Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Peeing on Petunias

After 30 years before the mast (supplying navigational assistance to intentional communities struggling against interpersonal headwinds en route to the safe harbors of equanimity and harmonious living) I’ve encountered a wide range of challenging dynamics. The situations that are most compelling are those with the highest stakes—where the group is wrestling with issues that obviously have a wider social application.

For example, I once labored with an urban group trying to sort out cultural preferences in a neighborhood that included both Korean and Puerto Rican immigrants, yet their target recruitment profile was well-educated Greens. Living in a melting pot is one thing. Living in a melting down pot is something else. This community was hip deep in tough issues of race, income, safety, religious preference, and ethnic identity. The work had obvious application in the mainstream—not just for the well-being of the community in which the conversation arose—and I was excited to bring what I knew about diversity and communication to the front lines of social change.

Sometimes the conversations got heated and I was trying to thread the needle around whether emotional engagement itself (never mind what was actually being said) was seen as preferential treatment for one subculture over another. Ai-yi-yi!

I work with patterns. Over the course of many years (and many meetings) I've learned that it rarely makes much difference whether it’s a cohousing community or a student co-op. For that matter, it doesn’t make much difference whether it’s an ashram or a Unitarian Universalist Church. I’ve worked with them all, and people are people. When they aggregate into groups—my particular area of focus—people tend to behave in predictable ways and have similar blind spots.

As it happened, the very next weekend after I worked with the urban group referenced above, I was in another city working with a community that was wrestling with tension that arose in connection with Person A's cat urinating on Person B's flower bed.

In a flash of insight, it occurred to me that if I observed the second group with the sound turned off, that the facial expressions and body language came across as identical to what I’d encountered the week before. In short, I noticed that the affect was scale independent! People were filling their lives with drama to capacity, cleverly drawing on whatever fuel was at hand to reach the desired level of intensity. Fascinating.

While there was a part of me that struggled to take the cat issue seriously (after working with racial tension the week before, I was itching to ask the second group if they really wanted to invest so much energy in a triviality) but I took a deep breath and refocused. The issue, after all, was not the over-fertilized flower bed; it was learning how to work through interpersonal tensions—which is a serious world peace issue every bit as worthy of attention as ethnic diversity.

Still, it’s instructive every now and then to take a step back and assess whether you really mean to imbue the issue at hand with as much of your precious life force as you are. As Richard Carlson admonishes in his 1997 classic: don’t sweat the small stuff (and it’s all small stuff). It's embarrassing to look back over the span of my life and reflect on all the times I've gotten my knickers in a twist over small stuff. (What was I thinking?)

Today there is perhaps nothing more potent to help me access what Buddhists refer to as an equanimous presence than remembering to ask: 

Are we peeing on petunias here?

1 comment:

Rosemary Wyman said...

Let's ask that great question a lot. And you make it easy to remember, too. You've got a little gem here, Laird!