Friday, August 27, 2010

The Dynamics of Living with a "Very Conscious Person"

Two weeks ago I attended the annual Twin Oaks Communities Conference, in Louisa VA. I'm a regular participant in this weekend event, where community seekers get together with dozens of representatives of existing or forming groups to swap stories, make connections, and generally get inspired about cooperative living. The energy is invariably positive and it provides me with a great excuse to renew acquaintances with folks I've been visiting since 1980. (Because Kat Kinkade's A Walden Two Experiment [recounting Twin Oaks' first five years] was a seminal inspiration for my seeking intentional community back in the murky, pre-internet days 1973, my annual pilgrimage to that longstanding community takes on some of the flavor of a haj for me.)

Among the things I did at the conference, I conducted a set of three workshops:
—Power Dynamics and Leadership in Cooperative Groups
—Conflict: Fight, Flight, or Opportunity?
—Should You Join a Community or Start One?

A few days ago I got this email from someone who attended the conflict workshop, which I've edited lightly (also, I've inserted clarifying comments in brackets):

I have an interesting dynamic that I was wondering if you have had previous experience with...
Basically, there is someone in my group who is a very conscious person (VCP). At your talk on "conflict," you had a graph and drew a red line on it. Above the red line is a person experiencing [non-trivial] emotional distress. VCP is most always below this red line. ["Above the red line distress" means that the emotional upset is sufficient for that person that there is substantial distortion in how they are handling information; "below the red line" means that distortion is minor and manageable.]

Another characteristic of this person is their incredible ability to refine, and see what is "wrong" in things, which they point out on a very consistent basis. This has made for a very interesting dynamic in our group.

The dynamic is that VCP will take every opportunity they can to bring things into light, and others in the group (including myself) have come to rely on that instead of bringing things into the light ourselves. We listen to VCP, and defer everything to them instead of making things our own.

This dynamic feels unhealthy and does not support us all in growth. It's my sense that friends that have known VCP for over 10 years have pretty much stayed where they are at in their development of consciousness… One woman has lived with him for over 10 years and actually chooses to be extremely unconscious, which observation has raised questions for me about this dynamic.

What do I feel needs to happen or change about this dynamic?

I feel it is part of VCP's very essence to be refining things, seeing what doesn’t work, and sharing their analysis with us all.

I feel this can play out in a couple ways. On the one hand, people can defer to VCP and give that person full authority and leadership for handling a situation—in which case no one else grows in their capacity; or VCP almost forces others to step up to a higher expression of themselves. If people choose to "flow/ work" along with VCP's energy, a very sustainable relationship can come of it.

This is what I believe is happening with myself in relation to VCP. I see our relationship as very sustainable, healthy, and unlike any relationship either of us have been in before. Although I do not choose to be as consistently conscious as this person, for some reason we still work together. Ironically, my ability and motivation to dive in deeper and critically examine how VCP interacts with the group is an example of how I've been positively affected by VCP's gift, and brings more light into my own process.

Although I feel we can all expand beyond where we are at and learn to transcend any dynamic, I fear there is a lack of incentive among others to look at this issue and strive to become more conscious.

Maybe it doesn't matter that people do not choose to be conscious—it is definitely that way in the mainstream society. I feel though that we would be more productive as a group if we all chose to step up to the plate and not wait for others to do it. When is society going to take some personal responsibility? For gosh sakes, when are we in communities going to really model this! Have you found a community where everyone is stepping up to the plate?

This is a very interesting dynamic, and I think there a number of things in play.

1. First, let's take it for granted that VCP is totally sincere in their motivation to identify how any given situation can be "refined" or improved, and that they've got ego issues under control (this may not be the case, but I'm setting that aside).

It seems to me there might be a useful group conversation about how much that gift is wanted in day-to-day of group deliberations.

The reason this is not a trivial question is because people's capacity to examine things at the level that VCP likes is probably uneven. (What's more, the same person may be variably open to the examination, depending on time of day, when they ate last, where they are in their menstrual cycle, etc.) No matter how well intended, unwelcome observations lead to increased tension more than increased illumination.

