Thursday, January 15, 2009

Sitting out the Old; Sitting in the New, Part V

In this final installment to my five-part series of reflections and observations about my recent 10-day Vipassana retreat, I'll focus on the unexpected inspirations I derived from the experience as it relates to my career as a consensus and facilitation trainer. While it is hardly an exact mapping, there is an eerie extent to which a number of Vipassana tenets translate easily into secular qualities that I believe are integral to developing a deep understanding of consensus and to becoming truly gifted at meeting facilitation.

Think of them as the Ten Commendments. Let me walk you through them, mainly from the perspective of a meeting facilitator (though almost everything offered has a useful corollary for consensus meeting participants).

[In all cases below, I've first labeled a quality in Pali (as in "wants a cracker")—the now defunct language of
ancient India that was spoken by Buddha 2500 years ago—followed by its English equivalent.]

1. Sila (SHEE-luh): Morality
Facilitators need to be scrupulous about acting from a place of neutrality on the topics being discussed. They need to constantly sweep themselves for signs that they're getting hooked. If it happens (and it will on occasion, even to the best facilitators) the moral thing to do is self-disclose. In the extreme, you should step down.

Facilitators also have an obligation to name what they see and feel is going on, and not skate around tough dynamics.

They are expected to make the meeting safe enough for each participant to be able to speak their truth on the topics at hand.

Although I had not given it much thought before the Vipassana retreat, I now see the bebefit to articulating a Facilitator's Code of Conduct. (It's always exciting for me to get new insight into how to better frame what constitutes good group dynamics.)

2. Samadhi (suh-MAH-dee): Mental focus
To be good at meetings—whether as a facilitator or as a participant—it is important to develop the capacity to focus on what is happening in the present moment. At a minimum, that means tracking accurately what people are saying. But it's more than that. It's also picking up on the non-verbal cues and the energetic dynamics.

Forutnately, training the mind to stay focused is a learnable skill. Unfortunately, not many practice this skill, and the average attention span of group members is a matter of seconds, not minutes. Space out is at near-epidemic proportions. Still, a lifetime of monkey mind (where one's attention shifts constantly to whatever object is most bright or noisy) can nonetheless be turned around if there's the will to work on it.

Then, after one can consistently maintain focus and rarely misses what's happening in the moment, the next challenge is scanning current statements to see how they link to prior ones—which you'll be able to access because you've also been simultaneously developing your capacity to recall what's been said previously on this topic. It's amazing what you can learn to do.

3. Pañña (PON-yuh): Wisdom
As this is taught in the Vipassana course, it has a lot to do with expanding one's perspective beyond whatever pops into your mind. In that sense, wisdom is seen as aggregating perspectives and then discerning the best course of action taking them all into account. It's being curous about and open to the perspectievs that others have and it's also about "body knowing," or intuition. Much of the Vipassana practicve is about increasing awareness of body sensations, and in my view this is excellent advice to facilitators.

If I could only teach a person who walked in off the street to do one thing differently, I suspect nothing would make as profound a difference in their innate ability to facilitate than if they developed a heightened sense of what was happening in their body whenever things got heavy or confusing and they knew what those body sensations meant and were willing to act on that information.

The idea here is that our bodies are much smarter than most of us know in our heads, and if we could only figure out how to pay better attention to what our bodies are trying to tell us, we'd not only make better decisions, we'd also probably have fewer heart attacks and nervous breakdowns.

4. Sati (SAH-tee): Awareness
Pay attention (with the enhanced ability to focus you developed above) to what is happening right now. Don't drift off into memories, or start future tripping. Ram Dass wasn't kidding when he admonished, "Be here now."

It is important to understand that when you combine an ability to focus (samadhi) with present awareness (sati), you are not trying to control events; you are simply trying to accurately and fully be alive to what is happening. Some shy away from this much engagement with reality, either because it is so painful to be fully aware of all the misery in the world, or because current events tend to trigger strong reactions in yourself and you'd rather not ride that roller coaster. The trick here is combining awareness with non-reactiveness (see upekkha below).

5. Adhitthana (ah-dee-TAH-nuh): Strong determination
This is where Vipassana teaching evokes the high school football coach ("When the going gets tough… "). A good facilitator will need to weather some rocky shoals from time to time without letting the group down. Hnaging in there helps develop stamina so that the next time won't be quite as daunting.

