Friday, December 26, 2008

Silent Night (& Silent Day)

Later this morning Ma'ikwe and I will drive to the outskirts of Rockford IL and begin a 10-day Vipassana retreat. There will be no talking, no radio, no writing, no reading,… and no blogging. It'll just be me, my body, my mind, and my reality—such as it is. For ten days, the rest of the world will have to get along without me. For the rest of the world, I'm not worried.

Part of my partnership agreement with Ma'ikwe is that we'll try new things, and that extends to spiritual inquiry. During the last week of our honeymoon in Italy, we did six days worth of the introductory Avatar course, Resurfacing. Now we're doing a Vipassana retreat. Last night, at Christmas dinner, a friend asked what I was doing to prepare myself for the retreat. I answered: "Nothing. It's not that I don't think there will be challenges for me; it's just that I don't think that there's anything I can do mentally to prepare for them. Instead, I'm just going to surrender to the experience, and face the demons as they come, whatever they may be."

While Ma'ikwe and I will be going through the experience simultaneously, we won't actually see each other during the retreat. Our understanding is that the men and women are housed separately and sleeping will be dormitory style. Even so, retreatants are encouraged to not look at each other—this is meant to be a solitary experience, to the extent possible.

In college, I did a Zazen meditation practice in the pre-dawn for an hour every weekday morning of winter term (10 weeks). It's my only other taste of meditation and that was 38 years ago. I now have a different body, a different mind, and a different spirit. We'll see whether I have a different experience.

Regardless of what happens, I expect to have something to say about it. Look for it as the subject of my next blog, after I return home Jan 7.

Meanhwile, I expect to have one of the soberest New Year's in my life. Though it will be Jan 1 on the calendar, it will just be Day Four of my retreat (and probably a great deal like Day Three and Day Five). Instead of the football I'm used to on that day, it'll just be the footfalls I've grown accustomed to. Still, I note with curiosity that the last full day of the retreat will be Jan 6, which is Epiphany on the Christian calendar. Coincidence? I'll tell you when I get back.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Tis the Season

It was my turn to cook today.

In my community, Sandhill Farm, all the adults—and even Renay, who is 12—take turns cooking. With six adult members on the farm plus Renay, that means everybody will have one day wearing the apron during the week I'm home between my last last road trip and a 10-day Vipassana retreat starting the 27th. This is the week of the year where holiday celebrations are most dense, with Solstice, Chanukah, and Christmas all happening in a five-day span. Kinda like sequential fireworks in the dark of winter.

Today started propitiously enough with the tail end of a 36-hour visit from my daughter-in-law Tosca, with her eight-month-old daughter (my one and only granddaughter) Taivyn. We'd had a lovely (if brief) visit and Tosca headed back to St Louis and Christmas with her mother and grandparents after breakfast and a diaper change. Being with an inquisitive, happy baby for a day-and-a-half put everyone in a good mood.

It's especially fun to cook during these days of reflection and socializing, where people linger longer over morning coffee, take naps in the afternoon, and play games after dinner. Today, in addition to cooking supper (steamed rice and Chlilean Squash—page 140 in Mollie Katzen's Moosewood Cookbook) I set up a holiday hors d'oeuvre spread at 5 pm, featuring double cream brie, baked garlic, French bread rounds, a coarse-ground salami seasoned with Chianti, Toasted Head chardonnay, and a bottle of tawny port. No one was all that hungry when supper was trotted out an hour later.

It was just the community—our family of friends—sitting around the kitchen table (conveniently near the wood stove) telling stories, laughing easily, and enjoyng each other's company. For my money, that's what holidays are all about.

What's more, tomorrow I get to double dip. My wife, Ma'ikwe, spent the day here and tomorrow morning we'll mosey over to her place at Dancing Rabbit—just three miles to the northeast—and gear up for the Christmas Day potluck by assembling tamales (a chicken version, one with cheese, and a vegan option featuring mushrooms), Russian tea cakes, mincemeat pie, lemon bars, shrimp cocktail, and plum pudding with hard suace. Does that say love or what? (I can hardly wait to see what others bring.)

