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Hrund Gunnsteinsdóttir:

Hrund is a creative innovator, cultural entrepreneur, filmmaker and dreamer. She believes fostering creative mindsets, original thought and diversity is the key to unlocking the infinite possibilities of human beings in today’s world. Author and co-director of the documentary INNSÆI – The Sea Within, Hrund is a passionate advocate for intuition and creativity in a world of distraction and stress. She shares how she reacquainted herself with her own innsæi, insight into the pioneering interdisciplinary program she set up in the wake of the financial collapse in her native Iceland, and inspiration from ancient Polynesian navigators.

Made by Jo Barratt and Gemma Mortensen, with Iris Andrews, Lily Piachaud and Hadeel Elshak.

Music by Kai Engel under a CC BY-NC 4.0 licence


InnSæi is an Icelandic word for intuition. The way that I define it is made up of the words that it is composed of, and it’s kind of like a sculpture around, something that exists in life and that’s why we create words, you know, it’s meaning is kind of threefold. It means the sea within, and it implies this ocean or sea within us which is constantly moving. It’s very dynamic. It’s a world of symbols and imagination and vision and it’s in constant flow. So if we put it into boxes or silos, it ceases to flow and we hinder it, hinder its movement.

And then innsæi, means to see within. And that is about knowing yourself. So it’s like, you know, yourself, your inner landscape which changes over time.And even from day to day, it helps you enhance self knowledge,but when you do that as well, you also are more able to put yourself into other people’s shoes and understand and see other people.

And then thirdly, it means to see from the inside out. I like to think about the world, like an ocean also outside us because the world is changing really fast. It’s really turbulent. There is so much uncertainty and complexity. And so if you imagine you’re out on the ocean, rule number one is to keep your head up otherwise you drown and then it’s about carving your own way or navigating your own way. And you can, you know, life leads to all different directions and it’s the whole, the whole world of innsæi is about you accompanying yourself through life. So you carve your own way. You know what your compass is because you know yourself and you’re connected within and you accompany yourself through life. And this enables you to navigate the way that is right for you at each and every moment in life.

When I just kind of walked into this world of innsæi myself, um, and got reacquainted with it. It really transformed me because I, at a certain time in my life, I needed to do that in order to be, to heal myself. Something changed inside me. And I sometimes think about it in a way that I shifted my centre of gravity. Uh, to a much more balanced place. I was, uh, in my dream job at the UN and I realised that working there really stifled me and I felt like I was being put into a freezer. And, and I realised that, uh, I felt that we were serving a system, a very bureaucratic hierarchical system instead of the system, serving people and the planet. And the reason why I saw that was because something had transformed inside me. So I decided to resign from that permanent position, and it has, you know, shaped everything I’ve done since. And I remember sitting in the Palais De Nations in Geneva, uh, saying goodbye to my career at the UN, which was very, very hard.

And nobody said good for you, Hrund. That’s the right way to go. Like totally nobody. So I was just totally going into the void. And I remember having this imagined conversation with Kofi Annan, who I totally adored and saying like, I’m going to stay true to the ideals of the UN as they want to make the world a better place. But from now on, I’m going to honour the ideas that come to me that I think are important to, to turn into reality and I will have the courage to follow whatever form they want to take.

The ancient Polynesian navigators, they travelled on the largest ocean on planet earth, the Pacific ocean on canoes and they had no modern technology like we have today. And yet they were able to map almost the entire Pacific ocean by immersing themselves in the natural world. So they read into the currents, the ocean, the waves, the behaviour of birds, uh, shadows that appeared on clouds, the ancient Polynesian navigators knew the names of, I think at least 300 stars in the skies. They relied on their stars in the skies to know their way, which I think is absolutely beautiful. And this is compared to what might be like today, we know about 5-20% of the world’s oceans with all the modern technology and what would we do without the GPS and their navigation systems that we have today and it’s, that’s a different way of being in the world. And then another thing that I really loved about the learning about the ancient Polynesian navigators was that they used stick charts. Which look totally different from the navigation maps that our ships use today, and when they came into close contact with Western captains, the Western captains captains just thought it was like a childish tool like a tool that they had created the stick charts. They could make sense out of it because they were so ethnocentric, you know, they were looking at this stick charts with the glasses of their own culture and background and education, instead of putting themselves into the shoes of the ancient Polynesian navigators and understanding where they were coming from. And to me, that is such a beautiful lesson in life, you know, just to, to, uh, not always regard people and knowledge and methods with the glasses or the lenses of our own upbringing or education, but rather, really try to understand where they’re coming from.

