Monday, April 29, 2013

Being Agreement Prejudiced

This past weekend I facilitated a series of meetings in Boston (at Jamaica Plain Cohousing), and I started my work —as I always do—by asking for permission to operate under a set of Ground Rules that I've developed over the years. Among them is the group accepting my being "agreement prejudiced."

As that may sound like an odd request—a) why is that noteworthy; and b) is it OK to be "prejudiced" about anything?—it occurred to me that it would make a worthy blog focus to explain why I go there.

Almost without exception, people who have been raised in the dominant culture have been conditioned to think first in terms of how they are distinct from others, rather than how they are the same. To a large extent, our identities are associated with differences more than with similarities, and you know yourself most surely by the ways in which you stand apart from those around you. Certainly that was true for me. (Note that from an anthropolocigal perspective that all cultures aren't like this. In Inuit society, for example, individuals develop a much stronger sense of "we" than "I.")

Mind you, I am not saying that we have been raised to be cantankerous, or iconoclastic (although some, of course, turn out that way). Rather, I'm saying that when someone says something with which we are in partial agreement (which happens "only" all the time) our overwhelming tendency is to focus our initial response on the ways in which we disagree, rather than on celebrating the ways in which we align—even though they are equally valid responses, and one isn't more true than the other.

This is, I believe, a direct consequence of a culture that hero worships the rugged individual (think of it as the intersection between John Wayne and Ayn Rand). We are a competitive society that is founded on the notion that the best thinking is that which survives a fair fight; that rigorous and dispassionate debate exposes weak thinking, casuistry, and unsubstantiated rhetoric. After four decades of cooperative living, I've come to deeply question whether that strategy is superior. Though it's unquestionably what we know how to do, I no longer believe it leads to the best results.

First, a lot of people are uncomfortable speaking in public at all, and will avoid doing so even if there were a guarantee that people would respond favorably.

Second, there are many who would rather keep quiet than risk having their ideas attacked (or even questioned) in public. It can be downright humiliating. 

Third, if you think that there is already too much momentum moving in a different direction than the one you favor, in a competitive dynamic you may strategically decide to fold rather than raise, keeping hidden your preference so as to not squander social capital on a lost cause. Better to save your chips for an issue you might "win."

To the extent that these dynamics sound familiar, you can begin to appreciate how much a competitive environment does not particularly bring out all the ideas. In fact, it often suppresses them. Further, brisk competition tends to promote counterattacks and defensive responses rather than thoughtful reflections and an atmosphere where people can gracefully change their position.

More excited by the potential of cooperative culture—which is the essence of community living—I've trained myself to respond differently to disagreement, and differently to the presence of tension.

Now, when I encounter alternate views, my first thought is to wonder how the other person got to a different conclusion. What factors are they looking at; are they weighing things differently than I am? If you have two different ideas about what to do and you keep the focus on what action to take, the proposals will be in dynamic tension. Typically this will lead to a competition, a virtual tug-of-war.

In order to shift this dynamic, as a facilitator I try make sure I understand the root concerns or interests that undergird the conclusions and then legitimatize (if possible) the reasonableness and appropriateness of those concerns being in play. Then I invite ideas about how to bridge these different interests (which are almost never directly in opposition), rather than how to find a middle ground between proposals.

In my experience, it is much easier for people to stretch to accommodate the concerns of others if they feel that theirs have been fully recognized. Then it feels like a collaboration—rather than a competition, a compromise, a conquering, or a capitulation.

Unfortunately, the field is frequently more complicated than that. If, for example, there are significant tensions or heightened emotions present as well, then you need to pause the consideration to recognize those and explore what they mean before proceeding with the identification of interests and underlying values. 

Essentially, strong feelings correlate highly with distortion, and you cannot do solid work unless you're able to deescalate reactions to the point where people can hear accurately. Attempting to plow ahead anyway—perhaps because you don't know how to deal with feelings, or are afraid that their examination will open Pandora's Box and lead to chaotic, uncontrolled accusations and name calling—will result in exhaustion, damaged relationships, and brittle conclusions with weak buy-in. Yuck!

(Note that the poor outcome I've projected above for failing to work with strong emotions is independent of whether you're attempting a cooperative or a competitive approach. While I don't think it's a simple matter to learn how to do this well, any group not doing this at all is already incurring a stiff price.)

• • •
To the community's credit, the members of JP Cohousing "got it" why being agreement prejudiced is valuable. What's more, they had humbleness about how hard it is to access that mind set in the heat of the moment. That's why they hired me, to help them navigate a large issue where the group needed to bridge between: a) a core concern about affordability and the need to be prudent about living within one's means; and b) a core desire to be bold and inspirational when presented with a unique opportunity to use one-time money to enhance the quality of community life.