As I suspend the bulk of my regularly scheduled work life to be present with some of the amazing people who enrich my life, my sincerest wish is that everyone else enjoys the same opportunity.

Happy holidays!

Friday, December 19, 2008

The Role of Shepherd: Keeping Track of the Sheep

One of the most potent concepts in consensus is that of the neutral Facilitator. That is, the person guiding the plenary meetings should not be a stakeholder on the topics being discussed (or at least not a major stakeholder). The idea, simply, is that if the Facilitator is identified with a certain position, they'll likely slant things in the direction they favor, either wittingly or otherwise. If this is the perception, then participants will not experience the meeting as a level playing field, and it's much less likely that the topic will be examined cleanly.

In the context of plenary meetings, a corollary to this concept is the idea that the Presenter of each topic (the person who lays out why the group is talking about this topic and what the objective of the conversation is) will not be the Facilitator. It is relatively common for the Presenter (someone who knows the topic thoroughly and understands why it's coming before the group at this time) to have a definite opinion about what should happen. While you may want to be able to harness that passion in the presentation, you don't want their opinions to contaminate the neutrality of the Facilitator.

Even when the Facilitator thinks they can introduce a topic neutrally, beware! It is not always predictable what will trigger a reaction among participants, and if the Presenter inadvertently steps on a land mine, you'll be glad to have a separate Facilitator available to clean things up. The Facilitator's prime directive is helping the group move both inclusively and expeditiously through topics; they are there to safeguard the group's process and should be as disinterested as possible in the decisions.

Taking this one step further will get me to the primary focus of this blog: the role of Shepherd. It is quite common for a group to not complete a topic in the same meeting at which it is first introduced. When this happens there's inevitably a question of what will happen next. (To be sure, groups don't always address this question well, but they should.)

Sometimes a topic is advanced to the point where a person or subgroup is asked to work the topic in particular ways: for example, to conduct research, to craft a summary statement, to go door-to-door to solicit input from members who missed the meeting, or to draft a proposal taking into account all the factors that surfaced in the discussion. In addition to that, there is the role of Shepherd, the person or committee who:

o Collects and archives all the input from group members relevant to the topic.

o Sees to it that all assigned tasks are completed in an orderly way (by which I mean involving all the right people in a timely manner). Note: the Shepherd may or may not be the one doing these tasks.

o Makes sure that the topic comes back to plenary when it's ready to be taken up next—when assigned tasks have been completed, the presenter is good to go, and there's group energy for the tackling the consideration. This will involve collaboration with the Agenda Planners [see my blog of Jan 25, 2008 for more on this role].

o Answers inquiries about what's been happening with the topic.

o Tracks progress on the topic until all plenary aspects have been disposed of, at which point the Shepherd role is laid down.

In addition, at the discretion of the plenary, the Shepherd may be asked to:

Suggest the order and format in which subtopics are considered. It may also have recommendations about what useful work can be done on this topic outside of plenary.

As I am defining it here, the Shepherd is a coordinating role, and not a decision-making role. It is the Shepherd's job to make sure that the sheep (or threads, if you prefer a weaving metaphor) are not lost and that they are properly cared for and sorted; it is not their job to shear, breed, or butcher. The key here is understanding that Shepherds have a defined, limited role. Good ones can significantly relieve the workload of both Agenda Planners and Facilitators—two groups that tend to have overflowing plates, and which will greatly appreciate the pastoral assistance.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Taking Your Dog Out of the Fight

Recently I was doing phone interviews with members of a forming community that had hired me to help them work through conflicted dynamics. The phone calls were an attempt to establish background and connection leading up to a couple days of live work together. Toward the end of one particular call—with a man I'll call Chris, who was in deep mud with some others in the group—Chris confessed that he was thinking seriously about leaving the community and questioned its viability. I asked him if his mind was made up or if there was any hope for the possibility that the damage could be repaired and that his community dream could be salvaged.

