Monday, January 14, 2013

Distinguishing Spiritual Work from Group Work

Ma'ikwe and I are just coming off a facilitation training weekend at a Hare Krishna community that I'm going to bless with the pseudonymous moniker Dharma Village. While the hospitality and generosity we encountered at this well-established community were terrific, we found the group mired in deep mud. 

There are dozens of devotees living on the property. Despite being united in their acceptance of Swami Prabhupada as their spiritual teacher, they have been embroiled for years in disputes over the right way to follow his teachings. To some extent what's unfolded in the community mirrors struggles in the Hare Krishna movement worldwide. After Swami Prabhupada brought Krishna consciousness from India to the West in a prolific burst of proselytizing from 1963 to 1977, there has been considerable divergence about how best to continue the spirit of his work.

There are some who believe that Prabhupada was the last guru of the movement and the only teacher worthy of following; there are others who accept as gurus anyone recognized by ISKCON (the International Society of Krishna Consciousness), which was started by Prabhupada and blessed by him to carry on after his death in 1977, including the right to initiate other gurus; and there are those who accept Swami Tripurari as a guru in addition to Prabhupada, even though Tripurari is not recognized as a guru by ISKCON. The movement, just like the residents of Dharma Village, is in considerable disarray over who is a guru and who isn't.

These disputes have led to considerable tension in the community, including which temple to worship in (there are two on campus), which books to accept as appropriate spiritual guides (original works by Prabhupada—which most acknowledge contain many translation errors—or versions edited after his death to address those errors). In addition there are deep interpersonal hurts that have gone unresolved for years—to the point where some residents are no longer talking with each other. Ouch!

Over the course of our three days there, we met about half the residents. As far as we could tell, everyone we encountered was committed to their spiritual practice and their devotion to Prabhupada. As far as I could discern everyone in the community was sincere in their belief that they were doing the right thing. They just weren't doing the same thing.

It was sad to observe that the tensions (mainly over theological differences) had resulted in a secular community that was barely functioning. The community was no longer even holding meetings and it was a struggle to get group buy-in with what we'd discuss or even when we'd meet, as there was no mechanism in place to poll the community or make group decisions. Ugh.

In light of there being a considerable backlog of unresolved tensions, the facilitation class was expecting to spend a serious portion of our time working conflicts, yet that's not what happened. The divisions were so entrenched that we were unable to attract the major protagonists to even attempt reconciliation. If one end of a conflict was willing, then the other was not, and we were not able to get the right people in the same room for the attempt.

To be fair, we were told that there had been multiple prior attempts to work through differences and that these had been unsuccessful. Thus, we had sympathy for folks who were unwilling to put themselves through the anguish of further rounds when there had been such a dismal track record with the prior attempts.

Because the facilitation class had to work with what we had in the room, we focused more on how to rebuild the community than how to repair relationship—though both needed attention. 

For Ma'ikwe and me, it was hard witnessing a group that shares such a broad base of common beliefs be so internally divided. We found the dynamic at Dharma Village evocative of the strife that has plagued some ecovillages, where disputes over how to put into practice high ecological ideals (especially around land development) have led to internal struggles that have crippled the community from moving forward joyously. Though ecology is a different religion, its devotees can be just as dogmatic and fierce in the their defense of what they believe to be the right path.

Stepping back, I accept that there exists a line for most people (including me) that separates: a) those with whom we share enough core principles that we can gracefully accept the differences we have with them and live together harmoniously, from b) those with whom the differences on core principles are too great to share a life together. In the case of intentional communities, it's important to know your tolerance in this regard going in, so that you can make a mature assessment of whether the group you are contemplating joining is your tribe, or whether the person proposing to join your group will fit in well enough. It is not a matter of an exact values match; it's a question of whether the values fit is close enough.

Not surprisingly, people with wider tolerances tend to be easier to live with (in no small part because they tend to be less triggered). Note: In stating this, I am expressly not implying that people who are more accepting of deviation from the ideal have weaker values, are less devoted to them, or are fuzzier in their thinking. Tolerance itself can be a virtue—in fact, it's one I encourage you to cultivate!

One of the tragedies of Dharma Village is that the people who formed it thought that they could rely solely on their good intentions, their spiritual piety, and Prabhupada's writings to guide their community development, and it didn't work. In the end, people are still people and living together joyously—especially in intentional community—is mainly a secular relationship challenge, not a spiritual test or a measure of how evolved they are on the etheric plane.

For example, all groups will encounter moments when reasonable people disagree about how to respond to serious issues. Leaving aside the possibility that the group is not very clear about who they are and what they stand for (which definitely occurs), one the fundamental challenges that communities face is learning the skill needed to function cooperatively and effectively in the heat of the moment. This means being able to work emotionally (articulating your own feelings and demonstrating that you understand and welcome the feelings of others), being curious about why someone holds different views than you (instead of feeling threatened), being able to see the issue from other perspectives (not just your own), being able to see how different perspectives link to common values, and being able to bridge between different viewpoints so that all parties feel included in the solution.

To be sure, this is not easy to do, yet it is learnable, and the price for failure is a dysfunctional group. When you don't learn how to negotiate these fast waters, the group is at risk of overturning in the rapids of conflict. Members will learn to be afraid to state their views if they suspect they'll be unpopular; decisions will be undermined by those who felt that solutions were imposed on them; hurts will go unaddressed and trust will be broken; relationships will become brittle and shallow.

In the case of Dharma Village, the waters of disagreement (a normal occurrence in a healthy group) are muddied by the group's lack of interpersonal skill in working through conflict. While that paucity alone does not distinguish the community from most others—and is one the principal reasons I have steady work as a process consultant—the waters are further muddied in this case by troubles stemming from dynamics where one person believes their viewpoint is directly supported by Prabhupada's teachings while the person who holds a differing view believes they're opinion is also supported by Prabhupada's teachings. Uh oh. It's not hard to see how that kind of dispute is much more pernicious to deal with, as movement toward one another in that dynamic may be interpreted as selling out one's spiritual convictions, which is anathema.

The good news with Dharma Village is that they're asking for help. The residents there care deeply about their community and appear ready to work to right the ship.

In spiritual communities, or ones where core principles are held as strongly as spiritual beliefs, it's necessary that groups are able to distinguish between questions of philosophical interpretation and everyday living. Further, it's necessary that groups grok that there are communication skills needed to successfully navigate the turbulent waters of conflict that have nothing to do with ethics or the purity of one's beliefs. 

As far as I'm concerned, going down with the ship (defending one's beliefs at all costs) is overrated as a marketing strategy. Neither is it that appealing if you're gripping onto the ship's wheel with white knuckles and a grim determination in storm-tossed seas while everyone else on board is green at the gills and puking at the rails. To paraphrase Emma Goldman, it isn't much of a revolution if no one is dancing.

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