When I'm brought in as an outside facilitator, I tell groups that I'm ruthless about agreement, by which I mean that I'll offer it up for consideration as soon as I smell it, which is typically before anyone else in the room. The reason my skill in this stands out is not so much that I'm a superior problem solver, as that people tend to find what they're looking for, and by virtue of having trained myself to look for common ground I'm often better at finding it. 

The bad news is that not that many have done the work needed to be proficient in thinking this way in the dynamic moment—even in community. The good news is that anyone can learn this skill—you just have to want it bad enough and be willing to put in the work.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Donald Walters: Dead at 86

Donald Walters—Swami Kriyananda—died peacefully last Sunday in Assisi, Italy. He was 86 and had lived a very full life. The image above was taken in a joyous moment last year.

Though I never met him, I have known of him for many years, first as the founder of Ananda Village in Nevada City CA, and then as the author of a slim volume he wrote in 1988: Intentional Communities: How to Start Them, and Why, which was notable because it advocated cooperative living without proselytizing for the spiritual path he loved.

It is extremely rare, in my experience, for a spiritual person to see that there are many paths that lead to good in the world and that it makes sense to support and ally oneself with others devoted to worthy principles even if they don't share the same spiritual guide, or even have one at all. Donald Walters was just such a man.

To be sure, he was a very spiritual man, and a devoted follower of Paramahansa Yogananda. Over the course of his life Walters established eight successful intentional communities (two in India, one in Italy, and five on the West Coast of the United States) and about 100 meditation and teaching centers around the world, all of which are based on devotion to the principles of Kriya yoga and the teachings of his guru.

As I understand it, Walters espoused for all of his centers the guiding principle that "people are more important than things," which is a philosophy I wholeheartedly endorse—providing only that "things" is interpreted as inanimate objects or concepts. (I have added this caveat because some may prefer the view that "people are more important than other living things," which is philosophy that has been used to justify all manner of unsustainable mischief and environmental folly from which I want to assiduously distance myself.)

At my community, Sandhill Farm, there have been many occasions where we had to face a delicate choice between: a) supporting individuals; and b) following precedent or policy. I think that you can measure our maturity as a community by how we have learned over the years to place people first in those moments. To be clear, I am not saying that we ignore history or what experience offers us. Nor am I saying that we always give people what they ask. Rather, I am saying that we try to take the time to look deeply into what is best for the individual and the group in this moment—taking into account what is in our hearts and bellies as well as what is in our heads; taking into account that our information is imperfect; and taking into account that the future is uncertain—rather than be straight-jacketed by the dead hand of prior decisions.

As a young man searching for spiritual inspiration in post-World War II America, Walters came across the recently published Autobiography of a Yogi (1946) by Paramahansa Yogananda, who had moved to the United States from India and had established a monastery in California. This book immediately struck a responsive chord in Walters. In short order he traveled to the West Coast, met Yogananda, and became a disciple, distinguishing himself sufficiently that he was recognized by his guru as a future spiritual teacher at the age of just 22.

While Walters was a prolific writer (he authored around 150 books), I think his outstanding legacy will be the imprint he left on his communities, which offer a rare mixture of ecumenical curiosity and gentle strength.

Though Ananda Village has been an established star in the firmament of intentional communities since its inception in 1968, I had not visited any of the Ananda communities until last winter. In November I was the guest of Larry Rider at their enclave in Lynnwood WA, and in December I stayed overnight as the guest of Timothy Hickey at Expanding Light, their retreat and conference facility in Nevada City [see my blog of 12/12/12: Village of Light for reflections on the latter visit].

Ananda has consistently put out the message that it is open to collaboration with others in offering the tools and inspiration of community living, and even offers how-to courses about that at its Ananda College outside Portland OR. In fact, the FIC is now in dialog with folks at Ananda about how to make the on-the-ground experience of other communities more a regular part of their curriculum. I believe this interest in keeping the door open to others comes directly from the wisdom and modeling of Kriyananda.

It's my view that the fundamental challenge of cooperative living is how one responds to the articulation of viewpoints that differ from one's own about non-trivial matters. It is an unusual person who can be at least as interested in trying to understand other people's truths as they are in expressing theirs. It's even rarer when that person is a recognized spiritual teacher with thousands of devotees worldwide (when you're so busy teaching it can be hard to find the time or motivation to learn).