In my experience, how a "refining" comment lands often depends on delivery and how well the audience believes it is being offered in a respectful way. A key nuance here is the level of trust that has been built (or not built) between the observer and recipient prior to delivery of the observation. The same kind of comment offered in the same way may land entirely differently if there is a "disturbance in the Force."

One of the ways I characterize this foundational question is: How much do you want to be in each other's life by virtue of being a member of the group? Answers to this question can be all over the map, and many answers can work. The problem comes when members have fairly divergent answers and this has never been discussed or worked through. The corollary here is developing an acceptable and clear way by which members can indicate that another member has crossed (or is just about to cross) the border of what is acceptable in the way of inserting themselves into the other's life. If there is not a sense that that boundary will be respected, there will be trouble.

2. Second, let's assume you've successfully answered the questions above, and you're agreed that VCP's comments are within the acceptable range. If other group members have grown accustomed to relying on VCP's analysis and no longer exercise their own thinking about the issues, it's not fair blaming VCP. Why are people getting lazy? Now if the other members have learned to not give alternate views on a topic because VCP will fight over the analysis, that's another kettle of fish and there might be a useful conversation about how VCP can give opinions that leaves the door fully open for dissent. (Note that this can be subtle. While it's obvious that there's resistance to alternative viewpoints when the speaker starts yelling or openly denigrating anyone who disagrees with them, disapproval may show up in tone of voice, body language, or withdrawal of warmth—all of which can be equally effective in shutting down opposition, yet make it hard to discern cause and effect.)

If other members are just "mailing it in" then the group is probably not owning the work and your decisions will be weak. This is a group issue and should be discussed as such. To be clear, it's not so much a problem that VCP may be doing the lion's share of the talking, so long as there's plenty of room for everyone to speak and the group moves at a speed that works for all.

3. Third, there is a power and leadership issue here. VCP obviously has power based (at least in part) on their demonstrated ability to offer critical thinking about relevant issues. So far, so good. The question is how much the group wants to develop leadership among the other members (as opposed to just continuing to rely on VCP) and what role all parties, including VCP, can play in creating an environment the supports leadership development.

Embedded in this is the need to define what qualities characterize good leadership in your group, so that you have a definite idea what you're trying to foster. In general, I prefer that you aim to make everyone stronger, rather than trying to shackle those who are already strong. That said, if some group members experience VCP as intimidating (in addition to being insightful) that also needs to be discussed.

4. Finally, groups vary a lot on the question of how much there is an explicit commitment to developing member consciousness. In some cases, groups are organized around a common practice (or set of spiritual beliefs) to achieve that end, and acceptance of that path is a condition of membership. In other cases, the group may be committed to member consciousness while leaving it entirely up to each individual how they want to pursue that. In still other groups, there is no explicit commitment to personal growth of the development of consciousness; is is considered a personal matter outside the scope of group attention.

While I have personally witnessed many examples of people whose consciousness (and self-awareness) has grown tremendously over the course of their tenure with a group, I know of no group for whom all their members have this experience. So the results are uneven in this regard.

Last, I want to offer a word of caution about how you assess another's progress toward increased consciousness. Even assuming two people agree on the goal (which is not simple), there are many paths and it is not unusual for Person A to report deep change and satisfaction with how they are working with consciousness, and to have Person B—who is equally sincere and motivated to achieve the same goal—be indifferent and unaffected by Person A's approach. My sense is that this says nothing at all about efficacy of the paths chosen by Person A or Person B. They both could be successful and yet pursue their common goal by very different routes.

I will close with two suggestions for your group if you want to make an explicit commitment to foster the development of member consciousness: a) rather than focusing on what path will lead to higher consciousness, do what you can to identify what observable behaviors you are looking for from members as indicators of advanced consciousness; and b) be extremely cautious about interpreting the failure to behave in desired ways as evidence of a lack of consciousness—there are myriad more innocent explanations possible and spiritual judgment never lands lightly.


becca said...

Interesting. It's also possible that "VCP" is suffering from "PTS" -- Premature Transcendence Syndrome, also known as Spiritual Bypass.

maikwe said...

Love that, Becca!

Elke said...

Thanks for writing this, Laird. Boy, does it stir up stuff for me! -Elke