To be traversed feet bare,
Arms raised in joyous dance
So that it is crossed.
And the tracks of our pilgrimage shine in the
To light our coming together
In a bright and steady light.
~Raphael Jesus Gonzales~
When we think of preparing our minds, bodies, hearts, and living situations for collapse, the focus is often on our individual or household living situations. Equally important is our need to develop a circle of trusting, mutually interdependent relationships. The culture we live in is based on hierarchies of control and influence. Work relationships, kept in place largely by paychecks and ordered by project managers and bosses, are the most common experience most of us have of being part of an organized group. We have little experience outside of those hierarchies. Even more rare in our hyper-independent culture is to depend on others for mutual aid, support and comfort. So, for most people, it likely feels overwhelming to consider how to build a wider circle of people based on mutuality, as part of preparation for the ongoing collapse of basic life support systems.
As daunting as that challenge may seem, consider that individuals in isolation will have a hard, lonely, and extreme challenge if they try to survive the world that will remain when systems collapse with ever-increasing rapidity and intensity. Humans are hard-wired as social beings. Absent the distractions of media and entertainment we will find that we need each other. At the same time, we will discover how emotionally and spiritually wounded we've become as members of the largely bankrupt, and often abusive, culture that empire has created.
Sadly, peoples' experiences of community end all too often in pain and disappointment. Such experiences range from attempts to live in intentional communities to the struggles of serving on church committees or being part of activist organizations. As a whole we are ill-equipped to create cohesive and cooperative groups and then to resolve ongoing issues and conflicts that naturally arise. People often express cynicism, despair and helplessness around the possibility of successfully creating and maintaining a sense of working community within a culture of empire. Clearly, it is critical to acknowledge the need for a sense of real connection, for the ability to work through conflict, and to cooperate in effective and joyful ways with others. Once we have come to terms with the need to do so we can begin to find others who have identified the same need and are ready for the task.
Let's first identify what we are talking about when we talk about community. In this context community does not refer only to individuals or families who own land together or who happen to live in proximity to one another, although proximity will more and more be the rule as fuel becomes scarce and travel is limited. We define community, in this context, to be a congregation of people who have, by the commitment and skills they possess, learned to establish relationships characterized by trust, understanding, mutual respect, and bonding that transcends personality and allows and even embraces differences of background or ideology. Such a group is able to think together effectively and to tap into deep wisdom about challenging issues. They can do this because they trust each other enough to question and suspend the assumptions and core beliefs that limit their insights as individuals. Such a group does not come together, as a therapy group does, for the purpose of healing per se, although insight and healing of isolation, unresolved past conflict, fears, and insecurities often occurs. The purpose of the kind of community we are speaking of is to come together to glean wisdom from listening and speaking with one another and to offer connection, support, comfort, and mutual respect. Such a group of people learns together to find better solutions, wiser actions and more joy together than is possible for them to do as isolated individuals, couples or families.
When defined in this way, the idea of community appeals to most people, even when they doubt their ability to find or create such an experience. But the times demand that we do what we've not believed we are equipped to do. It helps to remember that humans are indeed "hard-wired" for this. Indigenous peoples overall have felt the benefits of inclusion in close-knit social units. It is the wounding of the current culture that has disrupted that hard-wiring, often for many generations, and certainly most seriously in current times. But deep trust and connection is something we need in order to feel fulfilled and secure. Once accepted, the need to build community is simply another task to attend to as the current system unravels.
As tempting as it is to focus only on the logistics of living arrangements, how resources and tasks can be shared, preparation for crisis conditions, and other issues, it is equally important to develop skills to create and maintain authentic connection and to work through conflict. When groups fall apart it is almost always as a result of emotionally charged issues. It is important that people make a commitment to find ways to work with people's emotions, to communicate fully, and to bond. Groups will do well to cultivate skills in listening and truth-telling, because when emotional issues are not consciously addressed and worked through, they often sabotage a community's very existence. At the very least unresolved conflict makes life miserable and drains huge amounts of energy that would better be utilized attending to other needs. Much talk of ecovillages and intentional communities abounds among collapse watchers. Evidence that dealing with relationships is essential is the fact that most of these situations devote a significant amount of time to building a workable sense of community.