Chris reported that the door was yet ajar, though he was deeply skeptical of the community's revival. In return he asked me how I was going to approach the two days of group meetings, based on all the phone interviews. I told him I'd be coming with the starting idea that the community could work and that no one needed to leave. While I might be persuaded by events to change my view, I'd begin with the notion that the hurts could be healed and that the reasons why people were originally inspired to attempt the community still obtained.

Chris did not like my response. Worried that my attitude was prejudiced against his position, he questioned me closely about my thinking. I explained that there were several reasons for my approach:

1. I didn't have a dog in this fight
That is, I was not a stakeholder and didn't need the outcome to go in any particular direction. While I was open to the possibility of dissolution—and was perfectly willing to have the question of viability on the table—I would not be trying to steer things toward a particular goal (aside from authenticity and inclusiveness). Thus, my attitude was not about advocacy for a particular conclusion; it was about what I felt wold be most fruitful. (It is one thing to end a group relationship in recognition of how badly you've been frustrated and hurt; it's altogether another to end it after you've made a good faith effort to attempt other members' reasonable suggestions about how to reconcile and found that it wasn't enough to continue. The former tends to promote bitter feelings; the latter tends to promote better feelings.)

2. You tend to find what you're looking for
My years of group work have convinced me that people are profoundly influenced by expectations. If you go into a meeting expecting divisiveness, you're already 90% along the road toward manifesting it. Thus, for reconciliation to have a chance, it's extremely helpful to believe it's possible. As a professional facilitator who has learned to look for bridges between people who are standing in different places, I regularly find them. It's about that simple.

Caution: I am not talking about magical thinking where people "white light" critical differences or pretend to like each other until it's true. The bridge work I attempt only succeeds when all parties freely acknowledge its existence, its fairness, and its traffic-worthiness. This requires that each person is accurately seen and that their reality, their good intentions and their integrity have been validated (keeping in mind that reality, intentions, and integrity vary person to person).

3. The assumption that the dream that inspired the community is still valid, and that the investment of time, money, and energy into manifesting the community has value
While sometimes a fragile thing, a forming community is nonetheless a precious thing, and thus worth watering in times of drought. While there's no doubt that the seedling can wither beyond recovery—and soldiering on is little more than throwing good resources after bad—you want to make sure that the cause is hopeless before pulling the plug on the grow light.

Hint: While groups often focus on whether they have the skills to build community (assuming you have a good idea about what they are), you also must have sufficient availability and motivation. If you're missing any of these three key aspects among your membership, it's likely to be a fatal flaw. In fact, of the three, deficient skills is perhaps the easiest obstacle to overcome (as sufficiently motivated people with ample time can move mountains with teaspoons, and can often learn whatever skills they lack—providing only that they know: a) what they don't know; and b) the need to know it).

4. Few groups know how to work constructively through conflict
A lot of my consulting work is helping groups out of the ditches they've gotten into, and back onto the road of effectiveness. As there are few examples of vibrant cooperative groups who weather conflict well, it's easy to understand the miasma of despair that descends on groups once they're mired in non-trivial distress.

If you make decisions about viability before resolving conflict, it's relatively easy to give up on a project that could still succeed (after all, where would hope come from if you've never seen groups work through conflict well?). If you ultimately do decide to lay down a community, you'll sleep a lot better at night if you first clean the wounds and start the healing process, and make the decision from a place of wholeness, rather than brokenness.

• • •
Weeks later, at the end of my time with the forming group, I was rewarded with this evaluative comment from Chris:

"I came into these meetings feeling deeply conflicted with a number of people, and concerned that Laird's optimism might obscure a clean look at the community's viability. I leave these two days feeling fully heard, and inspired by Laird's repeated demonstration of how to approach conflict by focusing on relationships, and inviting each of us to take our dog out of the fight."