Some of the things that I’ve done since then is design and direct a university diploma program called Prisma, which means prism and a way to describe that as it was, uh, an interdisciplinary academic program, which lasted for two months, it was based on a methodology that enhances creative and critical thinking.

Another way to describe it is you, you get injections from amazing thinkers and experts in different disciplines. And fields in society and you take in that information and also from reading and you refract it through your innsæi, and then you, you train it to think from the inside out all the time. So what is your inner compass? And what does your voice sound like in the world that you live? How do you show up in the world?

It was a beautiful program and we had students from the ages of 19 to, I think 67. We started this program after the financial recession in 2008. Which we often call the bank collapse in Iceland. Uh, and most of the students that came into our, that enrolled in Prisma were unemployed and some of them had lost their homes and they were, some of them had really dark clouds over their heads.

But to be honest and this is something I would never write than a report about the success of that project. But to be honest, we could see on week two or three, that the colour of their skin just changed. They just lit up somehow. And it was a beautiful experience because we managed, the team that, you know, created and facilitated this program we managed to create something that was very educative, but also very healing, which I would say I’m, I love to think back on that.

A, way to explain that this, to say that, you know, when you go through academic studies, you’re trained to think critically, which is awesome. You read texts by authors and researchers and theorists and you learn them well enough in order to be able to write an analytical essay on it, or to summarise the content and then you take an exam and you are graded by how deeply you’re able to delve into that text, that thinking, perhaps connected to other authors and theories, weigh up against each other, you know, with critical thinking what makes sense for this and that context. And that’s all perfectly valuable and good stuff.

Uh, Prisma, eh, was kind of like multi-layered. So you would, uh, go through two weeks at a time, like every two weeks was a module in itself and you would, uh, in the beginning of the module you would, um, be assigned a group. So there’s four or five, of you in a group, your group, uh, selects, five themes from a hat, very like a child, child’s game, five notes that you pick from a hat, all in different colours. One note, uh, has a name of something that has been designed. It could be an architecture, any kind of infrastructure or piece of, piece of art. Uh, another note would be a famous person in history. It could be the Descartes, Napoleon or Jane Fonda, really doesn’t matter who. Another note would be a feeling like, um, passion, jealousy, fear, and yet another note would be a theory, could be communism, could be, um, tears of embodiment or whatever. At first sight, these four or five different concepts, they have nothing in common. They’re totally unconnected and you have no idea what you’re going to do with it, but that becomes the lens through which this group, uh, explores all the different lectures and disciplines that they are being taught throughout the two weeks.

The difference between something that is complicated and something that is complex is like a Ferrari car and the rainforest. So a car is something that you can decompose. You can take it apart. And you can line up all the different parts that make up the car, and then you can put it back together again in the form that it was previously.Something that’s complex is you can’t do that. The rainforest has its own logic. And if you take a part out of the rainforest, it will have a butterfly effect on the, on the rest of the, the ways in which the rain forest functions and thrives. You use different navigation tools for these two things. And I think that, um, you know, there’s, uh, there’s this guy called Gerd Gigerenzer and he used to be the Director of the Max Planck Institute. He’s a psychologist and he’s written a lot about intuition and heuristics. And I guess one way to explain it is that in the world of complexity, we’re talking about ecosystems and we have this complexity bias It’s like, it’s so complex you can’t explain it in a few words and hence it doesn’t exist, but that’s not really reality because arguably most of our life is very complex and we can’t explain all of it. So Gerd Gigerenzer has a way to explain this, he says for a world that is complicated and can’t be analysed and measured and is, and has certainty, we know how things will unfold when you take the car apart and we know how to put it back together. Tools like statistics, and analysis work perfectly for a shirt for certainty in any situation, society or whatever. But for a world that is more complex, intuition works best. So it’s like a rule of thumb, intuition. But intuition, it’s important to also note that, uh, intuition, which is based on knowledge, practice and maturity is, is like Gerd Gigerenzer has said most likely what makes us come closest to taking wise decisions in a very short time.

The two fundamental disciplines that we taught were philosophy and the arts, and then the education was injected, with lots of other disciplines in ways to regard and see the world people came to give their gold. So it’s, it’s from Icelandic. So it’s like we had a composer who was the director of the academy of the arts. And he’d talk about his greatest passion outside of work and that was constellation of stars and harmonia mundi so as a student, you listen to, you get to know what harmonia mundi is, and you realise that in 1543, when we realised that it was actually the sun that was at the centre of the earth. He taught us, uh, through Coplin and others that this had been known, uh, 300 and something before the birth of Christ, but it was just lying around for a few centuries in a shelf somewhere. So what is it today that’s just laying around and we don’t notice it because we’re so used to it, or we are not looking carefully enough. We’re not mindful enough that could really shift the centre of gravity and how we understand the world we live in.