Conflict is inevitable. A community must develop skills to effectively resolve conflict so that people feel cared-for and respected. Its apparent absence is a red flag signaling the likelihood of dysfunction, of unspoken feelings and truths that need to be told, or of a strict authoritarian hierarchy that keeps conflict as well as individual creativity submerged. Indigenous cultures at their high points skillfully navigated conflict, and in fact probably welcomed it. They evolved creative skills for addressing it compassionately and assertively, with elders, both men and women, who carried those skills and wisdom down through generations. Those of us reared in the hierarchies of empire are not so lucky. Most people don't feel fully adult much less secure enough to be considered real elders. We are having to glean the best we can from older cultures and learn from the most innovative practices that have come from psychology and organizational development to find our way in to creative, cooperative relationship.
Here are some insights that may be useful:
People who have had opportunities to sit in listening/ truth-telling circles often at first feel overwhelmed with the amount of emotional work that needs to be done in order for group members to bond and build trust with each other. This has certainly been our experience. But when people make the commitment and see the process through the difficult stages, they find new optimism. Groups that break through to what Scott Peck called "true community," experience what human beings are capable of. Regular people, with the garden-variety neuroses and the wounding that is typical of most of us educated in public schools and reared in the typically dysfunctional families of empire are surprised at the connection possible. What we realize is that community members are able to consistently do this work together, and that when we do, we successfully dissolve internalized patterns that have been inculcated by empire. What we experience in the place of those old patterns is the joyful connectedness that empire had rendered utterly impossible.
Those who have participated in community-building workshops and other kinds of training in dialogue and human interaction find this is a repeatable experience. People find they are able in this work to include and allow for differences. This experience is akin to the profound, intimate joining that indigenous people experience and sustain, which has allowed them to survive and thrive. Such experiences of mutual respect, understanding and bonding are likely to support individuals and groups in critical ways during time of societal upheaval.
There are principles that underlie effective group interaction. It helps immeasurably to have one or two strong facilitators present who are familiar with the inner terrain a group must travel to develop trust and to transcend differences. The process is rarely smooth. Facilitators are different from what we generally think of as leaders. Facilitators help the group, as a whole, move into shared wisdom. This is very different from a group that accepts and follows the wisdom or philosophy of a charismatic leader or the dictates of an authoritarian leader. Rather, this kind of community may be said to be "a group of leaders." Each person is regarded as someone who brings a unique set of gifts, experiences, skills, and insights. Strong facilitators help empower individuals to share those individual qualities for the greater good of the group.
Key to building this kind of community experience is the practice of compassionate listening and truth-telling. When one person speaks, the rest of the group listens attentively and stays present with both heart and mind. Speakers "speak from the heart" and speak when truly moved to speak rather than compulsively or in reaction. Another key is that each person learns to take responsibility for his/her part in whatever concerns or complaints he/she identifies. This requires each individual to examine his/her own assumptions and core beliefs and patterns, and to risk sharing those with the group so that they can be examined and understood.
What follows are some "Principles Of Dialogue" that Sally Erickson has synthesized from group development theory, Scott Peck's model of community building and David Bohm's explorations of formal dialogue practice.
Principles of Dialogue
1) We agree to identify and suspend assumptions and core beliefs. Suspending doesn't mean eliminating. It means holding them aside so as to be able to listen more deeply to another's experience, knowledge, insight. It means being willing to allow beliefs and assumptions to shift as the conversation reveals greater insight and understanding.
2) Examples of three kinds of assumptions/core beliefs:
**Factual: I assume energy can/cannot be created by hydrogen.
**Personal: I assume I am/am not personallyresponsible for saving the world. I assume I am/am not valued by those around me.
** Spiritual/philosophical: I assume that the material world as mapped by Newtonian physics, chemistry, biology, is/isn't all there is to reality. I assume human beings are/are not the pinnacle of evolution. I assumed there is/is not a power greater than the human ego.
