Friday, June 28, 2013

Group Works: Gaia

This entry continues a series in which I'm exploring concepts encapsulated in a set of 91 cards called Group Works, developed by Tree Bressen, Dave Pollard, and Sue Woehrlin. The deck represents "A Pattern Language for Bringing Life to Meetings and Other Gatherings."

In each blog, I'll examine a single card and what that elicits in me as a professional who works in the field of cooperative group dynamics. My intention in this series is to share what each pattern means to me. I am not suggesting a different ordering or different patterns—I will simply reflect on what the Group Works folks have put together.

The cards have been organized into nine groupings, and I'll tackle them in the order presented in the manual that accompanies the deck:

1. Intention
2. Context
3. Relationship
4. Flow
5. Creativity
6. Perspective
7. Modeling
8. Inquiry & Synthesis
9. Faith

In the Context segment there are eight cards. The fourth pattern in this segment is labeled Gaia. Here is the image and text from that card:

The presence of nature in group activities—through natural settings, altars, decorations, and more—provides grounding, beauty and inspiration. Nature gives perspective, letting us know we are one small part of a very large whole, always connected.

This pattern carries with it an enormous assumption: that our best work is done in the context of seeing humans as a part of nature; not apart from nature. While I agree with this philosophy, it represents a sea change from dominant Western thought, and it's worthwhile to pause and recognize this (rather than blithely agreeing that it's nice to have a window in the meeting room that overlooks a natural setting, and moving on to the next card).

The book that's touched me most deeply in the last year has been How It Is, which represents the collected writings of Viola Cordova, a Native American philosopher (1937-2002). She was a Jicarilla Apache mixed with Hispanic descent, who grew up mostly in northern New Mexico. She became a professor who studied and taught Western philosophy while articulating Native American philosophy. She did a lot to contrast the two cosmologies (White/European versus Native American) and her writing is inspirational.

Cordova explains that in Native American philosophy there is an emphasis on place, where beliefs about how the world began and what it means are specific to a locale and not expected to be the same everywhere.

There is just one Earth, of which we are all apart. There is no heaven; no parallel universes. The Earth is our home (as well as the home of all other peoples and species); it is where we learn the meaning of harmony and coexistence. It is not inherently dangerous.

Humans are a herd animal, where right behavior is best understood in the context of the collective, not as what's best for the individual. When someone acts selfishly they are seen as sick, rather than celebrated as entrepreneurial or institutionalized as crazy. 

At best, we are in transition from the world view of humans-as-lords-of-the-universe (a right given to us expressly by an omnipotent God who exists in a non-temporal plane of reality). 

It is against this background that I suggest we approach the pattern of Gaia. In this context, it is not merely about creating a pleasing atmosphere (though that's a fine consideration); it's about invoking a reminder of what we're aspiring to live by—a reminder of our rootedness in the Earth and the paramount importance of having our decisions and our behaviors informed by that life-sustaining connection.

To be sure, invoking nature can be accomplished in an amazing variety of ways: with song, with raiment, with an altar of natural objects (imbued with special meaning to the participants), or, as in the image that accompanies this card, with natural vistas.

That said, I want to complete my reflections on this card by voicing concerns about taking this one step further and meeting outdoors, in natural settings. Though that choice may reinforce the sense of connection with nature (good), and provide relief for those who feel cooped up inside in nice weather, outdoor settings can be highly distracting. (For that matter, so can busy window views in indoor settings.)

While outdoor one-on-one conversations can work fine, the acoustical challenges increase geometrically as the number of participants rises. Outdoors it's harder to contain the energy, especially when the sky is your ceiling (or even with a leaf canopy swaying the breeze). To be fair, I've conducted workshops in clearings in the woods that have turned out fine, but for the most the call of the wild will tend to undercut the call of the facilitator and I want you to keep that in mind. 

For the most part, it's better to go for a walk outside, and to meet inside, where you can take advantage of the physical definition of the space as an energetic container. 

When it comes to meetings, I prefer to invite nature in, rather than inviting the people out.

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