As far as I can tell, it was central to the way Kriyananda conducted himself that he encouraged his disciples to be in the world and open to partnering with others interested in the common goal of addressing the amelioration of suffering and injustice in the world; to help build cooperative communities where people come first and quality of life is not defined in terms of the acquisition and accumulation of material possessions.

This admonition to make common cause with others doing good in the world should not be seen as a dilution of spiritual beliefs among Anandans; rather it is an expression of them. People find inspiration where they find it, and it is never always in the same place. Thus, Walters did not insist on acceptance of his spiritual views as a pre-condition for listening to what you had to say.

While Kriyananda will be missed, his life remains an inspiration available to us all.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Vernal Reflections in Passing

I've just returned home from a six-week road trip. I left Missouri March 11 in snow and returned April 21 in spring. It was a world of difference.

We (Sara Peters, Ma'ikwe, and I) woke up Saturday morning at Hummingbird, an established community of about 20 gentle souls where we have many friends. They own a breathtakingly beautiful 500 acres of land outside Mora NM (about 50 miles northeast of Santa Fe). Before getting into the car for a back-to-back days of close confinement, the three of us took a few minutes to commune quietly next to a babbling creek that runs through the property, the water clear and ice cold from snow melt.
While our reality Saturday morning wasn't as green as this view from Hummingbird (which was probably taken in late May or even June) it accurately captures how much snow was still visible on the tops of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains to our northwest.

The last leg home was 930 miles, descending gradually from an altitude of 7500 feet at Hummingbird to 800 feet at Sandhill Farm in northeast Missouri; from a place that averages 20 inches of annual rainfall (and is currently choked in the grip of a horrific drought) to a place that gets 38 inches of rain on average (and has been blessed with more than five inches the last two weeks). We may as well have been coming from the moon, the difference was that stark.

Our drive home started by winding down from the foothills of the Rockies, traversing northeastern NM, and then threading the needle through the panhandle of western OK. According to NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) much of that stretch is in "exceptional" drought (which is their most dire category). When we crossed the Cimarron River (a major tributary of the Arkansas) northeast of Guymon OK, there was no water in it. I don't mean little water; I mean none. When you reflect on the fact that we were traveling through in April—ordinarily the wet season—that's Dust Bowl sobering.

From there we went across southern Kansas, where the drought gradually lessened to "extreme." I want you to get a clear impression of how dry it's been in the Great Plains. While there were occasional green shoots visible on some of the more precocious trees, it seemed more a measure of silvicultural bravery than an indicator of subsoil moisture. These areas are badly in need of rain.

Happily, we were working our way toward water the whole drive, and by the time we got past Wichita (in east-central Kansas), the drought had improved all the way to "severe." Lawns and wheat fields started looking positively Irish. After crossing the Missouri at Kansas City the moisture pendulum continued its swing toward the moist and we witnessed standing water in low lying fields all across northern Missouri. What drought? What a juxtaposition!

Driving the last segment in our home state, I started translating the landscape into what I'd likely find at home. My first concern was whether the season was advanced enough to find morels. It didn't look like it. Usually you need to see a substantial amount of leafing among elms & maples, and there were only smudges of green among the trees as we zoomed passed at 55 mph. Whew. I was only going to be home for 60 hours and was loathe to miss mushroom hunting.

Next I thought about what would be flowering. For sure, the henbit would be making its annual appearance, smearing the gardens and cultivated fields in broad swatches of tiny pink/purple flowers, rather like a delayed splash of Easter excess (where they had to do something with the surplus pastels). This wildly successful and broad-ranging plant is a relative of the mint family. Though a weed, it provides a beneficial early pollen source for honeybees and is not much of a nuisance because it disappears from the agricultural scene before we get into serious soil cultivation. Besides that, it's offers the eye a mood-elevating contrast after the monchromatic palette of winter.

While the forsythia was already in decline, and the redbuds were just coming into their prime, the thing I was most looking forward to was a little cluster of grape hyacinth just outside the back door of the White House (which is the hub of Sandhill). They are one of the things that evokes my Mom's older sister, Aunt Hennie—my patron saint of homesteading. Because she had them in the backyard of her rambling house in Elmhurst IL all of my childhood years, the sight of these delicate blooms invariably evokes her presence in my soul. Her I am basking in their aura:
Finally, I thought of these whimsical and topical four lines of doggerel that were first published in 1951—when I was a mere tad of two—and which I got reacquainted with this past February while randomly skimming through a copy of Pogo, happily available as reading material in Harvey Baker's necessary at Dunmire Hollow. This is what Walt Kelley had to say about spring:

How pierceful grows the hazy yon!
How myrtle petaled thou!
For spring hath sprung the cyclotron
How how browse thou, brown cow?

It was good to be home again.