The analogy for me as a facilitation teacher is explaining—and demonstrating—the power of seeing the glass half full. For the most part, we'll get the experience we expect, and if we expect to be overwhelmed by a challenge (whether it's sitting without moving for 60 minutes in a Vipassana meditation, or listening for 60 minutes to an animated inconclusive discussion about whether to change the groups' name from the Armchair Liberals to the Pontificating Mugwumps), then you're 90% of the way toward manifesting that reality.

If you expect to get through hard times, then you're much more likely to have that experience.

6. Viriya (VEER-yuh): Effort; persistence
Linked closely with adhitthana, it takes work to become good at anything. Leaving aide the occasional Einstein, Mozart, and Picasso (who apparently could manifest excellence with almost no effort), you have to consistenty exert yourself in order to advance on the path to liberation (Vipassana) or accomplishment (facilitation). It won't arrive in the mail, you can't get an injection of it, and it won't be assimilated osmotically in your sleep. You have to practice your craft to get good at it.

Further, it won't just be a ever-spiraling upward path of progress. There will be set backs. When the horse bucks you off, you have to have sufficient gumption to dust yourself off and get back on.

7. Khanti (CON-tee): Patience; tolerance
There are two sides to this coin: patience with others and with yourself. To be a good facilitator you'll need both. Sometimes the group won't respond well to your brilliancy; or a participant will not feel accurately held by you, even though you haven't a clue what you're missing when you try to give back to them what you heard. Or, you might g
et down on yourself when you realize that you blew it. While it's fine to aim high (adhitthana), and it's excellent to be fully aware of those times when you fail to cross that bar (sati), beating yourself up about it is not helpful You're just resupplying yourself with a fresh source of misery (sankhara). Who needs it?

8. Upekkha (OO-peh-kuh): Equanimity
This virtue, when coupled with sati, is central to success in Vipassana. The ideal here is to be completely aware, yet unreactive—which is not the same as uncaring. This is about centeredness, and it's a key quality in a good facilitator as well. If you're tense, self-judging, worried about how you're being perceived, or stewing about what happened 30 minutes ago (or about what's likely to come up 30 minutes later), then you're probably facing a double whammy:

First, you're almost certain to have compromised awareness (sati) and will thus be susceptible to missing input about what's happening currently. Second, when you're nervous, anxious, or otherwise perturbed you're much less likely to be clean in your facilitative choices. You'll start steering things instead of simply reading what's in the room and what's possible with the topic at hand.

There is a tendency to shut down receptors in order to achieve or maintain equanimity. If a person feels swamped with more information than they can process (TMI), it's destabilizing. In that dynamic it's understandable that a person would learn to close off sensory inputs as a coping mechanism. However, a good facilitator has to learn to remain open in that moment, letting the swirl of information flow through them and around them, remaining steady no matter how turbulent the flow. Like a boulder in a mountain streambed.

9. Dana (DAH-nuh): Generosity
While this also relates to donations (and is the business model for how Vipassana Centers operate), I'm focusing here on the sense of dana as giving without expectation of return. A good facilitator needs to serve out of a desire to help, rather than be motivated by the opportunity to look good (or even be a hero), or by the chance for a big payday. The mantra I offer trainees is: "It's not about you. It's about what most helps the group in this moment."

You are striving to be as selfless as possible when you're up front at a meeting. If you get irritated that the group is not sufficiently appreciating all the hard work you did preparing a particular format, you are losing both upekkha and dana. After all, it's their group and their meeting. They don't owe you a favorable response. And it certainly isn't in their interest (or yours) to condition them to give you false praise.

10. Metta (MET-uh): Loving kindness
The last piece of instruction offered during the 10-day Vipassana retreat was how to end a sitting by spending the final 5-10 minutes expanding focus beyond oneself to include the rest of the world's life forms, wishing happiness to all. Kind of a White Light exercise (which is different than what the Beach Boys sang about: "I'm feelin' those good vibrations, they're givin' me excitations... "). Where the Beach Boys were crooning about come-on energy, metta is about connection energy. It is about agape and the Gaia Hypothesis.

A good facilitator wants to cultivate a state in which s/he can genuinely care about everyone in the room, no matter how troubled they are, how provocative or c
onfusing their style of presentation, or how triggering their personality type is for you personally. You need to love them all, and to constantly be offering your guidance from a place of love and well-meaning—even more so when your offerings aren't received that way and your motivation is questioned. (Hint: as a facilitator it is unwise to fight for your perspective or good intent if either is called into question. If you do, you'll be risking the outcome of the entire meeting in your effort to win the point, and it's a poor bargain. Better to back away gracefully whenever the group balks at your suggestions or style.)

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