immediately think of:

  • moving with flow

  • self-fullness (moving away from selfishness and selflessness, rather giving and receiving from a place of fullness)

  • deep attunement with each other

  • honouring of the behaviors and how interrelated they are

  • self-organisation and self-leadership - how we can step up to create the movement necessary for the flock to move

  • being in right relationships with each other

  • reciprocity

  • collective care

  • equitability

  • embracing emergence

  • thrivability

I am so curious to know your thoughts on this piece…It grew from a simple act of noticing behaviors and patterns to this (which I am both happy about and curious as well on where it can lead to!)

My mind (now it’s 3am at the time of writing this!) is swirling with thoughts around flocking! I am hopeful, resilient, and passionate about bringing in more understanding and awareness around how we can re-pattern our behaviors towards more flocking responses.

For now I leave you with the words of one of my favourite authors and thought leaders:

“My dream is a movement with such deep trust that we move as a murmuration, the way groups of starlings billow, dive, spin, dance collectively through the air — to avoid predators, and, it also seems, to pass time in the most beautiful way possible. When fish move in this way, they are shoaling. When bees and other insects move in this way, they are swarming. I love all the words for this activity. “Here’s how it works in a murmuration/shoal/swarm: each creature is tuned in to its neighbors, the creatures right around it in the formation. This might be the birds on either side, or the six fish in each direction. There is a right relationship, a right distance between them — too close and they crash, too far away and they can’t feel the micro-adaptations of the other bodies. Each creature is shifting direction, speed, and proximity based on the information of other creatures’ bodies. There is a deep trust in this: to lift because the birds around you are lifting, to live based on your collective real-time adaptations. In this way thousands of birds or fish or bees can move together, each empowered with the basic rules and a vision to live. Imagine our movements cultivating this type of trust and depth with each other, having strategic flocking in our playbooks.” -adrienne maree brown, Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds


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