Thursday, December 11, 2008

New Orleans in December

Rumbling across the country from Los Angeles to Charlotte, Ma’ikwe and I had an overnight on Tuesday in New Orleans as we changed trains. We swapped the eastbound Sunset Limited for the northbound Crescent, and it gave us the chance for an evening out and a night’s sleep in a stationary bed.

It was the first time I’d been in the Crescent City since Katrina, and I was curious to see how it was faring (and eager to sample again some of the prized oysters that that Gulf jewel is famous for—I can personally recommend a charbroiled dozen at Drago's).

It’s been almost 40 months since the storm surge breached the levees, and much of the damage from that disaster has been repaired (or is out of sight of the tracks). While the population is still only 60% of what it was before the hurricane, the center of town seemed fully repaired and back in business. We were only in town for 15 hours and didn’t explore much beyond the modern urbanity of the Central Business District or the uniquely mixed antebellum charm and Fat Tuesday flash of the Vieux Carré—where sumptuous antique furniture stores stand chock-a-block with hole-in-the-wall emporia for Hurricanes, a frozen alcoholic concoction served in souvenir plastic to-go cups; all-night pizza joints share walls with soft-lit pedigreed restaurants where gentlemen are required to were suit coats to enter; and praline specialty shops rub shoulders with transgendered peep shows. There is really nowhere quite like N’awlins.

Though we were cautioned by the hotel concierge to not stray from well-lit streets in our after-dark stroll, everything seemed safe and (mostly) charming. It was a muggy night in the high 60s, and easy to get around in just shirtsleeves. We noticed fresh green leaves on some of the trees coming into town and it’s hard to credit that we’re midway between Thanksgiving and Christmas. (The sports page of this morning’s Times-Picayune was fretting on behalf of the hometown Saints, who must travel to Chicago to play the Bears Thursday evening in outdoor Soldier Field, where temperatures are expected to be about 40 degrees less than they were on Bourbon St last night. Talk about home field advantage!)

As an Amtrak aficionado I can tell you that there is only one way to cross the Mississippi by passenger train that doesn’t take you through Chicago, and that’s the route we’re now taking. While I typically enjoy excuses to go through Chicago (where half of my siblings live), it’s nice to have a change of pace, and enjoy some of the other routes. Understandably, the southern route is a standout choice in December, and we’ve been lucky enough to ride the edge of a storm front as we wind our way eastward, enjoying unseasonable warm weather all along the way—with forecasts of deteriorating weather right behind us.

I’m wondering though what the forecast is for New Orleans. As lovely as our overnight respite was, I’ve been told by Louisianans that most of the poorer sections of the city have not been rebuilt at all, and it’s unclear if they’ll ever regain their lost population. Due to the heavy silting of the Mississippi, New Orleans is no longer a viable deep water port, and the northern shore of the Gulf recedes steadily to the south as farmers continue to over-cultivate the cornfields of the Midwest and exports its topsoil downstream.

It may be December for the Crescent City in more ways than one.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Contrasting Spiritual & Secular Groups

Saturday I finished a couple days working with Lumbini Gardens, a forming community hoping to build a residential Dzogchen Buddhist community on 10 acres in La Ribera, a small village at the southern end of Baja California, facing the Sea of Cortez.

Mostly I was helping them sort out some hurtful internal dynamics which had seriously undermined the level of trust among members in recent months. While we did well together cleansing the wounds (which mostly means being able to validate everyone’s feelings and to explain to everyone’s satisfaction how no one’s actions or statements were done with intent to harm), it remains to be seen how much energy exists among the current configuration of members for a renewed effort to manifest the community.

Regardless of their future prospects, I was highly impressed with the courage and vulnerability displayed by the 16 Lumbinians who attended the sessions. As far as I could tell this was directly attributable to their joint Dzogchen practice and thus, their personal and collective familiarity with self-reflection.

While most of my experience as a group process consultant is with secular groups, by which I mean groups that do not ask for a commitment to spiritual inquiry—either in general, or with a specific path—as a condition of membership, I’ve had occasion to work with spiritual groups perhaps half a dozen times, and there tend to be some significant differences between those and secular groups.