All the students were trained in journaling. And so journaling was about paying attention to what you pay attention to, not just paying attention, irresponsibly. By journaling you, you just write down literally what it is you pay attention to. And these may be things that you, you can even be embarrassed about. You know, you notice somebody’s behind or you feel attracted to somebody and you’re already with someone else or whatever it is, or you think horrible, nasty thoughts, you have that bitch in you, which you really don’t want to recognize or whatever it is. And then you see beautiful things, depends on the mood actually as well. And you begin to understand that after a few days, when you in a certain way, look over your journal, you, there are certain things that expressive voice that may not be yours, it could be an old teacher, who’s always finding fault in you, or whatever. It could also be, uh, your self doubt, which you may want to just invite to leave your life, forever. It could also be recurring thoughts and ideas that you weren’t totally aware that they really took up so much time or space in your thinking and maybe you should take time to think about them, get acquainted with them and see if you want to do something about it. Or if you want to say goodbye to those ideas and give them up for somebody else to follow through with them. And then this is also, uh, in an art more, more in a kind of like an artistic way you can look at your journal and think, uh, look for themes, the themes, speak to you and give you a context for uh, it could be a short story, could be a solution that you want to bring into your community or the world. So, so when people used all these three layers of information and worked with them in a group consistently throughout the time, having conversations about it and being trained to create that cosmos out of chaos, the underlying approach was also because I said in the beginning, we are trained to summarise and analyse and repeat what others have done.

So this academic program was about knowing well enough, what, what our greatest thinkers and theorists have put forth into our thinking in the world, knowing it well enough that you can just put it aside and, but use it as a tool on the cosmos that, that both your innsæi, intuition through the journalling and the four or five concepts that you do from the hat in the beginning, you can use it as a tool to, to shape it into form. And the form did not matter to, to the, to Prisma, the small school. You could do whatever form you want it to shape out of that chaos. And some people did, they did samples of products or, or a film, an idea for a film, I mean, they didn’t create a film. They wrote an essay or they did whatever they wanted, like performance or like lots of amazing creative things. But behind that act, they would always submit in order to be coherent with academic requirements, they would always submit an analytical paper showing how they went through the work process, how they built on theories and concepts that already have been researched thoroughly throughout the centuries or decades or years or whatever to honour that and to show how they use it as a tool to shape something into form.

It’s important to feel aligned and it’s important to be, to feel that balance and the way that I’m describing it now each every person needs to find the right words and the right feeling for themselves with my sense of alignment is, I can feel it in the middle of my body. There’s this kind of feeling that I understand that I’m centred now and when I regularly experience for example, a sense of awe. Like I, I just find life so incredibly beautiful and it can be really small things or it can be big things. I feel very grateful. I, my heart is open instead of closed, so I can, I can, my heart can be closed. I can, I can go through life like a zombie

We can all go through life like a zombie it’s totally possible. But when you look in the mirror and you actually see a sparkle in your eye, you know that you are lit up. It’s like, you’re this energy, that beams light.. And when you beam light, it is coming from within you. It doesn’t come from anywhere else.

And then you’re able to share that with other people. And, you know, we have this mirror neurons mirror, mirror cells that they’re very contagious. So the light that you beam, um, affects other people. And in return when you look into the mirror and there is no sparkle, you may have a, you may be really tired. You may be, you may have the flu, it’s totally normal thing. You know, it’s, there’s nothing wrong with that, but, but you’re sensing that the moments where you have that sparkle in your eye, it’s, I think it’s the most beautiful sign of how much alive you are. And that has a ripple effect on everything that you do, it has ripple effect on your presence. It helps other people light up, I think.

And I, so I think that’s part of the, just like the flowers photosynthesize when they, when they turn towards the sun and create oxygen for us. I think we can do that to other people as well. And the more that we are connected to the sea within to innsæi, our souls. The more we have all the colours in the world to give to ourselves and others and, you know, I was 28 when I decided that my goal in life was to have a sparkle in my eye and on the days and weeks when I’m able to, I, I feel at my best and life is never perfect. And it has challenges and hard times and disappointments and everything, but it just enables me to go through those moments and hours and days in a totally different way from when I am not lit up inside.

We have this amazing power to, to light up, but we also have the power to dim the light. This can be a disputed thing to say, but I think at least to an extent, we have a choice to be lit up and hopefully help other people to lit up or to dim the light that is really within us. And, you know, which do we prefer to follow as we go through life.