What happens when we suspend our assumptions and question core beliefs? We are likely to experience initial anxiety. As we sit through that anxiety, habitual ways of thinking, feeling, and being soften and we find new possibilities. For example, if we usually talk a lot in a group, we begin to listen more. If we usually don't talk, we find the courage to speak when moved to do so. If we tend to stay in our intellect, we notice and identify our feelings and are more aware of our bodies. If we tend to be largely in our feelings and body, we begin to use the mind and insight more. Long-held beliefs and assumptions are revised or abandoned in the light of new information and insight. Group wisdom emerges that is greater than the sum of the collected individual's knowledge.
3) We agree to come together as colleagues. While individuals are not necessarily equal in specific knowledge or skills it is important to regard ourselves and each other as equal in value. Each person possesses unique abilities in a variety of arenas that are important to the community: insight, ability to listen and be present, intuitive gifts, dreams, clarity, connection to the natural world, as well as factual knowledge, skills, etc. When we come together as colleagues we make a commitment to notice the tendency to regard ourselves, and others, as either higher or lower. And we agree that when we notice that tendency we will work to open to find the unique value of others and ourselves in cooperation.
Group Norms and Standards:
** We agree to confidentiality. To increase a sense of safety, it is important that members who come together to do this kind of work commit to maintaining confidentiality. We agree that what is shared in the circle will not be shared outside of this circle in any way that would violate the confidentiality of the members of the circle. One's own experience can be shared outside, but names, other's personal stories or what actually occurs during the circle will not be shared or gossiped about.
**We agree to show up and be present. This commitment helps members feel some degree of emotional safety. Having been raised in empire we almost all have felt abandoned when we expressed vulnerability and were trying to be genuine and honest. When everyone agrees to stay in the circle and not flee in the face of conflict or discomfort, "the space is held." As vulnerability surfaces and conflicts are confronted, the result is that everyone feels safer and more willing to risk telling their truth. Trust is built incrementally but undeniably when people "hang in there" for the long haul.
**We agree to take the time that is necessary to do the work. It has been the experience of many groups that it takes a minimum of two full days, or 16 hours of interaction, for a group to begin to establish the kind of trust and openness that yields the fruit of real dialogue and bonding. It is generally wise to schedule more than that number of hours in order for a group to really coalesce and begin to learn to work well together. It is important that all participants agree to be present for all sessions. Occasionally exceptions can be made, but generally people who miss out on the work the group does together will not develop the same level of trust.
This is a critical point to note. All too often, just as a group is about to break through into a new and more profound level of functioning, interactions will get very challenging. People will get discouraged and want to quit or take a break to do something else. This is the part of the process Scott Peck called "emptiness," and it IS challenging to get through. It is at this point that a strong facilitator can be especially helpful in giving the group confidence, in "holding the space." By his or her presence the group will find the courage to keep working rather than to flee into some other activity.
**We agree that no one is required to speak, only to work to be fully present. Since many people feel intimidated about speaking in large groups this agreement encourages people to be involved who might not otherwise participate. Often the attentive presence of very quiet people will add immeasurably to the experience. And often their verbal contributions will be spot-on when they are made. Because of the nature of the work and the need to be mentally clear and emotionally available to the experience, participants agree not to use mood altering substances including alcohol for the duration of the days that the group is engaged in the work.
**We agree to be mindful and to resist "sub-grouping." There is a natural temptation to talk in pairs or in small groups during meals and breaks about charged feelings that arise as a result of the work of the circle. It is very important to bring those expressions of feelings into the "container" of the group or there may be a tendency for factions to develop. While the tendency to "process" outside of the group is understandable if feelings and insights and challenges are not shared within the group, its power is diluted, and the process of building trust will be prolonged. Withholding unresolved feelings and conflict and factioning as a result can ultimately sabotage the work.
Interventions In The Process:
Since the facilitator is there largely as a guide and elder, but not as a sole leader, others are encouraged to intervene in the process when they begin to feel stuck or frustrated with the way things are going. Participants are encouraged to put words to their feelings of frustration and then to request that the group consider reflecting on the process and work to shift it. Anyone can make the following requests to help the group work more effectively.
1) Ask for a minute of silence.
2) Ask for people to identify, talk about, and suspend their assumptions around an issue.
3) Ask for each person to hold the question: "What is it in me that is keeping us from going deeper?"
4) Ask the group to try to "speak from the heart."