Difference #1
When a group struggles (and let’s face it, I rarely get asked in unless a group is struggling), having a common relationship to spiritual inquiry can be a terrific benefit. It becomes a life ring in troubled seas, and a reason to hang in there when members otherwise might feel like giving up. It’s also a reason to continue to extend trust to someone you otherwise might be inclined to write off. That is, spiritual groups tend to be less brittle in the presence of conflict.

Difference #2
Most spiritual practices ask devotees to develop their capacity for self-reflection and make an effort to improve their awareness of how their actions land with others. To the extent that practitioners make progress with those disciplines, and are already habituated to that kind of humble inquiry, it’s gold when working through conflicted dynamics.

My experience with Lumbini Gradens was a good example of this. To be sure, there was still some defensiveness and deflection in the heat of the moment, yet, on the whole, there was remarkably little of that and the group was laudably sure-footed in finding its way through the prickly tangle of accusatory statements.

Difference #3
In spiritual groups you can typically count on a willingness among members to accept the help of others in finding one's way through this vale of tears. Thus, in spiritual groups there tends to be less ego attachment, or at least a greater awareness of one's susceptibility to ego attachment. As a consequence, people with a common practice tend to find it less embarrassing to accept responsibility in front of others for the inadvertent harm caused by their not-so-enlightened actions or statements, once that damage has been revealed with care and sensitivity. This can be very healing for the group, and a balm that is sometimes out of reach with secular groups.

Difference #4
When laboring with spiritual groups to unpack conflicted dynamics, I’ve occasionally experienced people reaching a point where they simply surrender to the idea that they’ve done something poorly (the psychic equivalent of a dog rolling over and exposing its throat)—not because they’ve suddenly “gotten it,” but more because they’ve reached a point where they can no longer tolerate being in struggle or having their behavior spotlighted. In such situations, I’ve had an uneasy feeling that the energetic shift has not been accompanied by a gain in understanding, and the dynamic is just as likely to happen again.

I see this as the insidious side of “leaps of faith.” If spiritual truths are not required to make rational sense, then who’s to say that surrender to another’s analysis of how you’ve fucked up isn’t a prelude to the next spiritual leap? Perhaps, in some mixed up way, the crazier the accusation, the more appealing it is to surrender to it. While I don’t see this a lot (fortunately), it happens often enough that I’m alert for it.

Difference #5
Sometimes spiritual groups confuse emotional maturity with spiritual maturity. When this happens there can be terrific forces at play to suppress emotional distress for fear it will be viewed as a lack of spiritual accomplishment, and therefore lead to a demotion of stature in the spiritual community.

While I found no evidence of this particular malaise at Lumbini, I’ve run into it previously with spiritual groups and I’ve learned to be on guard for it.

Outside of therapy, North American culture has precious few models for working well with emotions in group settings, and it’s only fair to point out that secular groups don’t tend to handle this well either. However, at their worst, spiritual groups can actively suppress feelings of distress, where secular groups tend to simply be confused and nervous about it.

• • •
As I continue to ply my craft, I'll be watching for other patterned differences between spiritual and secular groups. Meanwhile, this is as far as I’ve gotten to date.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Pelican Brief

A very strange bird is the pelican,
Its beak can hold more than its belly can.
—Ogden Nash

Dateline: Buena Vista, Baja California Sur

I flew into Los Cabos yesterday (don’t bother to pack pistachios for your next foray south of the border; Mexican immigration won’t let you bring them in) and got settled for two days of work with Lumbini Gardens, a forming community near the sport fishing village of Buena Vista, about an hour north of Los Cabos (and two hours south of La Paz), just up the southern tip of the Baja Peninsula, on the Sea of Cortez.

As I’m not on stage until Friday & Saturday, I’ve been enjoying a morning of coffee and casual conversation with group members, and otherwise toughing it out in the 80-degree weather with a gentle onshore breeze.

