Editor's Note (Chris): For an introduction to this series, see here.
Wednesday, August 10th, 2011
The morning began today with a practice session led by John Gruber of Next Step Integral. I wasn't there as I was writing, but I was told it included a walking meditation with a collective component, and a poetry writing practice that also included group processes. Those just coming back from it at breakfast seemed to have been quite moved by it. I mention it mostly to emphasize the across the board focus on collective practice for this seminar.
This spotlighting of the collective dimension of our existence has brought forth a new awareness around it for myself. It's kind of like when you learn a new word and then suddenly start to see it everywhere. When Miriam Martineau led us through a group vocal exercise to begin the post-breakfast morning session, she asked us, "What's your sound, in the mix of all the sounds?" As we sang together I began to understand the use of (or at least one use of) religious vocal practices such as chanting or choir in church. It can be a vehicle for the many to become one. We can find harmony and resonance, we can experience a unity beyond the self. Perhaps this is the draw of national anthems at sporting events, or the massive group chants at soccer games.
John Gruber, a science teacher at a Quaker high school in Philadelphia, led the first half of the morning session. John has a giant heart and a deep passion and sense of wonder, and he gave a rather rousing talk called "Our Cosmic Inheritance", situating humans in the deep time story of the evolving cosmos. As we think about our human future, it's good to know where we've come from too, and with much of what we now know about the universe being only of recent discovery, we're still trying to absorb and internalize the grand cosmic story of which we're a-part. (Later in the day Terry Patten mentioned that the Hubble telescope was only twenty or so years old, and that when he was in high school he was taught there were only three galaxies in the universe!!)
There were two key themes in John's talk that stood out for me. The first was an emphasis on collectives and assemblages in the universe, from the first quarks and particles, to galaxies and schools of fish. What I got a sense of was the consistent movement in the universe of parts coming together (whether by gravity, or "strong force" or otherwise) to form new aggregates and wholes. Collective behaviors on Earth began early, from cells and bacteria on up to ants and bees and the exquisite interdependencies of ecological systems.
Leading up the seminar I'd done some similar research for a Beams essay I was intending to write about the history of human community (I ran out of road, but I'll publish it in a series after the seminar), where I'd looked into the work of the evolutionary biologists Lynn Margulis and David Sloan Wilson, whose focus in on collective cooperative behaviors in nature (1). I also read the classic text Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution by the Russian anarchist scientist Peter Kropotkin. Both bodies of work offer an important counter force to the 'selfish gene'/'self-interested human nature' narratives that help prop up the hyper-individualistic ethos of the post/modern era. As we try to move beyond the disintegration and atomism of our own time toward new forms of healthy collectivity, there's been a general movement toward reengaging and reorienting toward the collective and cooperative dimensions of reality, and this was a theme in John's talk too. It might be worth noting that this has also been a theme taken up by many of the postmodern philosophers. In the work of the political theorists Hardt and Negri for instance, they spend time with the scientific findings on swarm intelligence, and they offer the concept of the multitude as a new form of collectivity partially informed by it. So as we struggle to move to a new phase of human being-in-the-world, many are looking to collective patterns in nature (and our past) as possibilities for our future, and John's talk was a useful meditation on the collective dimensions of the universe in general.
The other focus in John's talk was on the ever presence of new forms, new emergence, new possibilities in the universe. Could an alligator have ever imagined a space shuttle? Could Australopithecus have envisioned New York City? So what awaits us in the future then? With deep time eyes we can become liberated from seeing through the myopic horse blinders of our own immediate period, and realize the endlessly creative potential of the long ancient highway we're riding upon. What's possible as co-creators, what can emerge out of new human combinations and collaborations as we move further and further into the tumultuous yet fertile times of the Planetary Era?
Miriam led the second half of the morning, and this time the focus was on doing inner individual work. In the old communities of the traditional world (and in the many that remain today), there was often very little individuality at all. However, the post/modern period changed all of that but has left many of us with too much of it; as Miriam pointed out, "We can spend a whole lifetime in a place of differentiation". So what will the higher integration of the individual within a collective look like? This is an important inquiry, and one that won't be definitely answered this week to be sure, but we were offered some practices to begin to be released from the bondage of that developmental location.