5) Ask for each person to question: "Am I taking full responsibility for MY part in whatever is going on right now?"
6) Ask the question: "Is frustration present and if so what is the nature of the frustration?"
7) Ask the question: "Is there something we are not talking about and if so what are the assumptions we hold that keep us from talking about it?"
With every passing day it becomes clearer to us that as civilization continues to self-destruct, we need to discern how we prefer to spend our time and energy, and with whom. What we least want to do is mimic the culture of empire by limiting our focus to logistics, thereby losing sight of our deep humanity. We know that we cannot survive alone. Even if we have learned every physical survival skill imaginable, we still need our fellow human earthlings in order to navigate collapse. Moreover, if I and my companions in collapse cannot deeply listen to each other and speak our truths with compassion, even if we survive, it will be within an internally vacuous emotional domain that would render survival nothing less than absurd.
A William Stafford poem "A Ritual To Be Read To Each Other" illumines the subject at hand:
If you don't know the kind of person I am?
and I don't know the kind of person you are?
a pattern that others made may prevail in the world?
and following the wrong god home we may miss our star.
For there is many a small betrayal in the mind,?
a shrug that lets the fragile sequence break?
sending with shouts the horrible errors of childhood?
storming out to play through the broken dyke.
And as elephants parade holding each elephant's tail,?
but if one wanders the circus won't find the park,?
I call it cruel and maybe the root of all cruelty?
to know what occurs but not recognize the fact.
And so I appeal to a voice, to something shadowy,?
a remote important region in all who talk:?
though we could fool each other, we should consider-?lest the parade of our mutual life get lost in the dark.
For it is important that awake people be awake,?
or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;?
the signals we give-yes or no, or maybe-?should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.
Stafford reminds us of how important it is to know each other in a world where the culture of empire and its "patterns that others have made" may cause us to follow the wrong god home. Not only must we know each other, but we must, like elephants connected by trunk and tail, hang onto each other in order to find our way. We could fool each other, but we dare not because if we do, we may get lost. It is imperative that we be awake and that we be transparent with each other because the darkness around us is so deep, and our commitment to community is essential in navigating that darkness.
The rewards of investing our time and vital energy into our community are infinite and succinctly captured in the words of author and psychotherapist, Thomas Moore in The Re-Enchantment Of Everyday Life:
When we all, leaders and participants in community, discover the sheer joy of creating a way of life that serves families, ennobles work, and fosters genuine communal spirit, then we will begin to touch upon the sacredness that lies in the simple word polis, which is not just a city defined in square miles, income, or population, but a spirit that arises when people live together creatively.
During their Northeast and West Coast screening tours of their documentary "What A Way To Go: Life At The End Of Empire", Sally Erickson and Tim Bennett conducted dozens of brief talking circles following the screenings. Viewers of the movie had the opportunity to listen and tell their truth regarding the emotions that surfaced during the film. From these experiences, Sally and Tim are developing training to support ongoing circles for individuals preparing for collapse, who desire to engage more deeply in local community building. Theirs is not the only successful process, and they encourage people to gain a variety of skills to create community and sustain it through all the vicissitudes that collapse will bring forth. It is vital for people creating community to develop a viable communication process. Other models include Marshall Rosenberg's Non-Violent Communication process, Peter Senge's leadership training materials and workshops, Tej Steiner's Heart Circle work, Council Training at the Ojai Foundation, as well as Scott Peck's work. Resources in one's home locality ought to be considered as well.
A combination of modalities may be useful, but what is just as important as the method is the community's commitment to the process of healing the wounds of empire both internally and as they manifest in our relationships with each other. As we move out of the disintegrated structures of the culture of empire there is a tremendous opportunity to move into integrated and joy filled structures of relationship, inner and outer, with ourselves, one another and the whole community of life. Relationships that bring comfort and joy will be a mainstay as we sail through these most difficult times ahead. In addition, dialog circle work can facilitate our finding a greater group wisdom about how to navigate these times than we can find on our own.
Sally Erickson is the producer of the independent documentary What A Way To Go: Life at the End of Empire. She has also been the founding member of an intentional community and a psychotherapist, counselor and mentor for over twenty years.
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