Walking the beach for three hours (something I rarely get to do on the farm in Missouri), I came across a raft of brown pelicans, hanging out and occasionally snacking on Nature’s own sushi: raw fish seasoned delicately with sea water (a clever tamari substitute) and some bits of inter-tidal nori. It looked like they were having fun and enjoying the same nice day I was.

Used to touristas, a few of these prehistoric looking avians let me get within 30 feet out them. What an amazing bird! Though they look as if put together by committee, the parts seem to work together pretty well. With their large wingspan they can glide for perhaps 200 feet, only inches above the waves. Yet, when they spot a fish, they can knife into the water in a blink, and pop up like a cork to strain their piscean hors d’oeuvre from the bucketful of seawater they scooped into their expansive lower beak. Maneuvering their catch headfirst with a flick of their powerful necks, they release the excess water and it’s down the hatch. Quite a show.

While “elegant” is not the first word that comes to mind when looking at a pelican, they are nonetheless rather regal when posing on rocks, and unquestionably graceful in their gravity-defying glides. While I’m perfectly content to not have an accordion-like lower jar, I do envy their being able to glide like that. Whenever I have flying dreams, it’s always about gliding, where I just lean forward and float above the ground. You know, like a pelican.

Pelicans already hold a special place in my heart because some of them are champion migrators. White ones, for instance, winter in the Gulf of Mexico and summer in central Canada. As a kid learning about exotic animals (by “exotic” I mean ones that don’t live where you do), I was taught to associate pelicans with Louisiana. Imagine my surprise when I first encountered them in the wild while canoeing the Churchill River in northern Saskatchewan. They come north to raise their young and congregate around rapids, where the fishing is better and the water is shallower (with that beak, they’re only going to go so deep). Just like a lot of the gringos around here, they follow the warm weather.

I saw a bumper sticker this morning that read “Work is for Those Who Don’t Fish.” I’m not sure, but it may have been distributed out by Bureau of International Groupings for the Betterment of Intertidal Lunching and Lounging. You know, the BIGBILL association, which most pelicans, of course, belong to.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

The Wisdom of Babies and Dogs

This past week I've been spending a lot of time hanging out with both my seven-month-old granddaughter, Taivyn, and my three-year-old granddog, Zeus—often at the same time. Both are happy to have my undivided attention, and sometimes they even get it.

As someone who's lived in community for 34 years and has been working with groups professionally for 21, I'm often wading through the jungle of convoluted interpersonal dynamics, looking for clear paths. It's refreshing to be reminded by Taivyn that life doesn't have to be so complicated. She can be crying her heart out one minute, asleep the next, and then all-forgiving when she wakes up, unencumbered by any grudges about how I wouldn't let her poke her inquisitive fingers into the electric outlets right before her nap.

Adults are rarely that straight forward with one another—either in terms of being emotionally artless (with babies, what you see is what you get) or willing to start each new interaction with
a ready smile and a clean slate. Unfortunately, we adults tend to keep score. Worse, we rarely use the same point system or even announce the standings. It's messy.

For his part, Zeus is the embodiment of unconditional love. Just like Taivyn, he's happy to interact with me whenever we make eye contact. Unlike Taivyn, he never pitches a fit. He just wants to lick my face, get his belly and ears rubbed, and go for a walk—in about that order. If he gets turned down, he either tries someone else or just lies down, slows his heart beat, and waits for the next chance. When you run into people like that, you tend to question whether they're hitting on all cylinders ("Why are they so happy all the time?). Canines set such a high bar when it comes to
loyalty and affection that you can understand why some prefer dogs over partners as housemates.

Tomorrow at first light I'm off to a weekend job with a troubled group. While my main motivation for this visit was to be with my son and his family for six days, I realize at the cusp of my departure that I got a bonus. In addition to nurturing family relationships, I also received an unexpected balm after basking for hours and hours in the unalloyed affection and availability of a baby and a dog. I experienced it as a massage for my psyche. Though I didn't know it when I planned the trip, I needed it.

Taivyn & Zeus, this jaded warrior thanks you for your therapuetic ministrations and loving