The first practice was a one on one eye gazing practice, always a challenging thing to do, but in my experience also always very powerful. In this instance we were instructed to observe all of our own internal processes as we tried to open up to the other. Could we just be present and accepting as we observed our own reactions, or fear or anxiety or self-consciousness? And notice how much of that stuff is going on (a lot!) and for how long, before we were finally able to be with the person in front of us. It was a good lesson in how intensely inwardly focused and even obsessed the separate ego self can be with itself. It's hard to build community when we're trapped within these constant and ultimately interfering processes. We were invited to just simply and acceptingly be aware of our contractions throughout the week, and to gently try to move beyond them as best we could on a moment to moment basis. It was ok and inevitable to stumble, but what would emerge if we began to try anyway.
The second practice was to find that inner hearth, that inner core of stillness within us (what is often called Being as opposed to becoming). What happens in terms of relations with others when we can just simply rest in and come from that place? This was an important practice for me personally as I could begin to feel a certain relaxed spaciousness opening up around me. In fact, by this point in the morning you could feel the whole seminar start to open up, like someone was blowing a bellows into the room. Any tightness or nervousness from the previous night had by now dissolved away, and the seminar seemed to be fully underway.
Miriam's morning session finished with a discussion of personality types, and how important this focus of awareness can be for the health of communities. If we're aware of someone's type we may be able to communicate to him or her differently, or perhaps folks can be utilized in a role best suited to their strengths. Although too long to go into here, entering types into the community discussion seemed to be a very fruitful and important area of practice, one worthy of much further inquiry and attention.
After lunch Terry Patten led us through a session of Integral Life Practice. But before the actual practice session itself we got a shot of Terry as fiery evolutionary preacher, as he gave a passionate talk about the precarious state of the world and how we're both called and needed to take part in its (possible) transformation to a new and better future. I think someone better check if Barbara Marx Hubbard is still alive because I think Terry Patten might've eaten her! Terry, as he later said, "checked-in", he showed up guts and all and it was inspiring to me to see someone so lit up and speaking from such a raw and courageous heart. He asked us to be real, naked, and available to our existential situation. He urged us to embrace our global context, as fear only makes up shut down and become unavailable. What's needed now is for us to become open hearted and vulnerable to one another, allowing the necessary connections to form the bridges to the future.
In the question period an important question was asked from a woman in the audience. She was an educator at a community college in the US, and for several years now the college and her colleagues had been subjected to a series of austere budget cuts. She said she was exhausted, demoralized and beat up from the process of trying to fight against all this, and to keep a sane community field together under the collective weight of it all. What was she to do in this beaten down state? Terry gave a long and good answer, ultimately (as I recall) talking about the final dignity of doing what's right from an authentic and spirited place no matter the external situation. He quoted Ram Dass saying, "The question of practice is how to keep your heart open in hell".
This is a lovely point and a worthy practice, but it struck me that this is also a topic of inquiry that needs to be delved into further, as it will likely become a context for many who are passionate about cultural transformation and are working earnestly in the complex and turbulent maelstrom of our times. What do we do when the world keeps kicking us in the teeth, despite our love and hope for its transformation? A couple conversations broke out over dinner about how else to approach this situation, and I'll leave it as an open question for all those who identify with this predicament.
The two-hour evening session focused on shadow work within ourselves and in communities, shadow being a term for those parts of ourselves that we're not aware of or have been repressed and shoved into the basement of the psyche. The first hour focused on more a general discussion about shadow, while the second hour focused on practice. Much like the work on types, it's a rich and fertile territory, but needs to be the subject of considerable more inquiry and practice into the future.
Tomorrow a visit via Skype from Thomas Hubl, and much more besides I'm sure.
(1) In a recent NY Times article featuring David Sloan Wilson's work, author Natalie Angier writes, "Darwinian-minded analysts argue that Homo sapiens have an innate distaste for hierarchical extremes, the legacy of our long nomadic prehistory as tightly knit bands living by veldt-ready team-building rules: the belief in fairness and reciprocity, a capacity for empathy and impulse control, and a willingness to work cooperatively in ways that even our smartest primate kin cannot match".
And from Kropotkin's Mutual Aid (p.242):
"The animal species, in which individual struggle has been reduced to its narrowest limits, and the practice of mutual aid has attained the greatest development, are invariably the most numerous, the most prosperous, and the most open to further progress. The mutual protection which is obtained in this case, the possibility of attaining old age and of accumulating experience, the higher intellectual development, and the further growth of sociable habits, secure the maintenance of the species, its extension, and its further progressive evolution. The unsociable species, on the contrary, are doomed to decay".